The commando waited until we had driven several miles beyond Thunder Ranch before he turned to me from the front seat and asked, "You want to shoot the gas?"
"The gas?" I asked.
Paul, the plump Cambodian university student who had hired himself out as my guide, explained that he was referring to a tank of gasoline.
"Booom!" our driver rumbled. The commando smiled at him and then looked back at me, waiting.
Paul had brought me to the Thunder Ranch shooting range, saying it would be the highlight of my trip to Phnom Penh. He had told me I could fire a rocket launcher, and how could anyone pass that up? At the range, we were to meet up with the 911 Paratrooper Commandos, the team who ran the Ranch and who would teach me everything I needed to know to pull a trigger. But before driving the 30 miles out to the Ranch, Paul made sure I stopped at the ATM downtown. "
How much should I take out?" I asked.
"A lot," Paul said.
The muscled commando who had been assigned as my trainer must have known about my wad of cash; ever since our introduction he had been offering me more things to buy. Did I want a beer? More guns? A T-shirt? And now, as we drove from Thunder Ranch's small arms firing range to the more spacious field used for detonating explosives, the commando was offering to sell me a tank of gasoline to blow up with a rocket launcher.
"How much is the gas?" I asked him.
With what I had already shelled out on the rocket launcher, I wouldn't have had enough cash for the gas.
"That's kind of expensive," I said. "Maybe not the gas."
"What about the chicken? You want fry a chicken? Fifteen dollar."
But exploding chickens--someone back home would object.
"No, thanks. I'll pass on the chicken."
We drove for a few more minutes and to satisfy my curiosity, I asked, "I hear you can shoot a cow. Is that true?"
Other travelers I had talked with had a lot to say about blowing up cows in Cambodia. Many say it's all a tall tale; others insist it's done all the time.
The commando thought for a minute, then turned to look at me. "Two five hundred," he said, counting out on his fingers.
"Twenty-five hundred? That's crazy."
"Yes. We buy the cow first." He motioned with his hand to the livestock grazing near the farmhouses we passed. "And then you explode it."
Rockets into Riel
Cambodia hasn't exactly been a stranger to explosions, invasions and other terrors during the last century. Occupied by France (1863-1941), Japan (1941-1945) and France again, Cambodia won a 1953 independence that was soon followed by American carpet-bombings during the Vietnam War. The genocidal Khmer Rouge regime marched on the capital in 1975, and Vietnam invaded in 1978. This occupation resulted in a decade of multi-faction civil war in the '80s, sustained by military support from the Soviet Union, the US, Vietnam, China and Thailand. This in turn led to the proliferation of landmines and small arms in the country.
In the early '90s, treaties were signed and elections held. The country is now trying to draw in tourists: luxury hotels are built near the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, US dollars are accepted everywhere and English-speaking taxi drivers are everywhere. The tourist boom has left small arms at the point of divergence between Cambodia's violent past and its opportunistic present. Groups who see them as war relics have worked to rid Cambodia of the weapons. Since 1998, the Working Group for Weapons Reduction (WGWR) has helped destroy over 200,000 small arms, thus promoting "peace and safety for all people" in Cambodia.
But entrepreneurial groups have used the weapons to court tourists. By stockpiling a collection of small arms and setting up firing ranges like Thunder Ranch, underpaid soldiers can look forward to dozens of tourists a day, each shelling out hundreds of dollars to fire off a few rounds. The PR-conscious King-Father Norodom Sihanouk boarded up the firing ranges earlier this decade, driving them underground. Now the only way to find directions is through unofficial channels such as guesthouses, bars, internet cafes or any crowd of taxi drivers loitering on street corners.
You want to shoot something?
We had driven the 30 miles out to Thunder Ranch on Paul's motor scooter. Covered in dust from the road, we stepped underneath the shade of a large, open-walled firing shed and saw a half-dozen or so paratrooper commandos loitering around tables, playing cards and drinking beer.
The oldest and fattest of them saw us enter the shed. He left his group and lumbered over. Ignoring Paul, he smiled and welcomed me to Thunder Ranch, yelling over the machine gun fire. "You want to shoot something?"
"Yeah, sure," I said, holding my ears.
I reached for a handshake but saw his crippled right hand limp by his side. He shook with his left and then motioned to the rows of guns pegged like trophies on the wall behind my back. "We have many, many guns. You can choose."
Another commando came from behind his boss and presented me with a laminated menu of weapons and their prices. The boss glared at me intently, waiting for my order, waiting for me to pick a handgun or two as an appetizer.
"I was looking to shoot a rocket launcher," I said, seeing only smaller-gauge weapons.
His eyes lit up and he turned the menu over. The rocket launcher was at the very bottom of the list.
I wavered at the price. "Are you sure about this? I heard it was cheaper."
"No, no my friend. Cheaper, you only shoot one of these things." He fingered a smaller machine gun, twiddling the muzzle dismissively. My hesitation seemed to irritate him.
I considered that I had been living more cheaply than ever for the past few days. Food cost a penny, and hostels were a bargain. And I couldn't tell my friends that I had gone all the way out to the range just to turn back.
"Okay, okay, I'll do the rocket launcher."
He smiled and then got business rolling. He clicked his teeth to another commando in the back, the one who would be assigned as my trainer. He snapped up from his card table and grabbed the man who would be our driver. They hurried over to a Jeep waiting in the lot outside and got it started.
"You go with them. They will take you."
"So we don't launch it here?"
He scoffed. "Ha, no. The rocket you fire away from here."
I looked at the Jeep with its engine running, the drivers waiting. I turned to the boss. "How do I know the rocket's not going to backfire on me?"
"My friend, it is good for me to keep you safe," he said with a wide smile.
"If not, I don't get paid." He chuckled from the belly and I felt strangely comforted by his selfishness.
"Yeah, I guess you're right. So, I'll pay you after I get back safe?"
"No, my friend," he said with a grin, "you pay now."
Count to three
We slowed down and stopped at a dusty field. The driver jumped out, sauntered over to the back of the Jeep for his personal shotgun and walked over to some nearby shrubs to let off a few rounds. The commando started unloading the rocket launcher parts. He laid the tubular launcher in the dust, screwing the charge container into a tube with five retractable fins. Then he screwed the orange warhead onto the two other pieces and inserted the finished rocket into the firing tube. He motioned for me to follow him.
The rocket launcher used at Thunder Ranch is called an RPG-2 (Rocket Propelled Grenade). Distributed by the Soviet Union to its allies after World War II, it was used in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia until it was usurped by the superior RPG-7, now the most widely used rocket launcher in the world. With a range of 150 meters, compared to the RPG-7's 900, the RPG-2 has now been demoted to a toy for sporty tourists. But the cheap, short range weapon serves well in its amateur role; tourists get a kick out of the nearby explosion, appearing bigger and sounding louder than a long-range rocket's would.
Paul stayed put as the commando and I walked out. After several yards we stopped and the commando handed me a pair of blue earmuffs. He put on his own then hoisted the rocket launcher to his shoulder, modeling how I was supposed to hold it. "Like this. Okay?"
"Okay." I put my arms out and he handed me the rocket launcher. I put it on my shoulder, gripped the handle, and held the muzzle of the tube with my left hand near the rocket.
"No, you don't hold there. Hold here." He moved my left hand back nearer to my shoulder, away from the rocket. "And not here," he said, adjusting my thumb and trigger finger so they were in the right place. "Now look through here," he said, indicating the sight.
"Where do I aim?"
I had decided against shooting at the cow: too expensive, not to mention cruel. But that left me with nothing to target.
"You shoot the mountain," he said, pointing his finger at the crater-pocked mountain on the horizon.
He then moved behind me and put his hand on my back, bracing me.
"Okay, you count to three and you shoot."
"Oh. Okay," I said, startled that this would be the extent of my training.
Though he was bracing me, I knew he had removed himself from the scene.
Having done his job--driving, assembling, training--he now just waited for me to finish up. I tested the resistance of the trigger with my finger, realizing all that stood between me and the final explosion was my counting.
I thought back to the boss' confident assurances, his promises of a safe and predicatable rocket launch, and how these all came from a man with a scarred hand. But the counting had started; the launch was inevitable. I pushed the thought from my mind.
And I assumed everyone in town knew not to hang out around this mountain. By now, I imagined, stories would have spread about the tourists and their explosions.
Gritting my teeth, I pulled, feeling the click of the trigger.
I was surrounded by a rush of smoke and I heard the grating hiss of the rocket. But then the sound subsided and it got quiet. My back was tense anticipating the recoil, but there was none, since the rocket exhaust burst out the back of the open tube. Not much of a sensation at all, really. I wondered whether it had been worth the cash, whether I had added one more crater, made another little explosion on the slouching hill that I and fellow tourists had claimed as the setting of our Cambodian adventure stories. Had I even hit the mountain? It was hard to make out. I looked out at the horizon, squinting beyond the smoke, hoping that I hit something, then realizing I never really aimed for anything in the first place.
CHRISTOPHER HUDGENS B'08 is going commando.