While the government has complained of foreign journalists portraying Cambodia
as virtually one giant shooting range, a Taiwanese businesman aims to cash in by
offering tourists the chance to do what they can't elsewhere - shoot automatic guns.
Kyra Dupont reports.
"Mom and pop first-time shooters" will have their choice of high-grade
automatic weapons to rent when the Marksmen Club has its "soft opening"
of its 48-lane shooting range next week.
In Phnom Penh's latest tourism venture, the club is touting itself as the first licensed,
modern automatic weapons firing range in Cambodia.
"We wanted to create another tourist attraction in Cambodia besides Tuol Sleng
and the Killing Fields which basically depress people, you know, put them into deep
depression. We wanted to create something a little bit more entertaining," said
owner Victor Chao, who has dubbed his club "War Disney".
The club, beyond Pochentong airport, will offer more than 30 types of guns for rent,
including Beretta, Smith & Wesson, Glock, Makarov WZ63s inherited from the KGB,
a 1911 Colt .45, a German J3 NATO rifle and, of course, the obligatory AK-47. The
ammunition available includes some .223 caliber Micro Gallio bullets left behind
by deposed Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh's bodyguards.
"It's the first time [such a club will be] available for anybody who has the
money to pay to shoot, regardless of whether they are commandos, ex-commandos, retired
commandos or just tourists," explained Chao, who boasts his own personal arsenal.
Chao, a 46-year-old Taiwanese businessman, said he started learning about security
issues when he opened the Manhattan nightclub three years ago. "The first year
I had no problems because I had no business. Cambodians didn't understand the concept
of a dance club. But one day I had a fight and it was really scary, man. So I went
from totally careless to the other opposite."
He hired 30 "ex-warriors" to become his own private security guards who
he says are now the most organized and best armed in Phnom Penh. They call themselves
Chao claims he is the best shooter in town and like, his hero, Hun Sen, he sleeps
with one eye open. "I've neutralized the worst cowboys in town and they've become
my friends," he said.
He has to stay sharp because the generals, Chinese businessmen with bodyguards, soldiers,
police officers, and expatriates who mingle on the Manhattan dance floor are not
alway congenial. "[Last weekend] I had two military officers who refused to
enter through the front gate. They came in through the back but I had them in my
sights 20 meters away. They couldn't shoot," said Chao.
Phnom Penh already boasts one shooting range - a government-owned one facility at
Kambol, on the Pochentong road a few kilometers from the Marksmen Club site - which
caters to police, soldiers, the occasional backpacker and other would-be Rambos.
About 15 aging guns, including AK-47s and K-57 pistols, are for hire there.
But Chao said his range, due to open Dec 24, will be different and superior. For
a start, to ensure safety and meet insurance policy demands, an Eagle will stand
behind every visitor to the shooting range.
The club will include army barracks where soldiers can stay the night, but more importantly,
no less than 150 guns and a few million rounds of ammunition will be ready for use.
Chao will keep his own collection of 30 guns - "the largest private collection
in town," he claims - at the site, although his favorite, a nickel-plated Beretta,
will be missing. "Most men would leave their wives for this gun...unfortunately
it is going to be departing me very soon because one general fell in love with it,"
he said, kissing the gun. Cambodian Army Chief of General Staff Ke Kim Yan could
not resist buying it, he said.
The shooting range is completely legal, according to Chao, who said he got an import
permit for 150 guns and a "blanket license" for the shooting range, which
he calls "a justifiable cause".
Ranges such as Chao's would normally be available only for commandos and special
forces in other countries, because of safety requirements and gun restrictions.
"Getting a license from Cam-bodia's government is less restrictive because people
just came from artillery fire last weekend," Chao said. "For Cambodians,
you know, machine guns are part of their lives. They go to sleep with one every night."
While General Heng Peo of the Ministry of Interior said obtaining a gun license has
become more difficult since police implemented an 8-point security clamp-down after
the July fighting, Chao said that six departments at the ministry issued him a license
in just three months at a price of $30,000.
"Fortunately my partner Bill, his family works for the Ministry of Interior
so they kind of got everybody to agree to help out and support this project,"
He expects a steady flow of customers coming to have a blast at his club, and a quick
survey of shooters at the Kambol shooting range down the road indicates he might
Channee, a Khmer-American businessman, said he enjoys shooting for sport, but that
legally firing an AK-47 was a pleasure he could only have in Phnom Penh. "That
was an AK-47 and it's illegal in the US," he said after firing some 20 rounds
at the government-owned range recently.
"I come here to shoot because a policeman needs to be a good shooter,"
said Rasmey during one of his recent weekly visits to Kambol, adding that he was
anxious for the Marksmen Club to open.
Chao said that first time shooters will have to content themselves with grenade launching,
firing B-40 rockets on certain days, or take safety courses before they can shoot
the automatic weapons.
Chao's $800,000 project also features a war museum - "a reminder of what not
to do again" - which will feature two government-supplied tanks. The building,
designed to look like an army tent, will contain photos of "war machines"
in action, a library of the different types of guns used in Cambodia since the 1930s,
videos and CD-ROM.
The cost of a day at the firing range will be comparable to a day trip to the local
bowling alley - about $30 to $40 - but it will be far more exciting, Chao promised.
Noting that "it's every little boy's dream to play with guns", he added:
"Shooting an automatic weapon is like having a multiple orgasm."