Phnom Penh resident Robert Ower stands with a fully-automatic weapon ready for target practice at a shooting range in Kambol commune on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in November. Despite denials from the Ministry of Interior, tour guides on December 11 confirmed that at least two ranges were open for business and eager for tourists.
F or several years, guide books, travelers' websites, tour companies and even some moto-taxi drivers have claimed that Cambodia's shooting ranges have been closed by the government.
According to the 2005 edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook, "By the dawn of the millennium, the government decided enough was enough and that shooting ranges no longer enhanced Cambodia's image as a cultural destination. The ranges were closed and forced underground."
But the Post has confirmed that at least four shooting ranges are still in service on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The two main firing ranges have been operating in the same location with little changes for more than a decade - indicating that the government's crackdown may have missed its mark.
According to one local tour guide, who has been arranging gun range tours near Phnom Penh for the past 10 years, the sites where once old army bases used to train soldiers. Once the fighting in Cambodia eased, the combination of stock-piled weapons, a surplus of ammunition, and an influx of adventurous tourists spelled money, and these ranges began to function as tour destinations.
The Boeung-Kak-area tour guide, who declined to be named, estimated about 50 travelers visit the two main shooting ranges each day; most are Western backpackers.
The ranges are within a 30-minute drive of Phnom Penh. On arrival, guests are invited to sit down and place an order from an explosive menu that contains a list of hand guns, automatic weapons - including an Al Capone-style Tommy Gun - and even a B40 grenade launcher.
Heng Sokchea, spokesman for Working Group for Weapons Reduction (WGWR), told the Post his office has "no specific information of places open for the public to fire weapons."
But, he did acknowledge the existence of a popular and longstanding site in Kambol commune just past Phnom Penh International Airport.
"It belongs to the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Defense," Sokchea said. "We are not sure which, but it is for their practice."
An officer from the Training Unit of the General Commander, who did not wish to be named, confirmed the training range in Kambol.
"Right now we have no shooting school. So in Kambol we have an area just for the soldiers to train to shoot. This place does not allow tourists," he said. "In the future, we have plans to set up a shooting school, but just for soldiers and police. We don't know of any private places for shooting, but if there is, the permission comes from the Ministry of Interior."
But Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that although there were some private shooting ranges during the first mandate of the government after 1993, all of the places were shuttered almost ten years ago.
"All of those places were closed down in 1997 and the MoI has cancelled all the licenses provided to the private operations and has never provided a license after that," he said on December 12. "Now there is still a shooting place in Kambol, but it is only for the police and military police. These places are for work training and not for tourists."
When advised of the Post's findings, Sopheak said any such profit-seeking enterprise would be illegal.
"The ministry never receives money from tourists that are going there," he said. " So, if they're doing that, the officials at that place are committing a crime. Hok Lundy has ordered that these operations not be allowed, so if they are doing this they are acting against the orders of the police commissioner."
Minister of Tourism Lay Prohas declined to comment on the shooting ranges, but said Cambodia works hard to attract natural and cultural tourism.
According to Phnom Penh resident and local bar owner Tony Hickey, who has visited firing ranges in Western countries and several shooting sites near Pochentong Airport, the procedure varies dramatically between Cambodia and the United States.
"[In the US], when you walk in you're handed a form to fill out, your passport is copied and you have to sign a disclaimer that basically says if you get shot on site or injured in any way, they're not liable," Hickey said.
"I'd never fired a gun before. It points out how dangerous it is and it makes you quite nervous. I was almost ready to walk out."
According to Hickey weapons at an American shooting range are locked in glass cabinets until you choose which weapon you want to fire. The gun, clip and bullets are then handed to you separately, with the gun being kept in a zip-up pouch.
"I understood it was part of the signed agreement that if you removed the gun from its pouch before entering your range they have the right to shoot you," Hickey said.
Hickey found a very different situation in Cambodia.
"I got off the back of a moto, sat at a plastic table and was handed an Angkor beer. Then they started handing me guns to inspect so I could choose which one I wanted to try," he said. "No glass cabinets; everything is open and hanging on the wall in front of you."
The state of the weapons is also quite different. According to Hickey, in the US all the weapons are new and in good working order. At a Phnom Penh range the weapons are generally old, worn, and constantly misfire. The range of guns on offer is quite similar, aside from the grenades and grenade launchers available in Cambodia. "In the States it's strictly guns," Hickey said.
To fire a grenade launcher, visitors are taken to a different area with an open field. Grenades must also be thrown in an area some distance from the main range, and according to tourist reports they are usually thrown into a small dam to minimize damage.
Prices at these ranges start at $1 per bullet for handguns and are purchased in rounds of 10. Semi automatic and automatic weapons such as AK-47s, M-16s and U-21s can be fired in rounds of 30 bullets for $30. A hand grenade will cost around $30 to throw, and firing a B-40 rocket launcher will set you back roughly $200.
Longtime firing-range frequenters say the price of bullets seems to have changed little over the past eight years.
The price for live targets, however, has rocketed. One tourist reported being offered a cow to shoot with a grenade-launcher four years ago for an extra $50. The meat did not go to waste as local villagers were quick to collect what was left. On inquiry, the price had gone up this year to $450 for a cow, and $15 for a chicken.