I stood in the shadow of the bus and watched the spray of my urine rise off the parched, dirt road onto the tire, and slowly drip down in tears of salt and dust. I wondered if the bus driver would notice — or even care. Cambodia has the highest percentage of unexploded land minds and munitions of any country in the world. The seriousness of the danger is somewhat apparent when our bus infrequently pulls over to allow the passengers to relieve themselves. It is ill advised to step off the main roads, so we stick pretty close to the bus.
I ended up in SE Asia somewhat abruptly after getting laid off from my day job. I had known my job was in danger and expected to lose it. The writing was on the wall, so to speak, but I was still stunned when they told me to pack up my shit. Much like reading about a politician accused of fraud, I was shocked but not surprised. I obviously had some decisions to make. The job market couldn’t get much worse. The economy was in shambles. And my savings account lacked “security” by about two zeroes. My sensible side said, “Suck it up and a get a new job.” My frivolous side said, “Buy a plane ticket to somewhere far from here.”
At one point I relinquished some of my water to the driver for the bus’s radiator. I’m no mechanic, but when it poured out of the bottom onto the ground, I figured we would be there for a while.
I soon decided that frivolity was much sexier than sensibility, and that I needed to take full advantage of my new found freedom. I’m single and irresponsible, and knew there may not be many more times in my life when I’m the only person depending on me. So I paid off my credit cards, gave away my plant, stuffed my backpack and jumped on a plane. I picked Cambodia because it’s about as far out of my element as I could get. What I hoped to take away when I resurfaced is the kind of learning you can’t get from books – and some kick-ass stories.
I had already spent about a week in northern Cambodia exploring the ancient temples of Angkor Wat before catching the bus heading south to the capital city, Phnom Penh. This bus (piece of crap van) was noisy, cramped and had rust spreading like cancer. It looked like something donated to a high-school auto body class. Plus, at over 100 degrees, it was rather disappointing that the AC appeared to have been ripped out of the dashboard. We were forced to keep the windows open to avoid heat stroke, despite the heavy clouds of dust streaming into our faces. Everyone wrapped t-shirts or bandannas around their faces “outlaw style” to keep from gagging, and wore sunglasses to prevent eyelids from caking up. We looked like reject terrorists. I thought the bus was hot and crowded when it left Siem Reap with seven or eight of us foreigners–but it soon became unbearable as the driver kept picking up locals to make a little extra money under the table. I wanted to call bullshit every time he pulled over but chose to bite my tongue. We gained another half dozen passengers before he was satisfied. The roads only exacerbated the situation, resembling nothing more than neglected hiking trails. The conditions kept the bus under 40 mph but more than once we hit potholes that sent us out of our seats, and into the ceiling. Occasionally, we would disappear into whale-sized craters before emerging again from the other side.
The only comforting part of the journey was that I still had water left when the bus broke down in the desolate mid-section of Cambodia. We sat without shade on the side of the road in pools of our own sweat, when we weren’t pushing the bus up and down the road to try to jump-start it. We quietly read pirated, xeroxed copies of classic novels and travel books. We played magnetic backgammon and tic-tac-toe in the dirt. And we watched the bus driver with his head buried under the hood, tinkering with the engine and swearing in his native Khmer. At one point I relinquished some of my water to the driver for the bus’s radiator. I’m no mechanic, but when it poured out of the bottom onto the ground, I figured we would be there for a while.
I began weighing my options and tried to recall if there was an entry in my Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook about taxi murders or kidnappings.
Every ten minutes or so, a small procession of humble, inquisitive faces would slowly drive by in a plume of dust: peasant, migrant workers on make-shift tractors, a family of four packed onto a decrepit, Chinese-made moped, a rusty, diesel cattle truck loaded with farmers-turned-minesweepers. We traded gentle stares with equal curiosity. Most passers-by would offer innocent waves as if to make us feel welcome. But the truth of the gesture was revealed when our return waves brought shy smiles and giggles at the goal of simply communicating with such unusual visitors.
About two hours had gone by when we noticed a car racing towards us from the direction we had come. It was traveling much faster than any other vehicle we had seen, swerving viciously, and appeared to be catching air over some of the larger mounds in the road. It reached us quickly and rocketed past in an enormous whirlwind of dust like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil. About twenty yards down the road it slammed on its breaks and skidded dangerously to a stop. The car’s wheels then spun in reverse, it backed fiercely through its own trail of smoke, and locked its breaks violently across from where we were sitting.
The old car was badly dented and rusty, and so covered in dirt you couldn’t see through the windows or even discern its original color. I strained to look through the haze as the dust slowly dissipated and noticed the window nearest to us slowly winding down. Then suddenly, a young, grinning Khmer face popped out through the window and said, “Taxi?” The other bus passengers and I exchanged looks of disbelief. No one said a word. The taxi driver glanced back and forth along the line of stranded foreigners and gestured towards his car with amused bewilderment, “Taxi!” No one moved. I began weighing my options and tried to recall if there was an entry in my Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook about taxi murders or kidnappings. I was tired, hot and restless and wondered how long it would be before another bus showed up. “Taxi!” beckoned the driver as he thumped the outside of the door with his palm. I wavered for another moment and then slowly clambered to my feet, hefting my backpack onto my shoulders. My fellow bus passengers stared up at me with wide eyes. I contemplated my actions hesitantly as the taxi driver waved me over with encouragement. I turned to the bus driver who simply shrugged as if to say, “It’s your call buddy.” I shrugged back, and climbed into the cab.
We sped along the gruelling, prehistoric road at teeth-rattling speed. I was amazed the car held up under such conditions. The driver worked the steering wheel with a frenzied mastery, constantly correcting our path as we bounded over rocks and around potholes. The shoelaces on my hiking boots would have come untied if I hadn’t doubled the knots. I was both impressed and horrified. About twenty minutes passed before I offered “Phnom Penh” as my destination. The driver nodded vigorously in the rear view mirror as if there was no other plausible option. I sat silently, gripping the door handle and gazing intently out the window. About thirty minutes later, the driver abruptly turned to me and said, “Guns. You like?” I was dumbfounded. “You like guns? I take you shoot guns. You shoot guns. Many guns.” I responded tentatively, “I aah, don’t really need to be shooting any guns. I really just want to get to…” He interrupted, “You American, yes?” I answered hesitantly, “Yes, but I…” He cut in, “All American like guns. You like. No problem.” I replied, “Yeah, that’s cool but I really don’t…” He suddenly jammed on the breaks and sent the car sliding to a stop in the middle of the road. He turned to me with a look of persistent sincerity and said, “It’s ok. I good friend. You shoot guns. Very good guns. No problem. You like.” He then turned around and jerked the car back into motion, our Tasmanian cloud of dust trailing behind.
I wanted to blow shit up. I was a dangerous man. There was certainly still a degree of fear when I put down the smoking gun but it was overcome by exhilaration and adrenalin.
About 45 minutes later we pulled off the main road onto an unfathomably worse side road. We had to slow down significantly in order to navigate around the holes and gaps in our path. We passed through villages dotted with primitive huts and small patchwork houses, all stained brown with dirt kicked up by passing vehicles. We drove by gaunt, tireless men in conical hats digging in rice paddies. We passed women shouldering wooden buckets of water and families hiding from the sun under shelters made from palm fronds. Cambodia is the poorest country in SE Asia and the roadside images brought to life the descriptions of poverty we gloss over in the New York Times. Village streets are lined with litter, stray dogs, and naked children playing in the dirt. You also can’t help noticing the extraordinary number of amputees – one out of every 250 people in Cambodia. Some bound along masterfully with makeshift crutches. Other less fortunate victims drag legless midsections along the road using their bare hands.
We left the villages behind and drove for another 30 minutes or so before entering an endless web of back roads bordered with rusted barbed-wire fences. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be heard from again. Eventually, we came upon a tall, narrow, white-washed shack that resembled an outhouse. The shack stood next to a small side road blocked by an old-school, manual barricade like something you might imagine at a rural Russian border crossing. We pulled up to find a middle-aged Khmer man sitting on a stool wearing a grubby t-shirt, camouflaged pants and a side-arm. He got up slowly, fanning himself with a tattered newspaper, and walked out to the cab. The driver muttered a few words in Khmer and motioned towards me in the back. The guard glanced at me indifferently, nodded slowly to the driver and walked casually over to the barricade. He leaned down on the weighted end, raising the opposite side of the pole just high enough to clear the top of the cab, and waved us through. We followed the road for about a mile and a half to an uninviting building pieced together with cinderblocks, corrugated steel and bamboo. We pulled up next to a couple of rickety pick-up trucks parked in front and climbed out of the taxi. The driver put his hand on my shoulder, smiled enthusiastically, and said, “Time to shoot guns.”
It was a little unsettling when we were greeted by a toothless, ex-Khmer soldier holding an M-16 assault rifle. He was wearing an American t-shirt with a skull and cross bones that said, “Mess with the best, die like the rest.” I said hello the politest way I knew how. The soldier sized me up for a moment and then pointed to an impressive selection of guns hanging from small wooden dowels hammered into a bamboo wall. There were small calibre handguns, hunting rifles, shotguns and intimidating, automatic machine guns. I have a rudimentary knowledge of guns but identified a German Luger, a Colt .45, an Uzi, several M-16’s, and even what looked like an old Tommy gun straight out of a mobster movie. As I examined the weapons, I did my best to appear composed and knowledgeable as if choosing an album at a hip record store. But in actuality, I was intimidated as shit and wishing I was back on the side of the road next to the broken down bus.
My demeanour changed pretty quickly after firing off 30 rounds with an AK-47 assault rifle. It was kick-ass and I was having trouble holding back the drool. I was a kid again, the star of my own war movie. It was a twisted childhood dream come true. I wanted to pull the trigger on everything he had. I wanted to blow shit up. I was a dangerous man. There was certainly still a degree of fear when I put down the smoking gun but it was overcome by exhilaration and adrenalin. The soldier had dealt with people like me before. He could sense my pathetic, juvenile fascination and complete lack of will power. He walked over and handed me a laminated menu with a grocery list of handguns, shotguns and machine guns, and asked me what was next. A gun menu!? I couldn’t fucking believe it. I scanned the list greedily like a fat chick at a buffet. I didn’t want to have to choose. Then, with a burst of courage, I peered up at the soldier and asked if he had anything with a little more kick. He smiled sadistically, flipped the menu over, and revealed some seriously heavy artillery.
It was a tough decision, but I had to go with the fully automatic, Russian K-57, armor piercing machine gun. It’s the kind of weapon that’s mounted to the side of a helicopter, and similar in size to the American M-60 that Stallone shouldered in Rambo. The Khmer soldier didn’t have much trouble talking me into buying 150 rounds of ammo, which took two guys to feed into the gun from the side. Three-inch bullet shells spat out of the gun in bursts of flame as it recoiled, showering around me like a copper hailstorm. It was like holding a jackhammer, only louder. But I could still hear the perverse laughing of the taxi driver who stood behind me, thumping me on the back as I fired and hollering with approval. I was sweating by the time I ran out of ammo and had a few shell burns on my forearms. I was hoping they’d scar.
Before the gun even stopped smoking, the soldier held the evil menu in front of me again and pointed to the bottom of the list: “B-40, Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher”. I was at a loss for words. I had already spent $30 bucks on the AK-47 and $150 on the K-57 (a buck a bullet). The B-40 would set me back another $250 and the soldier said I would have to take a 45 minute drive in his truck to get to a safe place in the mountains to fire it. My week’s travel budget was already blown and I really didn’t want to get into a truck with this guy. But we were talking bazooka. I would be the envy of all my sick friends. As I wrestled with a decision, the soldier, with a heartless grin, informed me that for an extra $100 he would throw in a water buffalo for a target. It was clearly time to exit the shooting range.
I was headed for the cab when another ex-Khmer soldier strolled up with a hand grenade dangling by the pin from his index finger (probably not the safest way to carry it). I stood, somewhat in shock, staring at the live grenade. The cab driver patted me on the back, smiled, and nodded slowly with approval. A little over the top, but I figured, what’s another $20 bucks. I followed the two soldiers, with cab driver in tow, through a barbed wire fence behind the shooting range. We walked about 1/4 mile through a barren, dirt field until we got to a small, muddy pond. The grenade-throwing lesson took about 15 seconds. One of the soldiers picked up a rock, put it in my hand, and made an underhand throwing motion towards the water. I managed to land the rock near the center of the pond and he gave me a thumbs-up with approval. He then put on a kevlar helmet, handed me the grenade and took a step back. It was understandably a little shocking to be standing in the middle of Cambodia holding a live hand grenade with zero military training. I hesitated for a moment and then pointed to the helmet the soldier was wearing and the baseball hat on my head. He reassured me in broken English that the kevlar helmet was far too hot and that I was much better off with my baseball hat. So I posed for a quick picture to the taxi driver who was serving as my official photographer, pulled out the pin and tossed the grenade into the pond. We were only standing about 20 yards from where the grenade landed. The cab driver ducked behind the second soldier but my friend with the helmet stood firm. He calmly indicated with hand signals that there was no need to run. I still wished I were wearing Adidas instead of Tevas when the thing exploded and emptied half the pond into a mushroom cloud of water. It was pretty cool, to say the least.
I sat quietly in the cab gazing through the window as we slowly made our way out of the compound, past the meager villages, and back to the main road. I was physically exhausted but my mind was racing. Sadly, my thoughts weren’t occupied with the thrill or gravity of what I just experienced. Instead, I was sweating my unemployment and the job I had lost in San Francisco. I guess I was suffering from the backlash of indulgence. It was like the anxiety or guilt felt after spending money on something extravagant, sleeping with someone you shouldn’t, or even just devouring a half bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. After all, I should be walking out of an interview, not off a shooting range in Cambodia. It’s the worst job market in decades and I didn’t have a lead. My money was literally going up in smoke and I had no income. I sat thinking about the phone call when my boss laid me off. I thought about the strained silence when I told my father the news. I thought about my ex-coworkers and friends and the client relationships I tried so hard to build. I thought about my paltry 401-K plan. I thought about my career. I thought about my future.
“Tomorrow in morning, 10 o’clock,” mumbled the cab driver from the front seat. “Excuse me,” I asked. The driver twisted around to face me, “I pick you up hotel 10 o’clock. We go back gun range.” I was perplexed. “Go back? What for?” I asked. He smiled widely, “B-40 shoulder grenade launcher.” It took me a moment to comprehend his reply. I stared at him feebly. I took a few long, contemplative breaths. “Make it eleven.”