Cambodia’s Choice of Weapons
A Honeymoon with the Khmer Rouge
By Sheradon Dublin
Editor’s Note: The Khmer Rouge was a communist guerrilla organization which opposed the Cambodian government in the 1960s and waged a civil war in 1970, taking power in 1975. The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide.
Firstly, let me get across I would return to Cambodia in a heartbeat. I love travelling, spending time in the Far East and meeting with people from other cultures. Immersing myself in their way of life is something I enjoy. I generally experience the history of their country through photo-tours and visiting temples. It is something I do without thinking because I love it, plain and simple.
On this occasion, experiencing Cambodia’s history very nearly ended my traveling days quite abruptly. I was there for the best part of a week while on honeymoon with my wife. A few days before we left for the Far East, we found out that she was with child, so we decided it was best that she stay at the hotel because she wasn’t feeling too chipper with the morning sickness.
My wife suggested I fill my boots with temple exploration as she was going to be out of action for the time being. After making sure she was going to be looked after during the day, I booked three daytime trips on the Angkor Wat trail with a local guide by the name of Po.
The three days of exploring, climbing and walking through 1,000-year-old temples, and the overgrown jungle that surrounded them was a travellers dream. I was alone with my camera for many hours at a time, exploring the numerous ruins and vast Khmer plains with my guide faithfully waiting a few miles down the road (with lunch for both of us) at the next tuk-tuk drop off. The families I met along the way over the three days were all so gracious. They offered a place to rest, a drink or lunch to a weary stranger making his way through the temple trails. All in all, it was a great trip with tons of photos taken the Angkor sites.
By the end of the day 3, I was exhausted. There I was staring at the deep red and orange sky from the top of Phnom Bakheng, surrounded by hundreds of other photographers and sun worshipers. I was a little sad that my time there had come to an end as the wife and I planned on heading to Bangkok (and civilisation) the next day.
After the sun started to make its way towards the horizon, the sky became overcast and I could see the glorious sunset that everyone was waiting for wasn’t going to happen, so I decided to leave early. I reluctantly shuffled back to the tuk-tuk with little enthusiasm. Po saw my demeanour and suggested we take one last trip before heading back to the hotel in Siem Reap.
Po mentioned that he knew of a place we could fire live rounds from various firearms, no doubt for a little exchange of American dollars. I had heard of these places but had never experienced it myself so I agreed cautiously. Once we were on the road, I became so engrossed with looking at the images I shot on the back of my camera that I didn’t notice the changing surroundings or lack of surroundings be exact. We were driving for quite a while and I didn’t remember seeing or hearing any other vehicles or people for at least 30 minutes.
We were surrounded by a very flat open space. On both sides lay a single road with nothing much on the horizon in both directions, apart from what looked like a makeshift shop just ahead. We pulled up in front of the small run-down building with a wooden stall. Po jumped out and one of the workers came quickly running over with what looked like a large Fanta bottle full of fizzy orange soda. ‘Great!’ I thought, as I was really thirsty due to the heat and being out on the road for so long. Much to my disappointment and shock, the opened bottle actually contained petrol and the worker was walking to our petrol tank, with a lit cigarette in hand. I quickly jumped out and ran a few metres to be a safe distance away. Then I started taking some photos from a safe distance.
With that minor scare out of the way, we continued down the road which was gradually becoming a dirt track, towards the horizon. We were now surrounded by fields of long grass on both sides but still no other cars, tuk-tuks, or buildings apart from a large structure in the distance. From where we were the building looked like an aircraft hangar. As we gradually got closer the excitement of the day had worn off and I just wanted to go back to the hotel and collapse.
After bypassing the hangar and driving for another good 30 minutes, I started to become concerned about where I would eventually end up. I quickly realised if anything happened to me no-one would ever find my body as the area we were travelling through was so remote, with virtually no landmarks.
Just then, a building appeared on the horizon but this one looked very different from the last one. It was an old building, falling apart in places with camo nets thrown over parts of the roof as if it was trying to conceal its presence. We turned down the long dirt track that led to the structure and I thought to myself, “Finally I can get this over with and go back to the hotel”. Somewhere in the distance, there was the sound of a dirt bike approaching which was odd as I hadn’t heard any vehicles for a few hours.
The sound of the dirt bike became much louder very quickly and soon the bike was riding along the right-hand side us. On the bike, there were two guys. One guy was driving quite dangerously trying to get us to stop and the other guy was shouting aggressively while brandishing a well-used AK-47.
We immediately pulled over. At that point, my mind went blank and the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up and my palms became very sweaty. For some reason, everything slowed down and all I could hear was the sound of crickets and the wildlife in the background, despite the shouting angry man pointing a loaded firearm at us.
Po got out of the tuk-tuk slowly and approached the two men who were now standing and pointing to me in the back seat. After a few minutes, Po started up the tuk-tuk and explained that the guy he knew wasn’t there and that type of reception was merely a safety precaution. We continued down the dirt track where I was escorted to a corner of the hangar that had a crude makeshift kitchen and lounge filled with old sofas, a table and a few chairs.
This kitchen and lounge were unlike any I had ever seen, where most people have photos of family or certificates of achievements. This living space had a vast arsenal of weapons expertly mounted on the walls. They were serious weapons, the type you only see on the news or in Grand Theft Auto; rocket launchers, mortars, the infamous Mini-Gun from Terminator 2 and a varied selection of machine guns and high calibre pistols.
“Great”, I thought. I had to pick the one place that takes this sort of activity to the limits. While I was taking in the surroundings, one of the men from the welcome committee presented a crudely written list of the weapons and the prices to use various items from their arsenal. Prices started from $400 for a handgun, going up to rocket launchers and mini-guns for $1,000.
I was a little unnerved that the list was hastily scribbled a few moments earlier, a clue given away by the ink smudging. The guy that presented the list to me, slammed his Beretta onto the table in front of me, and in broken English, told me, “You tourist, you pay”.
This situation became very real very quickly so I played the stupid tourist card and showed him my nearly empty wallet containing only a few crumpled $20 bills. I explained to him that I had no idea it would be so expensive and this was all the money I had with me because I spent the rest on the Angkor trails.
This explanation bought me about two minutes of time before a senior member of their group walked over to me and sternly asked me which of the weapons I would like to try. I explained again about the lack of funds, then the group of men turned their attention to Po. He was ushered inside, into the corner. The shouting started with pushing going on between the men, which quickly escalated to punching and kicking. Then without hesitation one of the guys lifted the Beretta off the table and casually flicked the safety off.
Everything stopped for a moment, then one of the guys grabbed Po and held him still. While this was all going on in front of me, I gradually started walking backwards towards the wall of mounted firearms, to put some distance between the loaded gun, the angry man and myself. The shouting and abuse continued as I reached the wall.
I noticed out the corner of my eye, in between the rows of guns were some very old photos of what looked like army trucks and men with the firearms that were mounted on the walls around me. I knew about the history of Cambodia and my instinct was to start taking photos, but out of sheer fear, I couldn’t get my bag open. The men became a little concerned with my apparent interest in the photos on the walls, as they noticed that I was quietly trying to get into my camera bag.
This observation must have rattled the men somewhat because they released Po. Upon his release, we both ran to the tuk-tuk, started it up and left very quickly without looking back. We returned to Siem Reap with little said between us. I was in a state of shock. My wife later told me that I hadn’t said much to her for at least two days after leaving Cambodia. After a long bus ride back to Bangkok, I remember replaying the events over in my head. As a photographer, I was kicking myself for not getting a single photo of the whole ordeal. However, I’m sure if I dared to take just one snap, I wouldn’t be alive to tell this story now.
Illustration © Mad Anthony