The International Writers Magazine: Asia Travel Stories
and Frivolity in Cambodia
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 mines 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 couldnt 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."
I soon decided that frivolity was much sexier than sensibility, and
that I needed to take full advantage of my new found freedom. Im
single and irresponsible, and knew there may not be many more times
in my life when Im 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 its 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 cant get from books and some kick-ass
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 werent 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 buss radiator.
Im no mechanic, but when it poured out of the bottom onto the
ground, I figured we would be there for a while.
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 passersby 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 cars 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 couldnt
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, "Its your call buddy."
I shrugged back, and climbed into the cab.
We sped along the grueling, 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 hadnt 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, dont 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, thats cool but I really dont
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, "Its 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
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 cant 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."
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
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
caliber 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-16s, 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
My demeanor 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 couldnt fucking
believe it. I scanned the list greedily like a fat chick at a buffet.
I didnt 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. Its the kind of weapon thats
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 theyd 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 weeks travel budget was
already blown and I really didnt 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 werent 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 shouldnt,
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. Its the worst job market in decades and I didnt
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
oclock," 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 oclock. 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."
Strousse - July 2005
See also Monkey
Breakfast by Eben Strousse
More Travel stories in Hacktreks
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