Thomas Cristofoletti for The International Herald Tribune
PHNOM PENH — Just after a Honda pickup truck screeched to a halt beyond the decommissioned Soviet-era Antonov aircraft, four resolute-looking Chinese men with a military escort climbed out, slammed the doors shut and neatly arranged a series of firearms they had been carrying on a nearby table.
Once the pistols’ magazines were loaded with shiny golden bullets, they began emptying round after round into paper targets at a distance of 25 meters, or 82 feet.
Nearby, Johan Mars had just discharged 30 bullets from a K-50, a Russian submachine gun.
“That was quite badass,” said Mr. Mars, a 28-year-old electrician from Goteborg, Sweden, striding toward a wall laden with Uzis, AK-47s and assault rifles like the M-4 and M-16. “It’s a boy toy,” he said of the K-50, which on full automatic fills the air with dark smoke and the smell of gunpowder.
Mr. Mars, who has been traveling in Southeast Asia, added: “I spent two weeks in Vietnam, and then I spend two hours here and I’m asked, ‘Do you want to fire a gun?’ Where else can you do that?”
Tucked inconspicuously between rice paddies and recently built garment factories, the operations base of the Airborne Brigade 911 is also home to an open-air shooting range.
There are other shooting ranges in Southeast Asia, like the one outside Ho Chi Minh City, close to the Cu Chi tunnels, and in the popular Thai resort of Ko Samui. Here, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Brigade 70 also has a public range on a military base.
But the Airborne Brigade’s range is Cambodia’s original and the only one where tourists can walk around with weapons and fire fully automatic guns.
A tuk-tuk ride to the range, about 15 kilometers, or 9 miles, outside the capital, takes a visitor along National Road 4, through Phnom Penh’s industrializing outskirts.
Diesel-guzzling trucks spurt vast plumes of black smoke as they career past entire families of four and five traveling on single motorcycles. In the late afternoon, rickety old trucks move along, their flatbeds packed with scores of young female garment workers who, standing up, have squeezed themselves on for the trip home. And along the roadside, vendors sell sugar cane, fruit and noodles from ramshackle mobile carts.
Eventually, glimpses of Cambodia’s serene countryside of rice paddies dotted with coconut trees start to appear through the concrete buildings on the city’s edge.
A right turn off the main road onto a dirt track, and the tuk-tuk bounces along for nearly a kilometer past vendors and Cambodian-style coffee shops with plastic chairs. Eventually it stops at a walled perimeter, where, nearly 15 years after Khmer Rouge forces surrendered and peace officially returned to Cambodia, the distinctive crack of a Kalashnikov can be heard echoing into the distance.
The entrance to the operations base of the Airborne Brigade, a special forces unit, is far from what you would expect. On a recent visit, the entrance was unmanned, closed off by just a flimsy metal chain. This time a young soldier waves the tuk-tuk through.
Inside, children of the military personnel living in the base’s modest wooden homes wave and shout “hello” to visitors, while cows and sheep graze the lush fields nearby. Before reaching the shooting range, visitors pass a rappelling tower, armored vehicles, some heavy artillery, and a cage of three crocodiles.
At the range, soldiers in fatigues escort guests to a wall of firearms that includes framed portraits of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Lt. Gen. Chap Pheakdey, who commands the brigade.
A few meters away, eight shooting booths face standing targets adorned with perforated beer cans and, behind, a five-meter-high earthen wall.
The firing range “was originally created to train the military, but sometimes we have guests, and sometimes we don’t,” Brig. Gen. Moun Sameth, the brigade’s deputy commander, said by telephone.
Firing 30 rounds from an AK-47 costs $40, while a drum of 30 bullets for a submachine gun is $50. (Prices are in U.S. dollars, which is not uncommon in Cambodia.)
Visitors willing to spend $120 can fire 100 rounds from an M-60 light machine gun, a model once used by the U.S. military, or a Russian-made K-57 L.M.G. And for $350, soldiers will transport a customer about 30 kilometers to military land in Kampong Speu Province to fire a B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Visitors often talk about the odd, somewhat uncomfortable juxtaposition of coming to the range after a trip to the Khmer Rouge-era S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, where thousands were tortured and sent for execution at the Choeung Ek killing fields on the capital’s outskirts. Also, the range is across the road from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, where the U.N.-supported trial of three former Khmer Rouge leaders is continuing.
But for some Western tourists, who come from countries with strict restrictions on the use of firearms, the temptation to shoot an automatic machine gun or throw a grenade is simply too hard to resist.
David de Wolf, 24, a chef from Knokke, Belgium, arrived in Cambodia in late October. Three days later, he found himself paying $20 for a duck that he shot with an M-4 rifle.
“It was glorious — it was like jumping off a bridge for the first time and surviving it,” Mr. de Wolf said over an Angkor Beer at a Phnom Penh bar frequented by tourists and expatriates on Street 51. He said that once the duck had died, a soldier carved it up and fed it to the crocodiles in the cage near the range’s entrance.
“The Belgian laws are very strict right now,” he said. “It’s hard to get a gun or go to the shooting range. But here, of course, money buys everything.”
In fact, Steve Lee, an Australian songwriter and gun enthusiast, came to Cambodia in October with 10 of his friends and spent $7,000 at the range. He even talked the soldiers into letting them use a Russian-made RPG-7 antitank grenade launcher to blow up a car.
Mr. Lee, who wrote the popular YouTube hit “I Like Guns” and recently released a 12-song album on guns, has traveled to Cambodia five times to visit the shooting range.
“When I first went there seven years ago, it was really, really raw, and there’s still something real about it,” he said by telephone from Parkes, Australia. “They’re just real people having a good time and they’re making a living, but it’s done Cambodian style.”
Mr. Lee, however, says he does not condone the killing of animals. “My philosophy is that I wouldn’t do it,” he said, adding that guns should always be used responsibly.
Mr. Mars, the Swedish visitor, fired five different weapons during his visit, including exploding a coconut with an M-4 assault rifle.
So, why did he do it?
“You don’t have that many chances to fire a gun,” he said, “and that’s what I’m doing.”