Like many kids born in the 1980s, one of my first experiences with video games was aiming down the plastic barrel of a NES Zapper and popping off virtual rounds at Duck Hunt’s waterfowl. Memories of frantic attempts to shoot all ten ducks in three turns flashed through my mind decades later on a sunny morning in Cambodia. On that day, I discovered that a rocket-propelled grenade is a much more efficient way to kill ten ducks.
I’d heard about this rather unique opportunity from a German backpacker at the beginning of my 2013 trip through Asia. He told me that the Cambodian military has a unit that oversees the sale of stockpiled weapons to trigger-happy tourists for use in a secluded firing range near Phnom Penh. The German wasn’t the last person to relate this story. Most backpackers who had been through Cambodia had heard about the range where you could fire anything from a shotgun to a rocket launcher. I quickly decided that, when I made it to Cambodia, I had to shoot the biggest, baddest weapon on offer, no matter what the price. Travel budget be damned; how often can someone say they’ve had the opportunity to fire a rocket launcher?
As I continued on my journey, the tales of the range got stranger. What does one shoot at with an exotic, military grade weapon? Paper targets? Pish posh. Instead, my fellow backpackers asserted that the preferred targets are farmyard animals: chickens, ducks, and even cows. Disturbingly, I’d also heard that one could pay for an even less-common target: two different backpackers I’d met at different times in separate countries corroborated a rumor that, for $7,000 USD, one could buy a death-row prisoner from a Cambodia jail. This shooting range was quickly becoming a contender for the most morally questionable thing one can do in Southeast Asia.
Curiously, while stories of the range were common, I never met anyone who’d actually been there. This, combined with the fact that Cambodia would be one of my final destinations on my summer-long trip, resulted in an ever-increasing sense of mystery that was overwhelming by the time I finally arrived in Phnom Penh. Rather anticlimactically, the shooting range was not the mythical secret I had assumed it to be. Every one of the thousands of motorcycle taxi – or “tuk-tuk” – drivers in Cambodia’s capital begged to take tourists to “the range with the Rambo weapons.” Mythic or mundane, I still wanted my big gun. By the end of my first day in the “Pearl of Asia,” I made arrangements with a tuk tuk driver for somebody from the range to come pick me up.
The next morning, I exited my hostel and hopped into a pickup truck waiting on the curb. The middle-aged driver was the supervisor of the shooting range and, as I learned via his broken English, a former paratrooper in the Cambodian Special Forces. We drove in silence for thirty minutes. Passing the tourist area, slummy neighborhoods, and the outskirts of town, we finally stopped at a little hut along an otherwise-barren highway. A man walked up to the truck and, without a word to me or the driver, threw into the truck’s bed a lumpy white rice bag with something rectangular inside. It landed with a very un-rice clunk. I asked the driver what was in the bag and he merely chuckled and said “ammunition.”
We sped off, again in silence. Until that moment, I had been in a state of nervous excitement. Now, simple nervousness was the more dominant feeling. The mysterious box in the back was about the size of a shoebox and certainly not big enough for a rocket. I was in a car with Cambodian Rambo, being led though the countryside to a remote location with lots of guns. My situation suddenly felt a lot less romantic. Nevertheless, I couldn’t turn back, so I braced myself for whatever was to come.
After another hour of driving, the highway passed through a small village and we stopped at a busy market near the highway. “Have to pick up target,” the driver said. He gave me the option of paying $300 for a cow, or a “special deal” of $100 for ten chickens. While $300 was much more than I was willing to spend, the bigger factor in my decision to decline the cow-target was what to do if I missed. After all, I was only paying for a single rocket and my accuracy was poor. I posed my concern to the driver. “What if you miss?” He repeated slowly. He took a long, silent moment to consider before thoughtfully answering, “Well, then you own a cow.” I briefly considered the difficulty of booking a flight for my new bovine friend. If Kevin Smith was considered too fat to fly, I didn’t think highly of a cow’s prospects. Moreover, even if I was able to get my cow home safely, I think our relationship would be seriously damaged by the fact that I tried to shoot him with a rocket.
I figured that ten chickens would spread out over a larger space than that which one cow would occupy. Thus, even if my shot was way off its mark, I’d have a pretty good chance of hitting at least one. Additionally, I figured that an explosion of ten lightweight chickens would be more aeronautically impressive than an explosion of one heavy cow. Whereas the cow might explode in a satisfying meat cloud, I expected ten chickens to be launched into the stratosphere, Team Rocket style. I made up my mind. But first, I had to resolve a morbid curiosity. I affected what I hoped was a joking air and asked, “Can I buy a prisoner?” The driver responded with an intense stare and a silent scowl. Without a follow-up question I meekly said, “I’ll take the chickens, then.”
The man took my $100 and walked into the market, where he came back with a bulging, pulsating mesh sack that was not clucking, but quacking. “Couldn’t find chickens, so I got ducks,” said the driver. Ducks are cuter than chickens. so my poultrycidal task would now be more difficult. Nevertheless, I reminded myself that, if cuteness was a factor in existential decisions, pugs would have been systematically exterminated long ago. The driver unceremoniously threw the duck bag into the bed of the pickup, ignoring the horrible, fleshy clump and ten anguished quacks. We climbed into the truck and again sped off down the highway.
A few minutes later, the driver passed a fenced-in area ironically labeled the “Cambodian Peacekeeping Academy” and pulled up to a large shooting range with a mountainous backdrop. We got out of the car and five men approached. They were all dressed generally the same: beige or olive drab button-up shirts and camouflage pants. However, the shirts were untucked and, instead of boots, some of the men wore black sandals. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that their clothes seemed to be store-bought approximations of military garb rather than standard-issue uniforms. Moreover, none were wearing any kind of rank insignia. They gave the impression of grown men playing soldiers. I had spent the previous day in a memorial to the Cambodian genocide perpetuated by the military dictator Pol Pot, the centerpiece of which was literally a glass tower full of human skulls. Consequently, I was especially conscious of the potential danger of the situation. With a chill, I realized that the age of my ex-special forces driver placed his military service around the time of the reign of the malevolent Mr. Pot.
The five soldiers and the driver walked me to a table on the grass near the range and a seventh man approached, carrying a large, olive drab case. This guy was dressed unlike any of the others. His clean-shaven face, tucked-in shirt overflowing with medals, and shiny boots left no doubt as to his military authenticity. The other men, including the driver, jumped to a rigid, respectful salute. In his sparse English, the driver informed me that this was a Cambodian general who was required to personally make delivery of each rocket sold to tourists. The general set his case on the table in front of me before walking over to the range and removing a gun from his hip holster. Everyone was watching him, but the general made silent, sustained eye contact with me before he turned to the range, took aim at a distant paper target, and made five shots center mass. These theatrics were clearly a warning to me, a nonverbal manner of saying “no funny business with your new toy.”
The gun came in a few parts: the tube and handle, the pointy rocket, and the explosive. One of the soldiers put the rocket in the tube without the explosive so I could take some Rambo pictures without accidentally launching my face towards Saturn. Then he took out the rocket and shoved in the part that goes boom. It was Go Time.
I walked over to grassy patch about 100 feet from where they set up the ducks on a hill. Taking a few seconds to come to terms with the craziness of the situation, I realized how light the RPG felt. Looking down the scope, my field of view was a screenshot from Call of Duty. I lined the sights up with the hill. The trigger required a harder pull than I prepared myself for, and in my nervous excitement, I had to slightly readjust my aim several times. I held firm as I gave a long, hard second pull. As I squeezed tighter and tighter, I had time for a millisecond-long rush of insecurity that I had either been given a dud gun or that my fingers simply weren’t strong enough to pull the trigger back far enough. Suddenly I heard a phfoom and the rocket fired. The recoil lacked the intensity I’d expected; it merely felt like getting punched in the shoulder by a 10-year-old. The rocket lingered in the air for a surreal amount of time, plainly visible to the naked eye as it lazily floated towards the ducks. Miraculously – for me, not them – the rocket found its mark right in the middle of the quacking cluster. The explosion consisted of white smoke, thick dust, and the odd feather. It wasn’t the mushroom cloud-fireball I had been expecting, but it was still satisfying. And the lambs – er, ducks – finally stopped screaming.
Shaking with adrenaline, I walked back towards the soldiers, where there were two additional guns on the table that I had not seen before: an AK47 and an M60. I had thought my transaction was concluded, and the new guns’ appearance made me nervous; did they intend to rob me? Or worse? Perhaps my anxiety showed, because the paratrooper-turned-pickup driver flashed a cruel and confident smile and said, “all ducks not dead, how you want to finish job?” He gestured to the weapons and named the prices for each. At that moment, I realized why he picked up extra ammo on the drive over: he had planned from the beginning to solicit an impulse buy after the rocket. I was feeling compassionate, so I said, “no, I’m fine with just the bazooka, the rest of the ducks can live.” Actually, compassion wasn’t the only factor in my refusal. It was also pride, frugality, and shame. I wanted to show the army men that I couldn’t be bullied and I was reluctant to spend an additional few hundred dollars. There was also the fact that the adrenaline was wearing off, and I was starting to feel ashamed that I had just shown Huey, Dewey, and Louie their own personal Vietnam.
The driver and I reiterated our positions several times. Eventually, my firm refusal to purchase an additional gun met a very awkward silence. The seven army guys were staring at me, and the general’s hand rested faux-casually on his gun holster. I wasn’t sure just how pushy they’d be if I kept refusing… armed robbery pushy, perhaps? My options didn’t look good. I had wanted to shoot the M60 anyway, so I changed tack. I was able to negotiate its price down to $50 from $150. After the money changed hands, I balanced the M60 on a horizontal wooden beam and took aim at the last squirming ducks. To subdue my shame, I pretended that each was the evil Negaduck. After firing a rocket launcher, a simple machine gun felt a bit tame. Nevertheless, I managed to shoot one of my hapless victims ten feet into the air. The Darkwing Duck I knew would never approve of murder, but in the gritty 2017 reboot – directed by Michael Bay with Lindsay Lohan as Gosalyn – he certainly will.
After the one-sided firefight, I walked up to Duckburger Hill to survey the damage. Shooting from several hundred feet away, I hadn’t noticed the massive amount of dismembered rotting poultry strewn out between the range and the hill; there were hundreds of chicken and duck fragments and the ground was coated in feathers. The horror I had just unleashed was clearly not the first to occur here. I imagine it resembled a KFC processing plant. I saw no cow – or, thankfully, human – remains. Instead the range was a battlefield from World War P(oultry).
It took days for the hearing in my ears to normalize. Moreover, ever since that sunny, shell-shocked morning, I adopt a blank, unfocused gaze when I eat a bucket of extra crispy. And when I pick up a NES Zapper, I break into cold sweats.