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Friday, 24 November, 2000, 22:11 GMT
Cambodia's trigger-happy tourists
Cambodian military police
Fighting in Friday's rebel attack lasted for an hour
By Helen Vesperini in Phnom Penh

It might be a long time since the sound of artillery fire last sent the inhabitants of Phnom Penh jumping from their beds in the middle of the night, but 30 years of strife have left their mark on the Cambodian capital.

Big guns going cheap have long been a feature of life here.

Until about a year ago, $50 would get any passer-by a Chinese or Russian Kalashnikov plus ammunition at a market on the airport road.

Tourists bored on a Sunday afternoon can still go to the army shooting range a few kilometres out of town - the private ones have been closed down.

This gun's for hire

Here, one can fire almost anything, from Uzis to cannons.

Cambodian soldier with gun
Any gun can be fired - from an Uzi to a cannon
Callow tourists arrive giggling, "Ooh really, do you think I should?"

Thirty minutes later they're talking like Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver.

Some tourists find taking aim too arduous and elect to pay $15 to throw a hand grenade into a nearby pond.

Or then again, there is the US tourist who made it into the annals of Cambodian history by purchasing a cow to throw his grenade at.

Government gun ban

In the spring of 1999, the government seized all the guns it could find - even those held with a licence.

In a bid to please donors, it announced solemnly that the weapons would all be crushed in public by a bulldozer.

Eighteen months later, a Thai-owned swimming pool in the capital continues to set aside a special area in which armed guards have to wait.

Revolver sculpture

"In fact, the only arms crushed were the ones that were useless," said one Cambodian resident.

"The others were all distributed among the police and the army.

"Except mine," he added with a note of satisfaction, "because I saw to it before I handed it in."

Two months after the guns that had been seized were ceremoniously bulldozed, a sculpture was unveiled in Phnom Penh.

At a roundabout near the Japanese Bridge, there is a giant revolver with a large knot tied in the barrel.

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See also:

24 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Attack on Cambodian ministry
24 Jul 98 | Cambodia
Cambodia's troubled history
25 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Cambodia's lingering trauma
14 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Masters of the killing fields
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