People’s Travel Diary


By: Thomas Cristofoletti – November 26, 2012



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.”

Source: The International Herald Tribune




By:  MY – September 7, 2011, 6:00pm


Do not forget: If it’s your first time to visit Angkor Wat, do not approach it from behind. To avoid the crowds, our well-intentioned guide led us in through the back, but on hindsight, it was a crime. Your first sight of the temple towers should be from the edge of the long paved road leading to it, which is guaranteed to take your breath away. That is the primary reason why thousands of tourists come to see this thousand -year-old cluster of stone temple mountains, and is the trip’s most unique experience.

It has been a little over a century since the famed Khmer structures first captured the attention of the world. In 1860, French explorer Henri Mouhot published a book with vivid descriptions and detailed pen and ink drawings of the lost temple city, and that started a steady, if at first trickling pilgrimage of tourists, eager to pay homage to one of the ancient architectural wonders of the world. If you haven’t had the chance, do it now. Like most tourist attractions in the Third World, the Angkor runs the risk of commercialization, as well as exploitation by political powers. But right now, although the threat of these dangers can be freely felt, the magic of the ancient walled temples and rustic life of Siem reap, the Cambodian city it is located in, are still safe and ready to be experienced.

Access to this ancient Khmer capital, formerly overrun by the jungle, is now made easy through air routes. My group of modern pilgrims from Manila and Cebu met up in Singapore for a Silk Air flight to Siem Reap, then completed our three country journey with a stop at Vietnam’s third largest city, Da Nang. The trip from Singapore to Siem reap, takes a little more than two hours, and our arrival at the Sofitel Royal Angkor Resort & Spa was a perfect prelude to the glory of the Angkor monuments we would witness the next day. Set in a sprawling landscaped complex, the French and Khmer architecture merge to form 238 rooms and suites with five-star views and amenities. It is a good base to come home to after a trip around the city, which is still very rustic, and in many places, poverty -stricken.

We only spent a day at the famed Angkor temples, but I find it strange that the ancient stones have left an imprint in my memory, becoming more distinct with time. The Angkorian period, in which the temple complex was built and the Khmer empire was consolidated as a major power in Southeast Asia, encompasses more than 600 years. Between 802 AD and 1432, various kings led the Khmer through alternating periods of war and peace, and glory and decline, all the while each building his own architectural tribute to his reign. The first of the rulers who called himself a god king was Jayavarman II (802 to 850). He claimed for himself the all-reaching powers of the Hindu god Shiva, and it’s common belief that the temple mountain he built in Phnom Kulen was reminiscent  of the holy mountain at the center of the universe, Mt. Meru, the dwelling place of Shiva. Succeeding rulers vied to surpass each other in celebrating their glory and divinity through their own temple mountains. Angkor Wat, the most magnificent of these, was built from 1112 to 1152 by King Suryavarman II as a manifestation of his devotion to the Hindu god Vishnu.

A leisurely stroll around the Angkor Wat complex reveals thousands of bas reliefs, many unfinished. the largest temple in the world with a perimeter of two square kilometers, the stone needed to build it equals that of the Cheops pyramid in Egypt. Some corridors have been reclaimed for worship, and there are monks in many places. Massive and expert restoration of the Angkor temples in the 60′s have made it possible for the tourists to virtually  transport themselves to the golden age of the Khmer kings, and it is suggested that one be at Angkor Wat during sunset to see it in full glory.

Number two on the must-see list is Angkor Thom. Built after the Chams of southern Vietnam attacked and occupied the city of Angkor for four years. Angkor Thom was erected by Jayavarman VII in 1181, inspired not by the Hindu gods but by the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara. The Bayon temple is the central architectural piece in Angkor Thom, and is famous because of the 216 serene smiling faces–commonly thought to be a cross between the face of Buddha and Jayavarman VII – on its 54 towers.

There are still many temples to see, but leave time to visit the floating village. these village, complete with homes and schools, move with the tide, such that its actual physical location can vary from one to almost two kilometers. The simplicity and poverty in the village is in stark contrast to the grandeur of Angkor, and it is difficult to imagine that ancestors of these people were the architects of such majesty. Little boys floating in plastic wash tubs beg for money from tourists in passing boats, and families squat in their miniscule  floating homes which have no chairs. The ingenuity of the Khmer, however, shine through soon enough. A big structure with children playing in balconies joins the string of boats coasting through the center of the village, and one realizes that it’s the schoolhouse bringing children home.






The same Khmer talent and industry that built the temple mountains can be seen in the little children selling trinkets to tourists visiting the Angkor. They have learned to speak English with perfect accents and go to school either very early in the morning or after sunset in order to make a living during the day. The US dollar is legal tender in Cambodia and authorities in Siem Reap have made sure the streets are safe even at night for tourists. tourism is the main source of income for this city and there are policemen stationed every 100 meters in major tourist areas. In Angkor Wat, the ancient Khmer kings may have left a legacy that is not only a source of pride for present Cambodians, but a hope for their future economic prosperity as well.




By: John Borthwick – April 16, 2011, 7:58 pm


Bali, Island of the Gods (and Odds and Sods) is booming, with up to 700,000 Australian tourists expected this year. Following the bombings of 2002 and 2005, and the consequent mass avoidance of their tourism-dependent island by international visitors, many Balinese struggled to put food on their tables.


It would have been callous during that era to call attention to the negative impacts there of tourism.

But now that the island is again awash with holiday-makers, honeymooners, surfers and Eat Pray Love seekers, it may be time to acknowledge the downsides of tourism – that is, of our own footprint on this fabled, burdened island.

In 1972 Australian painter Donald Friend (who lived near Sanur from 1968 to 1980) wrote in his diary: “There is no one like these people left in the world, and no such enchanting place.”

He revelled in “a sort of joy in the colour of the leaves, of sea and sky, the ever-present sound of music and laughter”.

Today’s visitor is likely to sense only dim echoes of those times as he or she sits stalled amid seemingly a million motorbikes in the constant traffic jam that bedevils the roads from Kuta to Seminyak to Sanur.

Outside the car are the perennial minor irritants that one can live with – shonky money changers, incessant taxi touts and kleptomanic temple monkeys. More serious are the rabid dogs. Some 300 Balinese died of their bites last year.

Friend beat the Western rush to Bali, living there when (as Barry Humphries writes in the introduction to The Donald Friend Dairies) “Bali still retained some of its prewar magic, which exists today only in the remoter regions, and long before it was invaded by the worst type of Australians.”

Friend foresaw Bali’s fate as early as 1969, when international tourism planners and bankers arrived. He wrote: “Their advice really is on how to convert villages, forests and mountains into vast, profitable jukebox alleys.”

Today, I find many Balinese to be as kind and courteous as ever. I also find them under stress by many forces including overpopulation.

According to I Gusti Wayan Yasa Murjana, chairman of the Forum on Bali’s Population, the island’s real capacity is just 1.5 million people.

The actual population, however, is already 3.9 million, with another 25,000 new Indonesian settlers arriving each year from elsewhere, drawn by Bali’s apparent prosperity.

Add to these the estimated 2.6 million international tourists who landed last year – up 18.5 per cent on the previous year – not to mention huge numbers of domestic Indonesian visitors.

A stroll down any street in Seminyak, Ubud, Candi Dasar or other tourist destinations shows how village “sawa” rice fields have been gobbled up by resorts, galleries, villas, boutiques, tapas joints, sushi restaurants, day spas and bars. This is Joni Mitchell’s “paved Paradise” perfected, parking lots and all.

The term “authentically Balinese” today is used, without irony, to describe louche seafront restaurants whose menus and prices differ only marginally from those in Perth, Sydney or Melbourne, except with far lower staff wages.

Balinese accommodation is no longer the family losmen with a cold-water mandi sluice bath and an alang-alang thatch roof that we might have first loved in the 1980s. Today, we need temples of marble and glass, complete with mandatory spa and 24/7 wireless hot spots.

Once-snoozy Kuta is now said to have the highest concentration of surf shops in the world. Its extended beach – from Tuban to well beyond Seminyak – has become a strip melee of hawkers, jeep jams, bungy jumpers, ravers, malls and CD stalls. In the gloomy words of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: “A proliferating and overexcited civilisation has broken the silence of the seas once and for all.”

So what to do about it? We can’t put the spray back in the can, the toothpaste in the tube – that is, wind tourism back to the 1930s or even 1970s.

Nor can the Balinese, as one Australian extraordinarily suggested to me after the bombings, “just forget tourism and go back to planting rice”. The Bali we find today is the Bali we have all made.

The Balinese well understand the struggle between the forces of greed and goodness, of darkness and light, that are constants within the universe, if not the village, and our own hearts and minds.

In fact, black and white is their national colour: all those chessboard cloths that you see draping performers and statues across the island are not merely decorative. Their pattern, poleng, is a philosophical illustration, representing literally the “black versus white” struggle inherent in all.

From this perspective, even the Balinese landscape is, as Friend noted, “a setting for the struggle between opposing forces, the ever-present demonic element haunting the rich, warm, placid fields and groves”. This “battle for evermore” still goes on today on the beaches and in the boutiques.

Other than staying home – or diverting to Lombok, there to watch the same dynamic at work – there is no way to unwind the damage done. Perhaps just lie back and think of Bali – as it was – while you enjoy another massage.

Before the current era of country clubs, cigar bars and lifestylers in villas, we came to Bali for the beach and beauty.

The sunset – matahari terbenam – is still a showstopper. The sun sizzles into the sea. The swell slides in like ripples on a liquid mirror. The sky is tattooed with light . . . and we remember why we came.

Traditions live on.