The Happy Shooting Range, located outside Phnom Penh, had a menu with pump action shot guns, hand grenades, RPG's, Coca-Cola and Fanta (sorry, no pictures allowed). Ten minutes away was the site of one of the worst massacres in modern history. Cambodia, it appears, is heavy on the contrasts.
Torn between the forces of communist Vietnam and US-backed Thailand, Cambodia's modern history is literally a minefield. At the heart of one the worst genocides in history lay Pol Pot, a ruthless dictator who built an army of brainwashed kids committed to returning the country to the Stone Age. Genocide, famine, civil war – Cambodia in the 1970’s became synonymous with everything wrong with humanity. Scarred by the past, it has come a long way.
There are not many must-dos for the traveller in Phnom Penh. Its main temple, with its famous Silver Pagoda, is beautiful, but most visitors come through Bangkok, and having seen the Thai capital’s magnificent Grand Palace, the Silver Pagoda feels like a lesser, if still stunning imitation. Guesthouses and tour operators sell packages consisting of one full day with a guide and a tuk-tuk that includes a popular if somewhat distasteful shooting range, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, and two of the most disturbing attractions for a traveller anywhere; the Killing Fields, and the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng.
It estimated that two million people lost their lives in the four years of Pol Pot. After the horrors of the World War II, the world promised it would never happen again, and yet it did. I was staring at a cabinet piled with 8000 bludgeoned skulls to prove it. That it took place just three decades ago meant anyone over forty in Cambodia today was either a victim, or a perpetrator, and so it was surprising to find how friendly Cambodians were. Locals are warm and generous to a steadily increasing flow of tourists, and despite legendary corruption, there is much hope for Cambodia’s future. Phnom Penh might be considered by many to be a poorer version of Bangkok, but the legacy of its tragic history, coupled with its beauty and bizarre activities, will fascinate those looking to learn from the world in which they travel.