by Jordan Woods
Location: Phnom Phen, Cambodia
We were driving alone down a bump-ridden dirt trail. The lush vegetation was closing in on us as we made our way through in our beat up Toyota Camry. I’ve been told how beautiful the Cambodian jungle is, especially when you are as deep as we were, yet I couldn’t focus on it; every bump and tick that the road delivered to the system sent shocks down through my body, but not in the normal sense of being jarred by a poorly maintained road, but by the feeling that at any moment one of those jolts is going to set off one of the grenades or perhaps one of the rockets that we have stuffed next to the AK-47s or the M-60 machine guns.
I contemplated my actions which led to me travelling with this band of Cambodian civilians and one young soldier. The only thing to keep my mind off the trunk of the car was the LCD screen before me, but it was playing “Rambo” and the explosions and exchanges of shrapnel left nothing to comfort. It’s the traveler’s nature to push it, to push as far as he or she can, to discover that moment in time where the rest of civilization drops out and the visceral clarity of what you have discovered hits you. It is to walk off the beaten path, squeeze the old adrenalin glands a bit, then draw a map for your buds to come see what you found – or at least that is how I saw it.
It was 7:30am where I boarded flight 754 into Phnom Phen from Bangkok. The mind was groggy but still a little excited from the cab ride. We roared down the freeway with speeds in excess of 100 miles-per-hour. I remember bracing in the crouched position awaiting for the cab to blow one of the turns, and for us to cut loose of the force that binds us… to break free of the embankments and soar off that great highway that connects downtown Bangkok fifty feet above the smog choked streets. We came to a screeching halt at the terminal and gravity grabbed the change, threw it forward to the driver, and I was off running to catch the flight… leaving this place, the land of eternal carnal lasciviousness, crapulence… the place of true corporeal fulfillment.
I didn’t come for that – that road ten thousand expats have already tread. I mean, sure it’s interesting, but I was on a whole new kick. I was heading to the land of that “up-river planet,” with the promises of lawlessness and corruption, the place bread into American “fear-lore,” because folklore is just not on the agenda nowadays. Maybe it’s my over indulgence of “Apocalypse Now” or maybe it is my fascination with Kurtz and Marlow’s journey…
On the plane I worried slightly about my entryway into the country. There were expectations of passports and photos and whatnots… but what kind of trip would this have been if I had been totally prepared, this was supposed to be “dirty,” especially greasing the officials. Another man sitting next to me warned of the entry protocol. He was sure I was not going to get in. I recall being too tired to care much about that condition. As expected soon after de-boarding and meeting with the customs officials, all they wanted were a couple bucks and the normal 20 to make it through. A little handshake, a slip of the cash, and I was turned loose to the streets of Phnom Phen.
Out in the capital city I could immediately feel the rawness seething from it’s pores like a beast lurking behind every child’s closet door. The mind was already running stories, telling tales five years old from authors and ex-patriots that have fallen from the tracks in this town. Their stories of this unapproachable heart of darkness seem fading, lost to fiction with every tourist sign warning of international child laws, and the guns that once roamed the streets, the “free-range” weaponry, were now locked and caged. I knew I would have to delve deeper… it was there, the story… the insanity.
I hitched a ride on the back of a scooter for a couple thousand Riel and soon found myself flying along the streets clutching my camera desperately snapping shots over the shoulder of my driver. He wore a smile ear to ear, a bubbly sort of man not so tall as he was happy. He stood at the average height of about five foot five, and was adorned in the clothes that I can only describe as what my grandfather would wear: plaid shirt circa Salvation Army 1975, and pants, khaki, “lived in” and dust ridden. His over zealous mood threw me off a bit, naturally looking for him to rip me off, but how could I be robbed, a couple bucks for the royal tour of Phenom Phen? Though I knew what I came here to do…
“Where are the rockets?” I said with intent.
He looked at me puzzled in the way that I would look if he rattled a bunch of Cambodian phrases at me, and especially the way I speak with the mixing of the words and the slobbering of the vowels. In that moment as I was crouched down doing my sign language for shooting rockets, I imagined that I somehow had fulfilled the American. I had stepped off the plane and gone for the biggest and most badass thing in town. He seemed to enjoy this though. He possessed some carnal instinct of power that I had only imagined in some latent pre-pubescent Texas youth. It is that sense of power that I saw in his eye, the one when the rules no longer apply… when one is away from fuck-all, ejaculating his desires… those repressed urges that bubble forth in places like Cambodia: ” because I can, I will,” the American steamroller, pushing out with the covert struggle and violence… and damn right I wanted a part of it, to experience that moment… that fantasy only brought to my generation from the movies, a little taste of the “shit” only described thirty years previous. The little man understood the signals for rocket launcher and announced his elation with a double super extra smile. The plans were drawn out to meet up with his “friends,” and prices would be worked out down the road. We hopped onto his motor scooter again and tore off down the road into oncoming traffic with the flickering sounds of my camera shutter firing away. I’ve seen this before though, dreams on the back of a bicycle riding up the freeways of downtown Los Angeles with the rush hour traffic greedily speeding by.
It was dry season in Cambodia, and the dust was incredible. It penetrated every pore and article of clothing, and within a couple of minutes on the back of the scooter my nose was clogged with large artifacts of congealed dirt and grime. Luckily enough the ride was short and we only needed to make it to that point where the dirt filled streets became filled dirt streets.
Shortly we arrived in some compound, no doubt a home familiar to the outback lawlessness of some country lovin’ Montanan. The facility was covered floor to ceiling with machine guns, but mostly the floor containing those too heavy to mount, such as anti-aircraft weaponry and assorted hand explosives. Upon inspecting the anti-aircraft guns I had to laugh – we were only half a mile from the international airport.
Around the corner in the back room were the local patrons of this facility. They ranged from actual city police to expensive bodyguards in training. They sat around a table playing cards, but of course to me, they were each wrapped with red bandannas, one sitting next to the other; Christopher Walkin facing Deniro, and a little man in the corner yelling “Mao!” I was seated at a near by table and handed a menu. The front side seemed normal enough for the typical restaurant, offering assorted food and beverage, but upon inspecting the backside, I found the “meat,” and more deadly than a roving band of Canadian bovine, it was the whole list of weapons and their pricing. It was quite steep, but as heavy as the backpack on my shoulders, the overused symbol of the elitist wanderers, I found myself deeper in the “haggle,” struggling price for price. The rockets had been mentioned but seemed to be off the list. I told the man I didn’t come here to shoot hand guns and 22s… 22s being the anti beer bottle choice of every mountain and country bound twelve year old boy with an inkling of destruction. He mentioned that we would have to go farther off to do the “real stuff.”
I took a moment to confer with my colleagues, me, myself and I. We concluded that heading off into the jungle with four Cambodian strangers was a wild idea. These men, like Rambo’s lost children, the sons of his targets, were dressed oddly enough in American school gear attire, mostly Abercrombie or some Macy’s late day sale, but then again I guess they do make the clothes.
Later down the road I awaken from my traveling stupor, having reflected on this decision that has me here in this car, 10,000 miles from home, two hours from the relative safety of society, and amidst the dense vegetation of outback jungle. We are entering another compound festooned with flags that suggest more than a communist society at work. The entryway was blocked by tanks and ancient U.N. armored personnel carriers. We made it past and came to a rest by the barracks. Five well-armed men in military outfits greeted us. They belonged to one of the three factions of the government ruling at the time, most likely the one that is more aligned with the communist government of Vietnam, due to the apparent flags around the facility. We began to haggle again for prices, I, speaking to my driver, and he, whooping and hollering to the men in the back store room arranging the weapons. At a point I imagined myself in the midst of a New York trading floor, or perhaps a mid-Chicago exchange haggling over commodities futures, a distant past left behind in an old college degree long since unused. We agreed upon an amount, two hundred dollars, that I didn’t have on me. It seemed not a problem and to my safety, I was told we would be able to stop on our way back by a bank in town. I don’t enjoy foreign debts, but since they have to take me back to town to get the money that was okay with me.
The trunk fully equipped and no doubt completely unstable, we headed off two minutes outside the compound arriving in the clearing which was to be the “firing range”. It resembled less of a target area and more of an old landing zone, an area cleared out with a couple bombs to drop the helicopters. The car came to a stop, “this it?” I asked. “Yea, here,” he said. I opened the door, got one foot down on the ground and began to load my camera with more film. At that exact moment the casings of an AK-47 five feet off to my left rained into the side of my head, and seconds later the sounds that were already apparent penetrated my brain, where the ridiculously slow signals were sent to the muscles… I dropped to the ground. Later I was able to piece together the situation… the car was coming to a stop while the young Cambodian soldier, who was just a little anxious, was already exiting the vehicle with the gun ready to fire, and as soon as his feet landed, the hammer was on the bullets repeatedly pistoning its way forth like a “Motown” factory well greased in its ways. Lying on the ground with the persistent ringing continuing, I was tapped on the back and handed the AK-47, “ok, ready…” the young boy said.
I stood in what was the regular position for usage, one leg staggered behind the other, and prepared myself. Bursts of fire began to rain forth from the gun, blowing the weapon into my face with each release. The man standing behind bracing my shoulder for the recoil couldn’t help the accuracy any. It’s a powerful weapon that AK, but just too inaccurate. So, I opted for the rocket-propelled grenade, that most real piece of any young man’s video game fascination.
The man placed the iron tube on my shoulder and with the broken English of a new foreign professor explained the sightings of the weapon and that it didn’t always work. But no worry if it doesn’t, because as he said that he’ll be there to put a new rocket in if it malfunctions. Funny things going through your brain when you have a live grenade attached to a very ready rocket on your shoulder next to your head. Even weirder though, is that with the possibility of malfunction, I wanted to go through with it.
I steadied my aim, braced for the inevitable, and “Click!” Muscles still tensed, eyes tightly squinted, and I saw that the rocket still dangled at the end of the tube. The man came running over with another rocket in his hand. He grabbed the weapon and prepped the next round. I again donned the launcher and allowed that macho bullshit to push me through it, that stuff that “makes a man.” I yelled over my shoulder to send the ready signal, but there was no response. I turned around to see all the men crouched around the backside of the car. I saw little eager eyes peaking over the roof, and fingers jammed into ears. I thought, “Are they protecting themselves from the blast or just from the pieces of me?”
I gave a count down and milliseconds after the familiar click a bomb exploded all round me. The ground encircling bounced forth and left itself in a cracked state. The smoke dissipated for just long enough to see the hazy trail of the rocket propelling its way down range at an incredible speed, and exploding later in a fury of dirt, black smoke and fire. Happy as I was, I felt a little unimpressed, I guess Hollywood makes explosions look too good in the films. I half expected a large ball of fire to billow into the sky and armed men to go screaming into the air, as I wipe the sweat from my glistening biceps and spit into the dirt with contempt at their communist ways.
We fired off more machine guns and some grenades, but never quite filled that void that only great expectations leave. I slept off the adrenaline on the way back to town and drowned the day in Angkor Beer on the lakeside by my guesthouse room.
Text © Jordan Woods 2004, All Rights Reserved