Breathe in, breath out. Slow and easy, stay calm… The target is in sight, your eye is like a laser, focused hard upon it. Everything else is a blur. Ready? Squeeze the trigger…
For anybody who doesn’t remember the late 90s PlayStation game Metal Gear Solid, you missed out on a hero in Solid Snake. The protagonist was a stealthy agent who could sneak his way around buildings, hiding in cardboard boxes, playing shadow games to lure bumbling foot soldiers to their demise before snuffing them out in the blink of an eye.
One of the most memorable ploys was the ability to find diazepam in the game. Snake would need to take this to settle his nerves before making an important sniper kill. Without the diazepam, the dual shock controller would vibrate out of your hands with fear. It was nigh on impossible to keep a steady hand and Snake seemed to hyperventilate at the prospect of making the shot.
Was it wrong of the game to suggest you would need drugs to kill someone? Perhaps, but it sure was fun.
Shooting a gun in real life isn’t quite what the games will have you believe.
At the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, I recall wishing I had the diazepam. Unfortunately, I had used my supply from the pharmacies of Hanoi on the last sleeper train.
With a simple squeeze of the trigger, I jolted off-target and the gun rattled for all of ten seconds. That was it, 50 bullets and $40 gone in a flash. I got perhaps 12 whole seconds of “fun” and then I vibrated away from the gun with my ears ringing and a cramp in my hand.
This was the first time I visited a gun range. On that tour, you have the option of choosing from a few weapons. There are some strong views that believe this makes a mockery of the dark history and there are arguments for stripping the shooting range gimmick.
When we visited in 2011, we noticed that the guns were chained to the fence. Apparently, some time before, a South Korean man decided to ignore the safety briefing. He didn’t think it was important because he claimed that the guns didn’t even have real bullets. His attempts to prove this theory were debunked when his head exploded. Restrictions at Cu Chi have been pretty tight ever since.
What can you expect at a gun range?
Typically, you will have more freedom with the weapon and also some choice in what you use. No doubt, there is a high degree of trust at play between customers and staff.
In Cambodia, we had just arrived at our hostel in Phnom Penh and pulled a stool up to the bar. Within minutes the barman had us entranced by the videos on his phone. Wide-eyed, we exclaimed awe and wonder as we watched him taking out the ruins of a building with a rocket launcher.
The following day his buddy, a tuk-tuk driver, arrived to take us on a tour of Phnom Penh. They were very keen to get us to try the guns. We had Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields lined up but after little persuasion, we were on our way to the gun range.
Each of the gun ranges I visited in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are located pretty far from the town in a remote area, far enough from public areas for the safety of civilians, yet close enough to the town for an emergency dash to the shovel and lime store hospital, if the worst case scenario happens.
In all of the ranges I visited, a fancy menu was available. My attempts to photograph it were always politely declined.
The typical gun range in Asia will have a pretty decent arsenal to choose from. Judging by the standards of their supply, setting and tattoos, I would rank their gangster level somewhere between ‘Haha, that bank is too small’ and ‘Please don’t take our jungle, Pablo’.
The prices are much the same across the board with a basic visit likely to set you back $30-50 for about few minutes of shooting.We stopped short of the $300 fee for the rocket launcher. The idea of pulling the pin on a 30-year-old grenade in Cambodia was something I was happy to side-step. Rumors of tourists shooting rockets at old vehicles, buildings and even animals like chickens and cows are rife among the backpacking community.
The best deal we got was in Thailand in 2015. By chance we located a range outside Chiang Mai and between four of us we spent about $200. With some friendly banter, you can get a discounted deal if there are enough of you. Somehow we managed to get enough ammo to keep us going for over a half hour, frequently swapping guns and having a great time with the staff. It certainly was a far cry from that first experience in Cu Chi.
Worth a shot?
In Phnom Penh, it did feel a little sketchy. To be firing these old Cambodian military machine guns before heading to do the harrowing audio tour of the Killing Fields did feel a little strange.
That being said, the thrill of blowing holes in coconuts or simple targets is a rush. It’s one that most people won’t get to experience in normal life. Unless you happen to be an assassin, soldier or a random coconut-shooting maniac.
After going a few times, I personally feel that I’ve milked the novelty for all its worth. Only thing left to do is grab that RPG. In any case, whether it’s a few quick rounds at Cu Chi Tunnels or the brutal extermination of a farmyard animal in rural Cambodia, this is an experience that you won’t forget in hurry.