PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, across from a children's water park and just down from a new Toyota dealership, there is a muddy alleyway off Russian Boulevard with stall after stall selling made-in-Thailand U.S. military knock-offs. Army commendation medals, boots, Kiwi shoe polish, ponchos, mosquito nets, hammocks, holsters, caps, and belts all hang in camouflage extravaganza. A similar market in Ho Chi Minh City is stocked with bowls full of bogus dog tags and Zippo lighters. What many people come to this market to buy is not on display, however.
We wander—my partner, Paul, our taxi driver, Sok An, and I—through the pitted alleyway, searching the stalls for a knowing look, a brief connection, a nod. We are in the market for a handgun. Not to own, mind you—we have already decided to dismantle it and toss it into a lake of sewage south of the city if we end up with one. We have come simply to see the ease with which a gun can be had.
Five years ago, this market would have quite openly engaged in the sale of illicit arms. AK-47s and M-16s were the norm. Neil Wilford, who works for a Brussels-based organization in conjunction with the Cambodian government on an effort to curb civilian possession of small arms and light weapons, says the private ownership of high-velocity weapons wasn't even illegal in the country until 1998. Three years ago, an AK-47 would have cost $40 on the street, he said. Today it's up near $100, and the price increase is indicative of a relatively successful campaign to collect and destroy weapons held by civilians. Since 1999, when the campaign began, more than 115,000 weapons have been destroyed in 35 public ceremonies.
After a few minutes, we sidle up to a woman at one of the larger stalls. She stands shielded by a glass counter, camouflage baseball caps hanging like piñatas from the corrugated tin roof. We tell her we're looking for something else to buy. Does she have anything else? Sok An is all nerves, looking anxiously around him and shuffling from side to side on his rubber flip-flops. The woman shrugs.
"How about bullets?" I ask. "For the shooting range."
She doesn't answer at first, but looks us over thoroughly.
"Nine millimeter?" I ask.
We tell her we want one or two magazines. She says she will only sell by the box, 50 bullets to a box, $80 each. Her hand slides around the side of the glass case, and she drops a 9 mm bullet into Paul's hand. In the past week, two friends of mine have attempted to buy guns here. Both were taken to a shed behind the market and shown a small display of handguns. Perhaps because they were both men—one Western, one Cambodian—it was less odd that they'd be looking for a weapon. I probably have NGO or journalist written all over me. I can tell, though, that this woman is not interested.
"You cannot buy in Cambodia now," says Sok An. "Maybe in the past, yes, but not now."
He is right that things have tightened up and firearms are not as readily accessible as they once were, but if I really wanted a gun, I know I could offer 20 or 40 bucks to any moto driver, and I'd have one within the hour. In Cambodia, it is often easier to buy guns and underage prostitutes than it is to buy a SIM card for a mobile telephone, a transaction that requires a signed contract, numerous forms, and a passport.
The woman finally agrees to sell us a magazine of 9 mm bullets for $8, a dollar a bullet. We thank her and wander back toward the entrance of the market. We could linger, but it's unlikely we'd get anywhere, partly because there are fewer guns in circulation, partly because the police have cracked down on illegal arms sales, and, frankly, I don't really want one.
We go instead to a shooting range 30 minutes outside of town. At this tourist spot, 20 bucks will get you a round of AK-47 fire or a single toss of a live grenade into a lake. At this particular range, you can even try your hand at a rocket-propelled grenade for $200.
We walk into a dark, brick room and ask to see a selection of handguns. Since this is a registered tourist destination, the ownership of these guns is perfectly legal, and the man brings in a Colt .45, a .38, a .22, and a Chinese handgun. I pull out the chamber on a .38, spin it around, put it back in. I really have no idea what I'm doing, though Paul was a British Royal Marine commando for 24 years, so I have the benefit of following his lead.
"You in the army?" the man asks me.
I can't help it. I burst out laughing, then stop. "If I was in the army, I'd be in Iraq," I say.
He tells us we can try all four of them if we like. Behind us, an Australian tourist poses with an AK-47 slung diagonally across his body and asks one of the workers to take his picture. He tries not to grin like an idiot.
"Listen," I say quietly to the man, "I don't want to shoot a gun. I want to buy a gun. Can you get me one? A .22?" I tell him I have to go to the provinces alone and want protection. At first he laughs and shakes his head. I say nothing but continue looking at him.
"OK," he says, "For $200 I can get you one."
It's another sign of success, says Neil Wilford, that handguns have replaced assault rifles as the weapon of choice. It means firearms can't be openly touted any longer. Since 1998, when one in every three households in Cambodia had a weapon, there has been a complete reversal. Crime is not down, but crimes involving firearms have reduced significantly.
I tell the man $200 is too much for a handgun, and I pick up my bag to go.
"OK," he says quietly, "AK-47 cheaper. Maybe $100, because, you know, I can buy from the army."