We were driving away from the Phnom Penh airport in our hired tuk-tuk when the driver turned around, at full speed mind you, and asked, “You like shooting? AK-47?”

This was when I first realized Cambodia is a country where anything — ANYTHING — is possible for the right price. Our driver, Leap Theary, was referring to one of the several places where a tourist with enough cash can shoot automatic rifles, throw hand grenades and even fire a rocket-propelled grenade (bazooka). We declined, of course, imagining the people who operate said ranges are as careless as a driver who would completely turn around while driving 50kph in one of the worst vehicles ever designed. We assured him we weren’t interested and, after he made sure several times that we didn’t want to go shooting, he turned back around and continued driving us to our hotel on the riverfront.

The follow-up for this realization came when we walked past Happy Herb’s Pizza, one of several “happy” pizza shops that lining the riverfront in downtown Phnom Penh. For about $10 we ordered a pitcher of Angkor beer and a large veggie pizza, extra happy. Marijuana is apparently a very traditional ingredient in Khmer cuisine, and the happy pizza joints (pun intended) are happy to oblige their customers. Despite marijuana being quite illegal in Cambodia, with heavy fines and imprisonment for offenders, it seems to be tolerated — probably with the correct pockets being lined with some “happy” dollars.

In hindsight, I think “happy” may be the wrong word to describe the pizza. “Hangover-inducing” is probably more accurate. Our pie put us to sleep almost immediately after we returned to our hotel room, and we awoke in a complete fog the next morning. Her said she either didn’t sleep or that she dreamed she couldn’t sleep. That sounded pretty awful to me. I felt like my head was in a fish bowl all the next day.

Cambodia is also a country where salesmen want to make sure you know everything is available. From the moment we left the airport we were under constant barrage by tuk-tuk drivers looking for a fare or looking to sell drugs, shop owners hawking their wares and beggars seeking a handout. Strangers offered us tours around the city, rip-off designer glasses and watches and pirated new release DVDs. This can be helpful when you’re looking for something, but can be extremely annoying when you just get out of a tuk-tuk and are immediately offered another ride.

We spoke to one of the tuk-tuk drivers who hung out in front of our hotel, Leon, and negotiated an all-day tour around the city for US$20. This would include stops at the Choeng Ek Killing Fields, the Russian Market, Tuol Sleng Prison and the Royal Palace. We agreed to meet him at 8:30AM. I half expected that he would disappear and we would need to hire another of the ubiquitous drivers, but Leon was right on time. He was very friendly and would chat with us in between sights and recommended stuff for us to do (including shooting AK-47s). He did not turn around to speak to us while driving.

The Killing Fields at Choeng Ek and Tuol Sleng Prison complex are not typical tourist sites. These are places you go to learn about the horrible things people are capable of doing to each other — to their own countrymen, friends and even family members. Many of the people killed at Choeng Ek were prisoners at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21. Guilty of ridiculous crimes like living in a city, being a teacher or wearing glasses, the prisoners were forced to confess to outrageous things like spying for the CIA or the KGB. The confessions were documented, photos were taken of each prisoner and the condemned were sent by truck to Choeng Ek. There the soldiers killed the prisoners by the truckload. In order to save expensive ammunition, the prisoners were slaughtered with sharp sticks or bludgeoned to death. All this while patriotic music blared from speakers meant to drone out the screams. The site is now a memorial to the thousands of people killed and includes a very macabre, 17-level stupa built to display the skulls, bones and ragged clothing of those murdered. Groups of bones are classified by age and gender. Several areas of the field are cordoned off where body parts still make their way to the surface when it rains. The Choeng Ek entrance fee (US$5) includes an excellent audio guide that explains the horrors committed there using the stories of survivors.

We next visited the Russian Market, a name chosen for its popularity with tourists from Communist Russia in the 1980s. The market was a covered building composed of aisle upon aisle of overflowing stalls of food, t-shirts, mass- produced paintings marketed as originals and pirated DVDs. We didn’t have much time to explore, but we did manage to purchase some cheap “No Tuk-Tuk” T-shirts and a couple DVDs (about $1.50 a disc) before we met back up with Leon and went on our way.

The Tuol Sleng prison, our next stop, was an equally depressing place to visit. The site formerly composed a school, but when Pol Pot emptied Phnom Penh, his Khmer Rouge security forces commandeered the buildings to create a prison for “political prisoners.” Here the security forces, headed by Comrade Duch, converted the classrooms into prison cells and torture rooms. The higher floors of the buildings were covered with razor wire to prevent prisoners from attempting to escape torture by committing suicide. The walls of many of the classroom/prison cells were lined with the photographs of prisoners — men, women, children — taken when they first entered the prison. Forced to face forward through a special chair that held their heads in place, each “prisoner” stared directly into the camera, their haunting eyes filled with fear.

Khmer Rouge propaganda on display at S-21 read: “Better to kill an innocent than miss an enemy by mistake” and “To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss.” It was very clear what horrible crimes people are capable of committing when believing they are only following orders. The written “confessions,” prisoner photographs and other meticulously collected information made the whole process of murder seem like a bureaucratic visit to the DMV. The Tuol Sleng entrance fee (US$2) included just a small brochure and entrance to the facility. Many of the exhibits lacked English translation, but the photographs provided enough description.

Physically and emotionally drained (and still hung over from the Happy Pizza the previous night) Her and I asked our driver to take us back to the hotel. Our hotel owner had agreed to help us obtain visas into Vietnam, and we needed to collect our passports. We also needed to talk with him about booking a bus ride to our next destinations, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

Culinary Inspiration:

Toto Ice Cream 75 Norodom Blvd., Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Possibly the best ice cream we’ve had on the entire World Trip. 

Happy Herb’s Pizza 345 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Don’t say we didn’t warn you. It will knock your socks off.

The Laughing Fatman St 172, #43 – Behind Wat Ounalom | #43, Phnom Penh, Cambodia : Excellent traditional Khmer cuisine.