Japanese tourists have discovered that Thai holidays can be about more than just cheap shopping and snoozing on tropical beaches: shooting guns at Thai military ranges has become a popular new diversion.
"There are so many Japanese tourists coming to Bangkok — if they want to do some shooting and some sightseeing, then that’s the Thai military’s business," says Akiro Shimura, a former colonel in Japan’s Self-Defence Forces who runs a company offering trips to the ranges.
Firing guns with real bullets can be near-impossible for those outside the police and military in Japan, says Akiro.
"They (the Japanese) don’t know much about the military," he says — Japan has only been permitted to maintain a self-defence force since World War II — but shooting is "very interesting" to them.
Tosaka Kazuhumi, 30, sought out a shooting trip precisely because it’s easier to do in Thailand than back home.
"It’s a good opportunity to do an activity that is difficult to do in Japan," he says, adding that he has already seen various temples and a crocodile farm during his eight-day holiday in Bangkok.
"And as a leisure activity in a foreign country, it’s not too expensive," he says.
Since last July, up to 150 tourists per month have been descending on Akiro’s tiny cluttered office in the basement of one of Bangkok’s largest shopping malls.
It’s an unlikely public relations outlet for Thailand’s military, nestled between a mobile phone shop and a fortune-teller. Replicas of guns mounted on the wall provide the only hint of Shiro Corporation’s services.
Some 70 percent of the tourists who come to wield weapons are Japanese, says Nobuhiro Munakata, one of four workers at the office.
Another 20 percent are other Asians, and the remainder are Europeans. Most are beginners, and nearly all are men.
"But now young Japanese girls like to come too," Nobuhiro says.
Chinese women are also curious about packing heat, he adds. "They will come with their husbands — but they don’t want to shoot."
A sum of 3,000 baht (70 dollars) buys marksmen 50 bullets to shoot on three handguns: a .38 special, Luger 9mm and .45 calibre.
It also includes the return trip to a firing range, a Japanese or English-speaking guide, and one-on-one instruction from a member of the Thai military.
A session kicks off at the office with a mini-lecture.
"All guns are real and the bullets are real," Nobuhiro reminds the class. "Only point the gun at the target … These are professional Thai military men (instructing). Do what they say."
If you do, Nobuhiro reassures, shooting will be "safer than golf or tennis".
Fifteen-minutes drive away at one of the ranges, the plain-clothed Sergeant Major 1st class Wattana Ketkomol gives a demonstration, cleanly shooting a watermelon, Coke can and rapidly-melting block of ice in a cloud of acrid gunsmoke.
"People ask for moving targets like in Hollywood, but we don’t have those," Nobuhiro apologizes.
Instead tourists shoot at standard human silhouette targets.
"We hope that customers can study guns — it’s not just for fun. They can compare the differences between how they fire. They can’t study this from the movies or TV," Nobuhiro says.
Shiro is tapping into a move made by the military units two years ago, says Major General Adisak Kaenkaew, director of the Army Tourist Office which opened in 2001.
"Over the last two years it has been the policy of the government to let tourists … see some parts of some units," says Adisak.
This means plenty of activities — parachuting, abseiling and canoeing — are now available to the public at units across the country, for a fee.
The trend has caught on, Adisak says, but it’s more about public relations than profits.
"We don’t think much about the money — we opened the units because it’s the policy of the government," he says.
Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Nakhon Nayok, 107 kilometres northeast of Bangkok — where Shiro hopes to start running new tours soon — was the forerunner of the program, opening in 1998.
It is an outdoorsman’s paradise, their tourist office reckons, with everything from kayaking and golf to bird-watching and camping available.
Most visitors are Thai nationals, but that could change.
Adisak says 40 Japanese high school students are planning a long-term stay with the military, split between the Academy and a camp west of Bangkok.
"It would be the first time we let foreigners inside this unit," says Adisak.
Meanwhile Shiro is also developing a tour to the King’s Guard, which is part of the national cavalry. Horseriding, stable visits and a spell in a stationary tank are on the agenda.
"We’re asking the military police to let the tank move at the moment. But there won’t be any shooting," a downcast Nobuhiro says. "It’s very expensive."