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Is “Dark Tourism” Bad? My Thoughts on Cambodia’s Killing Fields

Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields is an extremely harrowing experience. But is it one you should embark upon anyway?

This is a guest blog post from Rohan Tandon, the gent behind 50 First Steps.

The Cambodian Genocide is one of the worst tragedies in history. Yet, it’s somehow completely glossed over in the world’s collective consciousness, an afterthought to the litany of other messed up (largely Eurocentric) things that were happening at the time such as the Cold War and the Vietnam War.

When you visit Cambodia, you’ll find that the aftereffects of that incident can still be felt in every aspect of life in the kingdom.

Is Dark Tourism Bad? Cambodia Killing Fields

You might not immediately realise it if you’re visiting all the tourist spots like Angkor Wat and Pub Street in Siem Reap, or the beaches and islands down south. However, every aspect of life in Cambodia is still burdened by the weight of that past trauma.

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A Brief History of the Cambodia Genocide

The Cambodian Genocide occurred for a period of four years in the early 1970s. During that period, one-third of the country’s population lost their lives to the madness of one evil dictator (Pol Pot) with deluded aspirations of creating a self-sufficient agrarian “utopia”.

The “Killing Fields” are those caves, open fields, and lakes, where millions of Cambodians met their fate at the end of a hammer, ax, or blade, while nationalist music blared in the background to drown out their screams.

But I won’t get into the gory details here. If you want to learn more about the events that took place, the history, and about the specifics of visiting the Killing Fields, you can read my other article called Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

In this article, my primary focus is to address an ongoing debate regarding tourism to the Killing Fields.

Cambodia’s “Dark Tourism”

There’s a specific name for tourism to places like the Killing Fields: Dark Tourism.

On the surface, this form of tourism is called “Dark” because it belongs to a harrowing part of human history. However, the word also has a somewhat sinister ring to it which extends beyond the event itself and cloaks itself around the person it’s attributed to.

Detractors say that Dark Tourism is ultimately the worst form of voyeurism. They say that dark tourism feeds into the morbid curiosity of tourists and is guilty of fetishizing trauma and tragedy.

Tourism to the Killing Fields naturally falls into that category. And, as such, it has also drawn the same arguments both for and against tourism. There’s an active debate about how to best preserve the memories of Cambodia’s past without letting it degenerate into a public spectacle.

To speak in broad strokes, there are two primary sides to their argument — for and against tourism. I’m speaking in broad terms here because the complexities and nuances of both these stances are quite difficult to get into without more context.

I don’t think I’m entitled to a personal stance on the matter. As such, I’ll only present the basics of both the arguments so you can make your own decision about how to approach the subject of the Cambodian Genocide.

Is Dark Tourism Bad?

The Anti-Tourism Argument

The primary argument against tourism to the Killing Fields is fairly easy to guess. Basically, tourists can be shitty.

If you’ve traveled to other parts of Southeast Asia, I’m sure you’ve come across plenty of tourists who are plain rude, tone deaf to cultural differences, and those who brazenly flout rules regarding appropriate clothing in temples.

This form of behavior is often tolerated through gritted teeth because of the income generated by tourism. However, such behavior is far less forgivable in places such as the Killing Fields.

While I was wandering around the established path in Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, I noticed a lot of things that disturbed me.

I noticed a few tourists sitting and chatting on the steps of a Buddhist stupa while sipping on coconut juice. The Buddhist Stupa is the sacred monument at the center of the Genocidal Center and it houses the skulls of all the people whose remnants were excavated from the mass graves. You shouldn’t need a signboard asking you to be respectful.

However, there were also those whose sheer awfulness couldn’t be contained even by actual signboards. There were a few tourists who were casually walking over the mass graves to take a shortcut to the next destination on their map, even though a signboard expressly forbid them from doing so!

There are also those people who take to defacing the portraits of Khmer Rouge leaders because they’re so moved by emotion. This is perhaps a little more understandable. Us humans are fickle beings, we get choked up with emotion and we feel the need to vent it out somehow, even if it comes in the form of defacing public property.

The director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, Youk Chhang, said that’s understandable because “you cannot stop people from being, or feeling upset.” As a response to that, they introduced a section in the Tuol Sleng prison where tourists could vent out their anger and frustration by scrawling on the walls.

Furthermore, another important argument against dark tourism is that it leads to the commercialisation of memory and trauma.

The Pro-Tourism Argument

Those who are pro-tourism seem to largely be in agreement about the fact that tourists can be obnoxious and that it leads to the commercialisation of memory.

However, the pro-tourism argument seems to see it as a glass-half-full situation. They argue that while there are some disrespectful tourists, there are also those who are genuinely interested in learning about Cambodia. As such, the Killing Fields shouldn’t be barred to them.

The pro-tourism argument also seems less fazed by the commercialization aspect of it all. Yes, there is a financial incentive to permit tourism, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The finance generated doesn’t just help sustain and maintain the Killing Fields themselves, but they also help the local communities. For example, the tuk-tuk drivers in Phnom Penh rely on taking tourists to the Genocidal Center as a major source of their sustenance.

Again, I can’t venture into a personal opinion on the subject. However, I would like to mention a little conversation I had with my tuk-tuk driver.

After I returned from the Killing Fields, we got into a little discussion about Cambodia’s history. When I asked him what he thought about all the tourism generated by the site, he shrugged. He said he appreciated all the tourism, even if it came with the occasional obnoxious tourists. He liked to think that this would make the world at large take notice of the problems in Cambodia.

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In Summary

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not up to me to deliver a verdict on tourism to the Killing Fields.

I still believe it’s essential to at least do some research and learn about the Cambodian Genocide before you travel to the country. However, you can make your own decision about whether you want to visit the sites.

And if you do decide you want to visit the Killing Fields, do so respectfully. Be careful that you’re not doing anything that could come off as crass or offensive. Basically, whatever you do, just ask yourself if you’re being an asshole.

And don’t take shortcuts through the fields!

I might have oversimplified the subject a little. As such, if you have anything to add regarding tourism to the Killing Fields or dark tourism in general, please feel free to comment on it.

thoughts on dark tourism

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  1. Actually “Dark Tourism” is the subject of serious international and academic debate, as access to will reveal. As I have added for Cambodia and other sites of past infamy, it is essential to respect that they are most important for national visitors for many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that there is a personal connection as for many families the lives of their ancestors ended in such places. Then as Youk Chhang points out, they are vital for historical educational purposes. The article on Tuol Sleng I did for HR Osaka on behalf of Cambodians was one of a series about similar “museums” around the world.

    1. Well researched, and I agree.

      Nationals need to preserve these landmarks and remember –for both the personal connection they have to these dark moments in their own history, and to prevent it from happening again. They also serve as an example of “what if” for other nations, where extremism appears to be gaining ground among average citizens.

      If you come by our blog again, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about how proponents of the “alt left” in the West are tearing down historical statues, seemingly in an attempt to erase the mistakes of our past and our culture –postured censorship under the guise of inclusivity.

      Discussion and learning opportunities stem from landmarks that bare historical significance, good or bad. They serve as a reminder of wrongs, as to not be repeated.

      The lines of history have always been there to read between, regardless of what is inscribed on a plaque. To remove them altogether is to treat others as incapable of doing so.

  2. I’ve been to the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and to Auschwitz, and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and the Genocide Museum in Rwanda. And others. I would land on the side of pro-tourism. I think visiting those places is a way to respect the people who lived through or died in that trauma, and a chance to say a small prayer for their souls. I think it is also a way to remind governments or rebel forces that are considering using those tactics in the near future: is this the way you want your country to be remembered? Is this what you want your name attached to, for decades or centuries to come? And finally, tourism generates income, as you said, for the tuk-tuk drivers, the food and drink sellers, the tour guides, etc. As for the people who act inappropriately… well we are seeing more and more reports of those people being deported or fined so that is certainly one option to curb bad behavior. Great article, thanks for writing it!

    1. Personally speaking, I fall on the side of pro-tourism as well. For all of the reasons you so eloquently stated. But I still think it’s important to listen to the views of those who are against tourism, and to really think about what it is that drives that perspective.
      Thanks for sharing your views on the subject!

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