Memory tourism in Cambodia

The term “dark tourism” or black tourism is now becoming “a popular trend”, consisting in organizing visits to places closely associated with death, tragedy and suffering. Indeed, many famous historical sites such as the Auschwitz concentration camp, the September 11 memorial, Anne Frank’s house, the Chernobyl exclusion zone and the Holocaust memorial record a large number of visitors each year. In Southeast Asia, demand is increasing among travellers who want to attend funeral ceremonies in the Toraja region of Indonesia, venture under the Cu Chi underground tunnels or in Phu Quoc prison in Vietnam.

The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, S-21 Prison

Located in the capital, Phnom Penh, the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, was once a high school before being transformed into the secret prison of the Khmer Rouge regime, called S-21. The S-21 prison was used to interrogate and execute thousands of prisoners. Some 20,000 people were reportedly detained and tortured there before they were executed in the fields of death.

The grey buildings of the museum are now left as they were found after the fall of the regime. Some are still covered with barbed wire. The rooms equipped with torture tools are also on display. Moreover, the museum presents a moving exhibition of photos of prisoners, taken on their arrival at the prison, as well as their stories. Only 14 captives survived. Some of them now work in the museum by organizing guided tours or telling visitors about their experiences.

The fields of death of Choeung Ek, a mecca for remembrance tourism

Choeung Ek, not far from the Toul Sleng Museum, is the largest of the country’s 150 execution centres. As its name suggests, this is an isolated area where thousands of prisoners were massacred and buried. About 17,000 people were executed, including bones of more than 8,000 people, found and arranged by sex and age in a 17-storey display case inside a large commemorative stupa. Many of the bones of thousands of other people still remain under the fields.

In their murderous madness, the Khmer Rouge used to decimate entire families, including children, to avoid any future risk of revenge. Therefore, next to the mass graves is a chankiri or “tree of death”, the most terrifying place in Choeung Ek. Its wide trunk was used to crush the children’s heads before they were thrown into mass graves. As bullets were expensive at that time, the victims were killed in very brutal ways and in every possible way. Speakers were therefore installed on a tree to cover the prisoners’ cries with music.

Choeung Ek was later transformed into a memorial site and a tourist attraction to educate Cambodians, and the world, about past atrocities, while commemorating the victims. A commemorative ceremony is held annually on May 9.

The Cambodian Landmine Museum

Despite the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the horrors continued even years later. Millions of anti-personnel mines and unexploded bombs still remain throughout the country, particularly in the north. Today, they continue to kill about 100 people every year, mostly children. More than 4000 people work daily to clean up the remains of a war that is more than 40 years old.

Located on the outskirts of Siem Reap on the road to Banteay Srei, the Cambodian Landmine Museum fascinates many visitors with its large collection of landmines, unexploded ordnance and the history of its founder. Aki Ra was ten years old when he was forced to join the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier. After years of fighting, he returned to the villages, where he had laid thousands of mines, and began to remove them by hand or with handmade tools. Thousands of mines and shells, of course 100% guaranteed without explosives, as well as small arms and other military equipment are subsequently displayed in its museum.

The money he receives is used to support the children in his emergency centre. Originally, in the villages where Aki Ra cleared mines, he found many children injured by anti-personnel mines. Then he took them home and cared for them with his own children. Today, his establishment is expanded and also takes care of orphans, abandoned people or children suffering from various difficulties. The museum is not large and simple enough, but what you will get from its visit is unique. Indeed, he made his visitors aware of the horrors of the war and its terrifying outcome. But above all, it contributes to the reconstruction of its innocent victims.

Prepare well before your visit

Remembrance tourism is not for everyone and visiting places of torture and mass murder can affect you more than expected. Also make sure you are ready to spend a few emotionally shaken days after the visit. This may be a difficult process, but these discoveries provide a better understanding of the suffering of Cambodians and the worst events in the history of humanity, in order to prevent their repetition and to contribute to ensuring peace in the world.

Also keep in mind that these sites are sacred monuments and respectful of the deceased and that visitors are encouraged to behave appropriately. It is necessary to be aware that we are visiting memorials. Places where innocent people have lost their lives, families have been broken or eradicated and where humanity has shown the worst in itself. Dressing in a respectful manner, behaving solemnly, avoiding taking pictures or asking permission are prerequisites when visiting such sites.

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