Old World Wandering
January 28, 2015 12:25 PM   Subscribe

I visited Cambodia in 2003 with only Angkor Wat on my mind. I ended up going to Phnom Penh as well, and as a tourist there wasn't anything else to do besides go to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. I thought they did a good job of making the killings more than something abstract or out of a history book.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:49 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

The detail about the Japanese company leasing the site is what? Ghoulish? Creepy? The worst fucking way on earth to earn a living? Can you imagine going to cocktail parties and mentioning that as a career you run a company that spotted an opportunity to profit due the actions of the Khmer Rouge? Jesus.

I've been to the killing fields with my kids, and on the occasion I was there, I saw no one taking group shots in front of the skull tower, the mood was reserved and sober as you'd expect. We didn`t take phots of femurs in the dirt, or the most horrifying tree on earth. We went to witness, not record.
posted by Keith Talent at 1:20 PM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I had a really hard time with the start of the piece, which focuses on very ugly things in what seems a gratuitous fashion. I am still reading it, but thought I would post this outtake to encourage folks to try to hang in there. This is not just ghoulish neck-craning. After you get past the opening paragraphs, it becomes more thoughtful and thought-provoking:
I took this blithe, middle-class optimism with me when I visited Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum in 2008. By then, I had reconstructed the history of Apartheid at high school and deconstructed post-colonialism at university. I thought I knew both well. Claire and I bought our tickets together, but like every visitor we were randomly classified as different races: she as non-white, I as white. The two had separate entrances, which we obediently slipped through. It was only when we were reunited inside that I realised how easily we had obeyed, and how brutality could flow out of the simple placing of signs.
posted by Michele in California at 1:41 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not to joke too much about this (but the article certainly already uses the term enough):

Needs a "holidayincambodia" tag.
posted by symbioid at 1:43 PM on January 28, 2015

darktourism might be a good addition to the tags.
posted by Michele in California at 1:48 PM on January 28, 2015

I think atrocitytourism pretty well covers it.
posted by allthinky at 2:26 PM on January 28, 2015

As I have mentioned before here I think, I have a sister-in-law I am very close with who grew up in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era. She has talked a bit about her experiences and recommended books to me she felt accurately described what it was like. I don't think I could visit these places and be anything but horrified. If I never knew her or read those books? Who knows? It's really easy to distance yourself from suffering if you don't really think about it. It's a useful coping mechanism in an often horrible world. I'm not particularly shocked that people can visit places like this as detached tourists. Average citizens, completely detached as well, participated in the genocides.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:33 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

At the bottom of the article is this: "If you enjoyed Atrocity tourism in Phnom Penh ..."
posted by zippy at 2:47 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting this MTT.
posted by clavdivs at 2:51 PM on January 28, 2015

The thrust of the article is what, that the genocide memorials in Cambodia aren't curated well enough and are too commercial?

I think they made a good choice - preserving two of the most significant sites as they are, rather than trying to redevelop them, given the limited resources they had at the time. The Japanese company owning the rights to Killing Fields is part of a much harsher nastier story about Cambodian heritage rights being sold to foreign companies, but -

there's a strong academic (Yale's project with the DCC) and local civil and art activists push-back to the narrative. The textbook by Khamboly Dy took so much work to get pushed through and accepted because the genocide isn't old news - the cadres are the people in power, the land-grabbing and ethnic clensing that started and continued after is still going on and has led to the current intense politics.

The article is about 40% 'here's something horrible' and the rest is 'oh how gross unenlightened people are for looking at horrible things', hypocritical.

Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields are not for tourists, they're for Cambodians. Most of the Cambodians I know have been at least once, and see them as extremely important and difficult sites. The Killing Fields' bones are an ongoing discussion because of the different views on buddhist cremation, forensic evidence and public acknowledgement.

Urgh, crappy piece cloaking itself in philosophical wanderings and without any real engagement or depth. (Not you MTT, the piece.)
posted by viggorlijah at 6:37 PM on January 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I went to the Killing Fields and Toel Sleng prison, and it was certainly a somber and serious thing to be at the actual, physical location of such brutality. Even moreso when you realize that virtually all of the folks that committed these atrocities were, like Pol Pot himself, never convicted or punished for their actions. Many walk the streets of Phenom Pehn today.

What was truly disturbing for me was, upon returning to my backpacker guesthouse, the touts constantly inviting me out to shoot pistols, machine guns, set off hand grenades, try out rocket launchers. Apparently you can but chickens or other assorted live animals, set them on the firing range, and take them out with an RPG. After having been at the Killing Fields not an hour earlier, it just made me all the more depressed.
posted by zardoz at 6:59 PM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

"Even moreso when you realize that virtually all of the folks that committed these atrocities were, like Pol Pot himself, never convicted or punished for their actions. Many walk..."

Not exactly true. Cambodian politics and history are complex but here is some more on that. The current PM was KR but joined resistance group in Vietnam before he was sent to S-21. S-21 was used primarily for the torture and killing of KR cadre themselves after '75. The high command purged its own and a lot of killing squads, quite surreal. They were marked for death before being sent, a testiment to Sars' paranoia. Autogenocide is what happened. Khambolys' work is excellent. I liked the chronology. Chandlers' guidance on the book was helpful but it stands alone as a great piece of history. First time around, there were no tourists so this article makes me want to spit nails. I can agree that S-21 and the KF are for Cambodians but also it is for those who disbelieved the scope of this tragedy. It should be viewed in silence and respect and when you leave, gritting your tears, the compassion of the Cambodian people is unsurpassed. One of the best memoirs about survival is 'L' utopie' by Pin Yathey. The confession of Vorn Vet is another difficult read. Not so much as to what was tortured out of him but why he was sent there in the first place. I would even recommend Ngors' autobiography. I really miss him being in this world.
I never liked the "hey, want to pop off a b-40?" tourism.
posted by clavdivs at 9:57 PM on January 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

Thanks again MTT.
posted by clavdivs at 9:59 PM on January 28, 2015

Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture (from last year, I think), is a well done attempt to come to terms with what happened by a very good filmmaker using tiny handmade figurines – his other films are also worth seeking out. And Thet Sambath's astonishing Enemies of the People, where he confronts Nuon Chea about what he did.

One thing that isn't really discussed when talking about the way the killings in Cambodia are talked about is the role in the Vietnamese (who ran the country between the Khmer Rouge & when the U.N. took over in 1992) in setting up Tuol Sleng as a memorial, a move that seems to be in part to deflect blame from their own role and set up the Cambodians as uniquely bloodthirsty.
posted by with hidden noise at 9:59 PM on January 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Very true. It also was a stick in the eye to China.
posted by clavdivs at 10:22 PM on January 28, 2015

Anyone wishing for a longer read could do a lot worse than Dom Joly's "The Dark Tourist" [Amazon US, UK] - it's well worth a read, and includes trips to Cambodia, Lebanon, Chernobyl and a tour of the darker sites of the US, amongst others. While he is a comedian and it is entertaining, it's certainly not played for laughs.
posted by PeteTheHair at 3:31 AM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

The travel writing on that website is excellent. Thank you.
posted by GrapeApiary at 10:39 AM on January 29, 2015

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