For a different type of experience, let’s move away from sundrenched beaches and ancient temples and take a trip into the heartbreak and despair of ‘dark tourism’.
Remembering the macabre past of a country is important to understand where that country is today, to educate ourselves and learn from past mistakes.
Here are our suggestions for grisly but necessary places to visit:
A Temple of Skulls
Cambodia’s brutal and terrifying Khmer Rouge regime claimed the lives of up to two million people from 1975 – 1979. The Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum are well known on the dark tourism trail. Not so well known, yet equally distressing, is the small village of Ba Chuc. In April 1978, 3,157 villagers were massacred here. The majority of the killings took place in the Phi Lai Pagoda, where blood stains can still be seen. A display containing many of the remaining skulls and bones recalls these horrific days.
The Awakening of Mount Merapi
In 2010 on the Indonesian island of Java, Mount Merapi woke up. The eruption wreaked havoc on the southern slopes of the mountain. Whole villages were buried and hundreds perished. Jeep tours now take eerie explorers to see the lava flows and the trails of destruction. Drive over volcanic ash, past piles of gravel, charred rocks and remains of destroyed villages. Don’t forget the selfie stick for snaps within this dusty, otherworldly region.
An Embalmed World Leader
In Hanoi you can see the long-gone remains of Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader. His embalmed corpse is on display in a freezing cold hall in the austere Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a massive granite structure that looms over Ba Dinh Square. Lines of visitors, including tourists, locals and foreign dignitaries, queue up every day to pay their respects. Apparently Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated following his death, however when you’re this loved, your dying wishes don’t get granted.
All Aboard the Death Railway
The bridge over the River Kwai and the Death Railway in Thailand are a poignant remnant of a brutal chapter of World War II. More than 100,000 prisoners of war and Southeast Asian labourers died while working on the railway. The Japanese subjected the prisoners to unrelenting brutality, squalid living conditions and malnutrition. Dark tourists can visit various museums that show recreations of the prison camps, solemn fields full of graves, and even take a ride on the infamous railway.
What Lies Beneath
Crawling through a dark, twisted, narrow passage would be a nightmare for some. But for the Vietcong, as well as playing an integral part in winning the Vietnam War, the Cu Chi Tunnels were their home and workplace for many years. The well-camouflaged entrance holes lead into a network of suffocating tunnels that stretch for over 200 kilometres connecting command posts, hospitals and shelters. Besides the tunnels, the site’s deadly, bamboo-spiked booby traps are a must-see.
The War That Laos Still Fights
Although most travellers are aware of the horrors of the Vietnam War, very few know of the so-called ‘Secret War’ which took place right next door. In fact Laos was the most heavily bombed country during this time. Many bombs failed to detonate and people are still being killed or maimed today. In Vientiane you can visit COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise), an inspiring NGO that provides survivors of UXO with care, rehabilitation and prosthetics.