For many, travel is an escape from day-to-day life, a chance to explore other countries, and whether it’s the freedom of the open road for months on end or a quick holiday, it’s a way to leave behind the troubles and responsibilities of home. For me, it has always been a taste of unparalleled independence and liberty. Most tourists will therefore dedicate their time to seeing the sights, relaxing on a beach, or finding adventure — but in order to understand a new country and culture, it’s not enough to explore their art or cuisine. The truth of a country lies in its history, and while it’s tempting to see only the glory and gloss over any uncomfortable episodes, it’s not enough.
A prime example of this is Cambodia, home to the magnificent Angkor Wat and paradise beaches — but also to the terrifying dictatorship of Pol Pot. During the 1970s, his regime saw approximately 25% of the Cambodian population drawn from society either for manual labour or into concentration camps before eventually meeting their death in a 4-year period commonly remembered as genocide. And yes, it’s heart-rending. It’s awful. But in order to truly appreciate the beauty of the country and the spirit of the people, it is necessary to see what they have suffered and survived — in truth, it makes the beautiful parts shine brighter.
I do not argue that when visiting Cambodia sadness should be the overwhelming experience — simply that all visitors should give one afternoon to understanding and respecting the dark past of the country, and the way it is overcoming that history. In the centre of the capital, Phnom Penh, lies Tuol Sleng, one of many schools that were converted into detention centres for the detainment and torture of prisoners. It’s a devastating, bleak place. It is now an emotive genocide museum: graffiti from ex-prisoners covers the walls; some classrooms are filled with cells barely bigger than a bathroom cubicle, while others hold electric beds; thousands of men, women, and children who were about to die stare blankly out from black and white photographs. The experience itself is harrowing, and I cried each time I stepped inside the stone walls topped with barbed wire as the pain radiating from those buildings overtook me. But it has to be seen. It is a way to respect those who suffered, as well as their families — and an unforgettable testament to not only the regime but the subsequent revival of a country.
The remembrance doesn’t end with Tuol Sleng, however, and it is possible to follow the trail of the condemned souls from the prison to their final destination: Choeung Ek, otherwise known as The Killing Fields. These lonely fields just outside of the capital also make for a disturbing and difficult visit, as the site is littered with mass graves while a memorial tower looms, filled with skulls and scraps of clothes. The air is heavy with the desperation of human suffering even 40 years later, and contemplating both the pain of prisoners and the cruelty of the dictator leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of any tourist.
So why subject oneself to reliving past tortures? Why enter such dismal and distressing places? With all that a country like Cambodia has to offer, why spend your time in Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek? It’s the same reason that millions have visited Auschwitz; it’s the same reason we lay flowers on war memorials. For me, it is to show respect, rather than morbid curiosity or a mere sense of duty. These are not our loved ones and this is not our native land, but we are all human. This history of dictatorships and genocide is a global one, from the camps of Germany to the desaparecidos of Argentina and we cannot — and should not — ignore it.
A country is shaped by its collective history, and when visiting we should not only respect that memory, but learn from it — and find that, in not overlooking a painful truth, it is easier to understand that nation. It also makes the positivity of the people even more incredible, and the beauty of the land even more poignant; history is not just a reminder of the bleaker sides of human nature but of our resilience in rebuilding. This is why it is important to take one day, or even just one afternoon, out of the joyous reprieve from life that holidays and travels so often are, and take time to really look at the country. Whether visiting Cambodia’s genocide museums or any other country with a troubled and traumatic past, we must take the beauty and the pain, the suffering and the splendours, and let respect temper our desires for adventure and escapism. Our world is one of contrasts: all that is light shines more brilliantly after the darkness, and the good seems greater in the face of the bad.
All photos are the Author’s own