Dark Tourism

Cambodia tries to turn its bloody history into a sightseeing boom.

Many of the visitors to the tin-roofed shrine labeled Pol Pot Cwmation site in Anlong Veng are local men who light incense in the hope that the spirit of the murderous Communist leader will provide them with money for prostitutes. Thais occasionally come too, making the short trip from their border to see the charcoal and ash. But the children who sell jasmine wreaths along Anlong Veng’s dirt streets rarely see visitors from farther away.

That may soon change. The Cambodian government plans to develop this sun-baked, mine-riddled frontier town into a theme park devoted to the Khmer Rouge, the brutal regime that murdered perhaps 15 percent of Cambodia’s population when it ruled from 1975 to 1979. The planned park is of a piece with Cambodia’s larger effort to capitalize on the atrocities of its past—and to tap into a booming global industry in travel to macabre destinations, known as thanatourism.

Cambodia depends on tourism for about a fifth of its GDP. Its premier attraction is Angkor Wat, the magnificent complex of ancient Buddhist and Hindu buildings, which draws 2 million visitors annually, by some estimates. But hundreds of thousands of tourists also visit two sites in Phnom Penh with a more grotesque appeal: S21, a Khmer torture center that later became a museum; and the killing fields at Choeung Ek, where some 9,000 bodies were buried en masse and where more than 5,000 human skulls are displayed in a glass-and-concrete stupa.

Now the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism plans to restore 14 Khmer Rouge–era buildings in Anlong Veng, which became the Communists’ last pocket of resistance after Vietnamese troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. For years, the town was a fief run by Pol Pot (the dictator formerly known as Saloth Sar) and his deputy Ta Mok (who was known as “The Butcher”). A number of sites from that era will be rebuilt as attractions, including Mok’s lakeside compound, Pol Pot’s house and the bungalow on a cliff where he was eventually imprisoned, a radio station that used to broadcast propaganda, and a munitions warehouse—complete with stockpiles of the anti-personnel mines that not infrequently still rip the legs off local farmers.

The popularity of grisly sites all over the world has grown substantially in recent years. According to professor John Lennon of Glasgow Caledonian University, the author of Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster, a global demand for “authentic” attractions has turned thanatourism into an increasingly profitable sector of the tourism business. More than a million people visit Auschwitz annually, while millions more take in the Tower of London. Today’s Lonely Planeteers flock toward the bridge over the Kwai River, synonymous with the brutality of the Japanese army during World War II, and the Wolf’s Lair, where Hitler survived an assassination attempt in 1944. Tour companies offer package trips to Baghdad, Sarajevo, and Chernobyl.

But unlike other custodians of authentic tragedy and inhumanity, the Cambodian government has made little effort to endow the sites it operates with a mission more complicated than collecting cash. When I asked the minister of tourism, Thong Khon, whether he worried that building a theme park at Anlong Veng after cashing the checks from S21 and the killing fields might appear callous or opportunistic, he said simply, “It is right that the government should profit from remaking this historic place.”

Ta Mok’s niece, whose property was seized for the Anlong Veng project, told me that she finds the government’s motives disconcerting. “It is wrong, because the profits will not go to any individuals in Anlong Veng, but to the government’s budget,” she said.

The site remains a long way from opening, let alone profiting. A bunker full of lewd cartoons is all that remains of Pol Pot’s prison, and his house has been whittled to a single guest bathroom that sits dejectedly between two pools of standing water full of mosquito larvae. But the government is optimistic: in 2008, the road between Anlong Veng and Angkor Wat was widened and paved, allowing easy access for tour buses. Near the old house of Ta Mok, a wooden sign tacked to a tree reads: Tourism will bring money and jobs.