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Dark Tourism: 5 Destinations in Southeast Asia

Dark Tourism: 5 Destinations in Southeast Asia

What is dark tourism? Dark tourism (also called black tourism or grief tourism) has been defined as tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy.

According to CNN, it is  a type of travel that's been gaining ground and winning proponents as more wanderers search out "authentic experiences," preferring hard-bitten realism to Photoshopped fantasies, and home truths over tourist-board propaganda. 

These are destinations such as war zones, nuclear blast sites, genocide prisons, tombs – places that are eerie, dangerous, scary and often bizarre.

Dark tourism takes us to places which are considered taboo and has strange effects on the human psyche. It has existed for a long time now, and it is one of those things that most people don’t really want to talk about. In fact, I thought hard before even deciding to write and publish this article on our site.

What is the appeal?
Although people don’t necessarily take delight in visiting dark places, it gives a surreal feeling, an adrenaline rush, and moreover, a deeper understanding of the world by taking a journey through its dark past. 

Below are some of the most popular dark tourism destinations from across Southeast Asia as sorted out by CNN:

1. Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

History is full of Orwellian ironies, like the oppressed turning into the oppressors.
Hoa Lo Prison, constructed by the French in 1896 to house Vietnamese revolutionaries, is one such paradox -- it eventually became a jail for the communists to hold American fighter pilots grounded by gunfire over North Vietnam.

Hanoi "Hilton" | Stars and Stripes

When "dark tourism" destinations are presented with artistic panache the results go far beyond partisan politics and propaganda purposes.

The "Hanoi Hilton," as it was sarcastically dubbed by its American inmates, uses a multimedia approach to conjure the reality of death row.
Dungeon-dim lighting and effigies of shackled prisoners are combined with expressionistic etchings of inmates on the courtyard walls, grainy film footage of aerial combat scenes and an actual French guillotine used to behead Vietnamese prisoners, to provide a level of physical and psychological immersion that feels like incarceration.

Hoa Lo Prison, 1 Hoa Lo St., Phu Khanh village, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 (0)4 824 6358

2. Bangkok Forensic Medicine Museum, Thailand

Students who come to bone up on anatomy at the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum in the Thai capital bow to thank the skeletons in the glass cases whom they address as "ajarn yai" (headmaster).
For them, this is a classroom not a crypt.
Having spent a lot of time here while researching a true crime and Asian horror novella about the country's most prolific serial killer, See Ouey, whose preserved corpse is housed in a glass case, I've been astonished by how many adolescents visit the museum to gawk at the graphic autopsy photos and Exhibits A to Z of murder weapons.
But these are instructional, too.
The images show neither the glamorized violence found in Hollywood films (the slow motion ballet of bullets flying and bodies falling), nor the cartoonish violence of computer games.
What they depict are slices of death served raw and real.
But there's a brighter side to dark tourism.
In front of the glass jars holding the tiny fetuses of infants and stillborn babies, locals have left candy, dolls and toys to appease their spirits, make Buddhist merit and ward off hauntings.
Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum, Siriraj Hospital, 2 Prannok Road, Siriraj, Bangkok Noi, Bangkok, Thailand; +66 (0)2 419 7000 6363

3. The Killing Fields, Cambodia

The first time I visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh in 2003, I was transfixed by a tree with a sign on it that read in Khmer and English: "Chankiri tree against which executioners beat children."

This was done to save bullets.

My driver pointed at the nails sticking out of the tree that had been used to drive home the regime's barbarity and speed up the executions.

Killing fields |
Killing fields |

Just then, a little girl appeared, right beside the tree, her face peeking over an urn stacked with bones that went up to her neck.

It was as if an apparition of the deceased had appeared before us, when in fact it was one of the many children who used to beg here.

The tree is still there, but the kids are not.

When local authorities renovated the so-called Killing Fields in 2011, this series of mass graves, where the Khmer Rouge executed and buried the inmates of Tuol Sleng, a high school turned torture chamber, they turned it into a full-fledged tourism spectacle, complete with audio tours, benches, refreshment stalls and souvenir stands.

It's certainly a much more audio-visual experience than it used to be.

Now you can listen to the Khmer Rouge songs that once blasted from speakers to drown out the cries of the condemned men and women being beaten to death with the axles of oxcarts, or having their throats slit with the serrated edges of a palm frond.
Still, I was of those who had to wonder, as the top "tourism attraction" in Phnom Penh, when does big business become blasphemy?

Choeung Ek Killing Fields are located about a 30-minute drive from the center of Phnom Penh.

4. Penang War Museum, Malaysia

It takes a gruesome pedigree to make it onto National Geographic Channel's Top 10 List of most haunted places in Asia, as named in its series, "I Wouldn't Go In There."
Sitting atop "Ghost Hill," beside Chinese graveyards and tower blocks, the Penang War Museum in Malaysia has just such a pedigree.

"This was one of places that was most fascinating for me," the show's host, Robert Joe, told CNN.
But it may be more haunted by history than otherworldly forces.

Penang War Museum |
Penang War Museum |

"People might think it's a ghost show, but it's actually a history show," said Joe. "We investigate places that have ghost stories, but these places are actually haunted by history. A lot of terrible things happened."

The museum in Penang is no exception.

Much of its history revolves around World War II atrocities.
As the legend of "Vlad the Impaler," a despotic ruler from Romania, birthed the Dracula legend, so the bloodthirsty reputation of a Japanese police colonel named Tadashi Suzuki, whose constant companion was a samurai sword he used to behead locals, created a phantom said to still haunt "Ghost Hill."
A few other ghouls whose effigies adorn the trails twisting around the museum are said to roam free -- ghouls that the workers claim they saw when clearing the property some 10 years ago.

Penang War Museum, Lot 1350 Mukim 12, Merah Barat Daya, 11960, Malaysia; +60 (0)16 421 3606

5. Tsunami Museum, Indonesia

The towering waves triggered by the underwater earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on December 26, 2004, claimed victims as far away as Somalia and triggered aftershocks in Alaska. A visit to this beautifully designed, hard-hitting museum commences with a walk through a dark, dripping tunnel that symbolises the 2004 tsunami waves.

Tsunami Museum |
Tsunami Museum |

This is followed by a powerful set of images of the devastation projected from tombstone-like receptacles, and a circular chamber engraved with the names of the lost. Upstairs a very graphic short film is shown, along with photographs of loss, displacement, rebuilding, hopefulness and reunited families. Other displays explain how earthquakes and tsunamis are created and how Aceh’s landscape was altered by the disaster (look out for the ‘before’ and ‘after’ scale models of the city).

The Aceh Tsunami Museum is located at Jalan Iskandar Muda street in the heart of the city of Banda Aceh, near the Simpang Jam, the Clock tower Intersection. It is situated near the Blang Padang Field, next to the Dutch Cemetery or Kerkhof Peutjut.


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