Dark Tourism in Cambodia

Despite government attempts to not only downplay the genre, but also promote other elements of Cambodian history, dark tourism in Cambodia is not only becoming more popular, but also more organized, with travel agents now offer “Cambodian Dark Tourism” tours. 

What though is driving this growth, is dark tourism ethical and should the government be promoting it, rather than trying too bury it under the carpet? CLN look at Dark Tourism in Cambodia.

Why there is Dark Tourism in Cambodia

For those who have not been, or lived in Cambodia what people envisage when they hear the name of the country is often pain, war and suffering, generally related to the reign of terror inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge under the rule of Democratic Kampuchea

This led to one of the most perverse interpretations of socialism the world has ever seen, with people being moved en-masse from the cities to the countryside in order to farm for rice. Done as part of what was termed the “Super Great Leap Forward” the plan was to have bumper harvests over a 4 year period, which would duly pay for the country to both industrialize, as well as remain wealthy and neutral.

Another part of the plan, sadly was to do other revolutionary things “faster”, such as clearing away of undesirables, ethic minorities and intellectuals. All told this led to between 1/3 and 1/4 of the population perishing, before the country was liberated by the Vietnamese and turned into the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. 

And while the country might now be not only at peace and for all intents booming, both the shadow and indeed the scars of the Khmer Rouge still run deep in the country, something which attracts both those interested in history and indeed dark tourists.

The Dark Tourism scene in Cambodia

When talking about the dark tourism scene in Cambodia, we are initially struck by the paradox that is dark tourism. In this respects we can largely split the sites into three, the top ones which are encouraged by the government, the second tier, which are more off the beaten track and not promoted by tourism authorities, and finally the third, redeveloped sites with a truly dark history.

Tier 1 here are the places that most everyone comes to see when they visit Cambodia, such as the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, as well as the notorious prison camp S21, which is quite literally in the hearty of Phnom Penh. These places are promoted to a degree by the government in the same way as other genocide sites are around the world, as a way to remember those who have suffered. 

It is though perhaps the scenic tier though that is most interesting to dark tourists, as in sites of a more contemporary nature, such as Anlong Veng, or Bokor Hill, both of which while not on the main tourist trail, are still tourist sites to a certain extent. 

Anlong Veng in particular was famously the last holdout of Pol Pot, and as well as featuring where he died, also has the death sites of Son Sen “bother 89” of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. His harrowing death site, where he was shot with his family and ran over by bulldozer is marked by a macabre sign put up by the government, but where the paint has leaked in almost blood like fashion. These places are for all intents recognized by the government, but are far from encouraged.

And lastly you have the “sites” which have essentially carried on as if nothing has happened. These include the French embassy, as well as the Hotel Le Phnom, which despite now being a deluxe and luxury hotel, has an extremely haunting past. 

The Dark tourism industry in Cambodia

While not existing as an industry as such, the industrious in these regions have created the means to sample dark tourism within the country. Bokor Hill for example is easily and popularly reached by Tuk-Tuk from Kampot. While the Killing Fields and S21 are considered “mainstream” attractions.

Further afield though, such as Anlong Veng, or Pailin and things get a bit more difficult, with the Cambodian transport system not making it all that easy to visit. This is something though that at least one travel company, namely Young Pioneer Tours have tried to address with their Cambodian Dark Tourism Tour

This trip, which the company run yearly, as well as offering on a bespoke basis has them visiting the more well known sites, as well as arranging travel to the more out of the way ones such as in the aforementioned Anlong Veng, as well as the dark tourism sites of Battambang.

And although the tour also takes in more traditional sites, such as Angkor Watt, as well as the Bamboo Railway, the core emphasis is still on Dark Tourism. 

So, while it might be a long time, if ever before the government “own” their Dark Tourism industry, it is unlikely to be going away any time soon. 

You can arrange a Dark tourism in Cambodia Tour with Young Pioneer Tours through the following link.

Gareth Johnson
Author: Gareth Johnson

Gareth Johnson is the founder of Young Pioneer Tours and has visited over 180+ countries. His passion is opening obscure destinations to tourism and sharing his experience of street food.