The Darker Side of our Travels

Much of our writing thus far has focused on the light stuff – notable places we have visited, short-term projects, photo journals – typical musings of two self-proclaimed travel writers. But our tales of South-East Asia wouldn’t be complete without touching upon some of the more serious and often shocking sights we witnessed in a region that has seen its fair share of death and destruction in recent times.

For those interested in a little bit of background, let’s start at the 1950s – turbulent times for many nations. With the Cold War splitting the world between capitalism and communism, several countries during this era descended into civil war,  fighting amongst themselves over the best form of governance. In South-East Asia, things were no different and by 1955, Vietnam became embroiled in a devastating war that would last for 20 long, embittered years and drastically affect its neighboring countries.

Vietnam War Remnants Museum
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: A US army tank displayed outside Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum. The museum primarily focuses on the Vietnam War but also has exhibits on the first Indochina war (against French colonists). Harrowing exhibitions use graphic images, preserved fetuses, displays of artillery and an actual guillotine. Criticized for being one-sided, it nevertheless is able to evoke the suffering and despair brought on by conflict and shows the devastation and after-effects of war.

In 1975, the Vietnam War ended but the region was far from peace. In neighboring Cambodia, this was the year that a group of communist guerrilla fighters defeated government backed forces and took control of the country. People celebrated on the streets of Phnom Penh that day the Khmer Rouge took over. Little did anyone know then that this would ultimately lead to one of the worst genocidal regimes to ever occur – one that would last for 4 years and wipe out nearly two million people along the way.

The timing of these events allowed us, as travelers, a very unique perspective. They occurred recent enough that anyone middle-aged or older actually lived through them, but old enough that governments and agencies had time to collect and document evidence in museums, memorials and visitor centers. That combined effect of first-hand encounters and comprehensive exhibits is what ultimately made our experience so incredibly powerful.

S-21 Torture Prison
Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Along the corridors of the infamous Tuol Sleng genocide museum. Ruthlessly opposed to education, the Khmer Rouge converted this school (among many others) into the horrific S-21 torture prison, used to detain intellectuals, former government officials, children and anyone deemed to be opposed to the state. Classrooms still contain the metal frames and tools used to torture prisoners as well as gory photos of (often innocent) victims. Aside from the obvious shock factor, we found the first building in particular to give an excellent overview of the global political situation that allowed such a ghastly regime to thrive for so many years. Very hard to stomach but also very educational and insightful (No photos were allowed of the classrooms themselves)

In our four months of travel, Charlie and I saw grotesque images of torture, watched chilling documentaries and walked through mass graves. But that wasn’t all. We also passed locals on the street missing limbs – victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO) or landmines that still litter this region. We shared train rides and bought goods from people with severe facial defects and deformities – a result of exposure to toxic chemicals that were used in warfare. Seeing the suffering that continues today, 40 years on – that was the worst part and what made these events so much more real to us.

In every country we visited, there are still serious warnings about venturing off well-marked paths. In many places guides are an absolute must as a step in the wrong direction can set off an unexploded bomb or landmine. For us transient folk, this just meant being careful over the few months we were there – it posed a temporary inconvenience. But for those who call this region home, this is their life. And every year thousands of men, women and especially children, almost always the poorest and least threatening, continue to lose their lives or their limbs. 

Vientiane's COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Center, dedicated to supporting and rehabilitating victims of UXO. Laos has been dubbed the most heavily bombed country on earth - a result of the US' extensive carpet bombing raids during the Vietnam War. An incredibly artistic and deeply moving visitor center, it handles a grave subject very tastefully. Their work is inspiring and instills hope. This artwork at the entrance was made almost entirely of UXO, the COPE sign made of molded prosthetic limbs.
Vientiane, Laos: At the entrance of the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Center, dedicated to supporting and rehabilitating victims of UXO. Laos has been dubbed the most heavily bombed country on earth – a result of extensive carpet bombing raids during the Vietnam War. An incredibly artistic and deeply moving visitor center, it handles a grave subject very tastefully. Their work is inspiring and instills hope. This artwork was made almost entirely of UXO, the COPE sign made of molded prosthetic limbs.
Their visitor centre includes a documentary viewing room, interactive displays and powerful exhibits like this one, which shows the inner workings of the devastatingly destructive cluster bomb.
The center includes a documentary viewing room, interactive displays and powerful exhibits like this one, which shows the inner workings of the destructive cluster bomb.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia: At the infamous Choeng Ek Killing Fields, one of the numerous mass graves resulting from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. In this exhibit, skulls were marked as male or female, separated by age group and many were severely battered, irrespective of age or gender (the Khmer Rouge saved on ammunition by killing with farming tools such as axes, shovels and knives).
Phnom Penh, Cambodia: At the infamous Choeng Ek Killing Fields, one of the numerous mass graves resulting from the brutal Khmer Rouge communist regime. In this exhibit, skulls were marked as male or female, separated by age group and many were severely battered, irrespective of age or gender (the Khmer Rouge saved on ammunition by killing with farming tools such as axes, shovels and knives).

photo 1 (1)

At the Choeng Ek Killing Fields, we saw signs like this often. Because many of the graves were dug by the victims themselves and often shallow, bone fragments and bits of clothing could sometimes be seen rising to the surface. We didn't think we'd actually see any ourselves....but then...
At the Choeng Ek Killing Fields, we saw signs like this often. Because many of the graves were dug by the victims themselves and often shallow, bone fragments and bits of clothing can sometimes be seen rising to the surface. We didn’t think we’d actually see any ourselves….but then…
A truly chilling sight and not the only one we saw...
A truly chilling sight…one of many that we will never forget.

Experiencing these sights was depressing and heartbreaking but also so necessary, each powerful in its own way. We  had read about events like these in history books, we had watched movies about them…but nothing can quite replace the depth we gained from actually being in the affected areas ourselves. This was an important aspect of travel that we hadn’t quite planned for but one that definitely left its mark on us.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.

– John Lennon

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2 Comments

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  1. I remember the Choeng Ek fields so so well. It was incredibly heartbreaking to think that there were still human bones in certain barricaded areas.

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