This article considers contemporary international tourism to a genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It argues that existing theorisations of ‘dark tourism’ are inadequate for the task of understanding the motivations, actions and experiences of visitors in such a place, or of such sites as contested international institutions. The paper is concerned with the ways in which visiting practices encouraged at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes in the immediate post-genocide period (the 1980s) continue to affect visiting practices in the present. Moreover, the absence of familiar curatorial practices and technologies of interpretation leads contemporary visitors to conceive of the space of the museum and their visit in unexpected ways.
Cambodia routinely appears in registers of dangerous destinations. From news magazine headlines like ‘Pol Pot Park’ (Lyall, 2002) to academic theories of ‘dark tourism’ (Lennon and Foley,2000), Cambodia is touted as a new form of tourism destination. This article seeks to critique the current analytic categories and explanations provided by tourism studies, especially as they are applied to tourism in Cambodia. I examine tourism to Cambodia’s national genocide museum, the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes, to raise questions about the salience and operation of the term ‘dark tourism’.
Drawing on interviews and observations of tourists at the museum, I discuss the specific narratives and imaginaries that enable tourists’ travel to, and experience of, this site. I attend to particular motivations and to affect as a desirable element of tourists’ experience of the museum. I argue that in place of the catch-all
label of ‘dark tourism’, more empirically grounded analyses might better explain what is, in practice, an array of tourisms, each entailing different histories, geographies, tourist subjectivities and specific, embodied performances that continually (re)produce both ‘dark’ places and their visitors.
As noted, the development of Tuol Sleng Museum began soon after the end of Khmer Rouge rule. The demise of Pol Pot’s regime was brought about byVietnamese and allied Cambodian (anti-Khmer Rouge) forces that invaded Cambodia from theVietnam border in late 1978. In what was to become the last decade
of the Cold War, Vietnam’s invasion resulted in Cambodia’s isolation from an international political system dominated by Vietnam’s recent foe, the United States. While aid and cooperation was received from other socialist nations and some international non-governmental organisations, the United States, China and the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) all refused to recognise the new Vietnameseassisted
Cambodian state, then known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).
Those granted visas for travel to the PRK during the first decade after 1979 included technical experts assisting in reconstruction efforts, as well as journalists, aid workers, and delegations from sympathetic socialist states and political organisations (such as women’s groups, lawyers associations, peace organisations, workers’ parties).