Why Some People Like to Travel in the Dark

Dark tourism is not a rebranded form of spelunking. It entails no bat watching, no guided tours of the Parisian catacombs, no visits to Fairbanks in sunless winter.

It explores the conceptual dark — “death, disaster and the seemingly macabre,” according to the British Institute for Dark Tourism Research (yes, it exists), travel to sites of historically documented tragedy, carnage, malice or any combination thereof. Destinations include Poenari Castle in Romania, the haunt of Vlad the Impaler, inspiration for Count Dracula; Salem, Mass.; and the Tower of London.

But what happens when sites of more recent bloodshed or tragedy are refurbished into attractions for globe-trotters? What does a gift shop at Fukushima, Japan, mean? Does South Africa’s Robben Island really need a restaurant?

“It’s the commercialization of death,” Philip Stone, the executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, tells The Guardian. “Take the Flight 93 crash site. Soon after it happened farmers were selling tours of the field. But now there’s an established memorial. There’s been a process of commercialization from that initial demand to becoming a formal destination.”

It’s a process many find objectionable, igniting heated debates about selfie protocol at Auschwitz and Treblinka; or whether it’s appropriate (and safe) to visit Chernobyl. “I wonder how visitors will react to an attraction that walks a fine line between Disneyfication of a tragedy and dark tourism,” writes Sharon Heal (at the Museums Journal) of the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast is also home to a booming “conflict tourism” industry, focusing mainly on the “Troubles,” a period of sectarian unrest between Catholic republicans and Protestants loyal to the British Crown. It’s a development The Guardian’s Chris Jenkins calls “simply exploitation.”

“Come to Belfast and see our magnificent city,” he writes, “Rejuvenated, regenerated and re-energized. Take a walk through the streets and in the shadows of the division walls. Why not stop to get your photo taken beside a mural of men in balaclavas? If you really want, why not write a message of hope and peace on one of our walls, a truly symbolic sign of human solidarity?” The idea is “deeply disturbing,” he says. Places of violence and profound loss, from which many Belfasters are still recovering, have “become a spectacle, an attraction.”

And yet, for others, dark tourism constitutes a kind of indirect reparation. “Hundreds of Cambodians” now make a living by guiding tourists through the country’s infamous Killing Fields — where more than a million people were executed and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge between 1976 and 1979. “Tourist dollars and capitalism are helping me come to terms with my country’s history – and my own,” one such guide told National Geographic’s Zoltan Istvan when he visited the fields in 2003.

Dark tourism boasts an educational component as well. According to The Atlantic’s Debra Kamin, a burgeoning market of dark-tourism travel agencies will book travelers on excursions to war-torn Afghanistan, “the most restive regions of the Caucasus,” Muammar el-Qaddafi’s old compound in Tripoli, Kiev’s Independence Square and even North Korea (with permission from Dear Leader). “Yes, there are human-rights violations in North Korea, and yes, travel there does raise ethical questions,” she writes, but it may be that allowing the world a peek at North Korea and places like it will draw inquisitive eyes to those same issues, which are in dire need of international attention.

“If I hadn’t gone as a tourist to North Korea, I never would have set up my news website,” Chad O’Carroll, founder of NK News, tells her. “So you have to think about not just the effect that travel has on North Koreans, but also on the tourists.”

Perhaps therein is the root of concerns with dark tourism. What do we find more worrisome about the commercialization of tragic places: that they might lose a bit of their dignity in the process, or that we might lose a bit of ours?

And maybe conflating dark tourism with pure pursuit of profit neglects the fact that humans are curious – and our curiosity isn’t limited to the cheery and life affirming. “There’s no such thing as a dark tourist,” Mr. Stone tells Ms. Kamin. “Only people interested in the world around them.”

Public Transportation Finally Comes to Cambodia

Phnom Penh is probably the only city of its size in the world that doesn’t have a public bus system, but finally a start has been made. The city has managed to live without a public system, but that has resulted in hardship for some and excessive traffic congestion for all.

There has been a single line operating on Monivong Blvd. since March of this year which in the beginning of September was extended to the outskirts of town in both directions. Two additional lines were inaugurated in the middle of September. One goes from the Night Market on the riverside to Takmau town about 9 km south of the city. The other goes from the Night Market to Cham Chao in the east, presumably passing right by the airport, so if you’ve got the time and you’re not too burdened with luggage you’ll be able to go airport to town for 1500 riel – 37 cents – a bargain.

There still are lots of scoffers, people who will never take one and think it’s a waste of energy. In response to a facebook post about the expansion, one fellow insisted that the current system of relying on motodops (motorbike taxis in the local lingo) and tuk-tuks, (3-wheel taxis) works just fine. They’re cheap, fast and convenient, he said, so why bother with buses. I and another fellow pointed out that they’re cheap for a ‘rich’ expat but for many locals going any distance it’s prohibitively expensive.

For instance, I knew a young Khmer college grad quite a few years ago who spent a short time working in the office of a garment factory about 5 kilometers south of the city center. With the cost of a motodop 6000 riel ($1.50) each way she was spending 60% of her income on transportation. What she had left of her salary after transportation costs was so minimal that she quit after a short time.

The high price of going anywhere outside the neighborhood does two things. It limits people’s mobility and therefore their economic opportunities; one of the great advantages of living in a city. It also encourages those of slightly higher means to get their own transportation since the out-of-pocket cost of fuel is minimal. Many times when people are displaced by development they’re given small plots of land just outside the city, but with no jobs out there and transportation costs so high, they soon wind up back in the city center where they can earn their minimum $2 to $4 a day. So the biggest losers of the city not having public transportation are the city’s poorest.

In some ways it works the same in an American city. With the exception of the biggest cites, most people who ride the bus outside of commuter hours either don’t drive, can’t drive – think of the young, old and infirm – or can’t afford to own a car. Without public transit they’re screwed. Thus one of the two primary reasons why public transit in the US is heavily subsidized. Farebox revenue typically covers only a third of operating costs. The other factor is traffic; a full bus takes up far less street space than the equivalent number of cars needed to carry the same load, especially since most cars carry only a single person. It works the same way here in Cambodia. Even though motorbikes take up only a small fraction of the space of cars, when you add it up a full bus uses much less street space than the equivalent motorbikes to move the same number of people.

Motorbike taxis have two great advantages: time and convenience. Nothing could be quicker or easier, especially in Phnom Penh where there’s a motodop waiting on every corner and in front of every business ready to whisk you on your way. They are very maneuverable and are able to get you there as quickly as possible.

Using public transportation, on the other hand, is very time consuming. First you have to walk to the bus stop, then wait for it. Once aboard, it goes relatively slowly and has to stop often to pick up and drop off passengers and when you get off there’s still the walk to your final destination. A less than 10 minute door-to-door ride on a motorbike could easily take half an hour or longer using the bus. For that reason most Phnom Penhers would not immediately sell or park their bikes if presented with a bus alternative. Still, many in fact would save the money and use the bus. With the extra time, students for instance, could use it to study or just diddle with their smart phones. Most importantly, every person who opted for public transit would help ease traffic problems, reduce the need for parking, cut pollution and save energy.

Bus transportation would not put most motodops be out of a job, in fact, many people going long distances on the bus would hop on a motorbike taxi for the short hop to get them from the bus stop to their final destination. It’s mostly for the long haul that people would use public transportation.

On the other hand, buses have some great advantages. Probably most important is that they are 1000 times safer than riding a motorbike in Phnom Penh’s traffic. And nothing beats the comfort of proper seat in an air-con bus when Cambodia is brutally hot or in the middle of a tropical downpour. There’s also the pollution you breath in to consider when you’re on the street in an open vehicle.

The capital had a short-lived bus system back in 2001 that was financed by Japan; it even had proper bus shelters. I’ve heard conflicting reports about the experiment. One was that people weren’t riding it; the other that the city didn’t want to continue the subsidy after the six-month trial period. I believe time would’ve solved the first problem. Traffic wasn’t so bad then and people needed time to get used to the bus. The other problem is the need for public subsidies; big bus systems almost always need public money. If you try to pay for it through the farebox, it’ll cost too much and people won’t use it in sufficient numbers, which defeats the purpose of getting as many people as possible to use it for its traffic reduction aspect.

The government has been trying for years to get a private company to run the buses, hoping to relieve itself of the burden – the Cambodian government is hardly noted for its efficiency – and avoid the subsidy regime, but has not had any takers. Even the company that ran the single line since March quit after the city wouldn’t grant a tax break on its other operations. After six months of operation, the government just couldn’t close it down and has pledged to keep it going regardless of the cost.

For a system to be successful it needs to offer wide coverage: there aren’t that many people moving around the city who have a starting point and destination on the same street. The fact that the single line was showing progress bodes well for the system as a whole. For best results there also needs to be free transfers between lines since a significant percentage will need more than one line. Even after the complete system is up and running traffic will seem just as bad. The city is growing so fast the bus system will only keep congestion from getting much worse, a worthy enough goal.

Ultimately, large cities need rail transport in the form of sky trains or subways or at minimum dedicated bus lanes to get beyond street congestion. It’s only then that public transit can begin to compete timewise and provide a reasonable alternative to the comfort of a private vehicle. Either way, the cost of those systems is far beyond the government’s finances so they’ll not be happening anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Siem Reap is about to have a solar bus system, one of only 3 or 4 in the world. Star8, an Australian company, will be building and running the system. They’ll be exclusively solar-electric, no back up combustion engines needed. The buses will have solar panels on their roofs to help provide power and there’ll be solar charging stations on the routes where extra batteries will be charged. The batteries will be able to take the bus 90 kms on a charge and when they get low, they’ll be able to make a quick change en route. There are other ways to charge batteries without removing them: microwave chargers can be placed in the road so they can be juiced up at stops, but that’s probably a pretty spendy option at this point.

There are great advantages to electric transportation, in this case one of the most important will be the reduction of pollution at the temples. With more than a million tourists visiting every year, all on combustion engine vehicles, the pollution has become a threat to the temples.

Electric vehicles are far superior to combustion driven ones even if the power comes from central generating stations. Electric motors are more than 90% efficient compared to combustion engines in which half the fuel expended is lost in waste heat. They are nearly silent, which in fact has resulted in problems for blind people as they can’t hear them coming. There’s talk of adding sounds to electric vehicles to protect those people: that applies mostly to small vehicles. They’re pollution free in the cities, where it counts most. Besides, it’s easier to control and limit pollution from a single large point source than spread amongst large numbers of small engines.

They are super efficient, especially in urban use as they don’t idle; that is, they expend no energy while stopped, except for accessories. When I lived in Bangkok in 1993, traffic would come to a complete stop for an hour in many places. All those vehicles were chugging away for an hour, wasting energy and creating pollution while going nowhere.

They also have what’s called regenerative breaking. When the brakes are applied, the motor helps to slow the vehicle down: it turns into a generator. It sounds complicated but it’s really very simple. Motor and generator, when wired properly, are fundamentally the same machine. If you put electricity in one direction it does work. If you put work into the other direction it generates electricity. In this case the work is helping to stop the vehicle. In the case of a bus that makes many stops, regenerative breaking reduces energy use by about 30%. Electric vehicles actually get better mileage in town than on the road for that reason. Also they accelerate faster than diesel and the motors last longer and require less maintenance.

Up until now, with solar cells becoming so cheap, electric buses required overhead lines or lots of very heavy batteries. The Australian company that’s building and will be running the solar bus system currently has a solar cell factory in Phnom Penh and is now building one in Siem Reap. It’s truly gratifying to think that our lowly Cambodia will soon pioneer with one of only 3 or 4 totally solar bus systems in the world.

But it’s also depressing and dispiriting to think that conversion to solar could’ve happened long ago. Back in the 70s during the OPEC oil embargo and resultant turmoil the Pentagon did a study that showed if $5 billion were spent buying solar cells for their remote locations, the ramping up of production would’ve made the cost of solar competitive with fossil fuels, and that’s when gas was 50 cents a gallon. In response to the crisis, Jimmy Carter called the need to switch to renewables the Moral Equivalent of War. He proposed a drastic change in priorities and did his little part by putting solar hot water on the White House roof. The people didn’t want to hear about it so they elected Ronald Reagan.

When Reagan came into office in 1981 he removed the solar water apparatus from the White House, ended Carter’s solar tax credits and trashed everything environmental. He insisted there was plenty of fossil fuel and environmentalists were just a bunch of do-gooder hippies who wanted everybody to live in caves (I’m paraphrasing, of course). His first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, said the environment didn’t matter because the End Times were coming soon and the world would be destroyed anyway so why bother trying to save it.

Now we’re at the brink of irreversible change and the world continues to increase CO2 production; last year saw the largest increase ever. That’s in spite of great successes like Germany where one day last spring they got 100% of their power from renewables. There is also one district there with 100,000 people that now not only gets all of its power without burning fossil fuels but often sends another 100% back into the grid. Texas and Iowa now get 25% of their power from wind, something that could’ve happened decades ago. Yet, in the height of folly and insanity, the US government still subsidizes the oil giants, some of the richest corporations in the world, to the tune of $8 billion a year. America consistently provides more in subsidies to old technologies than renewables.

China is making great strides developing renewables, and is the world’s biggest exporter of solar panels, but still builds a new coal fired plant every week, that in spite of many of its cities having the worst air pollution in the world. How can we go forward if we’re still going backward?

Even Cambodia is joining the death march to destruction with a new coal fired power plant being built in Sihanoukville… just what a tourist town needs, air pollution.

Not a penny should be going into new fossil fuel facilities, not when we know renewables can work just fine. If we stopped right now, we might have a stab at mitigating the worst impacts of climate change, we might be able to just barely make it without totally crashing the planet. But we won’t because there’s lots of money to be made in not giving a shit. At least it’ll be an exciting ride, a race against reality, a true extravaganza of extraordinary events.

Which I expect to witness in my lifetime, which at 73, isn’t all that long.

Of course, I’ve been wrong before.

Caught In A Web Of Lies

Kristof and the NT Times are bearing the brunt of the media backlash regarding the Somaly Mam scandal. Not much more can be said about recent real actions regarding Somaly Mam.

The mass of lies has been exposed, the hardest part would be finding any truth. There’s a great block of missing time in her book “The Road of Innocence Lost”, a block of time in which some of Cambodia’s longtime expat’s tell of a very willing vivacious sex-worker, parading around the freelancer circuit with great enthusiasm. Much like she seems to have enjoyed the last decade or so, only the pay grade was a bit lower.

Mam was heralded by royalty, celebrities, politicians, governmental and NGO’s long before Nicholas Kristof joined in the fray. Though his timing was perfect to ride her wave to stardom, no doubt getting some of his own he seems to have fallen short in some areas. While Kristof and the New York Times are definitely paying the price for their slack fact checking, one can’t help but feel a bit of empathy for them, as they weren’t the first to be taken for a ride by a SE Asian prostitute.

It’s well know that “working girls” in South East Asia have been known depend on grandiose fabrications and lies to sustain their lifestyles. After Mam spilt up with her husband, Pierre, and fell into the arms of her Khmer driver, she may have lost her guiding hand in art of negotiating the slippery slope of sensationalist fundraising and hobnobbing. No doubt this was a daunting experience but a fairytale come true for someone from her background if you believe her story. Maybe this pressure is what caused the many varied timelines of her life and the alleged abduction of her child, of which all have been verified as being untrue.

There has already been scuttlebutt regarding the possible fallout of the Somaly Mam debacle. Of the dozens of NGO’s whose stated mission it is to fight human-trafficking in Cambodia some are admittedly on edge. Considering that only a handful of human-trafficking arrests are made each year in Cambodia compared to the tens of millions of dollars in donations, their tension is rightly justified. A long hard look is needed at ways to fix the problem. And millions of dollars spent on lavish homes, salaries, cars, and private schools for NGO workers kids will not fix the problem.

While human-trafficking does exist, it is often ignored or tolerated. Families, friends, and neighbors of victims alike are often willing to turn a blind eye. Apathy and stupidity, not ignorance, are the real enemies. Maybe it’s time for education. Convincing Cambodians that not only is it not OK to sell your own children, it’s not OK to watch your neighbor do it either.

In a statement that was recently released by the Somaly Mam Foundation they said “We have touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls”. 100,000, really? Many for the good but some for the worse. By the very definition of human-trafficking, Mam may be guilty of the crime. Rescuing (abducting?) girls from brothels then confining them to reeducation centers, shades of the Khmer Rogue. This has been reported many times in the media with the girls escaping on one occasion only to return to work in a high end massage parlour where they were free to come and go.

Kristof’s purchasing of two girls did little but to add profits to the brothel, not to mention the parents of the girls, as one of the girls returned almost immediately to the brothel. He had receipt for them, did get a refund? As he admits this in one of his articles why was he not arrested for human trafficking back in the USA? Make no mistake, the Somaly Mam Foundation is its namesake, and her celebrity. They have a long way to go before they reinvent themselves, maybe they should start with a change of name?

Welcome To The Asylum

There’s been much controversy of late regarding the resettling in Cambodia of asylum seekers who were trying to reach Australia, but were intercepted before they managed to get there and are now residing on Nauru, a tiny Pacific island state, and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. The brouhaha over the plan has been vocal and vociferous. Many international institutions deride Australia for not meeting its commitments towards refugees; in some ways it has to be recognized as a cop out.

On the other hand I can sympathize with the country since not being really tough in discouraging the migration might result in a torrent of people seeking an escape route to Aussie from their hardscrabble lives. After all, there are at least a billion desperate people in the world that would go to great lengths to do that. (As this is being written about 150,000 Cambodians illegally working in Thailand have been driven out of that country. People desperate to improve their lives are found in a lot of places. But note, Lao and Burmese working illegally in Thailand are not facing the same pressure to leave, so this is just an excuse to dump on Cambodians. But Thailand needs those workers so this is also a blow to a lot of Thai businesses.)

On the local front, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a network of several local NGOs, has called for a halt to the plan saying it wouldn’t be fair to asylum seekers since local security forces are “known to commit abuses such as killings, torture and arbitrary detention”. That sounds more like the USA than Cambodia.

Yes, there have been several people killed in the recent past who were involved either in political or land-grab demonstrating or workers’ strikes and several more environmental or labor activists have been killed in the past decade, but innocent people are killed every week in America by hyped up, militarized, trigger happy cops, with minorities especially targeted. Torture? Remember America’s rendition program where suspected terrorists were and maybe still are abducted everywhere the CIA operates and sent to third countries, like Syria for instance, to be tortured? Or how about the man associated with the 9/11 bombers who was water-boarded 180 times after the CIA had gotten all the information they were going to get from him? After 179 times were they actually looking for information on the 180th try or were they just having fun? BTW, water-boarding was one of the favored techniques of the Spanish Inquisition and has been used ever since by people and governments who desire to inflict fear and pain. But in Cambodia? That’s news to me.

Admittedly the cops here can be brutal when told to prevent demonstrating, but that’s true probably everywhere but Scandinavia and a few other pockets of exceptional humanity in a violent crazy world. About 10 years ago in Genoa, Italy at the time of an international finance meeting, the police walked into a warehouse late at night where demonstrators were asleep or peacefully talking and busted heads with 100 people injured and needing medical treatment. On that basis Italy would not be fit as a place for asylum seekers, but in fact gets tens of thousands of migrants seeking refuge yearly.

You certainly would never accuse America’s cops of being gentle and law abiding. Police are supposed to apprehend suspected law breakers and turn them over to the courts for justice, but are all too happy to administer nightstick justice on the spot. Not everybody who’s apprehended is guilty so it’s totally wrong for the police to abuse people before they’ve had their day in court. Arbitrary detention? Nothing beats Guantanamo for keeping people for long periods without charges. About fifty of the current inmates were cleared for release years ago, innocent of all suspicions, but still languish behind bars.

Having spent some time in the slammer myself, I strongly believe that it’s better to let a guilty person free than imprison an innocent one. While the government here has put people in prison on politically motivated charges, international pressure assures that they don’t remain very long even if their original sentences were for extended periods. In contrast Thailand just sentenced an anticoup activist to 15 years in prison.

By the above I don’t mean to gloss over the very serious problems and unfortunate backsliding occurring of late in Cambo. It feels sad and depressing to see my adopted home treat so many of its people so harshly, but they still keep fighting back and while the recent killings have certainly dampened many people’s enthusiasm for protesting, the desire and spirit for change and improvement has not diminished. There are demonstrations and strikes happening nearly every day in spite of prohibitions against the activity. But keep it in perspective. When the military overthrew President Morsi in Egypt, more than 1000 protesters were killed and 15,000 imprisoned. Closer to home when the Thai military broke up the red-shirt protest in Bangkok in 2010, 90 people were killed and 1000 injured.

Now I can understand people seeking asylum in Australia most of those coming lately (as of 2012) are from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka not wanting to be shunted over to Cambodia instead. Getting resettled in Oz would be like striking it rich, whereas Cambo?: Welcome to the Asylum. I mean, if a guy is truly fleeing persecution, rather than an economic migrant seeking a better life in Oz, then I reckon Cambodia is as good a place as any to seek refuge. When you come down to it, a lot of us expats here are refugees from the real world of freeways and alienation and over-regulation and McDonald’s 15% meat hamburgers. Many of us think it’s paradise or pretty close so I don’t see why it should be a problem for legitimate asylum seekers.

I expect many of those true asylum seekers, if they understood they could only show up at the airport in Cambodia with a valid passport and stay as long as they liked, would choose that option over paying thousands of dollars to people smugglers and taking grave chances with their lives on rickety overloaded boats. Besides, with Cambodia already welcoming an international community of expats, it seems they’d fit right in, as easy as adjusting to Australia anyway. And with most of the country’s economy being informal they ought to be able to find a way earn money and supplement their Aussie subsidy. Many might not have passports or not be able to leave their country the legitimate route through border control, so they would still be left with the smuggler option.

Still if they came here by way of being captured offshore by Australia and that country is willing to give Cambo a reported (but not confirmed) $40 million to take a mere 100 refugees, they’d certainly be well taken care of. They wouldn’t have the same cushy life as in Oz, but it’d be quite comfortable nonetheless… it might not be western standards, but still very doable. Cambo is certainly more acceptable and logical a place to resettle refugees than Nauru or Papua New Guinea, the two nations now holding asylum seekers.

Nauru as an independent state has the world’s smallest population outside the Vatican; less than 10,000 people. It once had a thriving phosphate mining industry but that has been totally depleted and 80% of the country’s environment has been degraded. It has received tens of millions of dollars from Australia since refugees were first shunted there in 2001 and there are currently about 1100 people at the country’s detention center. It’s very far from everything and too small to absorb asylum seekers. They also had a big riot which caused a lot of damage last year.

PNG is certainly big enough but it’s got one of the lowest rates of urbanization in the world and most people live in tribal societies – Wikipedia calls them customary living arrangements, evidently the new euphemism for tribal. It’s so underdeveloped the only way to get between its two largest cities is by air. It’s not a place that could easily absorb international migrants.

So once again, Welcome to the Asylum.