Forget happy snaps, lazing on tropical beaches and rowdy cocktail sessions, the newest travel trend is eerie and Aussies need not travel to Chernobyl to take part in dark tourism.
From exploring execution sites in China, to earthquake ruins in Nepal, death camps in Korea, the lawless walled city inside Hong Kong, and the Khmer Rouge killing fields, dark travel has become big business.
The Ukraine has seen a surge in tourism to its infamous nuclear meltdown zone due to the hit HBO drama Chernobyl. Meanwhile, many curious travellers in Asia are bypassing temples, markets and museums to visit locations with sinister histories and learn about the war, natural disasters and civil unrest behind them. Paying respect to their sombre backstories is crucial when visiting these following dark tourism sites.
THE LAWLESS WALLED CITY OF KOWLOON (HONG KONG)
It was one of the most densely populated places the world has ever seen.
It was wild, dangerous, practically lawless and largely ignored by the Hong Kong Government — the City of Darkness.
That was the alarming moniker Hong Kong locals gave to a huge housing complex in Kowloon that was rife with drug dens, brothels and illegal gambling houses, all controlled by the vicious Chinese organised crime group known as the Triads.
At its peak in the early 1990s, more than 30,000 people resided in the City of Darkness, living in squalor among hundreds of decrepit, interconnected apartment blocks. It was such a treacherous place that even most police and Government officials refused to enter.
Finally, in 1994, the complex was demolished and replaced the following year with a beautiful park, which many tourists now visit to read plaques that detail the location’s sordid history.
CHOEUNG EK GENOCIDAL CENTER (PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA)
I’ve had to stop reading. The board in front of me contains information about actions so heinous, so abhorrent that my stomach is suddenly churning. One particular detail I just read I hope to forget as soon as possible because never in my life have I imagined something imbued with such evil.
In the late 1970s, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Communist party committed genocide. They executed up to 2.5 million people in less than four years — close to one-third of the country’s population. They completed this reign of terror at the same time many of you reading this were enjoying a peaceful existence in a lucky country.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center attracts hundreds of thousands of Western tourists a year — people who have largely had privileged lives. That’s a very good thing because this centre is the ultimate reality check. It will change you.
KOREAN DEATH CAMP (SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA)
Locked up in a tiny cell, the two women are frozen in time before me, holding hands as they try to help each other from having their spirits broken by their Japanese tormentors. It was in this same jail, where these two statues are placed, that hundreds of South Korean prisoners were killed, many of them tortured to death.
Seodaemun Prison History Hall is a former jail which was converted into a museum detailing this haunting period in South Korea’s history during the first half of the 20th century when the country was under Japanese rule.
The prison was built by the Japanese as a place to detain and torture Korean freedom fighters. Visitors to this site can enter original cells and execution rooms and read plaques which detail the misery of this complex.
JUNGLE CONCENTRATION CAMP (CHONGQING, CHINA)
At the same time Japanese fighters were committing atrocities in Seodaemun Prison, Chinese soldiers were doling our similarly harsh treatment 2,000km away. When I arrive at Zhazidong Prison, on the outskirts of Chongqing city in southwest China, I find hundreds of mostly Chinese tourists flowing in and out of this former concentration camp.
Set up secretly in 1943 by the Chinese Nationalist Party, called the KMT, this hidden prison was built into a hillside amid dense forest. The KMT was seeking to crush China’s Communist Revolution movement and so imprisoned, tortured and killed hundreds of revolutionaries at Zhazidong in the 1940s. The camp now acts as a museum, with visitors able to see its cells and even an evil torture chamber.
EARTHQUAKE RUINS (NEPAL)
It is more than four years since Nepal was devastated by a massive earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people, caused more than 20,000 injuries and damaged thousands of buildings, including historic temples and palaces. Yet the country is still trying to rebuild from this natural disaster due not just to the extent of the carnage, but also because of its limited infrastructure and its status as one of Asia’s poorest nations.
Tourism is crucial to Nepal’s economy and travellers are helping the country recover by pumping money into its hospitality sector, donating to earthquake recovery funds, and joining guided tours of badly affected areas like Bhaktapur. About 20 per cent of Bhaktapur’s buildings were razed by the earthquake but, amid this destruction, survived a host of stunning ancient structures like the amazing 300-year-old Nyatapola Temple.