Before coming to Cambodia I didn’t know much about its history. Although I’m still no expert I’ve certainly learned a lot since I’ve been here, and most of it has been anything but pleasant.
Cambodia has a horrific past with the climax being the takeover of the country by the Khmer Rouge, an authoritarian regime who took extreme measures to instate a completely rural, agrarian-based and Communist society. More than 2 million Cambodians were displaced, tortured and killed in the process, mostly those who held were educated, religious or from minority groups.
One of the first things I did after arriving in Cambodia to educate myself on this terrible and yet important part of its history was visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison, two main sites linked to the dark era of the Khmer Rouge. It was certainly a sad and somber day but visiting these historically significant places and learning more about the horrendous events that took place there seemed like the least I could do to pay a small homage to the victims and their surviving relatives, not to mention to get a better understanding of the challenges Cambodia continues to face today.
While I felt it absolutely essential to see these places, I’ve met a number of people traveling in Cambodia who’ve either said they feel no need go there or simply do not want to because it would be ‘eerie’ or ‘depressing’. I’m not saying it’s easy to see these places; it’s not. Hearing about innocent people including women, children and even babies being murdered and tortured... it’s horrendous to even think about it. But I think we need to remember that while we may find it difficult to hear about, people actually went through it, or at least know someone (more likely multiple people) who did. Most of us lucky enough to traveling probably neither have nor will ever have to experience anything remotely close to what most Cambodians have had to face. It seems to me that if we’re going to come here and enjoy all of the positives the country has to offer, the least we can do is spend a few hours informing ourselves about such a major event of its past that has affected almost every single Cambodian in one way or another.
While I believe that people should travel how they want to travel and see what they want to see, do we not owe it to the countries we visit to learn something about their history and visit their historically significant places? Do travelers have a responsibility to inform themselves and learn about the country they are in and if so, to what extent?