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Death tourism in Phnom Penh: The spectacular ritual of grief

The manager at the hotel in Phnom Penh was deeply apologetic. Norodom Sihanouk, the former king had died about a week ago and the royal palace was closed to ordinary visitors. But the Killing Fields were open, he said reassuringly as was S-21 – the school the Khmer Rouge turned into a grisly detention camp in 1975.

In Cambodia, death can sometimes get in the way of tourism and sometimes tourism is all about death.

The 15-storey crematorium

Last night after lying in state for almost four months, Norodom Sihanouk, the king who abdicated twice, led his country into the horror of the Khmer Rouge and then out of that darkness, was cremated on an ornate funeral pyre inside a 15-storey-high crematorium, while 100 guns fired a salute and 90 Buddhist monks, one for each year of his long life, chanted shlokas around his flower-bedecked coffin.

Image from the great public mass for ex-king Sihanouk in Phnom Penh. The photographs are courtesy Bishan Samaddar from his album Mourning Sihanouk.

Image from the great public mass for ex-king Sihanouk in Phnom Penh. The photographs are courtesy Bishan Samaddar from his album Mourning Sihanouk.

I was not a complete stranger to the spectacle of  public mourning. I had seen photographs of the makeshift memorials of flowers and teddy bears outside Buckingham Palace for Lady Diana. There’s still an apartment building in south Kolkata with a painting of Indira Gandhi on its wall, dating back to an artistic tribute right after her assassination. But in Cambodia,  a country that’s lived through both monarchy and communism, mass mourning happens on a different scale altogether – both grand and state-sponsored and simultaneously intimate and personal.

In just ten days in the country we would stumble upon mourning everywhere – a gathering of monks in front of the market, on the lapels of ordinary Cambodians going to work, in giant portraits garlanded with white chrysanthemums outside official buildings. Movie theatres were shut and the dance bars were closed. Bars, thankfully, were not.

Mourning on the plaza

One night we stumbled upon a great public mass outside the royal palace. It was like a movie set bathed in a smoky halogen glow of thousands of candles. The palace was lit up like Diwali. Mourning becomes electric here. The place was awash in greenish lotus buds, the stems drooping like the necks of swans. Nuns and monks sat on the ground, their chants a steady hum rising into the night sky along with the smoke from thousands and thousands of incense sticks and candles that made our eyes water.

Yet there was also something unsentimentally clear-eyed about it all as well. Small children jockeyed with each other fiercely to sell black and white mourning ribbons. “You already have one?” said one persistent little girl. “Buy another one for your friend. Only 50 rial. You want black, white or black-and-white?” Families in t-shirts emblazoned with portraits of Sihanouk picnicked on boiled eggs.

Mourning is brisk business. That’s only to be expected in a country where death has long become a tourist attraction.

At the boutique hotel in Siam Reap the welcome note from the proprietor said he lost all but two of his family members to the Khmer Rouge. His mother was bludgeoned to death. Now many of those same Khmer Rouge killers have shed their old uniforms and quietly joined the government. You don’t know if the person sitting next to you on the bus could be your mother’s killer our host wrote. Then in almost the next sentence he invited his guests to take a drink from the bar up to the roof during sunset. It’s quite lovely up there, he wrote. A young woman at a museum exhorted me to buy a book detailing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. It’s a terrible story she assured me, but her eyes were opaque, all emotion sanded out of them by the never-ending recitation of her spiel. When I demurred, she moved seamlessly into trying to sell me silver jewellery.

This is wife number 2

Given Cambodia’s heart-rending history of genocide, making death part of commerce seems to be one way to pick up the pieces and move on. It’s only foreign tourists like me who pick gingerly through the shards of memory, posing uneasily against a backdrop of skulls and rusty bloodstains, squirming as if we are eavesdropping on death. The Cambodians are happy to chat on their cell phones inside the torture chambers.

Bou Meng who survived the notorious school-turned prison because he could paint portraits of Pol Pot and his gang cheerfully interrupted his grilled fish and rice lunch to talk to tourists and sign his memoir.

“This is wife number 2,” he said with a toothless grin, pointing to a middle-aged woman next to him, while posing ramrod straight for photographs. Wife number 1, he told me, died in the S-21 prison camp.

“Cambodia is a very poor country,” says Brigitte Sion who edited the book Death Tourism: Disaster Sites as Recreational Landscape. “The mentality there says I have to survive. I survived the genocide and I have to survive the dire economic circumstances.”

Selling the Killing Fields

Even if that means handing over the hallowed Killing Fields where 17,000 Cambodians were killed, mostly with rifle butts and machetes and the sharp leaves of sugar palm trees to save on precious bullets. A Japanese company now leases the Killing Fields. It pays the Cambodian government $15,000 a year, maintains the grounds and the museum, and pockets the revenues. “Some people say we sold the Killing Fields,” a guide told her tour group ruefully.

Sion says S-21 and the Killing Fields were never intended for Cambodians to heal their wounds. The real memorials, she says, are far away from the tourist track, in modest stupas and little shrines tucked away in remote villages.  “(S-21 and Killing Fields) were sites meant to attract tourists, attract foreign officials and show how Cambodia is in the process of acknowledging its past history. So it’s a façade.” That is why instead of cremating the skulls found there, as Buddhist tradition dictated, they are now piled in a pyramid. It might break the karmic cycle but it makes for a good photograph. “It speaks to the very primal instance of visitors to see death up close,” says Sion. “And the survivor has a new role – that of the tour guide.”

That was abundantly clear in the little tourist shops facing the Sisowath Quay, a stone’s throw from the plaza where Cambodians mourned their ex-king. The tour company offered up the attractions of Phnom Penh for $6. There was a picture of a pile of skulls from the Killing Fields and a painting from S-21 of a small baby being wrenched from the arms of wailing mother. But this tour  of heartbreak country came with one more attraction, one final stop – a visit to a shooting range where you could try your hand at an assault weapon. On the poster a blonde woman posed with a rifle, grinning in front of a sign that said "Don't touch the gun".

Point-and-shoot tourism trumps everything here. It is the real king. Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!

 

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