With Remembrance Day just behind us it seems appropriate to draw in some of the more sombre elements of travel destinations. As a traveller you often confront the tensions of the place you’re visiting, though this will of course vary by destination. I think embracing such darker elements of a culture is often what separates travelling from tourism: you’re interested in the lifestyle and not just sporting your token ‘peace fingers’ pose for your prized photo with the big Buddha statue.
My latest Southeast Asian jaunt as a case in point: although I’d read about some of the problems from the Lonely Planet and heard the tales I couldn’t really get a grasp of it until I actually visited. The countless number of landmine victims in Cambodia is frankly shocking, as are the slightly more subtle cases of Agent Orange deformities throughout Vietnam. While poverty is certainly an eye-opener, such atrocities get you to think that little bit more.
That’s not to say that it’s morbidly depressing to witness such circumstances, and in fact once you rack up your own little anecdotes and experiences it adds a great flavour to your travels. One time in South Vietnam I decided that it’d be a great idea to do some manic off-road biking with an empty fuel tank, and needless to say I found myself stranded pretty quickly. Thankfully a war veteran and his son were out fishing and stopped to fill me up and even handed me a bottle of water on account of my probably sweaty face. Absolute heroes.
As I’ve now nagged several times (and will continue to do so for years to come) in true self-righteous travel writer fashion: some of the people you meet have encountered hell, yet are still infinitely hospitable and upbeat.
While Remembrance Day was founded to remember the lives lost in the Great War, the remembrance has been greatly expanded to allow us a pause for thought for conflicts everywhere, of which there sadly are and have been far too many. I’m going to share a few places I’ve recently visited that often present taboo in conversation because of the darker events they’re often associated with.
The aim is to show you the important must-see remembrance-based activities in these places while also drawing in some of the lighter things, too: If you’re ever in the vicinity of these locations I hope that you don’t become hesitant at the mere utterance of the place, and instead embrace them with open arms as destinations that really do have something valuable to offer.
One of Poland’s oldest cities, this glistening metropolis is home to some beautiful architecture, a booming nightlife and some fantastic eateries. It’s only a short drive from Auschwitz, and most hotels will organise transits and tours for you for a negligible cost. I still speak to people who have visited the city and haven’t done the Auschwitz tour, the reasons for which are just beyond me.
The tours are tasteful and the area has been very well preserved from tourist rot: the tours keep to-the-point and the lack of a resident gift shop is somewhat pleasing. Certain parts of Auschwitz I and II-Birkenau are included on tours that are ran by knowledgeable guides who were doing an excellent job from what I could tell. Auschwitz is definitely one of those cases where reading a book or watching a documentary will pale in insignificance to standing there. It’s certainly an eerie feeling walking through a place that is a symbol for such atrocities.
Drift through the Old City at night and see the impressive evening lights bounce off the town hall tower
Back in Krakow many options await you. One of my highlights was sampling honey vodka and plum brandy at the Wieliczka salt mine, which includes an entire chapel carved out of rock salt. While seemingly standard it’s a very impressive display. Drift through the Old City at night and see the impressive evening lights bounce off the town hall tower, gaze at the town’s many churches and squares, and see Wawel Castle, one of Europe’s most beautiful castles.
If you’re a morning person be sure to check out one of the flea markets, or for the night owls among you check out the reasonably-priced cocktail bars and clubs like Cien which pump out endless house. The point is that it’s a great city with lots happening, and a great stop-off for anyone who is inter-railing or in the area for whatever reason.
Vietnam is by far my favourite destination and Saigon was the first place on my hit list as I made my way up the coast to the China border. This urban sprawl is littered with telephone cables and posters depicting the revered Ho Chi Minh, and if the sea of motorbikes doesn’t knock you off your feet the stench of durian fruit certainly will.
South Vietnam in particular suffered heavily during the war with the US, the damages of which can still be seen by the births of children with physical deformities and mental retardation due to prenatal chemical exposure.
The War Remnants Museum has several exhibits ranging from plain interesting to shocking, outlining the events and consequences of a devastating war.
Hop on a bike and hit up some of the parks and markets on offer, in particular the Russian market where you can filter through the replica garbage and find some genuine war memorabilia
The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of 250km of underground tunnels that were occupied by South Vietnamese during the war: many people were permanent residents – some even got married and gave birth there. You can still enter the tunnels to get a glimpse of what life would have been like, and trust me, five minutes of claustrophobia is more than enough.
Hop on a bike and hit up some of the parks and markets on offer, in particular the Russian market where you can filter through the replica garbage and find some genuine war memorabilia, Zippos and the like. Have a couple of shots of snake wine (great for impotence, apparently) and hit up the city at night – the street food is not to be missed, nor are the manic night markets and pumping bars.
And did I mention that Vietnamese bin collection trucks sound like our ice cream vans? Saigon is such a great place to begin or wrap up your Vietnamese journey – there’s a reason it’s a focal point on the Asian backpacker circuit.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Oh, you’re hopping between Cambodia and Vietnam and stuck in this hole for 2 hours while you wait for your bus transfer? Shit, isn’t life a bitch at times? I’m really not sure why this place has such a dire reputation on the good ol’ tourist trail, or perhaps I just continually chatted with the wrong sort of people. Hell, I loved it and stayed there way beyond the call of duty even after my ’nam visa started ticking!
Pol Pol’s brutal regime was responsible for the death of 21% of Cambodia’s entire population, but despite this grim statistic he’s often missed out of conversation. Phnom Penh is home to both the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, the former of which is a school turned detention centre turned museum, and the latter of which has recently been privatised, much to the outrage of the Cambodians whose relatives the fields commemorate. Both offer a thoughtful insight into the problems Cambodia has faced in the past and now faces as a result of such horrific events.
Grab a cheap hostel overlooking the lake and kick back with a massage
The cliché of the ‘contradictions of Cambodia’ certainly didn’t spawn from nowhere – Phnom Penh’s streets are a bizarre mix of the extremes: poor children missing limbs playing alongside wealthy businessmen in suits. Such contrasts can be seen in just about everything in the city, which certainly has a great deal of life to it. The Royal Palace has all of Thailand’s wondrous infrastructure but without the incessant hailing to the oh-so wise king, which was certainly welcomed.
Grab a cheap hostel overlooking the lake and kick back with a massage, go for a cruise up the mighty Mekong, and chow down with a classic fish amok curry – include this awesome place on your route more than just a stopover, you won’t regret it.