In the Atlantic this month, there’s an insightful article about a realm of tourism with a weird name — thanatourism. The thana part comes from the Ancient Greek, thanatos, which means ‘personification of death.’ This word isn’t in the dictionary yet, but Wikipedia’s got it.
The Atlantic article explored Cambodia’s embrace of thanatourism, from Tuol Sleng to the Killing Fields to Pol Pot’s last hideout. It’s a tough sell for tourism authorities, marketing the macabre aspects of your history. But I’d stop short of saying that thanatourism is a form of pandering.
I’ve been a thanatourist. I’ve been to Dachau, to the Bridge on the River Kwai, to myriad killing fields. In Vietnam, there are all kinds of opportunities for thanatourism, but the challenge remains: How do you market it? Most people would just as soon crawl out from under the legacy. Forget it. Move on. But there’s no question that travelers want to indulge their fascination.
That’s why we crawl through the Viet Cong-dug tunnels in Cu Chi and gape at the numbers of ingenious ways the V.C. devised for killing G.I.s with age-old primitive technology – i.e. the bamboo spike pit. Is there anything to be had from this by the traveler?
Once at Cu Chi, an American veteran asked a former Viet Cong soldier, who’d lost an arm during the war, what motivated him. The American was clearly moved by the Vietnamese soldier’s talk, and he wanted to know – what was it? The ideals of communism? The cult of Ho Chi Minh?
The Vietnamese veteran looked thoughtfully away for a moment. He told us about the death of his brother, his parents, and relatives and neighbors in his village, at the hands of American forces. The he addressed the American veteran, not with bitterness, but with honesty. “You stole something from me,” he said. “That’s why I fought.”