Earlier Posts

The Dark Tourist

A look back at some of our more morbid adventures

Covid-19 has now been affecting all of our lives for over a year, but it still doesn’t look like we’ll be traveling anywhere any time soon. However, instead of dwelling on all of the trips we missed out on in 2020, as well as the ones that won’t happen for the foreseeable future, I thought I’d do what most people who rely on some sort of outside influence do when they’re stuck in a rut — Throw together a compilation and add one or two new bits into the mix to maintain some form of interest.

In 2018, Netflix aired a series entitled The Dark Tourist, one they described as follows:

From a nuclear lake to a haunted forest, New Zealand filmmaker and journalist David Farrier (‘Tickled’) visits unusual — and often macabre — tourism spots around the world.

That seems like something that is right up my alley, because I have seen and taken part in some pretty morbid activities during my journeys around the globe, some long before I started keeping this blog (those will be the added extras to the compilation I mentioned). The reason behind this blog is the fact that my memory is horrendous so I might struggle with recalling the details of some of the earlier adventures, but for the ones that came after I began this blog I’ll just cut and paste how I wrote it around the time of the events.
So let’s get the ball rolling, but be warned: This is going to be an extremely long and gruesome post!

The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I have written extremely briefly about this trip before, but it deserves a more in-depth write up, although a lot of it will consist of information from Wikipedia to give it some context.

Anna does a lot of volunteer work, quite often in rural areas of Cambodia, but I can’t remember if she had been there before at this stage, however, something convinced her that we should check out Cambodia, particularly areas from the more lurid parts of the country’s history, for our honeymoon. That’s right, we got married in 2011, officially in February, however, the ceremony wasn’t until September, but when the ritual was over we packed our bags and headed to Cambodia for our first holiday together as a married couple. For those who don’t know much about the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, here are the basics:

The Cambodian genocide was the systematic persecution and killing of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot, who radically pushed Cambodia towards communism. It resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 2 million people from 1975 to 1979, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s 1975 population (c. 7.8 million).

Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge had long been supported by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Mao Zedong; it is estimated that at least 90% of the foreign aid to Khmer Rouge came from China, with 1975 alone seeing at least US$1 billion in interest-free economic and military aid from China. After seizing power in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge wanted to turn the country into a socialist agrarian republic, founded on the policies of ultra-Maoism and influenced by the Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge officials met with Mao in Beijing in June 1975, receiving approval and advice, while high-ranking CPC officials such as Zhang Chunqiao later visited Cambodia to offer help. To fulfil its goals, the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and forced Cambodians to relocate to labor camps in the countryside, where mass executions, forced labor, physical abuse, malnutrition, and disease were rampant. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge changed the name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea.

By January 1979, 1.5 to 2 million people had died due to the Khmer Rouge’s policies, including 200,000-300,000 Chinese Cambodians, 90,000 Muslims, and 20,000 Vietnamese Cambodians. 20,000 people passed through the Security Prison 21, one of the 196 prisons the Khmer Rouge operated, and only seven adults survived. The prisoners were taken to the Killing Fields, where they were executed (often with pickaxes, to save bullets) and buried in mass graves. Abduction and indoctrination of children was widespread, and many were persuaded or forced to commit atrocities. As of 2009, the Documentation Center of Cambodia has mapped 23,745 mass graves containing approximately 1.3 million suspected victims of execution. Direct execution is believed to account for up to 60% of the genocide’s death toll, with other victims succumbing to starvation, exhaustion, or disease.

Sounds like the perfect place for a romantic getaway. Now, I have quite a few Cambodian friends back in Australia, pretty much all of whom are the children of refugees who were able to flee the country. I even lived with a Cambodian family at one stage and they had a pool table in their living room where I would play against the father, if I recall correctly the only surviving member of his family. I’m terrible at pool, but this guy was simply unbeatable so I once asked him how he became so good. He replied in his broken English, “I lose, I die!”. Was he playing against soldiers and guards for his life? I can’t be 100 percent certain, but that’s the way I interpreted it. He and his wife, who was a Khmer teacher to the Australian Air Force and the one who convinced me to go to university and become an English teacher when I was having a hard time finding work in Melbourne, used to recount stories to me of how beautiful their homeland was before the Khmer Rouge and how brutal the regime had been, but obviously I would never fully comprehend it until I saw it all with my own eyes. That was all about to change.

The first stop of our journey was the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh, where we would be checking out some of the many “Killing Fields“:

The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime (the Communist Party of Kampuchea) during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970–1975). The mass killings are widely regarded as part of a broad state-sponsored genocide.

Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicates at least 1,386,734 victims of execution. Estimates of the total deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including death from disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of roughly 8 million. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime, an act that is viewed as having ended the genocide.

The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Cham, Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monks were the demographic targets of persecution. As a result, Pol Pot has been described as “a genocidal tyrant”. Martin Shaw described the Cambodian genocide as “the purest genocide of the Cold War era”.

By late 1979, UN and Red Cross officials were warning that another 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to “the near destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot”, who were saved by international aid after the Vietnamese invasion.

We spent at least one entire day in Phnom Penh wandering mainly around the killing field of Choeung Ek, taking in mass graves, seeing trees where children were beaten yet speakers were hung to hide their screams, and finally took in a commemorative stupa (large tower) containing 17 levels of human skulls, all arranged by the victims’ gender and age, but all of that paled in comparison to by what we were interrupted; there was a torrential thunderstorm in the middle of the afternoon and beer in Cambodia is only about 50c, even cheaper than water, and we definitely needed a drink after what we had witnessed so I lined up to get a couple. While the rain was pelting down, however, the top layer of dirt began to wash away where we were sitting and human bones began to emerge from the ground. This wan’t just bad luck, you encountered one or two of them coming into view along paths, in front of roadside stalls, there were human remains sporadically emerging all around if you looked hard enough. This was occurring 32 years after the genocide had ended, but the memory was frighteningly clear.

A bit of what we saw in the vicinity of the Choeung Ek killing field, the signs making most of it pretty obvious what we saw:

S-21 Prison Camp, Siem Reap, Cambodia
We’d need quite a few of those 50c beers to feel even remotely human again and probably once more after we went to Siem Reap to explore the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formally the S-21 prison camp. The complete details of S-21 are a lot to take in, from the routines to the torture and extermination, so click that Wikipedia link if you want the full gory details, but here is the summary of its history:

Formerly the Tuol Svay Pray High School, named after a royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in March or April 1976 into a prison and interrogation center. Before other buildings in town were used already as prison S-21. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex “Security Prison 21” (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes and suicides.

From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking politicians such as Khoy Thoun, Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. Although the official reason for their arrest was “espionage”, these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners’ families were sometimes brought en masse to be interrogated and later executed at the Choeung Ek extermination center.

In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the conquering Vietnamese army. At some point between 1979 and 1980 the prison was reopened by the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Also worth noting, of the 18,145 confirmed prisoners (but as previously mentioned, possibly as high as 20,000), there are only 12 known survivors of S-21; seven adults and five children, one of those children dying not long after being liberated. It wasn’t just Cambodians in there either, it has also been confirmed that there were 488 Vietnamese, 31 Thai, one Laotian, one Arab, one Briton, four French, two Americans, one Canadian, one New Zealander, two Australians, and one Indonesian among others.
These photos will only give you a slight idea of the daily routine for S-21 prisoners and the torture they endured, but for many reading this it may be more than enough:

Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time on our little romantic getaway in Cambodia and I love the place, one of my favourite countries to visit, but it’s safe to say that these couple of stops were more than a little sobering.

Torture Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Cambodia isn’t the only country where we’ve witnessed the aftermath of torture. While we were living in Bonn, Germany back in 2015 we made our first trip to The Netherlands to spend a weekend in Amsterdam and we had a few options for filling in our final day in town so this is how we went about it: 

We were scheduled to depart from Amsterdam Central Station at 6:30pm, leaving us essentially one more full day to check this place out. There are some cool things to do and see here, Amsterdam was the home of Rembrandt, Anne Frank and, for a short period of time, Vincent Van Gogh. We had plenty of other options, too, which included:

Our choice? The Torture Museum. It was quite a small museum, but it had some cool medieval torture devices and pictures in it.

Now, when I initially wrote my post about that trip to Amsterdam, I hadn’t been writing this blog all that long so I hadn’t really come up with a format or formula for my posts so I just added a link to the Wikipedia page for the Torture Museum without posting any of the information. Well, here is what is written about the museum on that very page:

The Torture Museum, Amsterdam is a small museum located in the heart of Amsterdam, near the flower market (Bloemenmarkt) overlooking the Singel canal. Included in the list of the world’s most unusual museums. It is a popular museum for tourists, The torture museum is one of the 50 museums in Amsterdam. A second museum related to the subject of torture in Amsterdam is the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments. This second museum has a different layout and is located in Damrak 33, close to the central station. The 2 museums are not connected.

The museum layout is of a maze of small, dark rooms. Each room houses one or two torture devices, some are behind glass but many are situated in the room and can be touched. Each device is accompanied with an enlarged image from an old book or article featuring that device in use and a description of that device and how and why it was used. All of the articles are in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish, catering to the diverse range of people who visit the museum. The dark lighting and theatrical design of the museum lightens the otherwise somber mood.

The museum features a variety of interesting devices, from well known objects like the Guillotine, the rack and the stocks, to lesser known objects like thumb screws and the flute of shame. Other objects housed in the museum include the iron maiden, skull crusher, judas chair, Catherine Wheels and Scold’s bridle. Some of the devices are genuine and antique, but many are modern reconstructions from old texts or books.

Okay, the Torture Museum may not be anywhere near on the level or as fresh in the memories of some as what we saw in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, but it was still fascinating to look at. It was also more lighthearted, as opposed to depressing, and I took a bunch of photos, all of which can be seen here, but these are the ones that appeared in the original post, plus a few of extras thrown in for good measure:

La Porte Noire, Brussels, Belgium
During the three-month period we lived in Germany there were seven public holidays so Amsterdam wasn’t our only international adventure, not by a long shot. Later in the same month we went over to Brussels, Belgium and got to hang out in this place:

We exited our hotel lobby in the direction of where the action was apparently supposed to be. The streets were poorly lit and had endless kebab stalls and Middle-Eastern coffee shops, all packed with men smoking and drinking tea, not a woman in sight. This made Anna a little uneasy so we continued down the road and eventually found a small bar at the end of the street, ironically run entirely by women, so we entered, grabbed a beer, and asked them where all the fun was happening. It turned out we were about five or ten minutes walk from the Grand Place, where the Grand Palace is, and that’s the main area of Brusslels.
Anna pulled our her phone and, after minute or two, smiled and asked, “Hey, do you want to go to a bar where you drink out of human skulls?” My response? “YES!!!”

The bar was called La Porte Noire, situated in a 16th-century vault, with over 100 different beers and 80 whiskies (we were to discover over the course of our time in Belgium that 100 beers is pretty standard for a bar). This place was a goth’s wet dream! There were real human skeletons inside coffin-shaped coffee tables, lampshades made of rib-cages, plus cobwebs and horror paraphernalia everywhere. One thing we discovered that night was that Belgians are some of the friendliest people we have ever encountered. We met more people in a couple of hours than we have met over the last month in Germany, France and the Netherlands, combined. The only downside? The skulls weren’t real, but it was still a great night.

La Porte Noire may not seem overly creepy, but let’s also not forget that a day or two later on that same trip we went to a market and encountered this woman’s stall:

“So, Beryl, what brings you down here to the human skull store?”

Gas Masks, Medical supplies, and Nazi Speeches, Berlin, Germany
We’ve found statues and busts of Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin in markets in many European cities such as Budapest, Hungary, but those types of things seem more salient when you find them just that little bit closer to their original source. On our final weekend while we were on that stay in Germany we visited Berlin and in a market there I found a bunch of old gas-masks and medical supplies in a flea market, but that wasn’t all:

While I was looking through a box of old records I found some of what appeared to be Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels’ speeches. They were in extremely good condition so I think they must have been reissues (this page suggests they were from 1975) and I was tempted to buy one as a souvenir, but there is no way that owning something like that could be construed in a good way, so I decided against it. Plus, it would be in German, so I’d have no idea what it said.

Obviously I didn’t take any photos of the records, not just because of the stigma that would come hand in hand with something like that, but possessing Nazi paraphernalia is a crime in Germany. I did, however, get some pictures of the other items mentioned:

The Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, USA
In late 2015 we visited Philadelphia for one of Anna’s conferences and although I don’t have any photographic evidence from this one, I still think it’s worthy of inclusion:

It was our last day in town, but we had plenty of time to spare, as our check out time was 11:00am, but our train wasn’t until about 7:00pm. We decided to have a look at the shops and outlets at the western end of Walnut St. as well as the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (right). The Mütter Museum was brilliant, however, we couldn’t take any pictures inside, but here is a rundown:

America’s finest museum of medical history, the Mütter Museum displays its beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a 19th-century “cabinet museum” setting. The museum helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.
Today, the Museum enjoys a steadily rising reputation with annual attendance exceeding 130,000 visitors. Enjoying international popularity, the Museum has been featured on countless TV programs and specials and is the subject of two best-selling books.
The Museum Education program is geared toward middle school and high school students of diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and partners with area schools to expose students to the wide variety of careers in health care and biosciences, as well as to introduce them to the history and culture of medicine.

Features of the collection:
• Soap Lady
• Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection
• Plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang & Eng
• Specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra
• Jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland
• Rotating exhibits of photographic art and illustrations
• Tallest skeleton on display in North America
• Einstein’s brain

Yep, you read that correctly, there are slides of Albert Einstein’s brain, as well as preserved birth defects, foetuses in jars, human skulls, human deformities and much more. If you’re not too squeamish, click this link, it’s a google image search of the museum. The Mütter Museum was a great way to spend the day, except when Anna kept comparing the exhibitions to me, and it was probably the only time I will ever hear a child yell at the top his voice, “Eewww, it’s a uterus!

Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua, Guatemala
During the Christmas holidays of 2015, Anna and some of her New York colleagues decided to do some volunteer work in a remote village in the world’s murder capital, Honduras, but before that Anna and I decided to spend a few days in Antigua, Guatemala en route. One of the places we visited while there was the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. I think the Wikipedia link may have been edited and minimised since, but that is what I initially referenced to get this information:

Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is a noted 5 star hotel and museum in Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala. It is located in the grounds of the Santo Domingo Monastery, which was once a stronghold of one of the most grand convents in the Americas. This monastery was partially destroyed in the 1773 Santa Marta earthquake. The hotel is notable in that it preserves the architecture from the baroque period of ancestral America and contains a number of treasures from this period on display.

Santo Domingo Church and Monastery is a ruined monastery in Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala. Its history can be traced back to 1538 when the Dominicans arrived in Guatemala. It had two towers with ten bells and the monastery was filled with treasures.

That quote mentions treasures from the baroque period, but what it fails to note are the catacombs with their skeletons, bone pits, and burial procedures. I didn’t write a lot about what we saw, instead relying on these images:

That may seem grim, but I didn’t mention in that post that this was a also table that we passed nearby that day:

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle, USA
Initially on this particular day while visiting Seattle we thought we were going to visit Pike Place Market, however, when I was looking up more information for this particular portion of this post, I discovered we had actually been to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop (something I’ll have to edit in that original post). That website has some bizarre stuff to look at, but little in the way of information so here is how Wikipedia describes the shop itself today:

Today, the store focuses more on display of than sale of items. Display items include an early 19th-century Russian samovar, dozens of totem poles, East Asian weapons, woven cedar mats and fir needle baskets, netsuke, jade carvings, narwhal tusks, and a walrus oosik. Also on display are two mummified human bodies, “Sylvester” and “Sylvia”. “Sylvester” (acquired in 1955) functions as an informal symbol of the shop. For years, the general belief has been that he was the victim of a late 19th-century shooting in the Arizona desert, and that the extreme dryness of the desert naturally mummified the body. However, CT scans in 2001, 2005 and an MRI in 2005 suggest an embalmer injected an arsenic-based fluid shortly after death. The body is one of the best-preserved mummies known. Newly published information and a photograph from 1892 indicate that “Sylvester,” originally named “McGinty,” belonged to confidence man “Soapy” Smith until he sold it in 1895 in Hillyard, Washington.

That little tidbit mentions a lot about the mummies, but fails to acknowledge other displays, such as a mummified, two-headed calf, human skulls, and even an antique chastity belt for sale. Here’s how I originally described the day I the visited the shop with an old school friend who lives in Seattle, just two days removed from when Anna went to a conference and I just walked around the city, accidentally making a trek of 30km (18.6km) where I climbed the equivalent of 55 flights of stairs:

This was going to be a fun day for a few reasons; It was going to be about 30°C (86F°) and I was going to see a guy who I was friends with in primary school, but pretty much hadn’t seen since, Brendan Tress. Brendan’s parents are from Washington and they decided to move back after he changed to another high school, so I was looking forward to seeing him.

My body still hated me when I got up and everything was a struggle, but Brendan was waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel. We slowly made our way outside, Brendan laughing at my awkward gait the entire way and he took me to explore the Downtown area of Seattle. The first place we headed to was a shop at the Pike Place Market on the pier that sold some of the most truly bizarre stuff I have ever seen. Want a chastity belt, but only have $65.00? Not a problem and there’s no sales tax in Washington, so that 65 bucks is all you’ll need!

A few other gems from that store:

UFO Festival, McMinnville, USA
We were hanging out in Portland, OR, and there was a day where we decided to check out the surrounding areas, first Blooming Hill Vineyard, followed by a trip to the next town over:

Anna bought a couple of bottles and we got back in the car. Our next stop was the one that we would remember the most, however — McMinnville. We had no idea about the place, we just knew it was the next major town, roughly about 32,000 people and there was supposed to be some good food there. We just weren’t aware of this little tidbit:

I probably would’ve forgotten this the next day (image source)

McMinnville is known among UFO researchers for photographs published on the front page of the June 9, 1950, edition of the city’s newspaper, the News-Register (then known as the Telephone-Register), reportedly of an unidentified flying object seen almost a month earlier, May 11. The Oregonian published the photographs the next day, and within a month they were published in LIFE magazine.

Oh, that sounds interesting, tell me in a little more detail! Okay, according to this:

The McMinnville UFO photographs were taken on a farm near McMinnville, Oregon, United States, in 1950. The photos were reprinted in Life magazine and in newspapers across the nation, and are often considered to be among the most famous ever taken of a UFO. The photos remain controversial, with many ufologists claiming they show a genuine, unidentified object in the sky, while many UFO skeptics claim that the photos are a hoax.

But it happened in 1950, why worry about it now? Surely the entire town has moved on in the last 66 years? Nope:

The heated debate which followed between UFO researchers and skeptics made the town’s name famous and has spurred an annual “UFO Festival” in McMinnville, the second largest such gathering in the United States to that of Roswell, New Mexico.

And we arrived pretty much in the middle of it all. I would’ve loved it when I was 10 years old, but when you’re in your late 30s and are surrounded by conspiracy nuts who are convinced ‘The Truth is out There’ it becomes kind of weird. Seattle had quite a few people selling Sasquatch merchandise but it was all pretty tongue-in-cheek, I even bought the most redneck thing I could find — A “Gone ‘Squatchin’” stubby-holder, but these insane UFO people are genuinely frightening. Fortunately we didn’t encounter too many nutjobs.
First we stopped off at some flea markets and they had some pretty cool stuff, that’s where I picked up my ’70s Harlem Globetrotters thermos. We then went into the main part of the town, had a look at the only street of shops and then went to The Bitter Monk, a really good pub and microbrewery. A few UFO-based shots from around the town (it wasn’t intentional, but that shit was everywhere!):

Homes Decorated with Skulls of Family Members and Animal Sacrifice, Ollantaytambo, Peru
We visited Machu Picchu in Peru back in 2016, but the day before we were set off for that hike after trekking through the Andes, we had time off from our tour so we decided to spend it wandering around the town of Ollantaytambo:

Ollantaytambo is a town and an Inca archaeological site in southern Peru some 72 km (45 mi) by road northwest of the city of Cusco. It is located at an altitude of 2,792 m (9,160 ft) above sea level in the district of Ollantaytambo, province of Urubamba, Cusco region. During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti, who conquered the region, and built the town and a ceremonial center. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru, it served as a stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance.

Here’s some of what we encountered in the private residences of Ollantaytambo during that leg of our Peruvian adventure:

We spent the afternoon strolling around Ollantaytambo, first as part of a guided tour and then we were given a few hours to roam around by ourselves. We started by walking down the ancient, narrow streets, admiring the scenery on the surrounding hills, before entering the houses of traditional Peruvian families and that’s where things began to get a bit freaky.
The houses were just a single room and upon entering we were instantly hit with an awful stench, one that turned out to be coming from the guinea pigs and ducks they breed inside, generally for sale to restaurants. When looking around the room, things began to get even weirder — It is commonplace to keep the skulls of family members after their deaths and these were generally kept in an alcove, surrounded by animal sacrifices and phallic figures. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself:

Also on that trip we found a jewellery store in Lima that made sculptures out of real human skulls:

Larco Museum, Lima, Peru
After Ollantaytambo we spent some time in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil before heading back to Peru, this time central Lima, for a few nights. On our first full day in town we decided to check out some trepanated skulls and erotic pottery:

We were staying in the Miraflores region of Peru, an area known for having cool shops along with great bars and restaurants, but it is also close to Pueblo Libre, home to the Larco Museum, described by Wikipedia thusly:

The Larco Museum (Spanish: Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera) is a privately owned museum of pre-Columbian art, located in the Pueblo Libre District of Lima, Peru. The museum is housed in an 18th-century vice-royal building built over a 7th-century pre-Columbian pyramid. It showcases chronological galleries that provide a thorough overview of 4,000 years of Peruvian pre-Columbian history. It is well known for its gallery of pre-Columbian erotic pottery.

There are several permanent exhibitions at the Larco Museum, such as The Gold and Silver Gallery, a collection of crowns, earrings, nose ornaments, garments, masks and vases, wrought in gold and decorated with semi-precious stones. But that’s not what we were there for —  Spending a Friday afternoon in Peru looking at erotic pottery could be both interesting and amusing so we went to see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t kidding either, the pre-Columbian civilisations of Peru were pretty damn explicit when it comes to their crockery.

Hỏa Lò Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam
We spent New Year’s Eve 2014 in Hanoi, Vietnam with some friends of ours, their first ever trip to Vietnam. One of the first things you’ll notice is the reference to “poop coffee”, referring to what is locally called weasel coffee, but actually is the result of civet cats eating the best coffee, their digestive system fermenting the beans and breaking down their proteins, and then the cats ultimately shitting out the beans and their turds being used to make beverages. If you think that’s disturbing, then just wait until you see the Hanoi Hilton:

I also mentioned earlier that we’d need that caffeine kick from our poop-coffee for something we would see that day. Well, we hadn’t witnessed it yet, but we would soon when we paid a visit to the museum at what remains of Hỏa Lò Prison, otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” A little background information about where US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) spent some of his five and a half years as a P.O.W. in Vietnam for you:

Hỏa Lò Prison  was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. During this later period it was known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton. The prison was demolished during the 1990s, although the gatehouse remains as a museum.

The Hanoi Hilton was one site used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. When prisoners of war began to be released from this and other North Vietnamese prisons during the Johnson administration, their testimonies revealed widespread and systematic abuse of prisoners of war.

Regarding treatment at Hỏa Lò and other prisons, the communists countered by stating that prisoners were treated well and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. During 1969, they broadcast a series of coerced statements from American prisoners that purported to support this notion. The North Vietnamese would also maintain that their prisons were no worse than prisons for POWs and political prisoners in South Vietnam, such as the one on Côn Sơn Island.Mistreatment of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners and South Vietnamese dissidents in South Vietnam’s prisons was indeed frequent, as was North Vietnamese abuse of South Vietnamese prisoners and their own dissidents.

After the implementation of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, neither the United States nor its allies ever formally charged North Vietnam with the war crimes revealed to have been committed there. In the 2000s, the Vietnamese government has held the position that claims that prisoners were tortured at Hoa Lo and other sites during the war are fabricated, but that Vietnam wants to move past the issue as part of establishing better relations with the U.S.Tran Trong Duyet, a jailer at Hoa Lo beginning in 1968 and its commandant for the last three years of the war, maintained in 2008 that no prisoners were tortured. However, eyewitness accounts by American servicemen present a different account of their captivity.

After the war, Risner wrote the book Passing of the Night detailing his 7 years at the Hanoi Hilton. Indeed, a considerable literature emerged from released POWs after repatriation, depicting Hoa Lo and the other prisons as places where such atrocities as murder; beatings; broken bones, teeth and eardrums; dislocated limbs; starvation; serving of food contaminated with human and animal feces; and medical neglect of infections and tropical disease occurred. These details are revealed in famous accounts by McCain (Faith of My Fathers), Denton, Alvarez, Day, Risner, Stockdale and dozens of others.

In addition, the Hanoi Hilton was depicted in the eponymous 1987 Hollywood movie The Hanoi Hilton.

I obviously wasn’t alive at the time so a lot of what I could say about the chilling Hanoi Hilton would merely be opinion and perhaps even understate the atrocities that occurred within those walls. Instead, I’ll just let some picture I took there do the talking, some recreating the way of life inside Hỏa Lò prison using life-size replicas of the inmates.

WARNING: SOME OF THESE IMAGES ARE QUITE DISTURBING SO IF YOU ARE EASILY DISTRESSED, IT’S PROBABLY BEST TO JUST SCROLL ON PAST THEM!

Hỏa Lò prison is damn spooky and just like when we spent part of honeymoon watching torrential rain wash human remains up out of the ground after a tour of the Killing Fields in Cambodia, we’d definitely need a drink after this tour. Something a bit stronger than poop coffee would be in order.

The Catacombs of Paris, France
This was a place of which I had seen pictures, yet couldn’t believe it actually really existed under a modern city. Well, it does, we saw it on this particular trip to France, and it is really something!

We did most of the tourist attractions on our first trip to Paris; we walked down Avenue des Champs-Élysées, saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, visited Notre Dame, and saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. However, there was one attraction I had always been fascinated with and wanted desperately to see — The Catacombs:

The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone quarries. Extending south from the Barrière d’Enfer (“Gate of Hell”) former city gate, this ossuary was created as part of the effort to eliminate the city’s overflowing cemeteries. Preparation work began not long after a 1774 series of gruesome Saint Innocents-cemetery-quarter basement wall collapses added a sense of urgency to the cemetery-eliminating measure, and from 1786, nightly processions of covered wagons transferred remains from most of Paris’ cemeteries to a mine shaft opened near the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire.

The ossuary remained largely forgotten until it became a novelty-place for concerts and other private events in the early 19th century; after further renovations and the construction of accesses around Place Denfert-Rochereau, it was open to public visitation from 1874.

The catacombs in their first years were a disorganized bone repository, but Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service from 1810, had renovations done that would transform the underground caverns into a visitable mausoleum. In addition to directing the stacking of skulls and femurs into the patterns seen in the catacombs today, he used the cemetery decorations he could find (formerly stored on the Tombe-Issoire property, many had disappeared after the 1789 Revolution) to complement the walls of bones. Also created was a room dedicated to the display of the various minerals found under Paris, and another showing various skeletal deformities found during the catacombs’ creation and renovation. He also added monumental tablets and archways bearing ominous warning inscriptions, and also added stone tablets bearing descriptions or other comments about the nature of the ossuary, and to ensure the safety of eventual visitors, it was walled from the rest of the Paris’s Left Bank already-extensive underground tunnel network.

Although the catacombs offered space to bury the dead, they presented disadvantages to building structures; because the catacombs are directly under the Paris streets, large foundations cannot be built and cave-ins have destroyed buildings. For this reason, there are few tall buildings in this area.

Anna booked an audio tour of the catacombs for us and after we caught the train to that area and walked to the entrance, we were glad that we already had tickets. The line for tickets was around the block, and we even had to wait for about 15 minutes to enter, because according to the official catacombs visitor’s website, despite being 1.5km (1 mile) long, the number of simultaneous visitors is limited to 200 so those people in line for tickets could be there for hours!
Once inside we walked down the 131-step spiral staircase to the tunnel network and soon we were in the winding corridor of human bones. One thing that became abundantly clear is that some people can be complete dicks when visiting historic sites. An extreme case you may remember was when a fifteen-year-old Chinese school student was identified back in 2013 as he who had scratched his name into a 3,500-year-old Egyptian artwork in the Temple of Luxor. Although the defacing of the catacombs may not be quite as severe as that, it is extremely frustrating to enter and see that tags have been sprayed and stickers stuck allover the place, some even on actual skulls! However, this soon ceases and we spent over an hour walking through a mile of winding passages consisting of exquisitely arranged human remains, all the while learning how it came to be that way.
Take a quick tour of this macabre, yet beautiful construction for yourself via just a handful of the pictures we took during our adventure underground (all translations via Google Translate):

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel
Many would argue that what we saw on our trip to Israel doesn’t really count as “dark tourism”, but it is the alleged site of an execution, so I still think it counts:

After the market, our first real stop on the tour was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of the Resurrection or Church of the Anastasis by Orthodox Christians, is a church in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The church contains, according to traditions dating back to at least the fourth century, the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. The tomb is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicula. The Status Quo, an understanding between religious communities dating to 1757, applies to the site.

Within the church proper are the last four (or, by some definitions, five) stations of the Via Dolorosa, representing the final episodes of the Passion of Jesus. The church has been a major Christian pilgrimage destination since its creation in the fourth century, as the traditional site of the resurrection of Christ, thus its original Greek name, Church of the Anastasis (‘Resurrection’).

Upon entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you are forced to navigate your way through throngs of people up a stairwell, past some impressive mosaics, until you reach the Calvary, which has traditionally been regarded as the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, although this has long been debated, but therefore the home to the Altar of the Crucifixion. The Rock of the Calvary, believed by many to be the exact site of the crucifixion, is directly beneath the altar, but only visible on each side where it is housed in glass cases, and it is possible to touch it from beneath through a hole in the floor under the altar.
After seeing the Calvary, we squeezed our way back down the stairs to see the Stone of Anointing (seen in the featured image for this post), allegedly where Christ’s body was prepared for burial. When we got to the stone, people were weeping and throwing themselves on it, others were pouring water over its surface, but the first thing that stood out to me was how small Jesus must’ve been. The stone wouldn’t even be 1.5 metres (5′) long so unless his head or a portion of his lower extremities were hanging over the ends while being embalmed, Jesus Christ couldn’t have been a whole lot taller than Danny DeVito!
Our last major stop inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was inside the Rotunda that contains the Aedicule. I was taken to church and Sunday School as a child and taught that Jesus’ body was placed in a cave with a boulder rolled in front of it. I understand that some details can be lost over time and that mistranslations are inevitable, or maybe the priest wasn’t using reliable sources, but Aedicule was no cave. Rather it was an ornate two-room building, the first holding the Angel’s Stone, a fragment of the stone that sealed the tomb, the other containing Christ’s alleged resting place for a few days following his death. If the cave story is factually correct and the Aedicule was built over the site afterward, I figured this would be more common knowledge, or maybe it’s just a result of my own ignorance of the topic. Either way, It was all impressive to see:

Temples of Human Sacrifice, Tikal, Guatemala
When we were traveling to Honduras to do some volunteer work we had another stopover in Guatemala so what better thing to do than to visit where the ancient Mayans used to decapitate the victors of football games?:

Similar to how we had spent the previous day, Wednesday was also going to consist of walking around Mayan ruins, this time the ancient city of Tikal:

Tikal is the ruin of an ancient city, which was likely to have been called Yax Mutal, found in a rainforest in Guatemala. It is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is located in the archaeological region of the Petén Basin in what is now northern Guatemala. Situated in the department of El Petén, the site is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tikal is the best understood of any of the large lowland Maya cities, with a long dynastic ruler list, the discovery of the tombs of many of the rulers and the investigation of their monuments, temples and palaces.

Also worth noting:

There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated, after decades of archaeological work. The most prominent surviving buildings include six very large pyramids, labelled Temples I – VI, each of which support a temple structure on their summits. Some of these pyramids are over 60 metres (200 feet) high. They were numbered sequentially during the early survey of the site. It is estimated that each of these major temples could have been built in as little as two years.

We spent most of the day on a guided tour around Tikal. One of the highlights was when our guide told us about an area where the ancient Mayans used to play a ball game resulting in a team, sometimes the winning team, being sacrificed to the Gods:

For the Maya, human sacrifices were associated with the ball game. The game, in which a hard rubber ball was knocked around by players mostly using their hips, often had religious, symbolic or spiritual meaning. Maya images show a clear connection between the ball and decapitated heads: the balls were even sometimes made from skulls. Sometimes, a ballgame would be a sort of continuation of a victorious battle: captive warriors from the vanquished tribe or city-state would be forced to play and then sacrificed ​afterwards. A famous image carved in stone at Chichén Itzá shows a victorious ballplayer holding aloft the decapitated head of the opposing team leader.

This was our tour guide’s reasoning as to why Guatemala are terrible at football, they simply killed off all of their best players. Anyway, a bunch of photos can probably describe the place better than words can. Some of these pictures may also begin to look similar after a while, but Tikal definitely was beautiful:

Bunshin Tattoo Museum, Yokohama, Japan
I’ve always loved traditional Japanese tattoos, especially those of the full body variety, so it only made sense that we visit the museum belonging to Horiyoshi III when we were in Yokohama many years back. He’s my absolute favourite tattooist and a relatively well-known tattooist friend of mine even has an incredible, traditional, tebori-style sleeve done by the man, an impressive feat when you factor in details such as this:

At Horiyoshi’s studio in Yokohama, Japan, tattoos are outlined mostly freehand using an electric needle. He did the outlining by hand until the late 1990s. His friendship with Don Ed Hardy, started in the mid-1980s, lead to Horiyoshi’s adoption of electric machines.

Shading and color is added using the traditional tebori, or Japanese hand tattooing, technique. He restricts his motifs to the classical repertoire of the vast variety of traditional Japanese stories and designs: peonies, koi, dragons, tenyo (she-angels), etc. Horiyoshi feels responsible for keeping the classic repertoire alive, “one prick at a time.”

Horiyoshi III’s work can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and may require weekly hour-long visits over the course of several years to complete.

We visited his museum back in 2014 when we were in Yokohama, but in what could be yet another chapter in my ever-expanding “‘T’ Factor” series, he happened to be in hospital the day that we went so I couldn’t meet him or get one of his books signed. When I initially brought up the idea of putting this post together to Anna, she mentioned to add the museum, because we are both certain we saw preserved human skins there, although I mustn’t have been able to take photos because I don’t have any pictures of my own from the museum. Fortunately, the Bunshin Tattoo Museum’s website has a couple, but I’m adamant they are understating what they possess and there are a lot more skulls than I recall:

This seems like a good place to end. I hope you enjoyed this compilation, I’ll more than likely be putting something else together soon, but hopefully we can resume traveling again some time in the not too distant future and be I can go back to writing new original posts about our adventures.

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