Traveling the Cambodian Genocide

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Mar 20, 2014 / 0 comments

Sometimes, even though history is unbearable to revisit, we must. We must to change the future, to honor those that have lost their lives, to make sure that this never happens again. One such history is the tragegy that is still unfolding in Cambodia. The horrific impact of the Khmer Rouge lingers today, in landmines and unexploded ordinance, as well as the direct impact of genocide on a people and culture. How can we, as both responsible travelers and citizens of the world, make a difference? First, by listening. Second, by taking action.

How to listen? I have an extraordinary resource for you. In Traveling the Cambodian Genocide, writer Noah Lederman shares his experiences visiting the sites of genocide in Cambodia. In case you think it's all blood, skulls, and landmines, which are dreadful enough, Lederman brings not only a sense of place, but also gives a glimpse of life today. He speaks honestly about traveling to these sites, as well as his interactions with locals. He sensitively mixes historical facts with concerns of today, including the kids of Cambodia and their futures. The stories of survivors paint a gruesome picture of survival - as well as threads of hope. This book is a must-read, and will surely prompt discussions of global citizenship, and our responsibility to others on a basic, human level. How will we change the world? One step at a time. This book? A giant step.

Traveling the Cambodian Genocide


We caught up with Noah, and asked him the backstory of the book. Here's what he had to say...

Please tell us about your book...

Traveling the Cambodian Genocide is, in part, my attempt to expose readers to some of the lesser known sites of genocide around the country. Many visitors to Cambodia take time to see S-21 and the killing fields, but I wanted readers to get a sense as to how the Khmer Rouge devastated an entire country. More importantly, I wanted the stories to go beyond place and introduce readers to the survivors and the younger generation of Cambodians, two groups that are still affected by the atrocities. While Cambodians still have questions about justice and seek normalcy in their lives, I think that the book also portrays the relentless optimism of the people.

Traveling the Cambodian Genocide

What inspired you to write this book?

I'm a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and ever since I knew how to question, I became a student of genocide. I spent many years researching the Holocaust and writing a memoir about uncovering my grandparents' stories. After completing that manuscript, I needed to work on something a bit lighter. So I took the trite approach of penning a novel about a struggling writer. But that book felt incomplete. The character felt empty. I realized he needed a more conflicted past. At the same time, I became very interested in learning about the Cambodian Genocide. Thus, it became my character's back story, and because of that I wound up spending many years thinking and learning about Cambodia during the 1970s.

In 2012, I traveled to Cambodia. My wife and I were on our honeymoon. While we had explored many of the romantic locations across Southeast Asia, she knew that our time in Cambodia was going to be different. It was. I had little interest in visiting Angkor Wat. Instead, I wanted to speak with the survivors and visit the sites that the Khmer Rouge had used to commit their nefarious acts. My wife and I met so many beautiful and hopeful people that I felt it necessary to write something longer than a few blog post. Writing the stories also allowed me to give back. For this book, which only costs $2.99, I have partnered up with Safe Haven Cambodia Children's Trust, a charity dedicated to the youth of Cambodia, and will be donating a third of all profits to support their endeavors.

Author Noah Lederman with kids in Cambodia

Children and survivors play a large role in this book. How can travelers truly help, while in Cambodia?

Unfortunately, lending a helping hand requires some research. Many so-called charities actually do more harm. For instance, there are a number of orphanages that exploit children. Since they need kids to take advantage of, they are in the business of breaking up families. These orphanages promise parents that their children will have a better future by living at the orphanage, but in the end, the children are just a scheme to get tourists to drop money. There are, however, plenty of reputable agencies and people should not be discouraged from helping out. It just requires some research beforehand.

Taking a genocide tour doesn't seem so touristy - yet we need to know and acknowledge history, even the painful parts. How do Cambodians react to this type of tourism?

The book is not one that promotes genocide tourism, and it was not written for people to necessarily follow in my footsteps. One reason I wrote the book is because most people who visit Cambodia marvel at the ancient history surrounding Angkor Wat, but ignore the horrors that took place less than forty years ago. There's a story in Traveling the Cambodian Genocide about a kid named Tom. Tom learned all about ancient history, but knew nothing about the events of the 1970s. He explained that there was money in being a tour guide at Angkor Wat. There was no money in learning about the Khmer Rouge. Watching tourists pass by stupas filled with the remains of the murdered on their way to the temples and having conversations with people like Tom motivated me to write about this tragic period. I also wanted to draw attention to the importance of learning about history from the people. While Tom was not well informed, there were many others who had a lot to say about that tragic period. I teach about the Holocaust in school and many of my students say "I wish I could speak to the survivors." Well, Cambodia is a place where travelers can still speak to individuals who endured extreme horrors, but have found a way to look toward the future.  

Traveling the Cambodian Genocide


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All photos courtesy and copyright Noah Lederman