Too often we hear, ‘why is history important if it’s already in the past’. I believe that to fully embrace and understand an entirely new place and a new culture, you must look back to the events that have crucially shaped everything that has come before what you see now.

When I speak of this topic I am drawing particular focus on my month-long trip to Cambodia, where I lived in the rural Takeo province and frequently travelled up and down from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. Although it is not possible to gain the full understanding of a place and culture in a short amount of time, I do feel that being eager to learn helped me gain a far greater understanding of Cambodia.

For myself, many other travellers and of course the residents of Cambodia, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is regarded as a must-visit for all to understand the great evils that humanity can be capable of. The museum shares an insight into the horrendous atrocities that occurred in the country between 1975 and 1979 under the Khmer Rouge communists regime.

During this time there is a stomach-turning estimation that 1.5 to 2 million Cambodian citizens were systematically murdered, which equates to the horrifying estimation of 1 in every 5. For just one moment can you try to picture the devasting impact of 1 out of 5 people you know being killed? Because that was the reality for Cambodians only 40 years ago and the experience is still part of living memory for so many.

Image by silkesauer from Pixabay

In my opinion, the visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was the most vital part of my trip halfway across the world. Perhaps I would have been happier remaining blissfully ignorant, travelling without learning but I truly believe that we must embrace every part of the places we visit, even the painful and upsetting past. These cultures are not our toys, these experiences are real, raw and hurtful and so if we tourists are graced with the chance to visit such incredible places, then we have to value and connect with the past that shaped what we see today and here are some reasons why:

1)To better understand the lasting impact of history

When you travel you get to see first hand the on-going development of countries as they strive for better, which is often the greatest part of exploring the globe. This is even more true when travelling a country which has recently experienced the devastation of human brutality. However, if you don’t know where a place is growing from then these significant changes will be missed and not appreciated as they should.

If you can I would recommend visiting memorial sites such as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or The Killing Fields before you set off to explore the rest of Cambodia. Of course, Angkor Wat is top of your list but if you want to gain a real appreciation for the on-going development that has been occurring over the last four decades, then educate yourself before you leave and go straight to the museums when you get there. With this, you will be able to reflect fully on the experiences you have, be attentive to details and understand the bigger picture.

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2) To have a better appreciate of the current day to day life and people’s attitudes

One thing I have found to be true about Cambodian citizens is they are overwhelmingly lovely and friendly, it really isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that you can’t cross the street without kids and adults saying hello and beaming with smiles. This authentic happiness that can be found up and down the nation is incredible for so many reasons but even more so when you realise that these individuals either had first-hand experience of the Khmer Regimes or personally know close family members and friends affected by this tragedy, many even killed.

Cambodians who are just my age (23 years old), would likely have Fathers, Mothers, Uncles, Aunties, Grandparents who lived and suffered through the brutal past. Yet they and their families are still filled with happiness and enthusiasm for the future and what is to come. They do not dawn on the sadness of before despite how it still hurts, instead, they look forward to the brightness of tomorrow. This philosophy became clear when I watched a performing arts show by a school who said they were on a mission to change the global perception of Cambodia from a country torn by the horrors of war and totalitarianism to a country full of wonders that can be found in their culture and art.

Photo by Jon Tang on Unsplash

3) To feel less like an obnoxious tourist 

I know I am definitely guilty of being this at times and it is something I deeply want to address whenever it comes up. If you are setting out to embrace a country in all its glory then you absolutely need to gain as much in-depth knowledge as possible. Let’s be honest, who wants to visit a country and know less about it than a quick Google search can tell you? If you welcome all the information possible then you will leave a more open-minded, globally educated and understanding individual.

So if the opportunity to go for a tour around a museum or a significant site presents itself then don’t roll your eyes or be negative about how you ‘feel like you’re back in school.’ Trust me, you’ll learn far more than a school could ever teach you on location, so long as you are open-minded and keen. Even if you perhaps forget the facts and dates you learned as time goes on, you will never forget the effect a place has on you.

Gaining knowledge is never a negative and travelling is the best way to gain knowledge outside of a book, so make the most of this opportunity! These first-hand experiences and memories will absolutely make you feel more connected to the land you are temporarily staying in, but you have to be willing to let all aspects of the place in, even the parts that are hard to digest.