Gawping at Death in Cambodia

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan


I saw my first corpse at the age of about five. One of the local teens, who I knew to hang out with, and who I remember sometimes making a bit of a ruckus with his friends at night, was getting dredged out of the harbor. My father tried to pull me away so I wouldn’t see, but all that was visible was a discolored arm poking out from under a blanket on the stretcher. I have tried my best to avoid seeing dead people since then. Yet it wasn’t such a a big trauma, I just found it vaguely disgusting. In the meantime I’ve had to gaze on a few, but generally I try not to.

Back in the fifties, and as far back as the Victorian era, “true crime” magazines were popular in the States and the UK and other countries. They varied in style, but many would publish crime scene photos- blood, guts, entrails, gore and all, along with reports on the cases, which had sometimes happened many years previously.

On my first visit to India in the mid-nineties I noticed similar sorts of publications were hugely popular. Blow by blow accounts of lovers or robbers or crazy traditionalists murdering people, with gruesome ‘from the scene’ photos just to show you what it looked like. The most disturbing thing about these magazines were always the letters at the back. The stories printed in the main part of the magazine may have had a few accounts of rape or sexual digressions, but sex was far from being their central theme. However, all the letters at the rear of the magazines dealt only with sexual hang-ups. Will I go blind if I masturbate? Can I get pregnant from holding hands? Will I get a dose from sitting on a public toilet? etc. I guess it may have been down to the lack of openness about these subjects in a highly modest society, but having these concerns raised in the back of a sleazy splatter-gore murder-zine didn’t inspire much confidence.

Getting on to the here and now, it seems that images of suffering, death, blood and misery are major selling points for Cambodian tabloid daily papers. For example, road accidents, murders, machete attacks, suicides and poisonings all end up in full-color low-res in the daily papers, along with some most likely half-baked speculation on why the problem occurred. Why people actually want to look at this sort of material daily is beyond me, as is the habit of loitering around accident or crime victims and in doing so hindering anyone else’s attempts to aid the unfortunate person.

I can understand that when something shocking happens locally or in the wider world, at times graphic images can remind people of the wider issues pressing on humanity in the modern world. Many show tragic suicides and other somber incidents, and the suffering these people’s families feel can only be compounded by having the pictures out in public display the next morning as thousands of local men eat their rice and pork breakfasts at breakfast cafes and stalls all over Phnom Penh . Pictures of dead bodies on the road are presumably justified by the fact that the sight of them might encourage more prudent behavior. Perhaps some similar “warning” logic goes into printing some of the pictures of the unfortunate foreigners who have come to their premature ends in the Kingdom. These are printed as warnings on how not to behave and what happens to those who do wrong. So shape up people, or your rotten, fly-blown remains might end up gracing the front page of the Koh Santepeap, not to mention their website.

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8 Responses to Gawping at Death in Cambodia

  1. David says:

    It’s very bizarre behaviour. like small kids that have never seen something before. I saw a guy lying in the middle of the road with a motorcycle on top of him, and a policeman and 10 or more people were just standing there, watching him die, no attempt was made to move the motorcycle off him.When I tried to help they looked at me like I was mad and the policeman got visibly angry.You might also want to do an article on how they rob unconscious or dead people of almost everything except their underwear after an accident.

  2. andyinasia says:

    Western media is full of naked flash but coy about gore. People in the East wonder what’s wrong with our tastes too.

  3. andyinasia says:

    Er, FLESH!!

  4. khmerhit says:

    Is there an anthropologist out there who could give us some answers? It does seem that as soon as bad luck strikes, and you’re covered in blood or whatever, your status changes to untouchable victim, an ill omen to be avoided!

  5. Chris says:

    Yea, it’s normal in South America also. These countries are more REAL than ours. We are hidden from death, but there the accept it as part of live. Perhaps because when they see a dead body it makes them realise just how silly it is to take life too seriously-Unlike us westerners who act like we are so important and so deserving. Perhaps they have got this right??

    • khmerhit says:

      More real. Hmm. I am familiar with this sentiment, it is a normal (undergrad) criticism of western life. But it is not really fair, or accurate. How can one place be more real than another? And what, anyway, is wrong with avoiding suffering and living the good life instead? The need for martial sacrifice is another matter, it is honourable. But seriously, would you want to see death and dying as often as people in a border town in Mexico, or in Pailin of old?

  6. Dermot Sheehan says:

    I should add that “One of the local teens, who I knew to hang out with,” is a typo, he was just someone I used to see around.

  7. LyrikalRaver says:

    This is just what happened during that tragic Koh Pich’ disaster where over 200 people died during the Water Festival.

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