The Body of Chairman Mao

Getting into Tiananmen Square was hard enough. We joined a large crowd of Chinese people, shuffling slowly forwarded. We waited while people looked at us strangely, pointed at our feet and laughing, not knowing if joining the group was even the right thing to do. Eventually we arrived at a security checkpoint, where our bags were x-rayed and our passports checked.

We were in.

The Body of Chairman Mao

Monument to the People’s Heroes

Tiananmen Square was a large open space where traffic was prohibited and areas roped off from pedestrians with guard posts throughout. At one end Tiananmen Gate, which lead into the Forbidden City, where a large portrait of Chairman Mao hung.

The Body of Chairman Mao


At the other, Mao’s Mausoleum, a building built solely for the purpose of housing his embalmed body. Our first port of call.

But first we had to jump through a number of hoops in order to enter.

The Body of Chairman Mao

Guard in front of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

First we headed to an entirely different building, where we would have to check in any bags or cameras. While I was travelling in Vietnam I was able to visit the body of Ho Chi Minh so I had an idea of what may be required here in order to enter.

Back at the mausoleum we joined another queue, this one had a lot less people in it, and another security check point, this one just a visual inspection. As we approached the entrance there was a vendor selling white flowers. Almost every Chinese visitor in front of us purchased multiple flowers to take in with them.

The Body of Chairman Mao

Revolutionary statue in front of the mausoleum

Once we reached the entrance and went inside we were greeted by a large seated stone statue of Mao. In front of him a table so full of the white flowers they had been piled up on the floor behind. We watched as visitors placed their contribution with the others and then as a man with a large cart collected up the excess and wheeled them back out to the shop.

Moving through the corridors we came to a small room where the glass coffin was held. Inside lay a black haired Mao in a grey suit. It was a very strange moment which lasted less than a minute. We were ushered around the edges of the room before passing out the other side and into the gift shop.

The Body of Chairman Mao

National Museum of China

No one was prepared for Mao’s death. Like Ho Chi Minh he had requested to be cremated but after his death it was decided his body would be embalmed. Accounts vary but it is thought the process was rushed and ill prepared due to rocky relations with the Russians at the time. They were thought to be the experts as they had already used the technique to embalm the bodies of Stalin and Lenin, as well as assisting the Vietnamese with Minh’s body. It is said that instead they had to settle with verbal instructions from the Vietnamese and try their best.

The Body of Chairman Mao

Restricted areas and guard posts

Since 1977 his body has been here, in his purpose built mausoleum for the world to visit, with some days visitor numbers reaching well into the thousands. Today, who really knows if the body that lies there is in fact Mao’s. Rumours persist and it’s often thought that due to the process not being entirely effective the body had been replaced with a wax figure, highly believable as the process leaves the skin looking shinny and even wax like.

Further Reading:

Preserving Chairman Mao: embalming a body to maintain a legacy by The Guardian

A visitors account from 1997 Resting in Peace or in Pieces

Christiania – The Troubles of a Freetown

When heading to Copenhagen I had little interest in visiting Christiania but I had heard from friends that it would be worth it, after all it is Copenhagen’s second most visited place in the city.

Christiania began Forty-five years ago when the military moved out of what had been a long standing military base and squatters moved in. The community grew and grew with the government finally legalising the squat in 1983. In 2011 Christiania’s future was threaten so the residents set up a foundation to buy the land from the government, many people were happy to donate and 12.5 million kroner was raised.

Christiania - The Troubles of a Freetown

Photos are prohibited within Chritstiania and I was happy to follow the request. After a few snaps at the entrance my camera went into my bag and in we went.

Because of the drug trade the area had lost some of its charm in my opinion, it could have also been the time of year. Visiting in the summer I am sure the atmosphere would be different, there were plenty of areas for people to gather in the sun and the natural surroundings would be picturesque. But on this gloomy winter’s day it wasn’t the most welcoming,  especially when we stumbled across the ominously named ‘Pusher Street’.

I hadn’t read much about the area before my arrival and I had no idea about the change that Pusher Street had recently gone through. Huts that had once lined the roads had recently been torn down in an effort to reduce the drug trade that had been dominating Christiania. It is estimated that 1 billion kroner changes hands on Pusher Street with many people looking to grab a piece, leading to other problems. The most recent being a shooting in August 2016 where a policeman was shot and two others injured.

Christiania - The Troubles of a Freetown

Flag of Christiania

Now, the huts had been replaced with groups of guys standing around, some huddled around burning trash cans. I never felt unsafe or threaten as I walked through but it was far from a comfortable situation. The residents have never wanted Christiania to be only about the use of cannabis and since these incidences they have decided to move away from it, encouraging people to buy elsewhere.

Once through the group of buildings we walked along the embankments that ran next to the water. Christiania was at one time an operational military base for hundreds of years and has a number of sites under national heritage protection.

Christiania - The Troubles of a Freetown

Christiania within the city of Copenhagen

Houses continued all the way back to the waterside, some were old buildings that had been re-purposed, others were more make-shift, made from recycled materials crudely knocked together. It would have been nice to walk along the water, and even to the other side, but my trip was restricted by time, so we walked back to the road in search of Danish pastries.

Even now I still don’t know exactly why the people of Christiania are allowed to in habit such a large area of Copenhagen, and with the growing need for development how much longer it will exist, but I think it is great in this modern world that there is a place where people can build their own society and community with values of their own.  And that is something to see and experience.

Christiania - The Troubles of a Freetown

Further Reading: 

Paradise lost: does Copenhagen’s Christiania commune still have a future? was helpful read when learning about the community and the problems it had faced.

Read more about the Darker Side of Tourism which Christiania would be a contender.

Orphanage Tourism

The term orphanage tourism seems unbelievable when you first hear it. To benefit from the unfortunate is against most peoples human nature but when there is money to be made others are willing to prey on the unsuspecting. Some of us are more fortunate than others and like to give their time and sometimes money to help those who could benefit from it.

Orphanage tourism is becoming a large concern in less developed countries, especially in Cambodia. Due to the increase in tourism in the area the amount of orphanages has increased 75% in the last five years. It is believed that 77% of children aren’t even orphans. Parents will put their children into care with the hope they will receive a better education, some children are bought or even rented by the institution.

This is exceptionally bad for the children, the people offering to help have no background checks  and make an attachment with the children before leaving. This can leave the children with life long attachment issues and affect their development. Children are kept in conditions worse than the minimum standards set by the government in order to receive larger donations from visitors. These donations often don’t see their way to the children.

Tour operators have even jumped on the band wagon and began operating tours that include volunteering in orphanages. Google will find over 500,000 sites for volunteering in orphanages and there are 30 tour operators sending volunteers to orphanages abroad in the UK alone. We have to realise as travellers that what we see isn’t always presented truthfully and giving money to those who look like they need it can sometimes do more harm than good.

Read more about the Darker Side of Tourism.

The Darker Side of Tourism

It has only been in recent years that dark tourism has been collectively referred to. It can vary from travel to places that have association with death, disaster and destruction. Since the increase in tourism so has the demand for dark tourism grown in both scale and scope. Most noticeable in one of the world’s largest segments, war tourism. Numerous tours can be found to battlefield sites and attractions throughout the world, also available are detailed guidebooks offering information on the subject.

Dark tourism can range from a visit to graveyards, holocaust tourism, atrocity tourism, prison tourism or slavery tourism. The diversity in these areas are huge, take death related tourism as an example, they can be fictional destination such as the ‘Dracula Experience’ or sites of famous deaths like Elvis Presley, to major disasters which Ground Zero is a prime example.

One of the segments I would like to looked at more closely and have shown an example of in previous posts is ‘Genocide Tourism’. It is an unlikely pairing of words but when we look at case examples such as Auschwitz, that in 1990’s had over half a million visit a year. The research into ‘genocide tourism’ is fairly new and has only recently been differentiated from a heritage context. This lack of research and information is surprising considering how tourism has grown in areas such as Auschwitz.

It is also relevant to consider if the victims of these atrocities are being exploited for financial gain. The addition of personnel procession to an exhibit or museum can increase the authenticity and poignancy of the visitor’s experience. Even the use and display of human remains of genocide victims raises a number of ethical questions.

Khmer Rouge


Cambodia has become a popular destination when considering dark tourism and especially genocide tourism. It is a relatively new destination in this segment of tourism since the atrocities only happened in the mid-1970s. Since then Cambodia has become a popular place to visit in Asia and can be seen in the large amount of visitors. In 2000, 466,000 visited Cambodia and that number quadrupled to over two million by 2007.

Many people are visiting Cambodia to visit the temple complex at Angkor. With this and the increase in packages around Asia that include Cambodia it has become a very popular destination in recent years. Now the site of The killing Fields has been transferred to a Cambodian-Japanese company on a 30 year lease, this suggests that the area will be increasingly exploited for tourist dollars.

We have to ask ourselves if ‘genocide tourism’ is an acceptable term to describe this form of visit? It is more likely that people chose to visit these destinations for education rather than the horror of the events commemorated. Tourism could cause problems in areas that are there for grieving and sensitivity is required in the management of these areas out of respect for the victims and their relatives.

Continue reading with Orphanage Tourism

The Killing fields

Outside Phnom Penh ‘The Killing Fields’ can be found. This is an area where people were brought to be executed and buried in mass graves during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. In the center of the fields is a large white monument to the unknown people whose bodies were found in the graves. This monument is where they house 5,000 skulls in the various conditions in which they were found as a reminder to those who visit.

The Killing Fields

The grave sites were huge and compassion wasn’t considered when they nailed the signs in front of them reading ‘2000 bodies were found here’. It was a real shock. I stood there thinking about these people brutally killed and in most cases decapitated, all lying in this pit. And there wasn’t just one, there were many.

The Killing Fields

At The Killing Fields or Choeung Ek there are over 20 mass graves which contained around 9,000 human remains when they were exhumed. In Cambodia it is thought there are around 20,000 mass graves containing a majority of the 2 million people who are predicted to have died between 1975-1979.

One of the most disturbing facts was that only in 2004 had they started to bring those responsible to trial for the crimes they committed, though Pol Pot had already died in 1998. A year after I left Cambodia I read that one of the men who was recently brought to trial had died before sentencing. Since then, in 2014, two other men have been sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in the genocides.

It was truly a life changing visit and I feel that these places are important for us to visit as a reminded of the mistakes the human race has made. From my experiences in Cambodia and throughout Asia I did notice that they were unable to display the information respectfully and the shock factor was important.

Khmer Rouge

This weekend marked 40 years since the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh. During the 44 months of Pol Pot’s rule over Cambodia a quarter of the population would die during his attempt at building a perfect society. For most Europeans, especially if you didn’t live during this period, I think knowledge on these atrocities is limited as we were more taught about history that we are directly involved with.


Click image to see inside. It may shock you.

Over the next few posts I will be looking at Cambodia from my own experiences and what the role of dark tourism is in today’s tourism industry. I feel like this post should come with a warning. I will take a realistic view of the situation and to some this might be hard to comprehend. When I gave a presentation to my university class on orphanage tourism I made one of my classmates cry.

If you are interested in the subject and can’t wait for the next post you should consider reading this article, Cambodia Forty Years After Genocide.

I would like to encourage you also to use the tag The Academic Traveller if you are writing a post that discusses the influence of tourism or takes a serious look at the motivations of our travel decisions. Together we can build a topic that gets to the core issues and impacts of tourism.