By John Ruberry

Twenty minutes into the first episode of a new Netflix series, Dark Tourist, not only did I ascertain what dark tourism is, I realized that I am a dark tourist. After all, I’m someone who has vacationed in Detroit. Twice. I’ve visited the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago. I’ve been to Gary, Indiana. Those jaunts are known as urban exploration.

Seeking out similar dangerous and notorious locations outside of cities, such as the radiation hot zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the personality cult-driven capital of Turkmenistan, and the ghost resort town of Famagusta in Cyprus, where the Turkish army bans visitors–is what rounds out dark tourism.

Dark Tourist stars David Farrier, a nerdy journalist from New Zealand who nonetheless is, for the most part fearless, or perhaps I should say foolish. After all, Farrier, during his visit to the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan, swims in Lake Chagan, also known as “Atomic Lake,” which, as you can guess by its name, is radioactive. And he takes a bite from a fish caught there. Afterwards he at least has the good sense to down a shot of vodka.

Ferrier is a darn good reporter who asks what a cosmonaut calls “a profound question” about space travel at a pre-launch press conference.

There are dark tourism tours right under my nose. Several times a year my day job brings me to Milwaukee. But it never occurred to me to search out sites connected with cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. When Farrier was in Wisconsin’s largest city he connected with Dahmer devotees. Weird? Yes. What makes this situation very weird is that most of these fanatics are women. What do they see in this gay man who ate his murder victims? Why are bachelorette parties drawn to Dahmer?

The same episode sees Farrier in Dallas where there are Kennedy assassination tours, including one that employs a Jackie Kennedy impersonator.

How do you top these Dahmer and JFK tours? Why with a Charles Manson trip, of course.

Medellin, Colombia has a thriving Pablo Escobar dark tourism industry. As far as I know there are no Jeffrey Dahmer impersonators driving cabs in Milwaukee, but there is an Escobar reenactor cabbie who threatens to kill Farrier’s loved ones. Also in on the drug lord vacation racket is John Jairo Velásquez, whose nickname is “Popeye.” He claims to have murdered 257 people, including his girlfriend, who was recorded speaking with the DEA. Popeye has gone from killer to charismatic YouTube star.

One episode takes place in Africa. Predictably there is a voodoo sojourn in Benin. Then Farrier visits white nationalists in South Africa. They direct him to a group of Afrikaner survivalists.

There are plenty of disturbing and macabre bits, was well as some humorous ones, including Farrier embedding himself with a group of British men impersonating the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army participating in the world’s largest World War II reenactment, a dinosaur robot checks Farrier into a Japanese hotel, and Farrier is followed by his “guide” in Naypyidaw, the capital city of Myanmar.

The other Asian capital Ferrier treks to in Dark Tourist is Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. Both cities are beautiful–Ashgabat has been called the place where “Las Vegas meets North Korea”–but both are largely devoid of people. Turkmenistan is a dictatorship that has had two cult-of-personality leaders since the Soviet Union collapsed. Myanmar’s capital was founded in 2005 when that nation, now a struggling democracy, was a despotic state.

Blogger on a dark tourist trip in Detroit last year

Autocrats love buildings but not people. That’s a dark truth I learned while watching Dark Tourist.

Warning! There are unpleasant images and scenes in Dark Tourist. I dropped my plan to include the official Netflix trailer in this post because even that clip was too disturbing for a mixed audience. Dark Tourist is rated TV-MA.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

I just visited Myanmar, known to most of us as Burma, where the people have been under the oppressive boot of a huge colonial power, the Japanese fascists and homegrown socialist nut cases for nearly 150 years. Finally, they have democracy, and for the most part, are happy as hell.

Here’s a brief history:

From 1824 to 1886, Britain conquered Burma and incorporated the country into its Indian Empire. After World War II in 1948, Burma attained independence from the British Commonwealth.

In 1962, the military launched a coup and ruled as “socialists” with a sadistic desire to kill their constituents for more than 50 years. In 1990, the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory. Instead of handing over power, the junta placed NLD leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for about 15 years.

Suu Kyi’s party won elections in 2015 and rules the country today, but she could not become president because her children have British passports. Moreover, the military rewrote the constitution before leaving power to allow them to control key ministries.

Nevertheless, the people I met are relieved that they can actually speak freely after years of oppression.

I visited Bagan, the beautiful former capital of the country. Bagan is near the city where George Orwell, a British officer in Burma, wrote The Road to Mandalay. You can find numerous copies of Orwell’s books in the local bazaar.

More than 2,000 Buddhist sites–mainly from the 10th to the 13th century–exist in Bagan, Myanmar.

My Bagan guide told me how he and his family had lost their home under the military in 1990. My guide, now 41, recalls as a teenager the trauma for his family and dozens of others being forcibly removed from their homes. But he sees a bright future for Myanmar, particularly in his hometown, which has some of the most amazing Buddhist temples in the world.

Yangon, the largest city with more than six million people, still shows the signs of the errant ways of the military government. Some of the old British buildings stand vacant and in despair because the military government ignored their decline. The new government has launched a renovation campaign to preserve these beautiful structures that survived World War II but almost did not make it during 50 years of socialist oppression.

Interestingly, there is a growing Roman Catholic community, with a large church and a seminary, Unfortunately, I just missed the time when it was open.

Myanmar still has its problems—a mix of ethnic groups seeking autonomy—and continued tensions between the government and the military. But, for the most part, the people are happy that freedom has come to Myanmar.

The visit made me think that we Americans need to take a breath and realize how lucky we are!

For the third straight year, I am headed to China, where I will teach students at the International School at Jinan University in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton in South China.

The trip allows me an opportunity to travel throughout China, Thailand and Myanmar, where I continue my own “Asia pivot” after years of reporting on terrorism and the Middle East.

I will keep you up to date, with my travels and travails. I start in Xi’an, the one-time capital of China, where the Terra Cotta warriors were found in the 1970s. I visited Xi’an two years ago, but I wanted to travel to a nearby locale, where the only empress of China, Wu Zetian (624-705), is buried.

Wu was the concubine of Emperor Taizong. After his death, she married his successor—his ninth son, Emperor Gaozong, in 655. After Gaozong’s debilitating stroke in 660, Wu Zetian became administrator of the court, a position equal to an emperor, until 705.

She is buried in the Qianlong Mausoleum, which is something I’ve always wanted to see.

A mural in the Qianling Mausoleum

Hangzhou, the Venice of China, is my next stop. That’s where the G20 met last year. The city is known for its key role in the early canal system of the country.

Hangzhou

After that, I head out of China as it celebrates May Day, and millions of people throughout the Communist world launch some sort of remembrance for International Workers’ Day.

In Thailand, which has no May Day parties, I will head to the north, where I will stop in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the locale for the famed Golden Triangle.

After a few days, I head for Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which is being ruled rather poorly by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who ousted the longtime dictatorship.

But I’m not there for the politics; I am visiting for the famed Buddhist shrines in Bagan and Yangon.

Buddhist shrines in Myanmar

Then it’s back to southern China, where I will teach Journalism Research and In-Depth Reporting for sophomore students. Here is what my class produced last year: www.writingforjournalism.com. The stories include some about abortion, the elderly, urban policy and more.

The Chinese students are among the best and the brightest, and it’s an opportunity for me to see what the next generation from the Middle Kingdom will be like. For the most part, they resemble my students from the United States, but the work ethic is much stronger.

I’ll keep my head down as North Korea, the South China Sea and other issues swirl around me.