Associate Web Editor Peter Moore chats to Dom Joly about their mutual fascination with the destinations most people avoid
As I meet Dom Joly in the Groucho Club in London I notice his right leg is in plaster. Had he been kicked by an irate North Korean bureaucrat he'd just pranked? Or snapped it leaving some war torn country in a hurry on assignment for The Independent?
'I broke it on Total Wipeout,' he explains. He'd just traversed the notorious Big Red Balls when his metatarsal snapped. 'I was coming second,' he adds ruefully.
As much as I'd like to quiz him about getting through Sucker Punch or his tactics for conquering Crash Mountain, I'm here to talk about his new travel book, The Dark Tourist. It follows his quest to visit the world's most unlikely tourist destinations and saw him spending a weekend in Chernobyl, skiing the segregated slopes of Iran and battling wits with the bureaucrats of North Korea.
The book says your attraction to Dark Tourism comes from your childhood in Lebanon. As a kid you had a collection of shrapnel, for example. Do you think that’s where your fascination with more unusual destinations comes from?
I don’t know. Growing up in Lebanon I’m aware that places like that always throw up a lot more than maybe you know about. But I think I realised when I was doing the book that what I really wanted to do was connect with history - being in the same place as say JFK for example. In the old days people used to go to saints tombs, used to go on pilgrimages. It’s a pilgrimage really, to things that interest me. I don’t have a religion, but I’m fascinated by current affairs and stories like that so to be there kind of I felt a connection.
So you were drawn to these places because they were places where things happened that changed things - the world, politics?
Everything in the book had some sort of impact on me. The assassination of JFK obviously happened before I was born, but I was always really aware of him and Martin Luther King. Cambodia was going on while Lebanon was going on. Chernobyl, I remember being at school and hearing about it on the news so yeah, these were things that impacted me at some stage and I always thought I just want to go and visit them.
Coming from Australia and the UK, we all live these normal lives. But you go to places like Cambodia, the Killing Fields, and you read about kids, same time I was at school, the same age, denouncing their parents.
That’s what I found so astonishing in Cambodia. You suddenly found yourself thinking, anyone over a certain age, 40, 'They’re alive, why are they alive? It really freaks you out. This whole generation kind of like Nazis in Germany.
What did the locals make of you visiting these places?
All these places I went to, where I visited, you kind of realised you felt a bit weird so when I was in Ground Zero, no New Yorker goes to see Ground Zero and in Kiev, none goes to see Chernobyl. So everyone ignores the thing on their own doorstep and you do find it quite odd when you’re there. That’s when you start worrying that you’re spectating on their disaster.
Reading your book I really warmed to Om - a really sweet guy but with that real Buddhist forgiveness thing about him.
Yeah he was really amazing. When I met him I was green in Cambodia. He’s really nice and you ask him my he’s called Om and you go, 'Of course, Buddhism!' But when you dig a bit deeper you discover he’s a Buddhist because he was taken away from his parents and then you find out his dad has died. He didn’t just pour it out like we would, it just slowly came out very matter-of-fact.
I went to this village with him and he just casually announces that this was where he was kept prisoner and that was the guy who had kept him hostage for two days. They literally waved at each other! It was a very Buddhist thing to do. It was like 'what will be will be'. I wanted Om to get angry, I wanted him to go and punch the bastard.
On the flipside, you meet Nmeh En, the evil photographer from Tuol Sleng, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison.
That’s what was incredible. The fact that I’d just heard Om’s story and then met this guy and suddenly realised that this guy would have taken Om’s dad’s photo before he died.
I found those photos at Tuol Slen really harrowing.
You know why? Someone said when you see a picture of a dead body the soul has gone - dead bodies just don’t affect you but it’s because they’re alive that’s what’s really harrowing.
And you can see they’re already been through a lot.
You can see they’ve all got this look in their eyes.
And this guy, Mr En, is trying to flog the camera he used to take these photos!
He was just an evil, evil, evil man. It was the most extraordinary thing to be talking to a guy like that. The banality of evil. Once you realise who it is you think he should have horns or something but actually he looked like an insignificant little man.
Did you ever feel in danger?
Not really. It's more frightening in my home town in the Cotswolds, 11.30 at night after everyone has been chucked out of the pubs and they're looking for a fight.
I did get a sense of being cut off from the world though, especially in North Korea. It's the only place I’ve ever been that you’re genuinely cut off - no internet, no phone, no nothing. So suddenly hearing something so familiar was really cool actually.
The only other place I had that was in the jungle (for I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here). It’s the only other place that I’ve been so cut off that any little whisper of normal life really means a lot to you. Usually I hate people on those shows when they start weeping when they get a letter from home but actually, having done it, it is extraordinary. You don’t see how they treat you, but they actually treat you badly. You get taken around in blacked out buses and you’re not allowed to talk to anyone on the crew and it is very similar to being a hostage or being in North Korea. So I think my training was quite good for that actually, having been to North Korea. Boarding school and North Korea was perfect for it.
You’re famous for pushing boundaries in your TV programs. Did you hold back in places like North Korea and Cambodia or do you find yourself still compelled to bridle against the silly bureaucratic rules?
I think you definitely should respect countries when you go there. I hate people who feel ‘I’m a westerner I should be able to do what I want’ - I really object to that ... but ... bureaucracy ... I’m really bad with that, I’m terrible. I'm banned from three rental agencies in England, I'm banned from the passport office in London. My reference hadn’t filled out her phone number so I filled it out. But because I filled it out rather than her, I had to come back another day. I just went mental. Here it’s a battle with the Kensington parking sharks so it’s sort of quite fun. But of course, a battle with bureaucracy in somewhere like North Korea is a lot more serious. I don’t actually mind dictatorial behaviour towards me, but I do hate it when it’s just pointless.
When you were in North Korea they wanted to check your camera's memory card. You gave them one full of photos of bottles. The guard's not stupid, he would know that you’re winding him up, but his attitude was that he just didn’t care. I suspect if you tried the same thing in America you’d be thrown in jail.
That’s the interesting thing. The day before I arrived in North Korea I found out that English people were banned for doing some weird thing, they’d stopped them going in, but Simon (from Koryo Tours) said to be that as long as everything appears to be by the book it’s that not big a problem. As long as I had a visa the guy on the border would think ‘That’s my job done, I don’t need to worry about it.’ But you’re right, in America there’d be a twenty-hour interrogation about why I was taking photos of bottles and that I was a terrorist.
In the show I’m doing at the moment (Welcome to Where-ever I Am) I talk about landing cards because I reckon you can judge a country by it's landing card. I show a copy of the American one and it is extraordinary. It’s got things like ‘Are you coming to America with the intention of causing terrorist activities or genocide?' The North Korea one just says do not bring in killing devices and excite. The American one gives you that choice of yes or no as if you say yes and they decide if it’s OK genocide or not. Who in the history of the world ticked yes?
It struck me in the book that North Korea and America weren’t that different in the way they were trying to control people with bureaucracy.
I think America was much stricter. They have these big signs up saying ‘We’re the face to our country’ and 'We’re your first point of contact.' The moment I get there, because I was born in Beirut, I’m whisked off somewhere, and you ask what’s going on and they say ‘Sir! Sit down!’ I went through once and they took me aside, looked through all my stuff and said ‘It says here you speak French. Why do you speak French?’ Why do I speak French? I mean how do you answer that? So I can speak to French people and not end up like you!
I remember going to the States and they saw my Iranian visa they said ‘Why would you want to go there?’
Go to Israel with one, fucking hell. And then I had to tell them that I went skiing and that was it. They went nasty then, really nasty. They think it’s all Mad Mullahs.
I have a theory that it’s the fact that people don’t go to these 'Dark Destinations' that makes them so great to visit, not because they are where bad things happened or any macabre thrill like that.
I like the title ‘Dark Tourist’ but I’m not a grave chaser. That’s why I didn’t go to Auschwitz or anywhere like that. It’s places where everyone has fucked off that appeal to me. The ideal cover image for my book would be me getting off an evacuation plane as everyone is being rushed out.
People treat you differently in those places too. It’s not like Majorca where you’re just another sunburnt Brit. People are just as interested in you as you are in them.
I agree totally. You can see how those countries have been ruined by tourism. Not only are they not as interesting any more, they despise you. They’ve had to butcher whatever they’ve got to give you a little bit sized piece of their culture with an English breakfast. They look at us and think 'We rely on you for our living but fuck it’s so depressing!' I hate that homogenisation. What happened to British high streets is now happening everywhere.
Is there a benefit to locals with people going to these off-the-beaten-track destinations?
Not a tangible one, not in the sense that you boost the economy, other than bring in a tiny bit of money. It's more about changing attitudes. I don’t know anyone who has been to North Korea, all I knew was what I saw on the news and you never see a good news story coming out of North Korea. I like they fact that because I’m known for being a squirrel and for being on tele people reading this book aren’t the people who would normally read a travel book. People are reading about Iran that would never read about it normally. Every time I talk about Iran you see people thinking ‘Really? I just thought they were all insane.’
Do you think just being in North Korea, being seen by the locals had a positive effect?
You know, North Korea was the only place I’ve been where you didn’t get that. I’d been behind the Iron Curtain and you always got people trying to talk with you, contact you when the guides weren’t there. North Korea is so different from that. They have no interest. Whether it’s mass brainwashing, they just genuinely don’t like foreigners. You know how in any country you go to they smile at you? There they snarl at you. And they don’t try to talk to you, they have no interest in converting you, they don’t feel the need. It’s almost like, you just wouldn’t understand, don’t worry about it, it’s not for you. It’s extraordinary.
That’s so different from Iran. People were disappointed when they found out I wasn’t American. They wanted to talk to an American.
Oh but they love Americans! My thing about Iran, it’s maybe a bit simplistic, but the Middle East is basically run by Western despots with slightly nutty populations whereas Iran is the flipside. It’s run by nutters but the population just want to drive BMWs and live in Tehrangeles. They’re the most Americanised people outside America.
One of my favourite passages in The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux is one where he says he always knew he’d hit rock bottom when he found himself in the company of Aussies. For you it seems to be Kiwis.
I love Kiwis. I’m married to a Canadian and I think Kiwis and Canadians are slightly chippy. I love the fact they always have a flag on their rucksacks because the last thing they want to be is American or Australian. And there is something about Kiwis and Canadians - and Aussies - that they go off on their big year of travel. They were just everywhere I went. Weirdly, ten years ago it was always Aussies. But there seem to be less now. It’s Kiwis now. Kiwis will always find the cheapest, shittiest place in a town and they fight to find that. If there’s one pound less to pay they’ll do it.
I wonder if it’s because the Australian dollar is getting stronger?
It might be. You’re all a bit pampered now.
You’re obviously quite well known through your TV shows. I guess part of the appeal of going to these kind of places is that you can be a bit more anonymous.
Totally. I can do exactly as I want. Except, weirdly, I can be in these places and suddenly someone comes up and recognises me. But I quite like that then because if you meet someone in the middle of a temple somewhere and have a normal chat. They’re always so freaked out, well you’re exactly the same as me, doing the same thing as me.
There’s a couple of times in the book where people are looking around, expecting to be part of some prank.
I quite liked that! Sometimes I play it up a bit, I do something a bit odd, looking around.
I put out a call on Facebook and Twitter for any questions people wanted to ask you. The most common question I got was whether you ever find out what was wrong with your bollock, the one that caused you so much grief in North Korea.
I never found out! I kind of assumed in the end that I must have trapped it. We had quite a long coach journey and I think I must have just sat awkwardly. I never figured it out. Obviously it doesn’t happen that often so it does freak you out. When you’re in this situation where you are so cut off it freaks you out even more. It’s not a place for a hypochondriac, North Korea. Everything is extenuated quite a lot and I remember having three days where I couldn’t enjoy North Korea because I was worrying about my testicle ... and turd omelets. But it came back down, I have no idea, but it’s alright now.
How does your wife feel about you going off to these dangerous places?
She doesn’t mind particularly me going off to dangerous places. She just minds me going away too much. I’ve been at home for a long time now so I’m due to be going away for a bit. Part of me is thinking ‘What am I doing? My kids are growing up but I just love it, it refreshes me. And also, it just gives me ideas, you just think about things and experience new things.
Well, I’m going monster hunting next. My next book is called Scary Monsters and Supercreeps and I’m going to go and try and find the big six monsters. Big Foot in Northern California, the Yeti in the Himalayas. There’s supposedly this thing called Mokele-Mbembe in the Congo which is like a dinosaur. I’m going on a package tour of Transylvania. And Loch Ness, of course. I haven’t chosen my sixth monster yet.
Obviously I’m not going to find these monsters and even if I did no-one would believe me because it’s me, but it’s more because they’re in interesting places. I’m more interested how monsters a very good tourist puller. I mean Bhutan has only just opening up, suddenly they’re announcing all these Yeti sightings and you’re like ‘Really?’. People just love a Yeti sighting. And Big Foot, you can study Sasquatchology at the University of Oregon. I like the fact that people don’t want them to be found. It's just a fun thing and it’s a bit of mystery, I love that.