Dom Joly's travels in the dark
Comedian Dom Joly has been to some of the world’s more dramatic destinations. Jon Perks spoke to him.
Scan the shelves at your local Thomas Cook or Going Places, and you’d expect to see brochures tempting you to the sun-drenched shores of the Caribbean, the powdery slopes of the French Alps or the stunning scenery of the Scottish Highlands.
You wouldn’t reckon on being offered a coach trip to North Korea, a ski trip to Iran or a tour of the US taking in scenes of famous assassinations.
Welcome to the world of Dom Joly Travel.
The comedian turned travel writer – perhaps best known as chief prankster on Trigger Happy TV – is a “dark tourist” – someone who visits destinations off the beaten track, where Starbucks have yet to set up shop and you just don’t know what to expect.
It’s the diametric opposite to lounging by the pool thumbing through the latest Dan Brown.
For the last 12 months, Joly has left his wife and two kids behind at home in the idyllic Cotswolds and headed out on half a dozen unconventional sightseeing trips – Cambodia, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Chernobyl, Beirut and the US.
The results – his new book The Dark Tourist – are both laugh out loud funny (his email from North Korea to ‘Comrade Wife’, being stuck in a lift in Kiev and chased by a security guard out of the ‘JFK’ book depository in Dallas) and moving – particularly the haunting scenes in Chernobyl and Cambodia – where he met both victims and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.
“I kind of make this joke, but it’s true; even in the Cotswolds, which is nice and pruned, I feel more nervous going round Cirencester at 11 in the evening,” says Dom, who grew up in war-torn Beirut.
“There are just hoards of youths looking to beat you up – especially if they see someone off the telly and they’re a bit pissed – but I didn’t feel that in any of the countries I went to.
“Almost everybody knows me for things like Trigger Happy, so I was sort of aware that I was supposed to be writing a funny book, but I hate it when people get too serious,” says Dom, who was speaking to the Birmingham Post at a book signing in Waterstones at the Pavilions.
“I was really proud of the piece on Cambodia; I was a bit worried because, of all the places, it’s actually becoming a tourist destination and I thought ‘where am I going to go? To the killing fields and that’s it’ and then I had the story of this guy turning up and saying ‘do you want to see Pol Pot’s shoes?’ and then ending up in Phnom Penh to meet someone who’s been photographed by this guy and then end up at a war crimes trial – I thought ‘that’s nearly a story’.
“The real difference in places like Cambodia is trying to be funny – because however terrifying a country is, there are funny things happening – but on the other hand you didn’t want to step over the line and take the piss – but so far no one has been offended, so I think I’ve managed to do the balance.”
One such moment comes in Cambodia, a country where thousands of land mines still lie buried and undiscovered. Joly finds himself following his guide through a mined area, wondering if it’s common sense or bad manners to literally follow in his footsteps:
“No one tells you how to behave in a minefield, but I’m afraid you do think ‘well he’s gone so I’ll just be behind him’ and ‘if a mine went off, what’s the range – am I safe?”
Ironically, Joly says he’s finding his current book tour more stressful than any of his Dark Tourist travels.