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Reading Cambodia: Five Essential Books

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Olivia Snaije found this witty

I was 24 years young when I traveled up the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City. The river itself snakes through South Vietnam, encompassing marshlands, swamps and vast amounts of tributaries. The air was thick and oven hot, and the boat chugged along making sputtering noises as the winding banks on both sides pulled away to reveal enormous width or pushed in to smother us.

When we got to the Cambodian border, I saw something I’ve never forgotten: a man on a bicycle cruising by us with a cage strapped behind him. It was an inordinately large and cumbersome cage, but he handled it quite well. Especially when you consider it was holding hundreds and hundreds of spitting, squirming rats.

For images such as this, Cambodia etched itself permanently in my mind. Between that first trip and the second, three years later, Cambodia humbled me and gave me a lot to appreciate and think about. I’d seen poverty and burn victims and injuries to an extent I never imagined existed (and I wish I’d given more to them). These were the horrors and the hangover left from Pol Pot’s regime. I marveled at the quiet horrors of the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison.

I tried “happy pizza” in the lake district before it was razed. I was kicked out of the Heart of Darkness bar by some trans regulars and fell in love with a barmaid in the pub next door. I got food poisoning, one of the worst hangovers still to this day (beer, long island iced tea, beer, long island iced tea, beer, etc…) and I lost myself in the sprawl of the glorious Angkor Wat while monkeys lazed about me, the sun sapped every drop of liquid from my body and the crickets chirped so loudly it was painful to hear.

But between the bright warm mornings and the satisfying hum of motorbikes at night, Cambodia is a country forever blighted by its past. There are reminders of it's difficult history everywhere; through its tourist attractions and tours and stalls peddling historical books and DVDs. Most remarkable of all, it is a city of great paradox with many of the survivors of the Pol Pot regime doing their utmost to survive in poverty alongside the still powerful ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers who once held and tortured their relatives.

To me, these books are vital reading for anyone who wants to get under the skin of Cambodia and trace its history from its pre-Angkorian era to its present day struggle under the fist of Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself an ex-Khmer Rouge radical.

Survival in the Killing Fields

In 1985 Haing S. Ngor won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his part in the film The Killing Fields. He played the part of real-life photojournalist Dith Pran, a man who endured four years of starvation, torture and forced labour under the Pol Pot regime. In his own life, however, Ngor was also a victim of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship. He survived three periods in Cambodian internment camps and watched his wife perish along with all his family members. He writes about it all in this wonderful book and after his Oscar glory he would write a number of books as well as starring in several films. Sadly, he was murdered outside his home in 1996. Dith Pran’s The Death and Life of Dith Pran is also an excellent read. In a similar vein to Ngor’s, it details his own struggles in the same time period.

Pol Pot

This is the definitive biography of a man once known as Saloth Sar, who would become the leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and hence the leader of the party’s dedicated followers; the Khmer Rouge. With North Vietnamese forces retreating from Cambodia, the party was gaining traction, influence and members. Pot used the support of ex-king and leader of the government-in exile movement Norodom Sihanouk to crush western influence and American ideals of capitalism by taking advantage of a power vacuum and using his own people as an experiment in building an agrarian utopia. His policies and experiments killed between one and three million innocent citizens. Short’s book is both clear and concise with enough depth to help explain the motives behind such an unusual and complex man. 

Voices from S-21

This is the last book on the list to do with the Cambodian genocide of 1975-79. The S-21 prison was Pol Pot’s secret prison (now an incredible museum). This former high school’s five buildings were converted into an interrogation and extermination camp (it’s rumoured that of the 14,000 known captives, fewer than a dozen people survived). The actual site itself is chilling and this book does well to transpose this mood onto paper. For anyone really interested in the hidden history of Cambodia, this is a definite eye-opener.

A History of Cambodia

This is a book I went in search of when I returned from Cambodia. I found it quite hard at first to get my hands on a complete history of the country, I needed something to fill in the blanks. It’s the second time Mr Chandler appears in this list and certainly A History of Cambodia does what it says on the tin, offering a magnificent overall view of Cambodia suitable for the scholar or the general reader. Everything is mapped out here, beginning with the pre-Angkorian days, on through its many, many wars and the years of French colonisation, right into the Pot regime and out the other end of modern day Cambodia with a chapter on its well documented land-grab issues, fraud and human rights abuses.

To Cambodia with Love

And now to end with something a little different. To Cambodia with Love is part memoir, part travelogue, part cookbook, and part essay collection. El-Sawy is the photographer and Andy Brouwer is the editor and contributor. There are also contributions from acclaimed writer Loung Ung (whose book First They Killed My Father has just been adapted by Angelina Jolie and will be released early next year) and Lonely Planet. Go on the prowl for secrets swords, tarantula snacks, temples and off the beaten track adventures. This is a really beautiful and thoughtfully packaged book. A must for any diehard Cambodia fan.


Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More

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