Reading Cambodia: Five Essential Books
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.