Phnom Penned: 10 great books about Cambodia

October 21, 2016

Cambodia’s literary canon is comparatively threadbare. There are no old masters like Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami nor contemporary voices like Khaled Hosseini or Mohsin Hamid — a fact of little wonder when one considers what happened in the country between 1975 and 1979.

In that short period, nearly all of Cambodia’s artists, writers, and musicians were systematically killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime as part of its radical attempt to engineer a classless peasant society. The culling delivered a devastating blow to the county’s artistic heritage — one that still reverberates 40 years later.

In lieu of grand swaths of literary fiction, the reader can turn to an alternative set of books about Cambodia. From lighthearted travelogues and culinary guides to political biographies and poignant memoirs, this chronological list offers a look at the country’s extraordinary legacy.

1. A Dragon Apparent

by Norman Lewis – Travelogue, 2003

In this compelling travelogue, author Norman Lewis journeys through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as the sun begins to set on French colonial rule. He experiences the region before the devastating Vietnam War and paints a portrait of local cultures struggling to retain their identity in the grip of Western rule.

Lewis meets monks, farmers, emperors, and colonialists, and shares their stories with wit and intelligence. In fact, it’s Lewis who reportedly inspired famed English novelist Graham Greene to visit the region and write The Quiet American.

Originally published in 1951, A Dragon Apparent is a fascinating account of a corner of the world since changed drastically and irrevocably.

A Dragon Apparent. Cover image shared under fair use.

A Dragon Apparent. Cover image shared under fair use.

2. Notes from My Travels

by Angelina Jolie – Travelogue, 2003

Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie is an unlikely author — a fact she acknowledges at the start of the book — but her honest, unvarnished accounts of working with refugees across the world prove both compelling and insightful.

In this travelogue, Jolie charts her travels through Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, and Ecuador as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She meets an array of people who have suffered debilitating violence and destitution, and offers candid snapshots of their lives.

Jolie’s jumble of personal notes and scrawled insights can feel jarring at times, but the visceral quality adds an emotional depth seldom found in celebrity-penned memoirs.

Bayon Temple at Angkor Prasat.

Bayon Temple at Angkor Prasat.

3. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

by Philip Short – Political biography, 2006

How did an idealistic dream of equality and prosperity lead to one of humanity's worst nightmares? This is the question author Philip Short seeks to answer in this biography of Pol Pot.

Having witnessed Pol Pot at his charismatic best during an official visit to China in 1975, Short wonders how the leader’s utopian ideals led to the killing of two million Cambodians in the ensuing four years. In search of an answer, he travels through Cambodia, interviewing Khmer Rouge leaders and delving into previously closed archives around the world. He interviews key Khmer Rouge figureheads Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, who speak here for the first time.

There is scant information about Pol Pot, so Short’s resulting book isn’t so much a biography as a political text. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating read and one of the most comprehensive accounts of the merciless leader.

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. Cover image shared under fair use.

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. Cover image shared under fair use.

4. The Lost Executioner

by Nic Dunlop – Political biography, 2006

Haunted by an image of Khmer Rouge-official comrade Duch, photographer Nic Dunlop sets out to track down the war criminal.

"I needed to understand how a movement that laid claim to a vision of a better world could instead produce a revolution of unparalleled ferocity; how a seemingly ordinary man from one of the poorer parts of Cambodia could turn into one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century," writes Dunlop.

In a work that combines impressive investigative journalism and enthralling first-person narrative, Dunlop draws out the details of Duch's transformation from sensitive schoolchild and dedicated teacher to the revolutionary killer who later slipped quietly back into village life.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Dunlop’s quest culminates in an unexpected encounter with Duch himself, setting in motion events that would eventually lead to his surrender.

5. First They Killed My Father

by Loung Ung – Memoir, 2006

A precocious child even at the age of five, Loung Ung led a relatively comfortable life in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Ung enjoyed the freedom of open city markets, fried crickets, and chicken fights — but life quickly changed when the Khmer Rouge conquered the city in April 1975.

Ung’s family fled their home and were later separated in their bid to survive. Ung was trained as a child soldier and her siblings were sent to forced labour camps, only reuniting years later when the Vietnamese unseated the regime.

First They Killed My Father is Ung’s haunting account of life under the Khmer Rouge and her struggle to survive despite overwhelming odds.

Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

6. The Gods Drink Whiskey

by Stephen T. Asma – Part memoir, part Buddhist philosophy, 2006

The tagline — “Buddhism, Booze, and the Four Noble Truths” — does this book a disservice of sorts. The Gods Drink Whiskey is not a laddish foray into an exotic land, it’s a thoughtful account of a personal journey through Buddhist Cambodia. Asma is in fact a professor of philosophy who travelled to Cambodia to teach at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh.

Asma’s book interrogates both Eastern and Western maladies — poverty and violence in Cambodia and the relentless pursuit for “more” in America — and wonders if each half would benefit from the other. Asma craves neither a spiritual America nor capitalist Cambodia, but acknowledges that each has something to offer the other.

Part memoir, part self-help book, The Gods Drink Whiskey is an excellent option for anyone interested in Buddhism.

7. From Spiders to Water Lilies

by Gustav Auer and Sok Chhong – Cookbook, 2007

A list of books about Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without an ode to its culinary delights — and what better source than Friends the Restaurant? This much-loved restaurant in Phnom Penh serves up tasty tapas and famous frozen shakes all while training disadvantaged youth in the field of hospitality.

From Spiders to Water Lilies offers recipes for more than 40 traditional Cambodian staples and delicacies, from traditional fish amok to unique dishes like banana flower salad with grilled Cambodian bacon and, yes, crispy fried tarantulas...

8. To Cambodia with Love

by Twefic El-Sawy – Essay collection, 2010

To Cambodia with Love is a heart-warming ode to this gem of a country. Through its collection of more than 50 personal essays, the book takes in everything from a tarantula brunch in the remote Cambodian countryside to a leisurely cyclo ride through the streets of Phnom Penh.

Contributors include the aforementioned Loung Ung, as well as Angkor Wat expert Dawn Rooney and long-time Lonely Planet author Nick Ray. Each essay is supplemented by a practical fact file detailing how readers can follow the author’s footsteps.

With full-colour photographs and first-person insights into dining, shopping, sightseeing, and culture, To Cambodia With Love is a unique guide for the traveller in Cambodia.

To Cambodia with Love. Cover image shared under fair use.

To Cambodia with Love. Cover image shared under fair use.

9. In the Shadow of the Banyan

by Vaddey Ratner – Novel, 2012

Vaddey Ratner is a Khmer Rouge survivor and author of In the Shadow of the Banyan, a New York Times-bestselling novel that draws on the author’s own childhood.

It follows the tale of seven-year-old Raami whose childhood ends the day her father comes home with news of the civil war sweeping the streets of Phnom Penh. Raami’s carefully guarded royal privilege proves ineffectual in the ensuing chaos and she finds herself swept away in the so-called revolution.

Over the next four years, Raami endures bereavement, starvation, and brutal forced labour, all in the pursuit of survival. The resulting tale is an extraordinary act of storytelling that takes a very real human tragedy and builds a novel that’s both poignant and piercing.

In the Shadow of the Banyan. Cover image shared under fair use.

In the Shadow of the Banyan. Cover image shared under fair use.

10. Temple of a Thousand Faces

by John Shors – Novel, 2013

In arguably lighter fare, Temple of a Thousand Faces is an epic saga of love, betrayal, and survival at all costs.

The novel is set in the 12th century when Angkor Wat is ruled by the benevolent Prince Jayavar. When his land is forcibly taken by the conquering Cham King Indravarman, Jayavar narrowly escapes death and flees to the jungle with his wife, Ajadevi. There they set up camp and begin to amass an army to reclaim their land and free their people.

The book does stray into darker Game of Thrones–style material, and at more than 500 pages is not a quick read, but Shors’ prose is so evocative, you can almost feel the humidity of the jungle and the buzzing mosquitoes as you turn the pages. It’s well worth a read on a longer trip through the country.

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures in Cambodia encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.

Previous Article
Southern Africa by radio dial
Southern Africa by radio dial

Travel writer Pam Mandel finds that turning the (virtual) dial toward today’s music from Southern Africa le...

Next Article
6 amazing wildlife encounters
6 amazing wildlife encounters

From the educational and the thought-provoking, to the awe-inspiring and truly wild, these wildlife experie...

Sign Up for our Newsletter

Sign Up Here