Top 10 books about Cambodia | Cruise Mekong River

Top 10 books about Cambodia

Heart of gold … a pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Heart of gold … a pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

One of my very first memories was the public celebration in Stockholm of the “liberation” of Cambodia in 1975. I was two years old and had been born into the anti-Vietnam war movement. I was seven when Pol Pot was toppled a few years later, and the ghastly images of the killing fields made a strong impression on me. But it was not until I moved to Cambodia in 2001 that the country turned into something of an obsession. To me this intriguing little kingdom became a way to understand the world: through the Cambodian lens many things became clearer.

  1. Song for an Approaching Storm

  2. by

    Peter Froberg Idling

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My first book about Cambodia, Pol Pot’s Smile, deals with the Khmer Rouge’s devastating revolution and follows in the tracks of a Swedish delegation who travelled through the genocide without seeing anything alarming. My new book, Song for an Approaching Storm, is set in the 50s, two decades before the catastrophe. The two have enabled me to spend years in Cambodia, both in the past and the present.

One might look at my following selection and ask where the contemporary Cambodian novels are. The answer, sadly, is that the authors in Cambodia are marginalised and struggling – there aren’t even any publishing houses. Very little of their work is translated into English. Thus, there are many foreign authors in the following list. But good literature knows no nationality or borders.

1. A Cambodian Prison Portrait by Vann Nath

There are many myths about the Khmer Rouge’s bloodthirstiness and brutality, but there was at least one place where they all were real: Security Prison 21, the secret police’s killing machine. Of the 14,000 or so prisoners who were brought there for questioning, only a handful survived. One of them were the artist Vann Nath (1946-2011). In this thin little book, he describes his horrifying year behind the barbed wired walls of S-21. I had the privilege to meet him a couple of times and to me he was a man of very rare moral dignity; he resembled a Cambodian Nelson Mandela. He pitied his torturers as fellow humans, without forgiving them their deeds. This book ranks among the most important and strongest witness-stories of world literature.

2. The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras’s breakthrough novel was published in 1950 and most of the elements that would become the base for her masterpiece, The Lover, more than 30 years later are already there. A fatherless French teenager, living in great poverty at a small plantation in rural Cambodia, gets involved with a much older but wealthy Chinese businessman. Age, race and class make them an impossible couple. Her mother and brother cynically tries to wring a few piastres out of the indecent affair. Less romantic and more sleazy than The Lover, but equally good.

The Cambodian National Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh, designed by Vann Molyvann.
The Cambodian National Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh, designed by Vann Molyvann. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

3. The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop

The head of S-21, Kang Kek Iew, AKA Comrade Duch, is central in this remarkable book. In 1997, the photographer and journalist Nic Dunlop more or less stumbled upon Duch, who had been hiding since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Duch is a paradoxal figure: with a poor peasant background, he graduated as the second best student in the country. He got drawn into the Khmer Rouge and rose through the ranks. After the fall of the regime, he became a born again Christian. Dunlop’s book is empathic, intelligent and a real page-turner. The monster becomes a man.

4. Building Cambodia by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Leon Collings

In the romantic picture of the old French Indochina, there are beautifully faded colonial buildings. But in Cambodia, it is actually the structures from the following decades that are the most fascinating. Blending traditional architecture with European modernism, the then young Cambodian architects, led by the maestro Vann Molyvann, created a fascinating school, like a Cambodian Bauhaus. This short-lived movement’s legacy is now being destroyed by short-sighted capitalism. But the story is well told in this book, awash with beautiful photographs.

5. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short

In David Chandler’s excellent biography Brother Number One from 1993, the author has an eerie feeling of being watched by the elusive and smiling dictator while he is writing the book. A decade later, Philip Short manages to drag Pol Pot out of the shadows. Where the earlier biographer had a more academic approach, Short’s book reads almost like a thriller at times. The research he has put into the book is in itself mindblowing, and the result constitutes a large and important step towards understanding the Cambodian tragedy.

6. A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis

This modern classic was once a beautiful account of a distant place: French Indochina in its twilight. Now it is also the story of a lost world. Norman Lewis traveled through Saigon to Phnom Penh, and then via Angkor Wat on to Laos. Every person Lewis meets – monks, farmers, royalty, colonialists – become important in his or her own right; the writer’s keen eye for telling detail puts the reader right beside him.

7. Phnom Penh by Milton Osborne

It’s easy to be seduced by Phnom Penh, but also to be exhausted, as it’s overwhelming in so many ways. It is therefore most helpful to read Milton Osborne’s personal and interesting cultural and literary history of this fairly new capital (permanent since 1866). Osborne arrived in 1959 and the city has since been a continuing part of his life. His book will make the bustling city more comprehensible – though it remains as overwhelming as ever.

8. Cambodian Folk Stories from the Gatiloke by Kong Chhean

A handful of the 112 folk stories in the Gatiloke, which was used by Cambodian monks to teach their faith and committed to paper in the late 19th century. One shouldn’t make too much of this mix of fables, fairytales and moral lessons, but they offer an interesting insight into some traditional Cambodian beliefs. Some of them have slapstick qualities; others draw moral conclusions that are surprising to a western reader.

9. Pol Pot’s Little Red Book by Henri Locard

This is an intriguing little book for the interested reader who has already one or two more general titles about the Khmer Rouge under his belt. Henri Locard has collected and commented on hundreds of Khmer Rouge propaganda sayings; together they open the door to the chilling and paranoid mindset the revolution created. To quote one of the most famous lines: “To destroy you is no loss; to preserve you is no gain.”

10. Four Faces by Han Suyin

This novel is a charming bagatelle in Han Suyin’s oeuvre. The story is set in the early 60s and revolves around a farcical author congress in Siem Reap, the small, sleepy town in the shadow of Angkor Wat. The congress is just a facade for cold-war conspiracy and suspicion – and shady opium trafficking. The farce, lightly sprinkled with eroticism, turns briefly into a political thriller, and then after a murder and a failed coup d’état, it turns yet again and becomes an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit, with the peaceful and slightly surreal Cambodian kingdom as a backdrop.

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