Cambodia’s history spans from the magnificence of Angkor to the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge years. There are hundreds of books worth reading before or during your travels; some provide valuable insight into the history, while others paint a vivid and exotic picture of the country and its people. Here are just five recommended reads.
A Woman of Angkor
by John Burgess
John Burgess’ novel, which centres around beautiful female protagonist Sray, adds colour and richness to 12th Century Cambodia and the intriguing ancient culture behind the Kingdom of Angkor. Sray’s destiny takes her from a simple village life to the drama of King Suryavarman II’s royal court and across the seas to China, with each setting revealing something of the culture of the lost kingdom. The novel also attempts to unravel the mystery of Angkor’s crowning jewel, Angkor Wat, which controversially broke with ancient tradition to face west rather than east.
Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison
by David Chandler
Renowned historian David Chandler’s account of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge explores one of its most notorious institutions: S-21 – an interrogation centre of unimaginable horror, known only to high ranking officials and unfortunate prisoners. Chandler’s research included interviews with survivors as well as access to secret documents. His analysis of the psychology of the Khmer Rouge – and similarly brutal regimes provides an insight into the dark days of Cambodia’s late 20th century history.
When Broken Glass Floats
by Chanrithy Him
The old Cambodian proverb, ‘when broken glass floats’, used to describe times when evil triumphs over good, is apt for Chanrithy’s harrowing tale of life under the Khmer Rouge. Her raw and lucid recollections tell of her family’s trek through the ‘Killing Fields’ and the realities of everyday life: no cars, no electricity, and illness, death and fear all around. Her tale is one of family solidarity and the strength of humanity during times of inexplicable horror, but also of tragedy, loss and great regret.
Pol Pot: History of a Nightmare
by Philip Short
After an international catastrophe such as the Cambodian genocide, the world needs, more than anything, to understand why and how it happened. Short’s book is the result of years spent researching the man at the helm, interviewing his surviving counterparts and delving into secret documents and hidden archives to gain more than just a picture. What were his motives? What was he like? And, most importantly, how did the ideology of one man became doctrine, leading to mass murder, slavery, torture and brutality on an enormous scale.
The King’s Last Song
by Geoff Ryman
Ryman’s epic interweaves ancient and modern history and wonderfully melds fact and fiction in a gripping story that became a voice of hope for a nation reeling. When Professor Luc Andrade is suddenly kidnapped while escorting an ancient book discovered at Angkor Wat to the Cambodian capital, two loyal acquaintances make it their mission to recover both man and book. Their story is interwoven with that of the book’s author, King Jayavarman VII, and Ryman beautifully resurrects his ancient words of wisdom to give hope and pride to a nation battered by war and poverty.
Melissa Matthews is Director of Operations at Red Savannah.