reading books about cambodia

5 Must-Read Books about Cambodia

I really love Cambodia, and I’m not sure why.

The history is heartbreaking, the environment is ravaged, and the people are traumatized. Still, I love it. And I’ve always had feeling I’d go back.

For most people, when they think of Cambodia, they think of the Khmer Rouge. That makes sense. Pol Pot led one of the most horrific genocides in all of history. But it’s not enough to understand what happened between 1975 and 1979.

Cambodia used to be a mighty empire. Did you know that? And Cambodia’s prime minister of 25 years, Hun Sen, began his career as a Khmer Rouge Battalion Commander. You probably didn’t know that.

Here are 5 books to help you understand Cambodia:

1. A History of Cambodia by David Chandler

Read this book for an understanding of Cambodia’s history before the Khmer Rouge. Chandler starts out pre-Angkor Wat and continues on to present day. I especially enjoyed learning about the Angkor Wat times and his analysis of why regimes rose and fell (and rose and fell) over time. He gives enough information without overwhelming the reader with minutiae. Things do get a little confusing in the post-Khmer Rouge chapters, but those were confusing times with a lot of political side-switching and back-stabbing.

2. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Phillip Short

I haven’t read this book (yet). It does have some great reviews. Pol Pot was the dictator behind the Khmer Rouge. Growing up, his oldest sister was a concubine for the king. Later, he studied in Paris and came to idolize Stalin and Mao. A dream for his country emerged: he would make his country great again by turning it into an agrarian paradise. To do that, he would need to completely reorganize society and get rid of the educated, wealthy, Westernized city people. Out of that dream, the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge emerged.

3. Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor

I really loved this autobiography. The author is a Khmer physician who survives the Khmer Rouge, escapes to a refugee camp in Thailand, and comes to the US as an asylee. You probably know him—he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1985 for his portrayal of Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. (Though, come on, he played the lead.) The book thoroughly and graphically describes the horrors that the “war slaves” experienced during the genocide; a few chapters even have warnings. It is pretty intense. I really really liked this book but don’t want to say too much. Most people have strong reactions to the author. If you’ve read it, let’s talk!

* If you want milder recounting of personal experiencing during the genocide, read First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung.

4. Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures) by Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain & Andrew Thomson

In the 1990’s the UN had some free time on its hands, and the world was feeling guilty about ignoring Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years. So the UN decided to make the country a protectorate and set up an election. Enter the authors of this book who were UN employees (a social worker, a lawyer, and a doctor) during that mission and became friends. They were passionate and tireless aid workers by day and overpaid party-goers by night. The book is a fun read and a subtle critique of the international development world.

5. Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Joel Brinkley

What happens after the genocide? Brinkley looks at how Cambodia’s history, distant and recent, and globalization has shaped the political system, the lives of everyday Cambodians, and the national psyche. This is not a pleasant read, but it is an important one. If you want to understand corruption and the international development world, this is your book. But be warned. This story is a tragedy.

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