Reading in Cambodia

Reading some background to the country seemed essential when planning a trip to Cambodia this January 2014 because of the devastation suffered by the country during the Pol Pot Regime in the 1970s, from which it is still recovering. However, it is hard to read accounts of genocide and when I asked my daughter to recommend just one book on this topic, this was it:
Nic Dunlop: ‘The Lost Executioner’- The title refers to Kaing Guek Eav or Comrade Douch who was the head of the Secret Police during the Khmer Rouge Period of 1975 and 1979. In this role he conducted interrogation and torture in the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison, from which thousands of people were taken to the Killing Fields for execution. It is estimated that between one and two million people were killed during this period. Dunlop, a photographer and writer, tracked Douch down to the Samlaut district in 1999 and interviewed him. After this interview Douch gave himself up to the authorities and is the first former Khmer Rouge to be tried and found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the court in Phnom Penh. Through his travels in Cambodia in search of information about Douch, investigations and interviews with family members, former prison guards at the Toul Sleng prison and political figures, Dunlop builds up a picture, not just of Douch, but of the political and historical context in which the Khmer Rouge and fanatics like Douch could come to power. The writing is accessible and the account very personal. This is an excellent book.
If you want to read about Douch’s trial, read Thierry Cruvellier’s ‘The Master of Confessions; The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer’ reviewed here.
Well, I didn’t just read one book about Cambodia after all-there was also Vaddey Ratner’s ‘In the Shadow of the Banyan’. This is a novel about a family’s experience during the Khmer Rouge Period of 1975 from 1979, told from the point of view of the daughter Raami, Though a novel, it is based on the experiences of Vaddey Ratner , who lived through that time in Cambodia and was 5 years old in April 1975 at the Fall of Phnom Penh. At the end of the book, Raami eventually flees with her mother to the US as a refugee, which is what happened to Vaddey Ratner. The family in the book is wealthy, educated and in fact part of the royal family, which makes them a particular target for the Khmer Rouge, who sought to kill those they categorised as privileged in any way. The book covers the chaos of the evacuation from Phnom Penh, the hardship, deprivation and cruelty in the labour camps and the physical and psychological torment suffered by Raami and her family. Although the story is absolutely harrowing, the writing nevertheless conveys the beauty of the Cambodian landscape with great delicacy and attention to detail; I loved the section where Raami, her mother and sister stay at Stung Khae with the kind elderly peasant couple Pok and Mae, whose lives are tuned to the rhythms of the monsoon and its effects on the rice harvest. Here Raami can be a child, drifting in Pok’s boat amongst lotus flowers, fishing for shrimps and minnows. The novel also depicts the cultural wealth of Cambodia and it is the love of language and stories which sustain Raami and her family during the hardships and brutality of captivity, although many do not survive. Be warned- this is no easy read because of the distressing subject matter but it is a testimony to the courage and humanity of those Cambodians who suffered and died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge as well as to the writer revisiting this unspeakably painful period.
François Bizot- ‘Le Portail’- ‘The Gate’.-Cambodia was a French Protectorate from 1864 to 1953 and traces of French influence are visible in the architecture of Phnom Penh today. (See Jean-Michel Filippi’s book ‘Strolling around Phnom Penh’ for walks around the former French district). French archaeologists, art historians and scholars contributed crucially to the restoration of the Angkorian temples north of Phnom Penh from the mid nineteenth century and one figure working in this field more recently is François Bizot, a French ethnologist, who settled in the Siem Reap area in 1965 in order to carry out research. He became fluent in Khmer and, living and working amongst Khmer people, became highly conversant with the Cambodian way of life, its traditions but also contemporary values, hopes and ideals. This knowledge proved indispensable for his own survival but also for the survival of others during the fall of Phnom Penh. The book can be divided roughly into two halves: the first dealing with Bizot’s captivity by the Khmer Rouge and internment in a camp for three months in 1971, where he was interrogated by Douch, and the second dealing with the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975 and Bizot’s role as a negotiator for the community camping out for several weeks in the French embassy. This account of Bizot’s own experiences is a remarkable account of his own courage and tenacity, but also of his negotiating skills and shrewd judgement which were pivotal in those tense weeks beneath the eponymous gate of the French Embassy.
Bookshops can be found in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Kampot and probably many other places in Cambodia with a significant tourist population. The bookshops I came across have all the above books and many others on Cambodia as well as other novels in English and other languages. The heaven of bookshops in Cambodia seems to be the Monument Bookshop in the Departure Lounge of Phnom Penh airport-where I finally found Filippi’s ‘Strolling around Phnom Penh’- have I missed something here or is it really odd and maddening to be offered such a cornucopia of books on Cambodia on departure???

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