Like many southeast Asian countries, there is a sad lack of English language literature about the early civilisations of this fascinating region, and an over saturated market when it comes to dissections of and explanations for the more recent conflicts of the late 20th century. In Cambodia the local equivalency of course being Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. For the reader interested in the social and political situation of post colonial socialism, however, there are some excellent works that shed light on otherwise incomprehensible and horrific events, an understanding of which goes a long way to making sense of the current state of the country.
Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short
It would be a gross injustice not to start this list with a sample of the better literature available on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and the terrible tragedy that racked Cambodia in the 1970’s. Philip Short’s book is meticulously researched. Almost like a thriller, this autobiography seeks to understand the motivations and forces that shaped this infamous political leader.
When The War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution by Elizabeth Becker
Award winning journalist Elizabeth Becker started covering Cambodia in 1973 for the Washington Post, as such she was uniquely placed to observe and understand the events of the Khmer Rouge revolution. 'When The War Was Over' is Becker's account of the Cambodian nightmare, ranging from the era of French colonialism and the revival of Cambodian nationalism; 1950's Paris, where Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot received his political education the killing fields of Cambodia government chambers in Washington, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi, and Phnom Penh and the death of Pol Pot in 1998.
A combination of her own observations and experiences, extensive historical research, and exclusive interviews with every Cambodian leader of the past quarter century, this book is a much read for anyone looking to gain an understanding of the events in Cambodia of the latter 20th century.
Children of the River by Linda Crew
This young adult novel follows the life of Sundara, born in Phnom Penh, who immigrates with her family to the United States. Although outwardly adaptive to the American way of life, Sundara struggles to understand the reasoning behind it, and her life becomes a series of questions and contradictions as she navigates her new life, as a teenager at an American high school during the day and in a traditional Cambodian home at night. Facing issues of cultural adaption, as well as the universal struggles of growing up, this book is a good read for adults and children alike and sheds some light on the cultural differences between the west and the east, and the differences of experience that are all too common for children between these two extremes.
A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by Norman Lewis
Travelling through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the twilight of the French colonial regime, Norman Lewis witnessed these ancient civilization in their final days before the devastation of the Vietnam War. He paints a portrait of traditional societies struggling to maintain their identity in the face of advancing western culture, in a diverse cast of characters that ranges from emperors to slaves to French colonial officers, all of who’s stories he brings to life and relevance for the reader. This is still an extremely relevant book for those interested in the culture of the region, and one of the more digestible English language accounts of the more ancient civilizations.
Cambodian Folk Stories from the Gatiloko by Kong Chhean
This collection of 15 folk stories from the Buddhist tradition translated into English were used by Buddhist monks to teach their message and values for thousands of years, and provide a snapshot of the way of life of days gone by.
Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation by Michael Coe
Michael Coe’s well researched and easily readable account of the history of the region and the famous temple complex at Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious structure, presents a precise but complete picture of Khmer cultural history from the Stone Age to the French protectorate of the 19th century. Well illustrated and not too heavy this is a good option for those looking for a more academic exploration of the regions culture.