I’ve mentioned in the past that reading prior to a trip is one of the best ways to enhance travel. Learning about a particular destination’s history and culture beforehand gives meaning to those ancient stones and pretty paintings. This is probably even more important when it involves a country or region that isn’t as well represented in ones’ own culture. Sure, most Westerners know a bit about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, but what about the Khmer? Sadly, despite increasing tourism to Cambodia, most people leave without really appreciating the breadth of Khmer culture. So here are five books that should be on everyone’s reading list before visiting what is one of Southeast Asia’s most fascinating countries.
1) Khmer: The Lost Empire of Cambodia – Thierry Zephir
In many respects, the Khmer Empire really is a lost civilization. A regional powerhouse between the 11th and 13th century, little has survived apart from the fascinating archeological and an important firsthand account from a Chinese diplomat in 1296. Although Zephir’s book is short, it does an excellent job of using what little we do know to provide an overview of the culture and a concise history of the period. Furthermore, Khmer is filled with photos, maps, and primary source excerpts to tie the history directly to the temples of the Angkor Archeological Park, making it an excellent, if not essential, companion piece to any guidebook of the area.
2) Khmer Mythology: Secrets of Angkor – Vittorio Roveda
For a deeper dive into the religion and culture of the Khmer Empire, look no further than this book. Khmer Mythology offers an introduction to the great Hindu epics that are so prominent among the temple carvings at Angkor Archeological Park and then provides detailed explanations of the major reliefs throughout Cambodia, including descriptions of battles, religion, and daily life. Indispensable if you plan on spending more than a day amongst the temples of the Angkor Archeological Park.
3) The Sea Wall – Marguerite Duras
The Sea Wall or Un barrage contre le Pacifique chronicles the story of a widowed family’s fight against the colonial system juxtaposed against their futile attempts to save their farmland from the sea. Colonial Cambodia is often overshadowed by France’s involvement in Vietnam. Celebrated French novelist Duras sheds light on this period by drawing on her own life experiences in Indochina to expose both the material and moral poverty in what is today Sihanoukville Province.
4) When the War was Over – Elizabeth Becker
A lot has been written of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but few books offer as much insight into the regime as Becker’s. As a Washington Post journalist in Cambodia, Becker witnessed firsthand the rise of the Khmer Rouge and was one of three English-speaking writers to have received a private audience with Pol Pot. Her melding of historical facts with at times a surreal personal narrative makes this book a must for anyone traveling to Cambodia or interested in one of the most brutal regimes in history.
5) Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge: Inside the Politics of National Building – Evan R. Gottesman
Often forgotten is that Vietnam occupied Cambodia for more than 10 years following the overthrow of Pol Pot. Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge is a detailed history of this period backed by years of archival research by Gottesman. And, yes, at times it’s a bit dry, but for anyone wanting to understand the current state of Cambodia, I would argue fundamental. Making appearances throughout the book is Hun Sen, who went from a Khmer Rouge battalion commander to helping lead the Vietnamese invasion of his homeland. He has been the guiding hand of Cambodian politics ever since.