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Looking for a good book on history of Cambodia

Posted by wheelse on 13/4/2009 at 04:15

Hi everyone, thought i'd ask here since the crowd seems so generally knowledgeable - I'm heading to Cambodia in early July and sadly know little about the country besides the general outline and was looking for a book recommendation that discusses the khmer rouge, killing fields, the genocide generally. I don't want to read a textbook, per se, but want more background and context than I'll get in a guidebook.

Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

#1 wheelse has been a member since 6/4/2009. Posts: 6

Posted by somtam2000 on 13/4/2009 at 10:03 admin

Here's four texts I've read that were pretty good (along with links to the various pages on Amazon):
A History of Cambodia This is probably the best "general purpose" history text for Cambodia -- from ancient times through to '97.

Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy By Milton Osborne -- not so much a hostory book, but it gives a fascinating insight into the period before and after the Khmer Rouge period. You'll struggle not to think -- wow, I wish I was there in the 50's!

Cambodia By Michael Freeman, a more eclectic look at Camboida with a focus of Angkor and modern day Cambodia. Also contains interesting sections on "Kaking Khmer reliefs" and others. Great pics.

The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future Another by Milton Osborne -- this regional text looks at Cambodia in a more regional manner. A good read during the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang !

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Posted by Asheai on 13/4/2009 at 15:31

Haven't read it myself, but the boyfriend is currently reading this and says it is amazing:

#3 Asheai has been a member since 1/4/2009. Posts: 7

Posted by wheelse on 14/4/2009 at 01:43

Great suggestions, thanks!

#4 wheelse has been a member since 6/4/2009. Posts: 6

Posted by kellyj525 on 11/5/2009 at 01:10

For a different perspective and good reading for the plane....

When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him - excellent book by a survivor.

The Gate by Francois Bizot - French gentleman's account of captured by the Khmer Rouge

#5 kellyj525 has been a member since 10/5/2009. Posts: 6

Posted by brucemoon on 11/5/2009 at 04:57


Sometimes I wonder about book reading.

As a (now retired) academic, factual books give me an overview of the things to expect. But, because I've yet to visit, it's all a bit cerebral. The texts that SomTam suggests generally fall into that category.

After I've visited, and begun to gain an emotional association, then 'factual' texts help 're-organise' my perspective.

That said, a text I read AFTER experiencing Cambodia (and coming to grips with the Khmer Rouge atrocities) was "Stay Alive, My Son" by Pin Yathay 1987 (2000 ed) Silkworm books ISBN 10:974-7551-26-8 (

It is readily available in Siem Reap.

The reason I recommend "Stay Alive, My Son" is that it is perhaps the only book I have ever read where emotion is not constructed within the text (words). The words selected are very expressive and the reader is left in no doubt about the enormity of the events described. But, without emotional expression, Pin Yathay leaves the the reader to emote.

While a very important contribution to an understanding of how the Khmer Rouge impacted on Cambodian society, the literary articulation ensures the book is an extremely powerful expression of history.


#6 brucemoon has been a member since 27/12/2008. Location: Australia. Posts: 1,941

Posted by anelson_82 on 14/7/2009 at 19:03

It's a bit different, but one of the best books I've read is called "River of Time" by Jon Swain.

The film the Killing Fields is based on this book, so if you like the film you'll love this.

Happy Reading!

#7 anelson_82 has been a member since 12/7/2009. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 12

Posted by MADMAC on 23/7/2009 at 18:33

For the kids out there who like to wax eloquent about revolution and it's merits, I strongly recommend a visit to Cambodia or Somalia where you can see the results of revolution up close. The US not withstanding, most revolutions have horrific results for their populations. My Somali experience taught me that evolution, not revolution, is the way to go.

Canada got the same result the US did without near the blood shed. An interesting historical comparative.

The Khmer Rouge did social damage to Cambodia that will take many generations to recover from. It's sad - but a warning to others.

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Posted by BruceMoon on 23/7/2009 at 21:09


"The Khmer Rouge did social damage to Cambodia that will take many generations to recover from."

I agree, but go further. After visiting Angkor, and then reading further about Cambodian history, I've formed the view that the Khmer Rouge were not that different in the way they treated the Khmer people from previous despotic 'empires'. The labour needed to build the Anglorian temples wasn't a case of I'm the king, I want a temple built, so I'll pay good money.... Rather, I want a temple built, go get some slaves and if they don't agree to what I want, melt them down for grease....

This observation in no way supports what the Khmer Rouge did, rather, that the Khmer people appear to have been suffering such despots for hundreds of years.

It is possible that the Khmer can't escape this vicious cycle, maybe they have a collective incapacity to recognise that leadership is not about diety, rather it's about bringing everyone forward.


#9 BruceMoon has been a member since 27/12/2008. Location: Australia. Posts: 1,941

Posted by MADMAC on 30/7/2009 at 01:59

"This observation in no way supports what the Khmer Rouge did, rather, that the Khmer people appear to have been suffering such despots for hundreds of years."

This is, of course, true. But in their recent history nothing compared to the KR.

The Germans were aggressive and militaristic for centuries, but they got past that with enough trauma. Perhaps the Khmer will too. Let's hope this last time was the last time.

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Posted by somsai on 6/9/2009 at 05:08

Actually the history of Cambodia is longer than the four years 1975 to 79.

Many people like Milton Osborne: I've only read his Mekong but most of it was about Cambodia. It gave me a better perspective from which to understand the region.

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Posted by MADMAC on 8/9/2009 at 00:29

The Germans refer to 1945 as "Stunde Null" - zero hour. This is when their history begins anew. Everything before that having been wiped out. Now, of course, no society ever truly starts anew, but I suspect that in the case of Cambodia, like the Germans, the KR event was so dramatic and so devastating that it was something akin to that which the Germans refer to.

That's not to say that pre KR history is not interesting or relevent, but it is dominated by the KR event much like Germany was dominated by the Nazi event.

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Posted by craigdon on 12/2/2010 at 15:42

I just finished reading "Stay Alive, My Son" based on Brucemoon's recommendation above.

It's probably the most upsetting book I've read, but it does help to put things in perspective and give a good insight as to the average persons experiences.

Definitely worth a read.

#13 craigdon has been a member since 23/2/2009. Posts: 6

Posted by laconic on 14/3/2010 at 03:21

While I was there I read and very much enjoyed "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers" by Loung Ung. It is extremely sad, but I needed to understand how the Khmer Rouge years could happen and Loung Ung helps shed some light on what happened from her personal experiences as a little girl.

#14 laconic has been a member since 14/3/2010. Posts: 5

Posted by Danlo on 15/3/2010 at 22:29

I found recently in Canterbury Tales Cafe & Bookshop in Pattaya "ANGKOR, Splendors of the Khmer Civilization.
ISBN 88-8095-839-9
Lovely book with superb photos

#15 Danlo has been a member since 1/3/2010. Posts: 21

Posted by bananas4baba on 3/4/2010 at 02:13

Got to agree with Chandler's A History Of Cambodia. His biography of Pol Pot, Brother Number one, is another a winner and thoroughly researched. However I'd, perhaps, opt for Philip Short's Pol Pot The History Of A Nightmare, merely because it's easier reading and a little more recent.

Ben Kiernan's How Pol Pot Came To Power and The Pol Pot Regime and Michael Vickery's Cambodia 1975-1982 are also to be recommended but perhaps not everybody's idea of an easy read on the beach at Sihanoukville, hanging around waiting for a bus or on those bumpy Cambodian roads (though I found the roads I travelled much improved).

Elizabeth Becker's When The War Was Over covers Cambodian history from the French colonial era - and she was one of the few Westerners to get inside (and out of alive) Democratic Kampuchea. An absolute must.

I'll second Stay Alive, My Son by Pin Yathay and First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung and The Gate by Francois Bizot, one of the few Westerners to survive captivity - in the 'maquis' before the KR seized power. His captor and tormentor? None other than Duch, who was to become the head warden at Tuol Sleng (S-21) and the first KR to go on trial.

Milton Osborne's Sihanouk Prince Of Light Prince Of Darkness throws a good deal of light on another enigmatic protagonist.

On my recent trip to Cambodia I finally found a copy of Laurence Picq's Au Dela Du Ciel (at the Blue Apsara bookshop in Siem Reap). It's in French but it has been translated. Picq spent the whole of the Khmer Rouge era in Democratic Kampuchea - and then some. She married a KR cadre (in Paris?), followed him to Peking, then to Phnom Penh when the KR seized power and back to Peking, via a very circuitous route, when the Vietnamese chased the KR out. She is, to my knowledge, the only Westerner to have lived through the whole sorry episode (part totem, part hostage). Her story is surreal and infernal.

Henri Locard's Pol Pot's Little Red Book is another I read on that trip. Both these books helped bring my kaleidoscopic impressions of the KR era into a little more focus.

I'm presently struggling through Tim Page's Derailed In Uncle Ho's Victory Garden, some of which is relavant to Cambodia. He's got a great story to tell but I'm not a big fan of that jagged, macho, gonzo, rambling style.

As someone pointed out on another thread, it would be wonderful to have a Brysonian take on Cambodia and Southeast Asia.

Still on my wishlist: Souvenirs Doux Et Amers and Prisonnier Des Khmers Rouges both by Sihanouk, Getting Away With Genocide by Fawthrop and Jarvis, Chandler's The Tragedy Of Cambodian History, Voices of S-21 and Facing The Cambodian Past but I'll lighten up a little and take a breather first!

Oh yea, the soundtrack to my Cambodian trip: Dengue Fever, The Black Angels and, though it's not strictly Khmer, Jah Wobble's Molam Dub.

#16 bananas4baba has been a member since 29/3/2010. Posts: 14

Posted by ms1892 on 3/4/2010 at 08:19

This is another thread that I have been following with interest. Thank you bananas4baba and others for your replies. Very informative. Certainly plenty of options there.

Although it is slightly off topic (and relates to the wrong country entirely) I have recently finished reading 'Cold War' by Isaacs and Downing ISBN 978-0-349-12080-5

It contains an excellent section on the Vietnam war. Of course as a history of the cold war in general it is more of an overview of the situation, rather than any kind of personal account. As a jumping off point for those who would like to understand more about the context of the war in Vietnam I would not hesitate to recommend it.

#17 ms1892 has been a member since 23/12/2009. Posts: 38

Posted by Archmichael on 3/4/2010 at 21:50

Since books about Viet Nam have been brought up, I would suggest "Another Vietnam": photos taken by North Vietnamese photographers during both the French and American Wars.

One photo that really got me: a VC/NVA field surgery in the Mekong Delta. Someone is being brought in on a stretcher, to this roughly tented operating "room" --- and everyone is knee-deep in water. The Americans never had a chance against people like this.

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Posted by scomoore1 on 28/7/2011 at 04:45

For contemporary Cambodia's society and politics, I'd recommend Brinkley's Cambodia's Curse, just out in May 2011.

I would echo others' comments: David Chandler's A History of Cambodia is a profoundly good book.

#19 scomoore1 has been a member since 30/7/2006. Posts: 33

Posted by ekdy on 29/7/2015 at 04:18

Just to update this thread, I also think that Elizabeth Becker's book is fascinating. Also, in recent years, I found Facing the Torturer by Francois Bizot (who also wrote The Gate), which reflects on his involvement in the trial of the S-21 prison chief Comrade Duch, very interesting.

Also on that subject, one of Phnom Penh's most respected journalists, Robert Carmichael, has just written a book called When Clouds Fell From the Sky, which looks at the same trial and also the fate of Ouk Ket - one of S-21's many victims - and how his disappearance affected his family. It's an excellent and moving read.

#20 ekdy has been a member since 14/8/2012. Posts: 1

Posted by AFClatouche on 29/7/2015 at 04:44

I'd highly recommend "The Lost Executioner" by Nicholas Dunlop. It recounts the author's search for Comrade Duch as well as providing a history of the events leading up to the KR regime and the aftermath. Although difficult to read at times due to the subject matter, I found it fascinating.

#21 AFClatouche has been a member since 29/7/2015. Posts: 4

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