When I was about 5 years old I was taking a train with my mother from London Kings Cross back to our house in Hertfordshire. We sat down and immediately a gentleman opposite us starting chatting to my mum. As young as I was at the time, the exchange is one of those memories that really stuck with me and whilst I don’t remember the conversation in detail I remember the topic very well.
The gentleman began telling my mum about the country of Cambodia, the history of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide between the years of 1975 and 1979. This conversation was taking place around 1985 so it was very recent history and I could feel the intensity of the conversation as they discussed what had happened in the country. The gentleman then reached into into his bag and pulled out a book, The Killing Fields by Christopher Hudson – he told my mum she had to read it and gave her his copy.
My mum of course read the book and it stayed on our bookshelf for many years, she always recommended to friends that they should read it and learn more about Cambodian history. Years later, before I embarked on a 6 month trip to South East Asia, she gave me that old copy as I was planning to visit Cambodia.
The Killing Fields is a must read for any one, whether you plan to visit Cambodia or not, to fully understand and appreciate Cambodia’s recent history. If you visit the country then you will quickly see that the Pol Pot era truly shaped the country and its people. And most people you will encounter will want to talk about it with you, so make sure you are an educated traveller.
Far better than my writing a post explaining the history to you, I suggest you read The Killing Fields and these 6 other books that I read before and during my trip to Cambodia.
1. FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER By Loung Ung
One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung’s family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labor camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was destroyed.
2. BROTHER NUMBER 1 By David P Chandler
In the tragic recent history of Cambodia—a past scarred by a long occupation by Vietnamese forces and by the preceding three-year reign of terror by the brutal Khmer Rouge—no figure looms larger or more ominously than that of Pol Pot. As secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) since 1962 and as prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), he has been widely blamed for trying to destroy Cambodian society. In this political biography, David P. Chandler throws light on the shadowy figure of Pol Pot. Basing his study on interviews and on a wide range of sources in English, Cambodian, and French, the author illuminates the ideas and behavior of this enigmatic man and his entourage against the background of post–World War II events, providing a key to understanding this horrific, pivotal period of Cambodian history.
3. IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN By Vaddey Ratner
For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival.
4. WHEN BROKEN GLASS FLOATS By Chanrithy Him
In the Cambodian proverb, “when broken glass floats” is the time when evil triumphs over good. That time began in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and the Him family began their trek through the hell of the “killing fields.” In a mesmerizing story, Him vividly recounts a Cambodia where rudimentary labor camps are the norm and technology, such as cars and electricity, no longer exists. Death becomes a companion at the camps, along with illness. Yet through the terror, Chanrithy’s family remains loyal to one another despite the Khmer Rouge’s demand of loyalty only to itself. Moments of inexpressible sacrifice and love lead them to bring what little food they have to the others, even at the risk of their own lives. In 1979, “broken glass” finally sinks. From a family of twelve, only five of the Him children survive. Sponsored by an uncle in Oregon, they begin their new lives in a land that promises welcome to those starved for freedom.
5. VOICES FROM S21 By David Chandler
A world-renowned historian of Cambodia, David Chandler, examines the Khmer Rouge phenomenon by focusing on one of its key institutions, the secret prison outside Phnom Penh known by the code name “S-21.” The facility was an interrogation center where more than 14,000 “enemies” were questioned, tortured, and made to confess to counterrevolutionary crimes. Fewer than a dozen prisoners left S-21 alive.
6. LUCKY CHILD By Loung Ung
After enduring years of hunger, deprivation, and devastating loss at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, ten-year-old Loung Ung became the “lucky child,” the sibling chosen to accompany her eldest brother to America while her one surviving sister and two brothers remained behind. In this poignant and elegiac memoir, Loung recalls her assimilation into an unfamiliar new culture while struggling to overcome dogged memories of violence and the deep scars of war. In alternating chapters, she gives voice to Chou, the beloved older sister whose life in war-torn Cambodia so easily could have been hers. Highlighting the harsh realities of chance and circumstance in times of war as well as in times of peace, Lucky Child is ultimately a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the salvaging strength of family bonds.
I hope that you found this post helpful in learning about the history of Cambodia, please share your own reading list recommendations and thoughts on the books mentioned in the comments below.
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