If you’re thinking about moving to Cambodia (or are already here), reading up on the country will help you gain a better understanding of its history, its people, and its culture. Here are some of the best that are still widely available.
When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution by Elizabeth Becker
Elizabeth Becker was one of only two Western journalists allowed into Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era, and she went on to become one of the leading scholars of Cambodia’s modern history. In When the War Was Over, Becker covers the French colonial period, Cambodian nationalism, the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge, all the way though Pol Pot’s death in 1998. Along the way she also covers other governments’ reactions and acquiescence to the Khmer Rouge’s crimes. A wonderful, well-researched book. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
When Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal by Robert Carmichael
In 1977, Cambodian diplomat Ouk Ket received a letter from the government of Democratic Kampuchea requesting that he return home from his post in Senegal to help rebuild his country. Like many other Khmer intellectuals who were unaware of the horrors taking place behind the country’s closed borders, he returned to Cambodia and was never heard from again. When Clouds Fell From the Sky, a book released this year by journalist Robert Carmichael, is a compelling account of Ket’s family’s decades-long search to find out what happened to him. Read the full review or buy it on Amazon and Amazon UK.
A History of Cambodia by David Chandler
Probably the best record of Cambodian history around. In A History of Cambodia David Chandler manages to cover the entire history of the country in less than 400 very interesting pages. The book was revised in 2007 to include recent research, more information about the Khmer Rouge period, and a section on the challenges facing Cambodia today. Although pricey, the book is well worth it. If you read only one book about Cambodia, this is a good choice. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Joel Brinkley
In Cambodia’s Curse, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Joel Brinkley writes about Cambodia’s modern history and the problems that Cambodia faces a generation after the Khmer Rouge. The book covers the culture of corruption in Cambodia (which is nothing new, Brinkley claims), the U.N. protectorate debacle, Cambodia’s powerful dictator, Hun Sen, and exactly how NGOs are destroying the fragile country. Although widely criticized for its bleak outlook, Cambodia’s Curse is recommended reading for every grumpy expat who worries that he may be alone in his frustration with the Kingdom of Wonder. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short
Considered the definitive portrait of the man who masterminded the takeover of the country that resulted in the deaths of up to 25 percent of its population, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare is a well-researched, well-written book that tells how a college student in Paris named Saloth Sar became the man the world knew as Pol Pot. The book gives a chilling depiction of the leader of the Khmer Rouge. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People by Zhou Daguan
Originally published as The Customs of Cambodia, this is a newly updated version of Zhou Daguan’s record of nearly a year spent in Cambodia from late 1296 to 1297. Zhou, a Chinese diplomat, provides one of the only written records from that time of the city of Angkor and the Khmer Empire. Although quite short, the book has enough spicy stuff to make it a worthwhile read, including the declaration that monks were responsible for deflowering Cambodian teenagers. A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People is Peter Harris’ translation of Zhou’s records, and the first direct Chinese-to-English translation. (Prior versions had been translated to French before being rendered in English, and many details were lost along the way.) Well worth a read. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
The Playground by Terrence McCoy
Don’t let its light-hearted name confuse you, The Playground by Terrence McCoy covers the outrageous and shocking land grabs in Cambodia, where the country is being bought piece by piece with Chinese money. One of the most compelling pieces of literary journalism about Cambodia to come out recently, The Playground was as a Kindle Single, a new line of short stories, journalism and novellas released by Amazon. The narrative manages to quickly convey the horror of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who have lost their homes to make way for foreign developments and one woman, Vanny Tep, who is fighting back. Read the full review or buy it on Amazon and Amazon UK.
Move to Cambodia: A guide to living and working in the Kingdom of Wonder by Lina Goldberg
Move to Cambodia: A guide to living and working in the Kingdom of Wonder is a detailed 200-page book that explains everything about expatriating to Cambodia from which visa to get (and how) to the cost of living. Move to Cambodia covers more than a hundred topics that will help Westerners meet the challenges of moving to Cambodia, with background information on Khmer culture and practical advice from how to get a local driving license to where to live, from English teaching jobs to the cost of electricity. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
Language and culture
Cambodian for Beginners by Richard Gilbert
If you’re planning on learning the Khmer language, Cambodian for Beginners (with its accompanying CDs) is one of the most complete resources available. In addition to offering an introduction to the spoken language of Cambodia, it also covers Khmer script. Although the book contains a pronunciation guide, the CDs provide a much needed audio accompaniment because many sounds in Khmer are not represented in the English language. Buy the book on Amazon and the accompanying CDs or Amazon UK.
Working in Cambodia by Leng Chhay and Jenny Pearson
This deceptively slim volume released by VBNK, an NGO that works to promote capacity development in Cambodia’s social development sector, is packed with information that is invaluable to any expat in Cambodia. Written to help encourage cross-cultural understanding within development organizations in Cambodia, the book may be most useful to those in the development sector, but the advice given is just as applicable to expats who run a business. To purchase, contact VBNK.
Carrying Cambodia by Hans Kemp and Conor Wall
This collection of photographs captures one of the things that tickles expats the most–the ingenuity that Cambodians deploy to transport things from one place to another. Whether it’s a moto stacked with giant live pigs or the back of a truck filled with garment factory workers, Carrying Cambodia is a lovely visual depiction of a country in the midst of major change. Makes a great gift for those who may not yet understand your Cambodia obsession, because after this, they will. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
Culture Shock! Cambodia: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette by Peter North
In Culture Shock! Cambodia, author Peter North gives a good record of the history of Cambodia. His explanations of Cambodian customs are dated, though, and often specifics are lacking. Buy it on Amazon.
Food and travel
Lonely Planet Cambodia by Nick Ray and Greg Bloom
Luckily for us, the Cambodian edition is one of the best researched and most thorough Lonely Planets around. Nick Ray and Greg Bloom have done a great job with the 2014 edition of Lonely Planet Cambodia, which covers the best accommodations, dining, and activities around the entire country. As with the previous edition, the book contains a thorough guide to the temples of Angkor, but the section on the islands and southern coast is entirely new. A necessary reference for anyone who plans to travel around Cambodia. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
From Spiders to Water Lilies: Creative Cambodian Cooking with Friends
Local child protection organization Friends International released its second cookbook, From Spiders to Water Lilies: Creative Cambodian Cooking with Friends, to much critical acclaim–it’s won a couple of awards and is one of the best Cambodian cookbooks currently available. The book contains 34 recipes in English and Khmer, plus pages and pages of lovely photos. The book is more easily available in Cambodia, so you can wait until you arrive to purchase it, or buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
Cambodian Cooking by Joannes Riviere
If you’re interested in learning to cook Cambodian food, Joannes Riviere’s cookbook is a good place to start. The photographs by Maja Smend are some of the most beautiful depictions of Cambodian food around and will inspire you to learn to cook some Cambodian favorites. Considered one of the foremost authorities on Cambodian food, Riviere is the chef at what is arguably the country’s best restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
Down and Out in South East Asia by Alex Watts
After doing stints in some of the UK’s most prestigious kitchens including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, British journalist cum chef Alex Watts thought that he had experienced all of the challenges that the cheffing world had to offer. That is, until he came to Cambodia. Down and Out in South East Asia is a humorous, well-written account of his character Lennie Nash’s trials and travails as he eats his way through the region, with the ultimate goal of setting up a restaurant in Sihanoukville, a city rife with some of Cambodia’s strangest expats. Buy it on Amazon (and Amazon UK) for just $2.99.
Fiction and memoir
The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
While there are many memoirs and other nonfiction books about Cambodia, very few fictional works are set here, and even fewer love stories. The Disappeared by Kim Echlin is a cross-cultural love story about a young Canadian woman, Anne, who falls in love with a Cambodian, Serey, who is trapped in Montreal in the late 1970s because the Khmer Rouge have closed Cambodia’s borders. After the Vietnamese invasion he returns to Cambodia, and Anne doesn’t hear from him again. Eleven years later Anne thinks she sees Serey on a news report about Cambodia, and she immediately leaves for Phnom Penh to find him. Set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s political turmoil, the novel shows these characters wrestling with the ghosts of the past and discovering whether their love can overcome Cambodia’s pain. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
Loung Ung was a privileged Khmer child growing up in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. First They Killed My Father is her memoir of under the Khmer Rouge, from being forcibly evacuated from Phnom Penh at the age of five to serving as a child soldier and losing many members of her family. First They Killed My Father is written from the author’s perspective as a child, and the book is easily one of the most accessible narratives of the period. A good introductory book for those who want to better understand the horrors of the Khmer Rouge without cracking open a history textbook. Buy it on Amazon or Amazon UK.
A Clash of Innocents by Sue Guiney
A Clash of Innocents is a novel set in Phnom Penh about 60-year-old American expat Deborah Youngman, who runs the Khmer Home for Blessed Children, a home for 40 orphaned or abandoned children. One day, Amanda, an American backpacker with a mysterious past, shows up, and Deborah’s life goes topsy-turvy. At its core, A Clash of Innocents is the story of profoundly damaged people trying to heal themselves by “saving” Cambodia’s children. Read the full review or buy it on Amazon and Amazon UK.