Saturday, 31 October 2009

Cambodian Books

When I'm travelling, I like to browse the local bookshops to see what's on offer. Books are not big in Cambodia. There are one or two second hand european bookshops in Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap offering books that tourists left behind as well as guide books obtained in the same way. They also sell locally printed books - some of these are Cambodian and some are clones of books copyrighted elsewhere. The covers look the same, but inside they are badly printed on cheap paper and you know that the authors aren't getting a penny from these sales. The Cambodian books have titles such as 'They killed my Father First' - this is a country that markets genocide as a tourist attraction.

The best book to make sense of Cambodia's traumatic history is by William Shawcross. 'Sideshow' is the story of how Kissinger and Nixon destroyed Cambodia and lied about their actions. Cambodia was a neutral country during the Vietnam war having only recently made a delicate peace with Thailand and Vietnam. It had its own troubles with insurgents which it naively thought the United States would help it to control. The Cambodian leader Lon Nol had no idea of the real agenda. Neither did Nixon and Kissinger's colleagues at the White House and the Pentagon. Their duplicity and the subsequent cover-up led eventually to Watergate. Kissinger - whose actions re-define the word Machievellian - was clever enough to off-load blame onto Nixon. Kissinger survived; Nixon didn't, and neither did Cambodia or several million innocent Cambodians massacred in the carve-up. In the light of more recent history - George Bush and Iraq - 'Sidehow' is a chilling account of the abuse of power.

'Stay Alive My Son' by Pin Yathay, is available from every street seller in every tourist location, though I doubt that the author makes much money from the poorly produced copies. The book is beautifully written by a high-ranking Cambodian engineer who first welcomed the Khmer Rouge as liberators and then suffered the consequences. His first hand account of the expulsion from Phnom Penh and the way his family were forced to march out into the countryside alongside hundreds of thousands of others, is utterly compelling to read. The villages, growing rice for subsistence, couldn't support the huge numbers imposed on them by the Khmer Rouge and starvation became widespread. Pin Yathay escaped to Thailand, walking through the rainforest, but 17 members of his family died, including his children. They became his reason to survive. 'Only through my survival would their lives have continued meaning ..... And there was another reason to survive - I wanted to tell the world what had happened, to testify to the Cambodian holocaust, to tell how the Khmer Rouge had programmed the death of several million men, women and children, how a beautiful, rich country had been demolished, plunged into poverty and torture.'Cambodia's ancient history and archaeology should have generated a mass of books, but there are surprisingly few, apart from the guide books, and they are all expensive - prices start around $50. I started reading with the first diarists who visited the Cambodian court. A chinese emissary called Zhou Daguan was sent to Angkor by Kubla Khan in the 13th century and his account of what he found, 'The Customs of Cambodia', is the best guide to how the civilisation functioned and what the buildings looked like in their original state. By the 16th century the cities and temples were in ruins and Cambodia was being fought over by its neighbours and the big colonial powers. A Spanish Dominican Friar, Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio, (A Brief and Truthful Relation of Events in the Kingdom of Cambodia) reported on its potential for conquest in 1598 to Philip III of Spain. Despite the kingdom's reported wealth, it's people, he noted, were 'miserable and deserving of pity'.

There were several travellers tales published in the 17th and 18th centuries, recording the glories of Angkor Wat, but no one seems to have taken much notice until Henri Mouhot went there in 1859, recording his observations in journals and drawings - published posthumously by his wife. On the country itself he wrote 'The present state of Cambodia is deplorable, and its future menacing.' When he was taken to see the ruins of Angkor Wat he could not believe that he was in the same kingdom, but 'transported as if by enchantment' and presumed the temple had been built by a lost civilisation. 'What became of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?' The temple itself he thought 'a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo .... is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.' Mouhot died in Laos, where he wrote 'insects are in great number and variety, musquitoes and ox-flies in myriads. I suffer dreadfully from them, and am covered with swellings and blisters from their bites'. His last diary entries were written in a shaking hand. '19th Oct. Attacked by fever'. '29th Oct. Have pity on me, oh my God ......'

Mouhot's book 'Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos and Annam', began a craze for the 'lost temples'. The French sent a research team out in 1866 to survey the sites, followed by archaeologists, keen to excavate. A Scottish photographer John Thomson also travelled there, publishing the richly illustrated and almost unobtainable 'Straits of Malacca' , and a young American recorded his impressions in 1872 - Frank Vincent's 'Land of the White Elephant'. Cambodia was by now a French protectorate, so most of those who wrote the records were French.
In 1916 Henri Marchal, the 'father of Angkor' became the curator of the temples after his predecessor was murdered by bandits. Marchal loved Cambodia and describes its landscape with passion: It has an 'unrivalled charm...... either in the morning hours, when the sun begins to pierce the forest, or at twilight when shadows spread mystery over the palm-trees and the water gathers the last rays of the sun'. He spent almost the whole of his life there, dying in Siem Reap in 1970. But it was Maurice Glaize who wrote the famous guidebook 'Les Monuments Du Groupe D'Angkor' first published in 1943 and subsequently updated. It's available on the internet in English translation at

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