A Cambodia reading list at last! I can’t tell you how many times our friends, readers, tour and retreat participants, and itinerary clients have asked what Cambodia books they should read before they come or pack for their holiday reading. Well, here’s some essential Cambodia reading for you…
This is by no means an exhaustive Cambodia reading list – this is our recommended reading for Cambodia, the Cambodia books that we sought out and read when we first moved here, the books that rarely leave our bedside tables and are piled high on my desk.
This list covers everything from the best Cambodian cookbook – impossible for people who are writing their own Cambodia cookbook not to have one on a Cambodia reading list – to the best Angkor temple guidebook and must-read Cambodian history books.
But remember this is not a comprehensive Cambodia reading list – it’s simply the must-read Cambodia books we think you should peruse before your trip or the Cambodia books you should pack for your holiday reading.
If a book isn’t on this list, it’s not because we don’t know about it, it’s just we don’t think it’s essential pre-trip reading. If you’re heading here for one of our Cambodian culinary tours or creative retreats and would like our longer Cambodian reading list, email us.
Cambodia Reading List – Cambodia Books for Pre-Trip Research and Holiday Reading
Cambodia Reading List – Cambodia Books for Pre-Trip Reading
History of Cambodia by David Chandler
If you only read one book on Cambodia’s past, make it David Chandler’s easy-to-read and concise History of Cambodia. Archaeologist Damian Evans, who is based in Siem Reap and specialises in Angkor, recommends Chandler’s book as “an accessible but scholarly overview of the broader contours of Khmer history from the earliest times up until the present day”. The book covers the early history and Funan kingdom, the Angkor period, post Angkor, French colonial times, modern Cambodia, the Pol Pot revolution and collapse of his Khmer Rouge regime, ending with the beginning of the Khmer Rouge tribunals in 2007. It’s a great introduction for first-timers to the country’s history and politics and provides a good grounding for more reading on its archaeology and contemporary affairs.
Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation by Michael D. Coe
Archaeologist Damian Evans called Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation “a worthy introduction to the civilisation of Angkor” and it’s a fantastic exploration of the Khmer people and their civilizations, from pre-historic times through the kingdoms of Funan and Zhenla (Chenla) to post-Angkor times. The focus is on the Classic Angkor period, when Khmer cities and rural centres, scattered across northeastern Thailand, southern Laos, southern Vietnam, and what we now know as Cambodia, were connected by an impressive system of roads and bridges. Beginning in 802 AD, this is when most of the Hindu and Buddhist temples you’ll see – including architectural masterpieces like Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious structure – were built by Khmer kings over more than five centuries. The book has lots of useful maps, temple floor plans, illustration, and photographs that bring the past to life.
Cambodia’s Curse The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Joel Brinkley
A Cambodia reading list would be incomplete without Cambodia’s Curse The Modern History of a Troubled Land on it. Author Joel Brinkley won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his coverage of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Almost thirty years later he returned to find out what had become of the world’s first country to become a United Nations protectorate as Cambodia had in the early 1990s, when billions in international aid were injected into the economy and the UN supervised democratic elections in 1993. While Brinkley found paved roads and a few skyscrapers rising from Phnom Penh’s dusty streets, he also discovered a country in which, a generation after the Khmer Rouge, many were still haunted by the regime’s terror. Brinkley estimated that one-third to one-half of the population that survived the regime, had PTSD and their afflictions were being passed on to the younger generation. Brinkley examines everything from corruption and underdevelopment to the entrenched culture of non-government organisations in Cambodia.
Cambodia Reading List – Cambodia Books for the Flight Over
First They Killed My Father, A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
Take a box of tissues in your carry-on as this engrossing, easy-to-read autobiography by Loung Ung, told in the voice of her five-year-old self, is heartbreaking. The first of a trilogy, First They Killed My Father focuses on the tragic childhood of Ung, daughter to a high-ranking government official, during the brutal Pol Pot regime. Kicking off in April 1975 in Cambodia’s cosmopolitan capital, Phnom Penh, Ung’s world is destroyed when her family, including seven children, have to flee to the countryside, along with the rest of the city’s population. Separated and sent to labour camps, Loung, who is forced to train as a child soldier, loses two of her siblings and parents, before making her way to a refugee camp and eventually the USA. Angelina Jolie made First They Killed My Father into a movie, soon to be released on Netflix.
Cambodia Reading List – Cambodia Books to Pack for Your Holiday Reading
Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook by Michel Petrotchenko
If you only buy one Angkor guidebook make it Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook – the book rarely leaves the daypack I take on temple scrambles. Beautifully illustrated with images of the temples, bas-reliefs, carvings, and statues, it includes maps, itineraries and temple floor plans. The book organises the major temples into chronological order in one section while another section organises temples into geographical order. Each temple chapter includes advice on how to explore the temple, highlights and details not to miss. There’s also a front section on the history of the region, religion, and temple architecture, which has a fascinating table of the world in Angkor times. Archaeologist Damian Evans says it’s “by far the best in-depth textual guide to the finer details of the temples. It is superb.”
Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques
Ancient Angkor, by renowned French scholar Claude Jacques and photographer Michael Freeman who documented the temples over 15 years, is a fantastic companion to Petrotchenko and can also be found in my daypack during temple excursions. The introductory section covers Khmer history, kings, religion, the temples and their architecture and inscriptions, as well as the daily life of the Khmer people. The rest of the book organises the temples into geographical order, which makes things easier when organising temple tours. There are still plenty of detailed plans and concise lists of highlights. Whereas the Petrotchenko book can seem overwhelming to some, this book is more straightforward. It also features some smaller lesser-visited temples not covered in other books. If I can’t find something I want in this book, I’ll consult the Petrotchenko book and vice versa.
Cambodia Guidebook by Lonely Planet
There is such an abundance of information online these days – including our own website, obviously – that increasingly travellers don’t feel the need to carry a guidebook with them. However, if you still like the convenience of having a reference tool at hand, then don’t even thinking about buying anything other than the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook. And believe me, having authored, updated and contributed to over 25 Lonely Planet guidebooks we are most definitely not biased. The quality of chapters written by author Nick Ray, a long-time Cambodia resident, are informed by his many years working and living in the country and are the most accurate.
The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples compiled by Andrew Booth
As you amble around Angkor Wat and other archaeological sites you’ll inevitably begin to wonder what the temples looked like when they were built. What this hardcover The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples does that others don’t is use an artist’s impressions, based on academic research, to show you what the temples looked like in their heyday compared to now. The artistic renditions of colourful gilded temples from the past are on plastic overlays, which peel back to reveal the grey sandstone and rust-coloured laterite temples of today. Archaeologist Damian Evans recommends this “if you want a more visual reference with a more general ‘big picture’ approach” and calls it “unique and indispensable”.
Cambodia Reading List – Cambodia Books for Poolside Reading
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Poetic and mystical, and punctuated with magical realist moments, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a beautifully crafted novel told also from the perspective of a child, yet it’s a very different book to First They Killed My Father. A lyrical coming-of-age story set during the genocide of 1975-79, when millions of Cambodians lost their lives, Ratner’s book is based on her childhood with the life of the central character, seven-year-old Raami, paralleling the tragic experiences of her family of Cambodian royals. Beginning shortly before Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge arrives in Phnom Penh, forcing people from their homes, the narrative follows the family’s departure from the capital, when the city’s entire population was forced into the countryside to labour camps, and their struggles to survive. You’ll need two boxes of tissues if you’re going to attempt both books.
Cambodia Reading List – Cambodia Books for Your Post Holiday Reading
When the War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution (Revised Edition) by Elizabeth Becker
Considered by many to be the definitive work on the Khmer Rouge period, the hefty tome When the War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution by award-winning journalist Elizabeth Becker should be the first book you read when you get back home. Becker, who I interviewed in Siem Reap a few years ago for the Phnom Penh Post, began covering Cambodia for The Washington Post in 1973 and was one of only three foreign journalists invited back by Pol Pot to report on his revolution. Epic in all dimensions, it begins with the birth of Modern Cambodia and the French colonial period, and covers the Khmer Rouge regime in a depth you won’t see elsewhere, ending with the death of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in 1998. The book is based on Becker’s immense experience and staggering amount of research, including exclusive interviews.
Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio
A biography of contemporary Cambodia as much as a portrait of its leader, Hun Sen, the world’s longest serving prime minister, Sebastian Strangio’s book Hun Sen’s Cambodia is the only work to analyse Cambodia’s recent history in depth. Strangio lived in the capital for many years as a reporter and editor at the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s oldest English-language newspaper (as well as a freelancer for the likes of The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly), so his perspective and insight is that of an insider rather than a writer who flits in for a few months to do research. He examines everything from the UN’s failed attempt at democracy building to the protracted Khmer Rouge tribunals
The Elephant Walk Cookbook by Longteine De Monteiro
Aimed firmly at an American readership, with Cambodian recipes adapted to suit the availability of produce and ingredients in the USA, The Elephant Walk Cookbook was written by Longteine De Monteiro, the wife of a diplomat forced into exile when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge invaded Cambodia. After escaping to France, she opened what could possibly have been the first Cambodian restaurant outside Cambodia. She established another, the well-regarded The Elephant Walk, in Boston, after moving to the USA. Her book could possibly have been the first Cambodian cookbook published in the West also. While some of the recipes have provenance in the kitchens that De Monteiro knew, those of Cambodian aristocrats, others have more humble origins.
Spirit Worlds: Cambodia, The Buddha And The Naga by Philip Coggan
If you’re keen to untangle the often confusing and bewildering web of stories, myths and legends your archaeological guides spun as you scrambled around the temples, Spirit Worlds: Cambodia, The Buddha And The Naga is the book you wished you’d had at the time. Although, trust me, it will make so much more sense if you read it afterwards. A writer, former diplomat and long-time Phnom Penh resident, Philip Coggan provides a thorough and fascinating account of Cambodia’s religious and spiritual beliefs, rituals, rites, and practices, from animism to the supernatural, offerings to merit making. Coggan begins with Buddha’s life then moves on to ancient Hindu myths and Mount Meru, the holy mountain which many Angkor temples symbolise, explaining everything from the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (if only I had a dollar for every time a guide told that one – and another for every tourist’s wrinkled brow) and ends with the role of religion today. Coggan travelled around Cambodia to conduct research and the book is sprinkled with local insights and poignant encounters.
Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom by Walter Mason
“I first went to Cambodia as a young man because it seemed the most exotic and dangerous place in the world to go,” Australian author Walter Mason writes in Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom, with reference to his first trip in 1996. “I also went because my mother had specifically asked me not to…” he admits. Mason’s book, an intimate and personal account of his time in Cambodia, is peppered with more charming confessions as he affectionately recounts his search for a lost friend and tales of meetings with a cast of colourful Cambodian characters, including shamans, fortune tellers, hookers, hustlers, and hip hop stars. Stopping off in Bangkok on his way back home, after some months living in Phnom Penh, Mason reflects that, “to leave Cambodia was to leave a cocoon of wonder…” Mason’s is a fun book to read when you get back home. Though be warned: it could have you buying a plane ticket back to Cambodia in no time.
That’s our Cambodia reading list – the concise Cambodia reading list. What books would you add?