Cambodia: Book Reviews and Recommended Reading
While there is a wealth of information about Cambodia available online, print is still king: The most detailed studies are found in books.
An excellent source for titles related to Cambodia is Monument Books. Their website, at www.monument-books.com, includes an unparalled selection of obscure and hard-to-find books on Asia. If you are looking for older, out-of-print books, another excellent resource is Bookfinder.
The list below highlights several of the best books on the subject of Cambodia and Cambodian history. In no particular order:
When the War Was Over by Elizabeth Becker (Simon and Schuster,
If you intend to read only one book about Cambodia, read this one. Informative and beautifully written, Becker's book humanizes the tragedy of Cambodia without ever losing sight of its context. There is an updated edition of this book which discusses the UN role in establishing elections.
Stay Alive, My Son by Pin Yathay with John Man (Simon and Schuster, 1987.)
Pin Yathay's book was one of the first refugee accounts of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and it remains one of the best. It is heartbreaking and absolutely compelling.
When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him (W.W. Norton, 2000.)
Among the many excellent first person accounts of the Khmer Rouge reign, Chanrithy Him's spellbinding memoir stands out. It ranks alongside Stay Alive, My Son as one of the best. A full review of this book, along with First They Killed My Father, (below) is available online here.
The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop (Walker and Company, New York, 2005)
Nic Dunlop's book is not merely an account of how he tracked down one of the Khmer Rouge's most notorious criminals; it's also an exceptionally thoughtful treatise on the photographers' art. Click for a full review.
First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung (Harper Collins,
Loung Ung's powerful autobiography is terrifying and emotionally draining. The author's unflinching eye for detail creates a vivid tapestry of one of history's darkest revolutions. Click here for the full review.
Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land by Henry Kamm (Arcade,
Pulitzer-Prize winner Henry Kamm has covered Southeast Asia for the New York Times for decades. Just over 250 pages long, Kamm's book is a marvel of clarity. The book's description of the corruption and madness of the Lon Nol era is unrivaled.
Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey by Haing S. Ngor with Roger Warner
An excellent, detailed memoir. The tragedies endured by Ngor seem even more painful in the aftermath of his senseless death.
Sideshow by William Shawcross (Simon and Schuster, 1979.)
Essential reading for anyone wishing to understand America's role in setting the stage for the Khmer Rouge.
The Gate by Francois Bizot (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.)
Written by a French researcher who was held captive by the Khmer Rouge in 1971, The Gate is an exceptional, deeply thoughtful work. It is highly recommended. Click here for the full review.
The Murderous Revolution by Stuart Fox-Martin and Bunhaeng Ung
(Tamarind Press, 1986.)
A intriguing combination of biography and history, this book is distinguished by Ung's unsettling illustrations of life under the Khmer Rouge.
The Quality of Mercy by William Shawcross (Simon and Schuster,
A fascinating account of the politics of famine, this book describes in detail the relief effort along the Thai-Cambodian border following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.
Cambodia: Year Zero by Francois Ponchaud (Holt, Rinehart and
Possibly the first serious study of the Khmer Rouge regime, Ponchaud's book was well-written, well-documented, and highly accurate.
A History of Cambodia by David P. Chandler (Westview Press,
A single-volume history of Cambodia, from the early civilizations of Funan and Angkor, to the early 1990s. Chandler is arguably the West's foremost authority on Cambodia.
How Pol Pot Came to Power by Ben Kiernan (Verso, 1985.)
A detailed study of Khmer communism. Kiernan, formerly the head of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale, is one of the foremost authorities on the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodian Witness by Someth May (Random House, 1986.)
A well-written memoir, worth noting in particular for its descriptions of life before the fall of Phnom Penh.
The Death and Life of Dith Pran by Sydney Schanberg (Penguin Books,
Originally published in the New York Times, this is the true story on which the movie The Killing Fields is based.
Beyond the Killing Fields by Sydney Schanberg (Potomac Books, Dulles, Virginia, 2010)
A fine collection of Schanberg's articles from Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Iraq. Click here for a full review.
Cambodia 1975-1978 edited by Karl D. Jackson (Princeton University
A collection of articles about the Khmer Rouge reign, written by some of the leading scholars in the field.
Brother Enemy by Nayan Chanda (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.)
A very good account of the events leading to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.
Brother Number One by David P. Chandler (Westview Press, 1992.)
A biography of Pol Pot; given the secrecy surrounding the Khmer Rouge leader, this book is an impressive achievement.
Beyond the Horizon by Laurence Picq (St. Martin's Press, 1989.)
A fascinating account of the inner workings of the Khmer Rouge, by a French woman who remained with the communists throughout their reign.
After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide by Craig Etcheson (Praeger Publishers, 2005.)
An excellent collection of articles on the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, dealing with the lingering effects of the trauma.
Without Honor by Arnold R. Isaacs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.)
Although the bulk of this book deals with Vietnam, the sections on Cambodia provide considerable insight into the factors that influenced American policy throughout Southeast Asia.
River of Time by Jon Swain (St. Martin's Press, 1995.)
Jon Swain's book is a wonderful memoir of Indochina, expressing beautifully the powerful, inexplicable hold that Asia holds for those who love her. Swain was one of the few Western journalists who remained in Phnom Penh as the city fell to the Khmer Rouge. His descriptions of the siege and its immediate aftermath are terrifying and haunting.
Cambodia 1975-1982 by Michael Vickery (South End Press, 1984.)
A highly detailed study of Cambodia during and immediately after the time of the Khmer Rouge. However, Vickery's bias often seems to color his judgement.
Kampuchea Diary 1983-1986 by Jacques Bekaert (DD Books, 1987.)
A collection of Bekaert's articles from the Bangkok Post. The book details a period of Cambodian history that is rarely discussed.
A Blessing Over Ashes by Adam Fifield (Perennial Books, 2001)
A wonderful account of a Vermont family who opens their home to a Cambodian refugee. At times touching, at times horrifying, at times funny, Blessing is definitely worth reading. See the full review here.
Leaving the House of Ghosts by Sarah Streed (McFarland & Company, 2002)
A mixture of refugee accounts and general articles about Cambodia and Cambodian exiles, this book stands out for its vivid descriptions of the obstacles faced by refugees in the U.S. See the full review here.
Children of the River by Linda Crew (Laurel-Leaf Books, 1989.)
A short novel targeted mainly toward high school audiences, this book is entertaining, well-written, carefully plotted, and very accurate in its portrayal of the experiences of younger Cambodian refugees.
The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991)
Written for young readers, Ho's novel gives children who are unfamiliar with Cambodia a window into a refugee's life. Click here for the review.
Lucky Child by Loung Ung (Harper Collins, New York, 2005.)
Loung Ung's follow-up to First They Killed My Father is an engaging and illuminating book. The book compares Ung's experiences as a young refugee in the United States with her sister's life in a Cambodian village.
A Cambodian Odyssey and the Deaths of 25 Journalists by T. Jeff Williams and Kurt Volkert (Writer's Showcase, 2001)
Part history, part mystery, Odyssey tells the story of a group of journalists killed in Cambodia in 1970, and the story of an effort to find their bodies more than 20 years later. Click here for the full review.
Call Sign Rustic by Richard Wood (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002)
A well-done military history of the Rustics, a tightly-knit group of Americans who provided air support to Lon Nol's overmatched, under-equipped army. Click for the full review.
Flying Tigers Over Cambodia by Larry Partridge (McFarland and Company, Jefferson, NC, 2001)
A brief but compelling memoir of the "Ricelift," the attempt to bring rice to Phnom Penh in 1975, during the closing days of Cambodia's 1970-1975 civil war. Click here for the review.
Imagining America by Sharon Sloan Fiffer (Paragon House, 1991.)
Based on the experiences of Paul Thai, a refugee who arrived in the U.S. in 1981, this book is noteworthy for its detailed description of the culture shock that greets many immigrants and refugees.
Off the Rails in Phnom Penh by Amit Gilboa (Asia Books, 1998)
A sometimes intriguing, sometimes disturbing portrait of expatriates living in Phnom Penh in the 1990s. Click here for the full review.
Angkor by George Coedes (Oxford University Press, 1986.)
The premier study of the Cambodia's ancient temples.
Khmer: The Lost Empire of Cambodia by Thierry Zephir (Henry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.)
This small, slender volume makes an excellent guidebook to Angkor, and to Khmer art in general. Beautifully designed and packed with gorgeous photos, it's less detailed but more accessible than the guides by Coedes or Henri Parmentier. Highly recommended.
Cambodian Folk Stories from the Gatiloke retold by Muriel Paskin Carrison from a translation by Kong Chhean (Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1987.)
A collection of 15 traditional Cambodian folk tales, divided into three categories: "Scoundrels and Rascals," "Kings and Lords," and "Foolishness and Fun." The Gatiloke, from which the tales are drawn, is a comprehensive collection of these stories. As the author notes in the introduction, "The folktales of the Gatiloke were used by Cambodian Buddhist monks as 'speech-teach' sermons - examples of right and wrong, good and bad. The word 'Gatiloke' reflects this: Gati means 'the way," and loke means "the world." Freely translated, 'Gatiloke' means 'the right way for the people of the world to live.'" The appendix on Cambodian history at the end of the book is oversimplified and not entirely accurate (the Vietcong are referred to as the Vietminh, for example), but that is probably nitpicking: this is still an enjoyable, educational little book.
Cambodian Culture since 1975 edited by May Ebihara, Carol Mortland, and Judy Ledgerwood (Cornell, 1994)
An interesting, eclectic collection of essays on contemporary Khmer culture. Of particular interest are articles by Karen Fisher-Nguyen on Khmer proverbs, John Marston on the metaphors used by the Khmer Rouge, and Judy Ledgerwood on gender symbolism.
Reporting Vietnam, Part Two: American Journalism 1969 - 1975 Various Authors. (The Library of America, New York, 1998)
Highly recommended: an absolutely fascinating anthology of news articles from Indochina, with material from some of the era's best correspondents. Included are reports from Seymour Hersh, Robert Shaplen, Sydney Schanberg, Gloria Emerson, Philip Caputo, Malcolm Browne, Michael Herr, Peter Arnett, Fox Butterfield, and a host of others. One of the articles included in the book - a 1974 report on Khmer Rouge atrocities written by Donald Kirk - is reprinted on this site, with the kind permission of Mr. Kirk: I Watched Them Saw Him 3 Days.
Tell It To The Dead by Donald Kirk (M.E. Sharpe, 1996)
Originally released in 1975, this book has been re-issued with photographs and additional material. The book is a collection of Kirk's articles from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The articles captured the futility of the American war effort, and provided a sober assessment of the Communists. Reading Kirk's reports from Cambodia in 1970, one is struck with a profound melancholy: we can sense the future, and it will be filled with sadness. The book takes its title from the comment of an American marine in 1968. The base at Khe Sanh -- defended at the cost of hundreds of lives, three months earlier -- had just been abandoned. "I told one marine news of the pullout. He stared at the dirt for a moment, then replied in an angry burst, 'Tell it to the dead.'"
The Mekong by Milton Osborne (Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2000)
An highly readable book on one of the world's great rivers: its geography, its future, and a bit of history about the surrounding countries. Click here for a review.
My War With the CIA and War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia by Norodom Sihanouk (Pantheon Books)
Sihanouk's "memoirs" are not terribly insightful, not very accurate, and not especially engaging... but for serious scholars, they're worth reading, if only because they bring us a tiny bit closer to understanding Cambodia's enigmatic ruler. Read the full reviews here.
The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (Harper and Row, 1951)
Strictly speaking, this book isn't about Cambodia, but it should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand the Khmer Rouge. Read the full review here.
The Eagle Mutiny by Richard Linnett and Roberto Loiederman (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2001)
A compelling account of a very odd incident: the 1970 hijacking of a cargo ship carrying napalm for US forces in South Vietnam. The hijackers succeeded in diverting the ship to Cambodia... and then their plans collapsed. Read the full review here.
A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani (Three Rivers Press, New York, 1997)
A sometimes-exasperating, sometimes fascinating memoir of the author's trip across Asia. Read the full review here.
The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer (1958)
This Cold War-era novel remains essential reading for anyone interested in understanding what is wrong with US foreign policy. Read the full review here.
Wider War by Donald Kirk (Praeger Publishers, 1971)
Subtitled "The Struggle for Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos," this out-of-print book provides a good overview of the regional tensions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Wider War, Arthur M. Schleshinger's The Bitter Heritage, and The Viet-Nam Reader are discussed in greater detail in the essay entitled Twenty-Twenty Foresight.
The Mark by Jacques Leslie
This fine memoir is now out of print, but if you can find a copy, it's definitely worth reading. Click here for a full review.
Pol Pot's Little Red Book by Henri Locard
Locard has compiled an exhaustive collection of slogans from the Khmer Rouge regime, and the portrait they paint is fascinating. Click here for a detailed review.
The Immortal Seeds by Sambath Meas
Sambath Meas' memoir describes her family's life before the Khmer Rouge time, and in the immediate aftermath. Click here for a full review.
Pol Pot by Philip Short
A wealth of detail makes Philip Short's biography of Pol Pot worthwhile, in spite of its flaws. Click here for a review.
Golden Leaf by Kilong Ung
A memoir by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Click here for a review.
O! Maha Mount Dangrek by Venerable Ly Van and Samkhann C. Khoeun
A beautiful volume of poetry by a Cambodian monk. Click here for a review.
If you pay close attention to footnotes and acknowledgments in books about Cambodia, you've probably seen the name Richard Arant. A gifted translator with an impressive understanding of Southeast Asia, Arant has compiled several book reviews on his pages at Amazon.com. I highly recommend it: