Because the topic has come up many times recently while talking about Cambodia with other travelers, here are a number of books and movies that I’ve enjoyed in recent months to better understand the country’s more recent history. I want and need to read more on the country’s overall history, but my focus so far has been on the Khmer Rouge era of the last 50 years.
- The movie The Killing Fields probably doesn’t need an introduction; in fact, I initially left it off this post because I felt it was a given. But in case I’m wrong about that, I’m editing the post a week later to include it. If you don’t know much about the Khmer Rouge and want a quick and entertaining introduction, see this movie before reading or watching anything else recommended below. And by “entertaining,” I don’t mean to belittle the movie: it’s quite good at the story it tells, but its focus is quite narrow and much of it from the point of a view of an American journalist, meaning it’s a very good primer to this period of history but doesn’t dig deep.
- In the Shadow of the Banyan is a novel by Vaddey Ratner who, like Loung Ung, author of the nonfiction First They Killed My Father (see below), lived under the Khmer Rouge regime as a small child. Her novel is similar to Ung’s memoir in many aspects, as might be expected given that such a great many Cambodian families suffered common fates; however, I found her writing to be more evocative, undoubtedly due to the fact that she’s an author and studied literature at Cornell University. I read this book before First… and would recommend the same, though perhaps it would make little difference in one’s appreciation of the books.
- First They Killed My Father is a memoir by Loung Ung, a human rights activist who was five years old when the Khmer Rouge swept into Phnom Penh. The first of three books, this one focuses on her time living under the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979 before finally escaping to the United States by way of Vietnam. Netflix has turned this into a film that will premier later this year (see the trailer here).
- The Gate is where this list of suggested reading veers suddenly off the beaten path of KR reading. This book is an absolutely fascinating memoir by François Bizot, a French academic and researcher who is the only Westerner known to have been released after having been captured, imprisoned, and interrogated by the Khmer Rouge. Bizot’s interrogator in those last months of 1971 — years before the Khmer Rouge finally took control of Cambodia — was none other than Comrade Douch (spelled elsewhere as Duch or Deuch), the man who would eventually become the brutal and coldly efficient commandant of the regime’s most infamous prison, S21 in Phnom Penh. Bizot’s story is more than just his very close association with Douch during those weeks, his impressions of the man, and the story of his eventual and miraculous release, it also details how he found himself as a vital go-between and negotiator for those sheltered in the French embassy in Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge military leaders in 1975 following the sudden fall of the capital city. Highly recommended.
- The Master of Confessions: The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer is the natural book to pick up after reading The Gate as it details the war crimes trial against Comrade Douch (or Duch or Deuch). This is so much more than a book about a trial or war crimes or the like: this book tries to ask how so many Cambodians could have committed the atrocities they did during those years. The author doesn’t pretend to have answers to the questions, but in exploring the topic, sobering insights might be gained that could dissuade anyone tempted to believe that genocide of this sort could never occur in their country. Additionally, there are some unusual insights into how theses sorts of tribunals get started and how they’re conducted that may surprise.
- Enemies of the People is a documentary of a Cambodian journalist’s long project to identify and interview Khmer Rouge members — including Pol Pot’s second in command who eventually was finally arrested for trial on war crimes charges — about their roles in the genocide, their thoughts on how things went so wrong — assuming they agree that what happened was wrong — and how they’ve managed to continue living in Cambodia among so many who suffered first or second-hand at their actions.
Beyond these resources, visiting Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh (commonly called the “Killing Fields” despite this being but one of hundreds of such sites across the country) and the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum (aka, the S21 prison) were depressingly incredible. Many guides encourage visiting those two sites on the same day, which is entirely doable in terms of logistics, but I found that to be overwhelming. After spending 2 or 3 hours at Choeung Ek, I shut down mentally soon into the S21 tour and just found myself wandering the grounds looking for beautiful shots of the trees and buildings: there are only so many tales of human cruelty and misery that a person can take in a single day, so consider doing those two sites on different days.