25 Great Books on Cambodia

by | Feb 28, 2021 | Books, Cambodia

Spending the past month reading over 20 books on Cambodia, I feel like I’ve just been on an emotional rollercoaster. Throughout history, Cambodia and its people have experienced so much greatness but also so much sorrow–from the grandeur and brilliance of the Angkor Empire to the unimaginable horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

At times I wondered if I was crazy to read about so much heartbreak and suffering in 2020. But then I realized that it’s better to know than to not know about what can happen when a country is taken over by a delusional, cruel, and incompetent group of people following an extreme ideology. Cambodia wasn’t the first to experience this kind of nightmare and unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last.

This list of 25 books is based on several months in 2014 and 2020 scouring the internet for the best fiction and nonfiction books on Cambodia. I’ve read 21 of the 25 books on the list. The four books I didn’t read are here because of the number of positive reviews they’ve received and/or times they were cited in other books.

I’m always looking to expand my reading lists, so if you think I’ve left anything off this list that should be on it, please let me know in the comment section below. Let me also know if you’ve read any of these books. Both my readers and I would love to know.

If you’re looking for info on traveling to this beautiful country, check out my travel posts on Cambodia.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links.  As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Please see this website’s Disclosure for more info.

Books on Cambodia – Memoirs

Start your Cambodia reading challenge with one of these heartbreaking and unforgettable memoirs written by victims of the Cambodia genocide. A communist dictatorship under the secretive Pol Pot took over the country in 1975 and turned it into a slave state. It forced everyone from the cities into labor camps where those from 6 to 60 worked from sunrise to sunset without pay for 3 years 10 months and 22 days. Because of their inept policies and cruelty, 1.7 million people (20% of the population) died from starvation, disease, execution, and torture.

1. Survival in the Killing Fields

By Haing S Ngor (1989, 2012)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“I have been many things in life: A trader walking barefoot on paths through the jungle. A medical doctor, driving to his clinic in a shiny Mercedes. In the past few years, to the surprise of many people, and above all myself, I have been a Hollywood actor. But nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That’s who I am.”

Survival in the Killing Fields book cover

So many memoirs have been written about the Cambodian Genocide that it’s hard to decide where to start. I think you can’t go wrong beginning with Survival in the Killing Fields. \ It’s well-written (Ngor had a co-writer who is a professional writer), moving, graphic, and informative.

The author, Haing S Ngor, was the actor who played Dith Pran in the movie, The Killing Fields. Ngor was a doctor working in a military hospital in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge entered the city and forced everyone to evacuate. Like most Cambodians, he ended up in a slave labor camp where he experienced disease, starvation, torture, and loss.

Ngor’s story is probably the most chilling of all the ones I’ve read on the genocide.

An added bonus is reading about how he got picked to play the part of Dith Pran and what happened to him during the filming of The Killing Fields.

Read my expanded review of Survival in the Killing Fields to find out why I think it’s the best book on the Cambodia genocide.

2. First They Killed My Father

By Loung Ung, 2000 & 2017

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“This is what the war has done to me. Now I want to destroy because of it. There is such hate and rage inside me now. The Angkar has taught me to hate so deeply that I now know I have the power to destroy and kill.”

If the title of this memoir on the Cambodian genocide sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. It was made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie. The movie was good; the book is even better.

The writer, Loung Ung, was five years old when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 and evacuated everyone from the city. She and her large family of six siblings ended up in a slave labor camp in northwestern Cambodia. Her father, a high-ranking military police officer, knew that if the Khmer Rouge found out about his background that it would be the end for him and his family. You know from the title that he was eventually murdered. But that doesn’t lessen the suspense of the book because you don’t know when or how it was going to happen.

This is a raw, painful, and brilliant book. I guarantee you’ll be in tears by the end of this memoir.

Loung Ung does a good job of pulling it off of writing from the voice of a child.

The bonus of reading First They Killed My Father is that there are two excellent sequels you can read as well.

I read both the print version and listened to the audio version. Both are quite good. The audio version is nice in that you actually get to learn how to properly pronounce everyone’s name.

Read my full review of First They Killed My Father.

3. Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind

By Loung Ung, 2010

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“I know that in my new home, there is no war, hunger, or soldiers to be afraid of. Yet in the quiet recesses of my mind, the Khmer Rouge lurks and hovers in dark alleys, waiting for me at the bend of every corner. No matter how far I run, I cannot escape the dread that they have followed me to.”

The riveting and moving book, Lucky Child, is the sequel to First They Killed My Father. It’s the only one I could find that goes in depth on what happened to the survivors AFTER the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979.

Loung Ung tells us two unforgettable stories. The first is her own story. She’s the lucky child in that she’s chosen to accompany her brother to America. The memoir is about her trying to not only assimilate into American culture but also deal with the memories of the genocide.

She also tells the story of the sister who is left behind in Cambodia. We learn what it was like to be in the country from 1980 to 1990. It wasn’t easy as a civil war between the Khmer Rouge and their opposition (a combination of Vietnamese and former Khmer Rouge turned anti-Khmer Rouge forces) went on for 20 long years.

You can read my full review of Lucky Child here.

4. Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness

By Loung Ung, 2012

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“I had begun the manuscript in anger, an act of revenge against Pol Pot and his soldiers, and ended up writing not a historical book on Cambodia but a memoir of my life and family.”

Lulu in the Sky is the third book in Loung Ung’s trilogy of her experience going through the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath. The book is much happier than the previous two but it’s also not as riveting.

Loung Ung goes into great depth about how she met, fell in love, and eventually married her husband. She also describes how she got involved in the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. These 2 experiences led her to a campaign to raise awareness of the atrocities that occurred under the Khmer Rouge. The most interesting part is learning how she used her activism and writing to help heal herself from her traumatic past.

You can read my full review of Lulu in the Sky here.

RELATED POSTS ON CAMBODIA: Cambodia Itinerary: 2 – 3 Weeks Spent Hopping from Temples to Islands

5. When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge

By Chanrithy Him, 2001

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“The cost of war is a lifelong legacy borne by children”

Another heartbreaking and riveting memoir I read on the Cambodian genocide is When Broken Glass Floats (meaning when the world is unbalanced), written by Chanrithy Him.

Him was four years old when the Khmer Rouge sent everyone including her large family of twelve to the countryside and eventually to slave labor camps throughout Cambodia.

Him recounts the story of her experience of family separation, illness, starvation, and loss. Not all of her family survived. But through the loyalty and love among the remaining family members, they help each other to survive and leave Cambodia. Him eventually makes it to the United States.

I read When Broken Glass Floats in 2014 and at that time, I gave it five stars on Goodreads. Because it was a library book, I didn’t have a chance to refresh my memory enough before writing this review to tell you whether I would recommend it over other books on the genocide.

6. River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia

By Jon Swain

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“He [Dith Pran] had taught us what friendship meant and when his luck ran out, we had nothing to give him except money and food. Our abandonment of him confirmed in me the belief that we journalists were in the end just privileged passengers in transit through Cambodia’s landscape of hell. We were eyewitnesses to a great human tragedy none of us could comprehend. We had betrayed our Cambodian friends. We had been unable to save those who had saved us. We were protected simply because our skins were white. I felt ashamed.”

River of Time is British journalist, Jon Swain’s beautiful memoir of his time living in and reporting on Southeast Asia during the Indochina Wars. He was in Cambodia in 1970 before being kicked out for reporting on something the government didn’t like. He left for Vietnam and stayed there until 1975 before returning to Cambodia to report on the downfall of Phnom Penh. He was actually with Dith Pran on the day Phnom Penh fell and was portrayed in the movie The Killing Fields.

If you’re holding off reading this book because of its hefty price tag, don’t. It’s so damn good! It is truly, truly great writing. Every word is like poetry.

Swain also knows how to capture a sense of place like no other author I’ve ever read. Unlike so many other western writers, Swain never looks down upon Cambodia or Vietnam.

If you are someone who loves Southeast Asia or who romanticizes the region (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), then do not hesitate. Splurge a little and get this book!

7. The Gate

By Francois Bizot, 2000

My Rating: Have Not Read Yet

The Gate is a memoir by French ethnologist Francois Bizot describing his experience as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. Interestingly, his imprisonment took place in 1971, four years before the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. But what was more interesting was that his captor was none other than the infamous Deuch, the notorious warden of Tuol Sleng prison, where 17,000 people were tortured and executed from 1975 – 1979.

During the fall of Phnom Penh, Bizot became the intermediary between those trapped in the French embassy and the Khmer Rouge.

I became interested in this book after reading Jon Swain’s River of Time, which describes the friendship between Swain and Bizot and touches upon Bizot’s experience as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge and an intermediary during the fall of Phnom Penh.

RELATED POST: Phnom Penh Itinerary: The Perfect Itinerary for History Lovers

Books on Cambodia – History

After reading one or two memoirs by the victims of the Cambodian genocide, read one of the books that delve into the history of the Khmer Rouge to find out more about the people who created the genocide.

If you’re interested in the entire history of Cambodia, I’ve listed a few books that will give you a wider context to the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Cambodia’s history has not all been a nightmare. Under the Angkor Kingdom (802 – 1431), the Khmer people have built some of the most magnificent buildings the world has ever seen. It’s interesting and informative to see how a country goes from such brilliance to such brutality.

8. A History of Cambodia

By David Chandler, 2018

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“The first sixty years of the nineteenth century form the darkest portion of Cambodia’s dark ages before the Armageddon of the 1970s. Invaded and occupied again and again by Thai and Vietnamese forces, the kingdom also endured crises and demographic dislocations. For a time in the 1840s, it ceased to exist as a recognizable state. Just as Jayavarman VII’s ideology can be compared in some ways to the ideology of Democratic Kampuchea, the first half of the nineteenth century bears some resemblance to the 1970s in terms of foreign intervention, chaos, and the sufferings of the Cambodian people.”

My favorite book on Cambodia’s history is David P. Chandler’s A History of Cambodia. The book is ideal for those who are serious about exploring Cambodia’s history more deeply.

It’s not for someone who wants a quick overview of the country or who is exploring its history for the first time. It’s more dense and academic than some of the other books that cover the whole 2000 years of Cambodian history.

The book examines four main themes: how Cambodia’s geography has affected its history, the relationships of modern Cambodia to its past, the role of patronage and hierarchy in the people’s thinking, its politics, and its society, and the lack of change in rural Cambodia.

Chandler doesn’t just present a list of events. He also analyzes the reasons why they occurred and the impact they had on subsequent events. However, because documented sources from Cambodia’s past are so few, there’s still a lot that we don’t understand about Cambodia.

9. Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land

By Joel Brinkley, 2012

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.”

Curious about what life is like in Cambodia in the twenty-first century? Then you might want to read  Cambodia Curse by journalist, Joel Brinkley.

Brinkley spent two years (2008 – 1010) researching and two summers visiting Cambodia to write this book.

His overriding theme is that Cambodia is hopelessly corrupt and backward. Why Cambodians can’t get its act together baffles him.

The examples of corruption and graft are endless and repetitive. I get it! He didn’t need to pound his readers over the head with this fact.

Brinkley seems to only see the negative and to only be able to see things from this narrow western mind-set. Yes, compared to the United States, Japan, or Australia, Cambodia is poorer. Yet I know Cambodians who are resilient and have flourished and done well. Why couldn’t Birkley have told more of these stories?

I did find the parts on the PTSD—post-traumatic stress syndrome—that Cambodians have been suffering from ever since the genocide ended in January 1979 to be rather interesting.

Now that it’s nearly 2021, I’d say it’s out-of-date. Hun Sen is still in power and he’s cozier with China than ever before. But Cambodia is doing better doing economically (at least before COVID hit).

10. A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival

By John Tully, 2006

My Rating: Not Read Yet

If you want a simple overview of the history of Cambodia that won’t cost you an arm or a leg, then you might want to read  A Short History of Cambodia (288 pages). The book covers 2000 years of Cambodian history from its very beginnings to the early 2000s.

I haven’t read it and I probably won’t since I’ve read other books that delve into the subject matter more deeply. However, I wanted to include this book on here for those who really want to learn about the history of Cambodia. It’s more affordable and easier to find in bookstores than Chandler’s book.

A Short History of Cambodia is part of a series of books on the history of Southeast Asia that include books on Bali, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

11. Voice from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison

By David Chandler, 2000

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“Many other prisoners at S-21 were asked to explain why they had been arrested and therefore why they were guilty. Like Joseph K in Kafka’s novel The Trial, they had not been accused because they were guilty; they were guilty because they had been accused. The questions were intended to throw the prisoners off balance, but the interrogators themselves were often genuinely curious and sincere. They believed that the prisoners were guilty, but they had no idea what offenses they were supposed to uncover.”

I saw illegal copies of Voice form S-21 all over Phnom Penh when I was in Cambodia. I didn’t get it. I don’t believe in reading illegally produced books, but I wish I had at least read it before my visit to the country. It would have made my tour of Tuol Sleng prison much more meaningful. Instead, I read it in 2020.

Written by David Chandler, this riveting and detailed book focuses solely on the Khmer Rouge secret interrogation and torture center called Tuol Sleng prison. It is now a museum. This prison is where the Khmer Rouge sent their suspected spies and traitors to be interrogated, tortured, and then executed. Over 17,000 people went through this prison. Only eleven made it out alive.

You’ll learn about the people in charge of the prison, its victims who went through the prison, the various methods used to get the prisoners to confess, and the rationale behind their methods of madness.

12. When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution

By Elizabeth Becker, 1998

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“There were countless other “Tuol Slengs” bloodying the country. There were prisons, execution sites, and pits. Work and murder, work and murder were the two certainties of Democratic Kampuchea…Fear was the primary instrument to keep the population under control.”

When the War Was Over is another must-read book on Cambodia that I regret not reading earlier. It’s also on the pricier side, but I’d say it’s more than worth it.

The book focuses on the modern history of Cambodia from the French colonial period to the post-colonial governments of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Lon Nol before making it to the period of the Khmer Rouge.

This is the perfect companion to any memoir on this list. The memoir allows you to see what happened to one person or family while When the War Was Over gives you why the genocide happened, how it happened, and who created it.

Elizabeth Becker was a journalist in Cambodia from 1973 to 1975. Now here’s what makes her extra special: She was also one of the only 3 western journalists allowed to enter Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and one of the few to meet Pol Pot. Her book describes that trip in detail. The crazy thing is that one of the people on her trip was murdered while in Cambodia!

Read my full review of When the War Was Over.

13. Pol Pot: An Anatomy of a Nightmare

By Philip Short, 2006

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“‘Pol Pot,’ Ieng Sary recalled, ‘even when he was very angry, you could never tell. His face…his face was always smooth. He never used bad language. You could not tell from his face what he was feeling. Many people misunderstood that—he would smile his unruffled smile, and then they would be taken away and executed.’”

When the War Was Over is good, but if you want the most up-to-date and the best researched book on the Khmer Rouge, then you must read Philip Short’s Pol Pot: An Anatomy of a Nightmare.

Although Pol Pot is the title of the book, it’s about much more than just him. It’s about EVERYONE who created the nightmare of the Cambodian experiment of turning a country into a slave state. This everyone includes the other high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials and Norodom Sihanouk as well as the outside powers of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and the United States. Short ignores the French colonial period. Don’t expect any anecdotes about the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Short pretty much ignores their story, which is fine since you can get it in other books.

What is so impressive about the book is that Short based it mostly on primary sources such as interviews of Khmer Rouge officials, Pol Pot’s bodyguard and cook along with reading state records of China, Vietnam, France, and the United States.

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Books on Cambodia – Angkor Wat and the History of the Angkor Kingdom

If you’ve been fascinated by ancient ruins and have fantasized about being another Indiana Jones, then I highly recommend reading one of these great books on the history and archaeology of Angkor.

The Angkor Kingdom/Khmer Empire ruled over Southeast Asia from 802 to 1431. At its height of power, it ruled over an area stretching from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to present-day Myanmar (Burma). It built magnificent temples throughout Southeast Asia. Most people are familiar with Angkor Wat, but there are even more unforgettable temples that you must visit.

This list of books includes both the most accessible in terms of availability and price. It’s not easy finding books on Angkor Wat and it’s not easy knowing which ones to buy and which ones to skip. They also tend to be quite pricey.

14. Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples

By Dawn Rooney, 2011

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“The temples startle with their splendour perfection, but beyond the emotions they evoke lie complex microcosms of a universe steeped in cosmology.”

Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples is very popular with tourists visiting Cambodia. I carried this beautifully illustrated and informative guide-book/reference book around with me as I toured the Angkor temples.

The first one-third of this well-organized book covers the history and religion of the Khmer people and the general architectural features of the temples and the last two-thirds is a guide to each individual temple. There are bits of advice on the best features of each temple and the best time to see the temples as well as an overly detailed description of the layout of each temple. I only wish there had been more on the history of each temple.

The writing was not the most scintillating I’ve ever read. At times, the description of each temple’s layout overwhelmed me so much that I stopped reading them. It’s still a must-buy reference and guidebook for those visiting Cambodia. However, I would also add Michael Coe’s book (see below) to help you understand the temples better.

15. The Khmer Empire: The History and Legacy of One of Southeast Asia’s Most Influential Empires

By Charles River Edition, 2018

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“Angkor Wat, in particular, has become a cultural icon of Cambodia, and the tourism generated by Angkor itself provides 28.3% of the country’s gross domestic product (Turner 2016), making it one of the nation’s largest industries.”

If you want a short and simple book on the history of the Angkor Empire AND you have a Kindle Unlimited Subscription, The Khmer Empire is an easy and quick read. Even if you don’t have a subscription now, you can usually sign up for a free one-month trial.

You can probably easily finish reading the book in a day. The book covers the history of Angkor chronologically. You come away understanding who the most important kings were and what the important events were.

However, like Rooney’s book, the history is a bit dry. You get more facts and dates than anything else. The history of Angkor doesn’t really come alive like you can find with my next three books.

16. Angkor: An Introduction

By George Coedes, 1963

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“One fact is outstanding. Except for some old bridges, every Khmer monument was a religious building. The gods alone had the right to live in houses of stone or brick, the only materials other than bronze that could resist the climate and the passage of time. The sovereigns themselves lived in pavilions of wood.”

If you can find this marvelous but hard-to-find gem of a book, you are very lucky! It was written in 1963, so I’m not sure whether what is said in here is still accurate. Nevertheless, Angkor: An Introduction by one of the greatest archaeologists of Angkor, George Coedes, has some of the most interesting information on the temples and the history of Angkor that I’ve been able to find.

It’s a short book (106 pages of text before the glossary and reference list), but it covers individual subjects in great detail. There are whole chapters dedicated to the Bayon, Angkor Wat, King Jayavarman II, and King Jayvarman VII. Another chapter just discusses the symbolic features of the temples. Unlike all the other books Ive read on Angkor, it’s organized topically (Architectural symbolism, The Mysteries of Bayon) rather than chronologically. 

George Coedes also wrote a well-respected book that you might be interested in called The Indianized States of Southeast Asia (Amazon | Bookshop.org).

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17. Angkor and the Khmer Civilization

By Michael Coe, 2015 & 2018

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“Had the ancient Greeks and Romans known of Angkor, they surely would have counted that great city as the eighth wonder of the world.”

Although I enjoyed Georges Coedes’ book on Angkor immensely, some of the info might be outdated and it’s hard to find. Therefore, I recommend investing in Michael Coe’s Angkor and the Khmer Civilization book. It is the best one I read on the history of Angkor.  

There are two editions. I read the first edition (2005). There is also the second edition (2018). I wish I had splurged on the second edition because that one includes the most up-to-date archaeological research on the Angkor temples. If anyone knows how different the two editions are, please leave the information in the comment section below.

What I love about the book is that although it’s an academic book, it’s very accessible to the average reader. There are loads of photos, maps, and diagrams, adding a lot to one’s depth of understanding of the text.

The book is organized chronologically and covers different periods of the Khmer Civilization. However, there’s more than just lists of names and battles. There’s one whole chapter devoted to culture and society of Angkor that I particularly adored.

18. A Record of Cambodia: Its Land and Its People

By Zhou Daguan; Translated by Peter Harris, 2007

My Rating: Not Read

Historians and archaeologists have few resources on which to base their understanding of the Angkor Empire. They have temple inscriptions and bas reliefs and Chinese government reports. The only first-hand account of Angkor is a report by Zhou Daguan, an envoy sent to Angkor from China in 1296-1297. Unfortunately, much of the report has been lost over the centuries and what is left is 40 pages of text.

You can read the latest translation of Zhou’s report in A Record of Angkor. In the text, he describes the people, their dress, sexual activity, architecture, slaves, animals, the king, and everyday life of the ordinary people. The actual report is short. There are 40 chapters and each chapter is on average one-page long.

I haven’t read A Record of Angkor. I hesitated for the longest time due to its price tag (US$20). I was just about to splurge and add it to my shopping cart on Amazon when I suddenly came across another version of Zhou Daguan’s work that was much cheaper: Chanda Chhay’s The Royal Cambodian Chronicle.

19. The Cambodian Royal Chronicle: Including Chou Ta-Kuan’s Report on the Customs of Cambodia

By Chanda Chhay, 2009

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“In this country, there are some pretty women (transvestites?) walking around the marketplace. They form a group of about 10 people and frequently try to seduce the Chinese in exchange for valuables. It is a bad behavior!”

Before I pressed the “Buy” button on Amazon for the very expensive above translation of Zhou Daguan’s A Record of Cambodia, I found The Cambodian Royal Chronicle by Chanda Chhay that included his own translation of Zhou Daguan’s account of his visit to Cambodia in the thirteenth century. The best part was that as a Kindle Unlimited Subscriber, it was free.

The book contains more than just a translation of Zhou’s account of his time in Cambodia. It begins with a chronological history of the Cambodian monarchs, including the ones after the fall of the Angkor Kingdom. You get to read how many times the Thais invaded Cambodia (a lot!). The second part describes the Cambodian people, society, culture and civilization.

The final part is Zhou’s fascinating observations of Cambodia. Zhou tells you how people dressed, wore their hair, ate, bathed, constructed their homes, cultivated rice, and sold things. There is also a description of the flora and fauna of Cambodia. There is even a description of a fascinating and hard-to-believe practice of how young girls lost their virginity.

Books on Cambodia – Travel Guides

20. Lonely Planet Cambodia

By Nick Ray and Ashley Harrell, 2018

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Lonely Planet is my go-to guidebook for traveling in Southeast Asia. The Cambodia book is decent. What I like about it is that it covers the whole country including both the most popular destinations and more off-the-beaten-track ones.

The section on Phnom Penh is jam-packed full of information and advice. There is a separate section on the temples on Angkor that I found to be overwhelming and disorganized. I wish this section gave better advice on which temples to see for different types of tourists. For instance, which temples should you see if you want a quick tour or which temples should you visit if you’re really into the ancient ruins of Angkor?

Other than that, the usual complaints fit this book as they do all Lonely Planet books: outdated information, brief descriptions of destinations and attractions, and unclear writing.

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Novels set in Cambodia

I couldn’t find many novels on Cambodia that are in English or have been translated into English. I’ve included in this list, both books that I’ve read and a few books that I haven’t but I’ve got in my library or just are too expensive to buy.

21. Temple of a Thousand Faces

John Shors, 2013

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“The Temple of Angkor Wat had been designed to house the Hindu Gods but looked as if it had been built by them.”

This disappointing historical fiction novel is set during the reign of one of the greatest Angkor Kings, Jayavarman VII, the king responsible for the construction of Bayon, Ta Prom and many of the temples you can visit around Angkor Wat.

The backdrop of the book starts with the moment the Cambodian’s biggest enemy, the Chams (they lived in central Vietnam), successfully invaded and took control of the Angkor Empire in 1177 until Jayavarman VII defeated them in 1178. In reality, it took Jayavarman four years to defeat the Chams.

The story centers around a number of different characters: Jayavarman VII and his favorite wife, Ajadevi; a fisherman and his family, a young beautiful woman who becomes a prisoner of the Chams, and the Cham King Indravarman and his followers, the assassin Po Rame and his general Asal.

It is fun reading about people walking in and out of the famous temples like Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and Phnom Bakheng and fishing and living on Tonle Sap. But beyond that, I found it disappointing. The characters are one-dimensional—either all good or all bad. The dialogue is repetitive, unnatural sounding, and annoyingly sappy. Each chapter repeated the same dialogue between the same characters repeating their love and devotion to each other. It got to the point that I just skimmed the book whenever someone spoke.

22. A Woman of Angkor

By John Burgess, 2013

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

If you’re looking for a good page-turner set during the Angkor Empire, I highly recommend A Woman of Angkor. It’s the better of the two historic fiction novels on this list.

I’ve actually read the book twice. The first time was while in Cambodia in 2014 and according to my 3 out of 5 Good Reads score, I must not have been all that impressed. However, because I couldn’t remember much about the story or why I wasn’t enamored by the book, I read it again in 2020 in order to give you a more accurate opinion of it. This second time was also after I’d read all the other books on this list. I can tell you that having more in-depth knowledge of the Angkor Kingdom helped me appreciate this clever, well-plotted and engrossing novel more. 4 out of 5 stars.

The book centers around a brilliantly talented businesswoman named Sray, who is married to Nol, the person in charge of the parasols that block the sun from the king. Both Sray and Nol have a deep dark secret that if revealed would endanger them and their family. To make matters worse, the king falls madly in love with Sray.

The reason for 4 stars instead of 5 is that I didn’t like the main character. Sray may be talented and smart, but she’s also hypocritically pious and self-righteous.

Half of the story takes place during the construction of Angkor Wat. You’ll appreciate the story more if you read some background on the temple beforehand. One of the biggest mysteries of Angkor Wat is why the temple faces West and is dedicated to the God Vishnu when all other temples face East and honor the God Shiva.  The novel introduces a clever and hilarious reason for its differences.

23. The Map of Lost Memories

By Kim Fay, 2012

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“Too many people surrender to a place of safety. That place where all they do is long to sleep so they can dream about living.”

I had high hopes for The Map of Lost Memories as it contained elements of everything I love in a book: a smart, ambitious, and adventurous female character, an exotic location, and loads of archaeology. But i was rather disappointed.

It’s the year 1925 and Irene Blum has just been denied her dream job as the director of the Fields Museum in Seattle. Bitter but ambitious, Irene is determined to make her former employer regret their decision.  She receives a book from her mentor describing instructions on how to find hidden manuscripts revealing the secret of why the Angkor Kingdom collapsed. Irene takes off to Cambodia to find the buried treasure and bring it back to America, securing her fame and success in the archaeological world.

The book was slow going until it began to pick up at the half-way mark when Irene finally arrives in Cambodia. I love being able to make emotional connections with the main character, but I just couldn’t with Irene. I didn’t get a clear sense of who she was by the end of the book, and the change she went through didn’t feel authentic. The romance between Irene and another character (no spoilers) also wasn’t well-developed enough so that the love they expressed to each other didn’t come off as very believable.

24. In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree

By Vadney Ratner, 2012

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan.”

Vadney Ratner’s heartbreaking and well-written book, In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree, tells the story of seven-year-old Raami, the daughter of a prince known as the Tiger Prince. It’s April 1975 and the Khmer Rouge are marching into Phnom Penh and evacuating all of the citizens to the countryside. Raami’s royal family joins the millions of other Cambodians on their way to slave labor camps across Cambodia where they work and die for some insane ideology of the Khmer Rouge.

The book is based on the true story of her family’s real experience under the Khmer Rouge. Ratner really is the child of a Cambodian prince, a relative of Norodom Sihanouk. In the author notes at the back of the book, Ratner writes on her decision to write a novel rather than a memoir, “In writing I have chosen the medium of fiction, of reinventing and imagining where memory alone is inadequate.” Except for her father’s name, she changed the names of people and places, changed time and incidents and omitted characters to simplify the story.

This is a wonderful book. Good writing. Fascinating characters. The father is especially so.

25. The Rent Collector

By Camron Wright, 2012

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars – Brilliant!

After I finish, some of you may whisper that it is not true. You may say that my words are made up that my story is nothing but a myth—and you may be right. But as a wise and great teacher once explained so patiently, all good stories—stories that touch our soul, stories that change your nature, stories that cause you to become a better person from their telling—these stories always contain truth.

If you’re looking for a book about Cambodia that is NOT about the Khmer Rouge or Angkor Wat, I’ve found one for you: The Rent Collector. And luckily, it is a pure GEM! Ooh! I adored this book so much. I loved all the characters—Sang Li, Ki, Sopeap Sin, Lucky.

It’s a feel-good kind of story about the power of literature—how it can transform you, save you, and make you a better person.

Sang Li is poor. She lives with her family in a house made of cardboard in the largest garbage dump in Phnom Penh. Every month the nasty, irritable, alcoholic rent collector, Sopeap Sin, comes around to collect rent from the residents of the dump. One day Sang Li sees a different side of Sopeap. This experience brings these two women together and changes Sang Li’s life forever.

This book surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to love a book so much by a non-Cambodian about Cambodia. Can someone not from a culture tell a truly authentic story about another culture? If you’re a good enough storyteller and you know the culture and respect it enough, you can.

Why did I love this book so much?

First of all, technically, it’s a great story—you’ve got good pacing, characters, plot, setting, etc.

Second, for readers who read to learn about a culture and a place, the book is perfect for that. This book reveals a side of a country that is rarely found in books—the poor who earn a living picking through people’s garbage. Life is tough and dangerous for these people—garbage burns, dump trucks run people over, and the police don’t care about you.

Finally, I’m a sucker for books about books. I love to read, but sometimes I need to be reminded that I’m not wasting my time reading novels and that novels have a purpose in this world. They teach you truths about human nature and life. Without them, the world would be worse off.

My biggest regret is that I borrowed the book from the library. I wish I had bought my own copy because it’s a book I’d like to read again.

My final thoughts: You probably won’t read every book on this list, so here is my list of thetop 6 to 7 books you should read. (1) Any one of the memoirs written by the victims of the Khmer Rouge (Survival in the Killing Fields OR First They Killed My Father AND Lucky Child), (2) A History of Cambodia by Philip Chandler (3) When the War Was Over OR Pol Pot: An Anatomy of a Nightmare; (4) Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (5) River of Time and (6) The Rent Collector.

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25 Books to spark your wanderlust Cambodia pin with statue from Angkor Wat
book covers 9 books on Cambodia

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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  Travel addict and bookworm! This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore the history, heritage, and culture of Asia and beyond. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make better-informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand your destination more deeply.

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