Reading for pleasure has never been a consistent thing for me. In fact, it usually takes a lot to get me to pick up a book, and then quite a bit more to finish it. But, while preparing for my solo trip to Cambodia, I kept coming across a few titles that people were recommending. So I thought, ‘What the heck. I’ll bite.’
The first book was called Temple of A Thousand Faces. And actually, I was really reluctant when I clicked “Purchase” on whatthebook.com (Korea’s best source for buying English books online), because it belonged to the ugly, boring-sounding world of “historical fiction” (sorry if you love that stuff, I’ve never been a fan). But by the end I was pleasantly surprised! Set in 12th century Angkor Wat, the story focuses on one of the greatest kings Cambodia has ever known at a tumultuous time when the city was overtaken by a neighboring tribe. Subplots of secret love affairs and struggling lower-class families run throughout the novel as well. From that description it kind of sounds like the nerdy version of some smutty romance novel, but I assure you it’s not. I recommend anyone who’s traveling to Siem Reap or interested in Cambodian history/culture to read it.
The second book was called Never Fall Down. Unlike Temple of a Thousand Faces, this story was very contemporary and a little more up my alley from the start, as it was based on the true experience of a young boy who learned to play an instrument in order to survive the Khmer Rouge. If you’re unfamiliar with the Khmer Rouge (like I was before booking my ticket to Cambodia), it was a communist regime that took over the country in the mid 1970s and ultimately led to the massacre of 2 million Cambodians, one of the worst genocides a country has ever committed against its own people. The story is told from the boy’s perspective, in a beautiful style of imperfect English that makes the whole thing extremely powerful. Two thumbs up.
So, I finished reading both books before boarding my flight to Siem Reap, and I have to say I’m really glad I did! The books not only gave me a great foundation of historical knowledge, but also opened my eyes to the culture, religion, landscape, climate, and spirit of the country.
Then, once I was in Siem Reap, thanks to the first book it was really satisfying to be able to look at a temple and know something about the man who commissioned it and the circumstances of that time period. It was also more fun to be with my tour guide, because instead of me just listening to him spew an endless list of historical facts we could have a discussion. And if I hadn’t read the second book, all of the rice fields I motorbiked through would’ve just been a bunch of pretty scenery. But instead I felt this gut-wrenching, bitter-sweet sensation as I found myself imagining such a beautiful place being tended to by people in the midst of the worst kind of suffering. Weird, huh? I’m grateful to have felt more sad on vacation…
By no means did I become an expert on all-things-Cambodia after reading two tiny books. But I was far less ignorant about where I was and the people I was surrounded by, and that was a really cool feeling.
It may be obvious to other people, but for me, “doing my homework” and being able to shed a few layers of ignorance was a revelatory experience, and one that I hope to make a habit of before/on future trips. Whether it’s by reading a detailed history of the country, a work of fiction, or some combination of the two, I now believe it pays to know before you go.