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Travel writing in Cambodia through history

A Phnom Penh street scene shot by Georges Portal during a visit in 1929 featured in the exhibition Wonders of 1929. GEORGES PORTAL
A Phnom Penh street scene shot by Georges Portal during a visit in 1929 featured in the exhibition Wonders of 1929. GEORGES PORTAL

Travel writing in Cambodia through history

Since the 13th century, visitors to Cambodia have been writing of their impressions – both positive and negative. And while these opinions can be taken with a grain of salt, with the passage of time they become increasingly important glimpses into the Kingdom's past

Studying the canon of Cambodia-related literature, it can feel that the sum total of the Kingdom’s history is that of the Khmer Rouge: bookshelves flush with historic analyses, biographies and novels that are framed in relation to the horrors of 1975-79.

But for those with the time and patience to seek it out, there lies a trove of writing in a different genre – the history of Cambodia as documented by those who have passed through it as travellers.

It’s a lineage that stretches back to at least the 13th century, when Chinese imperial envoy Zhou Daguan penned A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People – the only known eyewitness account of the Angkorian civilisation.

Each of these writers, in speaking to the value of good travel writing, saw the country in his or her own way.

“The chief value of travel books,” wrote Norman Lewis on his trip through French Indochina in 1950, is that “they give information that can rarely be obtained elsewhere”.

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Tiziano Terzani wrote about Cambodia in the aftermath of Democratic Kampuchea. Photo supplied

From that mosaic of impressions – the differences in opinion of which could be dramatic – a vivid and realistic picture of a bygone Cambodia emerges.

Angkorian appeal

From Zhou Daguan’s imperial chronicles onwards, it has been Cambodia’s past greatness, not its modern achievements that have most wowed visitors.

“The temples at Angkor were what brought travellers to Cambodia,” writes historian Milton Osborne in his book Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History (2008) – one of several books he has penned on the Kingdom.

One of the more inspiring accounts of Angkor came from British novelist Somerset Maugham, who traversed Indochina in 1922. Maugham was mystified by the ancient site.

“I have never seen anything in the world more wonderful than the temples of Angkor,” he wrote in The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930), his memoirs of travelling through the region.

Angkor’s bas-reliefs, depicting “princes on elephants”, “graceful trees” and “the dying and the dead”, brought forth from him especially eloquent prose, which combined an apparently profound respect for the craft of Angkor with orientalist tendencies: “Here is nothing of the harmony of the Greeks but the rush of a torrential stream and the terrible, vehement life of the jungle,” he enthused.

Norman Lewis, too, wrote adoringly about Angkor. The journalist and author, who spent time in Cambodia on a journey recorded in A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (1951), managed to transmit a fantastic amount of hard-to-obtain information in his 10-day Cambodian jaunt.

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Journalists Elizabeth Becker and Tiziano Terzani eat at the Hotel le Phnom in 1973. Angela Terzani

Though he had a tendency to describe Cambodia using foreign imagery (in this one nation he saw “cemeteries of Northern Italy,” “dogs of India”, “butterfly of the Vietnamese forests”), Angkor Wat was in a league of its own: “the most spectacular man-made remains in the world”.

Forgotten cities
While ancient Khmer civilisation was a source of great wonder for writers, the country’s contemporary attractions generally failed to garner such favourable reviews.

For Norman Lewis, Angkor’s gateway town of Siem Reap was unremarkable: “another slumbering Shangri-La, perfumed slightly with putrid fish-sauce”.

Cambodia’s capital itself was often excluded entirely from travellers’ accounts. As Osborne writes, “Phnom Penh was, at best, an afterthought” for the Kingdom’s Western visitors.

Where it was included on the itinerary, accounts (many of which are recorded by Osborne in his 2008 book) vary. When American Robert J Casey passed through Phnom Penh in 1929 he found pleasure in “a town of wide, well-shaded streets with a Royal Palace, a pretty park, and a vast and pictureful array of markets”.

But there was something that seemed to repel, or even to disgust, other visitors.

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A postcard featuring Angkor Wat from 1911. WIKICOMMONS

British writer Geoffrey Gorer, who visited the capital just six years after Casey, took the city’s rural simplicity differently: “filthy native slums”, “ugly, dull looking people” and palaces “of tawdry, gimcrack, flashy and pretentious taste” are what he observed in Bali and Angkor (1936). To Gorer, the capital was “so ghastly that it has a sort of morbid fascination”.

Steven Boswell, who recently published King Norodom’s Head – an account of some of Phnom Penh’s more offbeat historical sites – reflected during an interview with Post Weekend last week on the city’s less than glowing early reception. “They tend to belittle the Royal Palace of all places, which surprises me as I find it a lovely place.

And the earlier ones, the French ones, tend to belittle King Norodom a bit, too,” he said, adding that this in itself was a privilege only on offer to a bygone generation: “The early ones always managed to meet the king – that was always part of their visit.”

“[Phnom Penh] was seen as a shabby little place,” Boswell said in summary, “although that may well have been the case”.

Indeed, Cambodia as a whole was something of a footnote in the Southeast Asian experience.

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Milton Osborne (right), then 24, with his friend Prince Sisowath Phandaravong at the Queen’s Birthday reception in July 1961. Photo supplied

“Very few books were written by people who devoted their entire time to Cambodia rather than to the whole of Indochina,” Milton Osborne said last week, referring in particular to the pre-colonial period.

The reason, he suggested, was simple: more people went to (and spent more time in) Vietnam and Thailand. For Osborne, who believes that honest travel books transform into “historical documents” with time, the scarcity of such accounts is regrettable.

Boswell submits that the sidelining of Cambodia by travellers extended to the time of the French protectorate and beyond. “Maybe it’s because the French did favour Vietnam and the Vietnamese,” he suggested.

“The people that the French brought over to work as officials in Cambodia were Vietnamese by and large, so these early visitors would have spent a lot of time talking with French officials and may have replicated their views to a certain extent.”

After Pol Pot
The tumult of civil war and the Khmer Rouge years from the 1960s and throughout the 1970s produced a welter of new authors turning their analytical attentions to Cambodia’s politics and history.

But for travel writers, the country had been ruined. “The more I knew about Cambodia’s infernalities and acrimonies,” griped travel writer doyen Paul Theroux in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008), “the more ... I just wanted to go away.”

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Norman Lewis was a thrillseeker. Photo supplied

Tiziano Terzani, a gifted Italian journalist who covered Cambodia’s civil war in the 1970s for Der Speigel, saw Cambodia a few days after the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975. He recounted the ordeal years later in A Fortune Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East (1995).

Terzani, described posthumously by his friend and war reporter Elizabeth Becker as “a journalist with a magpie’s attraction to exotica”, writes movingly of a land traumatised by violence.

“The marks of that suffering were everywhere,” he recalled. “I could no longer see a row of palm trees without thinking that the tallest were those most fertilised with corpses. In Cambodia, even nature had lost its comforting innocence.”

The global relief forces that so changed the face of Cambodia also became targets for a new generation of travel writers.

For Edward Gargan, a New York Times correspondent who spent a year travelling down the Mekong for The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong (2002), Phnom Penh was not only a capital but an “emergency room of international relief organizations that stampeded into the country to rebuild it, demine it, rewrite its laws, repave its roads, patch its wounds”.

“High on the hope with which UNTAC had infected almost everyone,” wrote a jaded Carol Livingston in Gecko Tails: A Journey Through Cambodia (1996), “I’d come to write an optimistic travel book, but I’d become much more realistic.”

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Somerset Maugham was astounded by Angkor Wat. Photo supplied

And the scars of Pol Pot’s regime turned writers philosophical. “The traveller’s conceit is that barbarism is something singular and foreign,” wrote Theroux, meditating on the frequency of mass murder after a visit to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. “The truer shout is not ‘Never again’ but ‘Again and again.’”

Today, Steven Boswell says, travel writing about Cambodia remains a relatively pauce genre.

“You can look at my bookshelf, and my dozens of books about Cambodia are mostly are about history and religion. There’s just a handful about travel writing, and again most of those deal with all of Indochina,” he said.

But it is often hard to distinguish between genres. Milton Osborne reflected last week that “travel writing is almost always about the writer’s reaction to the present”, before adding that “this often means that the author will delve into history in the course of discussing or describing the present”.

Osborne cited Normal Lewis as a case in point, describing A Dragon Apparent as “almost ‘pure’ travel writing, but [which] nevertheless strays into contemporary political history to explain what he encounters.”  

“The distinction is not always clear, and perhaps that is what makes good travel writing such a popular form of reading entertainment.”

Additional reporting by Harriet Fitch Little.


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