Michael Freeman

Reaktion Books 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
About one third personal experience and two thirds potted history and culture, Michael Freeman's Cambodia offers an idiosyncratic but insightful introduction to the country. It was written in 2003, but Freeman's own adventures are still involving and the background he provides is mostly still relevant — though readers should note that Cambodia is much safer now than it was twenty years ago, or even ten.

The first chapter is a roundabout introduction to Cambodia and Freeman's involvement with it, from visiting as a journalist in 1989 to writing guidebooks to Angkor. It looks at Phnom Penh and its recent transformations, the cultures of opium and sex, Khmer cuisine and instructions for deep-frying tarantulas, Chenla and Angkor Wat, the origins of the Khmer script, and relationships with Thailand (visiting the Preah Vihear salient and describing anti-Thai riots in 2003).

Two chapters focus on the ruins at Angkor. The first recounts something of its history, describes a few of the more notable buildings and inscriptions, and touches on the balance between preservation and exploitation. The second covers art theft and the looting of ruins, from Andre Malraux down to modern smuggling across the Thai border, the forgery of antiques, and related topics.

Outside Angkor, Cambodia is notorious for the Khmer Rouge and their genocide. Freeman considers this only indirectly. For background he looks at the eating of human gall bladders and livers and at cannibalism in the 1974-75 siege of Kompong Seila. And he describes the background to the film The Killing Fields, the experiences of Dith Pran and Hang Nguor (the principal subject and the actor playing him) on their return to Cambodia.

A final chapter looks at some of the films set or filmed in Cambodia — Lord Jim, Apocalypse Now, The Killing Fields, Baraka — and Sihanouk's bizarre venture into film-making in the middle of the Indochina War. It also touches on the dance tradition and the Reamker, the Khmer reworking of the Ramayana.

This is all a bit meandering, but reads easily and fluently. Without a linear structure, Freeman's approach may be confusing for a complete newcomer to Cambodia, but I think it would make a good supplement to the coverage of a travel guide. And the unusual or off-beat material may appeal to more informed readers. There's also a nice selection of colour photographs.

January 2011

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%T Cambodia
%A Freeman, Michael
%I Reaktion Books
%D 2004
%O paperback, colour photographs, bibliography
%G ISBN 1861891865
%P 197pp