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A fishing boat plies the calm waters of Kampong Bay in southern Cambodia. (Photograph by Sergi Reboredo/VWPics/Redux)

Great Travel Literature: Cambodia

Thinking about planning a trip to Cambodia or simply hoping to bone up on your knowledge about the Southeast Asian nation?

Pick up one of these insightful books, recommended by travel literature expert Don George:

  • A Woman of Angkor, by John Burgess, illuminates the rites and rituals of 12th-century life in the Khmer kingdom—which, at its height, included much of modern-day Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia—as majestic Angkor Wat is being built. Burgess focuses lovingly on mundane subjects such as rice cultivation and temple construction—as well as on the intricacies of palace intrigues and political maneuverings—to create a rich portrait of Cambodia’s ancient past.
  • Complementing A Woman of Angkor, John Shors’s historical fiction Temple of a Thousand Faces focuses on the later 12th-century period when rival Cham forces under King Indravarman IV overran Angkor Wat and wrested control of the empire. As in Burgess’s book, Shors interweaves tales of commoners and royals to bring the era—and the new Khmer King Jayavarman VII’s quest to restore his people to power—to palpable life in this sweeping novel.
  • Norman Lewis is one of the 20th century’s most discerning travel writers and Asia aficionados. In A Dragon Apparent, Lewis recounts his journeys in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in 1950, near the end of French colonial rule. His eloquent tales and reflections reveal an area and an era on the cusp of change—as well as the gentle manners and aesthetic sensitivities that still distinguish Cambodia today.
  • Just decades after Lewis’s travels, Cambodia was shattered by Pol Pot, a brutal despot who masterminded a campaign of genocide that killed more than one-quarter of the country’s population in the 1970s. Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan describes the atrocities of these years and the remarkable resilience of the Cambodian people as embodied in the main character, a girl named Raami who, though only seven years old at the beginning of the book, manages to retain both her heritage and her humanity. Ratner’s deeply personal fiction is an indelible historical record and an inspiringly transcendent testament to the redemptive power of hope and love.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of The Way of Wanderlust and Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.