Book review: Dos and Don’ts in Cambodia

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via Goodreads.com

Dos and Don’ts in Cambodia by Dr David Hill dispenses advice about surviving in the Kingdom of Wonders. This guide to Cambodian culture and travel can easily be read as a light-hearted, whistle-stop tour of the country. However, I found it somewhat problematic in its approach and often rather negative in its tone. It would have perhaps been more accurate to name the book “A Thailand lover’s cynical guide to Cambodia”.

The book was published in 2005 and Cambodia is a rapidly changing country. So, it could be that the experiences Dr Hill retells in his book are just now outdated. However, its constant representation of Cambodia as lawless, threatening and damaged seems to negate any rounded discussion about Khmer culture and history. More irksome still, fruitless comparisons with nearby countries pepper each chapter. Hill even admits to having annoyed his Khmer wife by waxing lyrical about Bangkok and dismissing Cambodia in the process. Despite being chastised by his wife, he obviously hadn’t learnt his lesson. I hadn’t even made it through the third chapter before the constant mentions of Thailand began to grate on me. Not only do the comparisons assume a knowledge of Thailand that readers may not have, most mentions seem redundant and distracting.

Then again, it may be that my experience of Cambodia is limited and biased. I obviously have a huge amount of affection for this country so maybe blinded to its faults. However, I am distinctly aware of the problems of crime (I had my wallet stolen), sanitation and lack of facilities. I am also sure that in 2005, Cambodia was a very different place (a lot of my expat friends who have been here for a long time tell me regularly). But some of the wider social themes Hill discusses are a bit alien to my experiences.

The fragmented, uneducated and backwards Khmer society that has been written about is not the society I see. There could be clear reasons for this: my experiences tend to be with younger and educated Cambodians. Most of my friends (by necessity) are fluent or proficient in English. They have a wider understanding of the world in general and can be very articulate. Furthermore, they uphold strong family values whilst also maintaining a sense of ambition and drive. Second, my experiences have been quite cosmopolitan. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have a high amount of tourists and expat workers. Also, these towns have a high number of Khmer people from various provinces relocated for work or study. Therefore, there could be a false sense of unity, social cohesion and worldliness that isn’t present in other parts of the country. However, I have occasionally ventured further afield and I have not seen the lawless, tribalistic, disjointed society devoid of family values that Hill describes. Hill also contradicts himself in a few places, writing that the Khmer Rouge destroyed social and family values but also that Cambodians often rely on family, friends and neighbours. The book is not intended to be an anthropological study, so perhaps I should forgive it for not reconciling these comments.

Having said that, some of the information given, although very brief and superficial, is fascinating and does raise further questions. Its chapters on superstition and history are interesting despite their lack of thoroughness. I have learnt quite a bit from reading this book; it has also helped me think about what I would like to know more about. Furthermore, some of the political comments still ring true.

So, in the style of the book:

DO read this book, but also DO be aware that Cambodia is changing at such a rate that a lot of the comments are outdated.

DO realise that the book is intentionally brief and paints with broad brush-strokes.

DON’T assume everything is accurate.

DO take it with a pinch of salt.

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