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CAMBODIA, by Michael Freeman. London: Reaktion Books, 2004, 198 pp., 43 color photographs, £19.95 (paper).

With Angkor as its capital, the Khmer empire ruled over what is now central and southern Vietnam, southern Laos, Thailand and part of the Malay Peninsula. Now dwindled to Cambodia, Angkor’s colossal ruins are the major reason people come to view its remains.

Gone are the days when, as late as the end of the 16th century, a visiting Spanish missionary could remark that there were indeed so many precious things in the country that “when the king fled to Laos, he scattered gold and silver coins along the road so that the Siamese would be too busy gathering them up to capture him.”

Yet Cambodia is now recovering from its vicissitudes. Michael Freeman tells us in this book that when a department store in the capital last year installed the country’s first escalator “the Phnom Penhois queued to try it out, and the store had to appoint instructors to show people how to use it.” True, but it did have the escalator, one of the many comforts of the “first world,” and more is to follow.

Not all of them perhaps so welcome. The author outlines a few: “A mobile sound-and-light show roaming from temple to temple, the world’s largest balloon tethered close to Angkor Wat (an ancient Khmer temple), handing everything over to a Chinese Malaysian contractor to run on efficient Disney-like lines, and installing an escalator on Bakhen hill.”

Tourism is a major money-making enterprise in Cambodia. In 1987 there were just 440 visitors; in 2001, a quarter of a million. No wonder then that commerce outruns quality. Already, in 2002, the Grand Hotel near Angkor (now spruced up and run by Raffles) enticed Jose Carreras (one of the ubiquitous “three tenors”) to serenade there, and all of the tickets (cheapest were $500) were snatched up by affluent foreign visitors.

Another money-making enterprise is the despoilment of those very ruins that attract the tourists. Many sculptures and carved panels are stolen and spirited away to dealers, often to neighboring Thailand.

These thieves are, to be sure, only following in the elegant footsteps of Andre Malraux, who eventually became minister of cultural affairs in de Gaulle’s government. In 1923, Malraux-turned-tomb-raider-Laura Croft relieved the temple of Banteay Srei of some of its finest ornaments. He was apprehended after he had managed to transport his 600 kg of cut stone all the way to Phnom Phen.

Both the French temple robber and the temple went on to greater things. He to a high government post and, for a time, literary regard; it to a new kind of reconstruction, one that the author describes as “a manicured state of abandon.”

And the pillage continues. The author himself encountered a whole field of lingas, stolen stone phalli. When asked why so many, he was told that they were not very good sellers compared with more figurative sculptures. “A bit minimalist perhaps,” he writes. “The looters had misjudged the market.”

His very interesting book is filled with much firsthand information of this sort. Freeman knows his subject. He is a well-regarded writer and photographer, author of three books devoted to Angkor and the other Wats, and here he gives us a general book on the country, one based upon his own activities.

He thus structures it in an associative manner, one subject suggesting another, until the template of Cambodia is all filled in. This means that it can be difficult to relocate subjects (there is no index), but it also gives the work an organic unity and allows for much historical association.

In attempting to account for the even now astonishing cruelty of the “killing fields” of the 1970s and the terrible, implacable Khmer Rouge, the author easily turns to the history lying so near at hand. “There is, it has been said, a vein of ferocity running through Khmer history,” and he then gives us examples.

In the process, he perhaps forgets that there is a vein of ferocity running through all history, one that surfaces particularly when social reforms, new orders and final solutions are being considered. The horror perpetuated by Pol Pot and his associates was spawned of just such utopian ambitions and none of us are innocent of these.

Very well designed, beautifully illustrated, this volume gives us the past and present of one of the most interesting, and still one of the most unknown countries of Asia.

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