Khmer Stories

Khmer bas-relief
Bayon temple. Photo credit: Karen Kao

There are no old Khmer men on the streets of Siem Reap. They do not work in the kampongs surrounding this tourist center. Nor do they guard the temples of Angkor Wat, other than in spirit.

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of their fellow Cambodians. Others fled across the border to Vietnam, to France and the United States. If history is written by the victors, then the stories must, by definition, be told by the survivors.

But Khmer stories are much more than that. It is, for one, a rich tradition that dates back to the 5th century, Buddhist temples once functioned as repositories for learning. There is a lively publishing sector. Yet little of this literary tradition crosses into the English-language world.

Thanks to Words without Borders, we have a glimpse of Cambodian history through the lens of its poetry and song, fiction and memoir.

Translated from Khmer, French, and Sanskrit, and complemented by mesmerizing audio recordings, the prose and poetry here bring this little known literary tradition to English.

Words without Borders, Cambodia: Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond, Nov 2015

Lyrical Khmer

The selections of Khmer writing include a eulogy written by Queen Indradevi for her sister, Queen Jayarajadevi, in the early 12th century. Lyrics written for the golden voice of Cambodian crooner, Sinn Sisamouth. Gangsta rap born in a Cambodian refugee camp, that travels via a bootleg tape from a concert in Long Beach, California back into the homeland.

The prose descriptions of Cambodia are equally lyrical. Sometimes those descriptions are written in the here and now. For example, to set the stage for an interview with Khmer Rouge survivor, Oum Sophany.

April in Cambodia is dry. The temperature reaches a thick 35 degrees Celsius each day and there is no reprieve. The broken streets of Phnom Penh, which flood to waist deep in the monsoon months of June to September, are bleached as old bones; the sky glares down with a sharp blue eye.

Laura Jean McKay, The Keeper: Oum Sophany

Soth Polin was a newspaper publisher prior to the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. He fled the country. Maybe he knew the retribution his family would suffer because of his defection.

I shared a bed with red ants whose bites burned like hell, and Buddha’s Brushes, tiny millipedes who could infiltrate earholes with ease; scorpions, and even slim snakes. And when the floods came, huge rats, half-underwater, swam level with my ear, their mobile snouts nosing through the drifting debris like miniature submarines.
Oh, those flood days are unforgettable. Water the color of pus rose up like a festering wound and covered this godforsaken place. It bewitched me.

Soth Polin, The Anarchist


Electric Literature recently published a panel discussion among young Cambodian-American writers. They call themselves the 1.5 or 2nd generation survivors. And while they will all acknowledge the need to tell survival stories, they have a desire to move past that. To avoid the tokenization of trauma.

These young writers hate words like resilient or nostalgia. Khmer stories don’t have to live in the past. And when the writing is coming from Khmer born and raised outside Cambodia, labels come unstuck quickly.

Sokunthary is from the Bronx, Anthony’s from Stockton, Angela is from Houston, I’m from Lancaster, Danny’s from the Bay Area. Diaspora: There’s this understanding that there’s no one way to be Cambodian.

Monica Sok, The Cambodian American Writers Who Are Reimagining Cambodian Literature, Electric Literature, 11 June 2019

The rapper praCh may have been more deeply affected by the violence he experienced in US ghettoes than the killing fields his parents fled. In a very visceral sense, writing from the diaspora creates an additional degree of separation for these young writers.

Survival memoirs, the survival literature before us are by refugees from Cambodia’s killing fields. But the second generation, and 1.5 generation, right… we’re refugees from our families in a way.

Monica Sok

So why not write dystopian fiction, persona poems, graphic comics and opera? There are plenty more Khmer stories to tell.

23 September 2019 | Karen Kao