01 September 2010

Gecko Tails: A Journey Through Cambodia by Carol Livingston

Year published: 1996
Genre: Travelogue, journalism, non-fiction
Setting & time: Cambodia, ca. 1992-1994.

Carol Livingston arrived in Cambodia in the early 1990s, along with friend who was hoping to find work for one of the many international aid and development organisations that were working towards stabilising the political situation in the country and redressing some of the many problems caused by the Khmer Rouge regime. Livingston herself was hoping to earn a living as a freelance journalist and quickly got the idea of writing a book. Supporting herself with her advance payment for the book and by writing stories for various publications, she travelled around the country in search of material for the book and stories to feed to the press.

I don’t understand the reviewers who have called this book funny. Sure, there are the occasional wry observations about the smoking of marijuana (and its use in cooking), cultural misunderstandings and expatriate misbehaviour, but for the most part this is a rather dark book. It is well-written, if in a rather detached style, and gives an honest account of the author’s stay in the country and a snapshot of the political situation at that point in time.

This is not one of those travelogues where the author has immersed herself in the culture of the visited country, and neither will you find many descriptions of lovely landscapes and exciting tourist destinations, although she does mention her visits to Angkor Wat and several other interesting places. The people she met seem, for the most part, have been mostly western expatriates and travellers, and her contact with the Cambodians seems to have been fleeting at best.

This is a superficial portrait of a country in turmoil that is getting ready to settle down after a painful period of strife and disruption, of the people who are supposed to help in the settling-down process, and the journalists who feed on every scrap of negativity that pops up. While she doesn’t say it in so many words, what most clearly emerges from this snapshot of Cambodia in the early 1990s, is a criticism of the roles played by the press in such situations, although aid workers and local politicians are not spared either. 3 stars.

P.S. Dear reader: Having recently read Norman Lewis' charming A Dragon Apparent, where he describes Cambodia (or French Indochina as it was known then) before the Khmer Rouge came along, I would now like to read about Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule, and about modern Cambodia. It doesn't have to be travelogues, can just as well be history. Can you recommend any good books on the matter?

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