A Cambodian library

A Cambodian library

We have just returned from a holiday in Laos and Cambodia, finally seeing Angkor Wat. I have two novels from Cambodia on my site and two from Laos and, though I was given another Cambodian novel in English, it seems unlikely that many more will be added. Though the Khmer Empire was undoubtedly very literate in its heyday, that was a long time ago. Jayavarman VII will join Suppiluliumas of the Hittites as one of my favourite kings, not least because of their respective names but also because they seem to have both been great statesman. The Khmers certainly seem to have been highly literate as there are inscriptions carved on walls and stelae and most sites seem to have what are called Libraries (see left) where, apparently, they stored texts written on palm leaves. These have, of course, all disappeared but continued to be used by monks, though many were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Stele with ancient Khmer script

Stele with ancient Khmer script

The situation, today, however, is less promising. I asked our guide in Laos about Harry Potter and all he knew was the films. He was not aware that they came from books. (The books have not been translated into Lao but two have been translated into Khmer – ហេរី ផោតធ័រ និង សិលាទេព and ហេរី ផោតធ័រ និង បន្ទប់ សម្ងាត់, i.e. the first two). I saw relatively few libraries (apart from the ones at the ancient sites) or bookshops in either country and those that I did see tended to have predominantly books in English and other foreign languages. The books that they had in Lao or Khmer tended to be for foreigners learning the language or children’s or technical books. Moreover, unlike in other countries, I did not see people reading. The reasons are clear. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge entirely emptied Phnom Penh, a city of 2 million people. Not only did they kill two million people and destroy its infrastructure, they also destroyed the literary culture. Bookshops, publishers, libraries and writers all disappeared. They have not really reappeared. The US dropped over 3 million bombs on Laos, making it the most bombed country in the world ever. When bombs are raining down on you, writing books is not a top priority. The country remains a single party state, nominally Communist, though allowing private property and private enterprise. Literature does not seem to be a priority. Indeed, instead of reading, people in market stalls and cafés tended to crowd around television sets, watching what seemed to be appalling soap operas, many dubbed or subtitled and imported from China, Thailand or Vietnam, three countries which continue to have a considerable influence, not always benign, on the two countries. Sadly, it would seem that the literary life has been replaced by the modern, Western-style electronic media life.