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Monumnetal volume The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia. Photo supplied

New volume tackles a changing Kingdom

“Where does one begin?” academic editors Katherine Brickell and Simon Springer ask, in the first words of a gargantuan new anthology of articles on modern Cambodia. For the two scholars, it’s with matters close to the heart.

The pair, who recently compiled and published The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia, have sought to leave no intellectual stone unturned in this impressively dense volume.

“We will start with the rush of emotions that first drew us into our love for Cambodia in the first place,” the introduction reads.

Both specialists of human geography who began researching Cambodia in the early 2000s, Brickell and Springer were approached by Routledge publishers to assemble some of the foremost scholars on the Kingdom for the work, which took around three years to complete.

At its heart, the book is about Cambodia’s inherent contradictions as a Kingdom that is both beautiful and haunted, as well as modern and traditional. The book is designed for academics and university students, although Springer hopes civil society and government workers will also be able to glean insight from its pages.

And while the academic rigour is imprinted on each page, the prose is not aloof with cold studious distance, but instead deeply personal.

“Cambodia is a country that draws you in and never lets go. It certainly captured my heart, and was really a situation of love at first sight,” Springer says.

“It’s a case of that intangible feeling of warmth that resonates somewhere deep inside of you, but can never really be articulated with any sense of adequacy.”

The book pulls together the disparate threads of Cambodian society to paint a coherent picture of the country, with all its paradoxes. The content sprawls from geopolitics and Cambodia’s place in the world to the shifting universe of religion and moral order.

It tackles Cambodia’s political and economic tensions, from the glut of microfinance to inverted justice, while also examining the tourism and media industries.

Features of rural life, including fishing, sustainability issues, the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and the interweaving patronage networks linked to land also receive studious treatment in this book, as do explorations of urban conflict, growth and even Phnom Penh’s “flourishing but invisible” street vendors.

Pervasive domestic violence in Cambodia – a research specialty of Brickell’s – comes into view in a segment dedicated to social processes.

The final section, “Cultural Currents”, provides an incisive insight into ethnicity and anti-Vietnamese sentiments, the growth in political participation of the monkhood, the summoning of spirits and the harms of voluntourism (through the reinforcement of Western supremacy and fostering dependence). The chapter closes looking at the melding of old and new in revitalising both art and music in Cambodia.

The book, published in September last year but only recently made available for purchase, is a notable shift away from the studies of the Khmer Rouge’s impact that have come to characterise Cambodia.

“Obviously anything deemed ‘contemporary’ will eventually become historical, and so the book should still be useful several decades from now when scholars and other folks interested in Cambodia want to look back at what was happening in the 2010s,” Springer says.

He says he hopes the compilation will help inform policy, but “the intention of the book is not to give directives in this regard, but rather to serve as food for thought”.

In other words, it “doesn’t assume the arrogance of knowing what is best” for Cambodia’s future that’s for Cambodians to decide but highlights the nuances of some of the most pressing issues in the country.

“In spite of all the tragedy that has shaped the course of their history, the Cambodian people retain a strength, resolve and beauty that never fails to inspire,” Springer says.

The Handbook of Contemporay Cambodia; Routledge, hardcover (476pp), can be purchased on Amazon for $160.27.

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