Seng Leang, director of Chhay Heng Bookshop on Street 130, shows a selection of some Khmer-language literature available.
It's hard to find high quality books written in Khmer, and even more difficult to find people reading them - a prospect that worries many educators and threatens the kingdom's socio-economic future.
Spurred by Cambodia's low literacy rate, many organizations are striving to promote reading and literacy in the kingdom. But their work is often overshadowed by the realities of poverty, ill-equipped schools and libraries, and a history of war that nearly obliterated the country's literary tradition.
Some Cambodians, such as Dr Lao Mong Hay, Executive Director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy (KID), believe reading is critical for Cambodia not only for the obvious economic reasons, but also for the country's social and emotional well-being.
"We have to promote reading because reading books gives people not only knowledge but also imagination," Mong Hay said. "We feel this is a part of liberating ourselves.We've been traumatized and depressed for so long and reading is a way to escape that."
Experts agree that Cambodia's history influences the quantity and quality of books available in modern Cambodia. Long before the Khmer Rouge destroyed thousands of books after their 1975 takeover, edicts and stories written on palm leaves were destroyed by Thai invaders in the 17th and 18th centuries.
"The real tragedy happened during the war," Mong Hay said. "The Khmer Rouge didn't like educated people and intellectuals, so if you had spectacles and you liked to read, you faced extermination."
According to some historians, a common trick during the regime was for soldiers to frantically claim that someone was dying and ask people for help reading the label of a French medicine bottle. If you showed that you could read French, you would be killed.
Khuon Chamroeun, director of the National Library, said that even after the Khmer Rouge fell, very few books were written in Cambodian from 1979 to 1993 and most of the books available were those that promoted the political views of government.
In recent years, more Khmer books have surfaced, but not enough to engage Cambodians in frequent reading, Mong Hay said.
Most book shops, such as those clustered on Street 130 near Norton University, have a wide selection of textbooks, language guides and technical books in English, but relatively few books in Khmer.
"In Khmer, we sell a lot of comics, but we also sell some books about personal struggles, life and love," said Chan Sokekheng of Popular Bookshop, which displays a good variety of Khmer books ranging from Cambodian poetry and a handful of locally written novels to Khmer translations of Socrates and Shakespeare.
Chhay Heng Book Shop on Street 130 has a good selection of novels and educational materials in Khmer, as does the International Book Center on Preah Sihanouk Boulevard.
However, at most book shops - such as Phnom Penh Stationery & Bookshop, Angkor Bookshop and Stationery, and Borei Book Shop - very few Khmer books are found on the shelves lined with titles such as "American Idioms" and "Business Letters for Busy People". The most visible traces of Khmer appear on Khmer-English dictionaries.
The dearth of books is largely caused by the fact that there is little economic incentive to write and publish books because Cambodia lacks copyright laws, Chamroeun said. He said that in 1998 he helped draft and submit a copyright law to the Council of Ministers, but that he never received a response.
Those few Cambodian-language books with pertinent contemporary social messages are not always welcomed by powerful interests whom the books offend.
Popular Cambodian writer Kong Buncheon learned that lesson the hard way following the July 2000 publication of "The Destiny of Tat Marina," a "fictionalized" account of the agonies of acid victim Tat Marina - Bun-cheon's niece - who was allegedly victimized by the wife and bodyguards of former Hun Sen Adviser Svay Sitha in late 1999.
Although the book was an instant bestseller, on September 10 Buncheon had to flee the country after reportedly receiving death threats from Svay Sitha. Sitha's wife, Khourn Sophal, has yet to be even questioned by police while Sitha remains the Royal Government's liaison for the World Bank's $42 million demobilization project.
While there are few books being printed in Khmer, there are fewer young people reading them.
"Students today don't read unless they have to," Mong Hay said.
Mong Hay said that a recent informal poll of his law students indicated that only four or five out of 80 students had read a single book from cover to cover in the past year.
Students working in the bookshops along Street 130 seemed to agree with Mong Hay's assessment.
"I read just for my classes," said business student Sokekheng at Popular Bookshop, while a handful of other university-aged Cambodians sat in the bookshop fixating on a Thai soap opera and eating noodle soup.
"I like it, but I have no time for reading," said Tong Roth Kunthea, who works at Chhay Heng Book Shop and studies English.
"Sometimes I read the newspapers, but mostly I read books for my classes because the work is so hard," said Phan Phyrun, a student at Institute de Technologie du Cambodge.
Getting students interested in reading is a major problem, said Hen Borith, who teaches literature to 11th- and 12th-graders at Preah Sisowath high school. Borith said the situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are not nearly enough books in schools and public libraries.
The National Library near Wat Phnom has about 100,000 books, but most are written in French and English, said director Chamroeun. The library received 10 million riels from the government this year to buy books and it accepts donations from private sources.
The National Library also operates a mobile library program in conjunction with the French government in order to reach people outside Phnom Penh.
At the Khmer Students and Intellectuals Association, there is a public library with about 2,000 books, 500 of which are in English. The library also has 100 cassettes of classical Cambodian stories told in Khmer. The selection of Khmer story books is especially popular with young children in the neighborhood, said Keon Phyrom, a student at Royal School of Administration who volunteers at the association.
At the Co-operation Committee for Cambodia, the library has grown from 2,500 publications in 1995 to more than 5,000 or so today, but it has only 200 items printed in Khmer. About 15 people a day visit the library at the committee, which serves as an umbrella organization for local NGOs, said project co-ordinator Sophinith Sam Oeun.
Still, some academics worry that there are simply not enough books to go around and that the tradition of reading books for enjoyment is being eroded by television, pop music and glossy magazines.
Many government agencies and non-governmental organizations are trying to bolster local libraries and promote reading and literacy throughout Cambodia.
Yet all of the creative ideas and well-meaning projects are carried out against a backdrop of widespread illiteracy. The kingdom's literacy rate is only about 37 per cent, according to a May 2000 report compiled by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and the UNDP/UNESCO.
It is estimated that it costs only $23 to make one Cambodian literate, according to the report. However, most people complain that not enough funds have been targeted for education and literacy programs in Cambodia. Cambodia allocates only 9 per cent of its national budget for education, which is far below the ASEAN average of 15 to 20 percent.
The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport's book publishing and distribution house provides 5 million books - solely in Khmer - to about 6,000 schools throughout Cambodia, said In Kim Srun, director of the house. Most of the books are textbooks.
Though the books are free for schools, the agency is beginning to print educational books to sell in bookshops. This summer, it plans to open a retail shop next to its offices at 148 Norodom Boulevard where bookstore owners can purchase books to sell in their shops, said Nils Backstrom, business management adviser at the publishing house.
Textbooks are only part of the quest to increase literacy and engage young Cambodians in reading.
"Textbooks are not so much the issue any more - they are everywhere - but now we need to focus on other books like stories and novels," Backstrom said.
SIPAR, a French NGO which has been engaged in improving Cambodian education since 1991, is working to make more fun and educational Khmer books available to young people. SIPAR is creating a series of six colorful books written in Khmer with a Cambodian cultural context and local photographs.
"I don't see the point of having all these books in English and French for young Cambodian children," said Christiane Lalonde, SIPAR's project chief. "When I was a child I read in French and then much later I read in English - it's just natural to read in your own language."
The first book, which is about the environment in Cambodia, went on the market in January and has sold 1,500 copies so far. SIPAR is spending about $20,000 on each book in the series and will sell them for 3,500 riels each.
Another organization that is providing high-quality books in Khmer is The International Institute of Cambodia, which is a private university accredited by the Cambodian government. The institute has published about 25 books on business and economics and sells them for $2 each, said John Llewellyn, an adviser at the institute.
Meanwhile KID's Mong Hay is currently drafting a proposal for the Ministry of Information to create 15-minute book reviews to be aired on Cambodian television stations. He also wants to organize a national reading week and to draft the assistance of monks.
"There are over 3,000 monasteries in Cambodia, so why can't we train just one or two monks at each one to be librarians?" Mong Hay said. "NGOs talk about mobile libraries, but we don't need that since there are wats in every neighborhood."