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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sightseeing for locals: the city's secrets revealed

Sightseeing for locals: the city's secrets revealed

| October 10, 2015
King Norodom's Head, by long time Phnom Penh resident and retired professor Steven Boswell, is a book that defies categorisation: city guide, history book, occasionally a personal memoir. The chapters, which appear more or less in the order in which Boswell wrote them, feature little known (or even freshly uncovered) stories of some of the city's strangest historical sites, from a mysterious Frenchman's grave on Wat Phnom to an infamous opium den just off Independence Monument. Ahead of the book's publication next month, Harriet Fitch Little spoke to Boswell about his "baby", and previewed a small selection of the book's anecdotes about Phnom Penh's colourful past.

When did you first become interested in the history of Phnom Penh?

My aged parents, now deceased, lived just outside of Washington DC. I would visit them every summer but spent more time in the Library of Congress than I would at home. In the library I got all this information about Cambodia from old journals and whatnot. Then, the second year I was living here, in 2001, I moved into an apartment with no TV. So instead of watching ball games on the weekend, I’d walk the city streets from the Japanese bridge down, looking in every back alley for what had been there, what was still there, what has changed. That started my pursuit.

How did that hobby turn in to King Norodom’s Head?

I retired from Royal University of Phnom Penh, where I was given the grandiose title of adjunct professor in English, in 2009. By that time I was planning on staying here indefinitely. When you live here as long as I have and you retire, I like to say you have two options: open a bar or write a book. I used all these notes that I’d been taking over the years and sat down to complete it. It’s taken me a long time.

Apart from tourist guide books, Phnom Penh has mainly been written about by the “old guard” who lived here before the Khmer Rouge. Did you ever feel like you were stepping on people’s toes?

On the contrary, I was surprised in the case of [the historians] David Chandler and Milton Osborne how ready they were to answer my queries – some little idiot writing about Phnom Penh and asking about stuff. Maybe it’s because they’re retired. I was also helped a lot by Greg Muller, who wrote “Colonial Cambodia’s Bad Frenchmen” and has this database of the French colonial archives. I couldn’t get over to France to sniff around myself. There were a lot of people who helped me. More than helped me.

Who’s your target audience?

Residents, the occasional tourist ... but they’d have to spend quite a bit of time in Phnom Penh. If you know nothing about the Khmer Rouge, I don’t give any background. The editors like to call it an alternative guide book, but I don’t really view it as a guide book. It’s more about the stories and the history. As I say in the introduction, there’s no description of the Royal Palace, the National Museum, or S-21. There’s nothing about hotels and restaurants. This was my baby, I essentially did it for myself.