Book Review: Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja

A book review I hear you're engaging in intellectual persuits rather than getting inebriated and watching the Gooners!!!

What's wrong with you Penfold? Have you suffered some kind of cranial trauma or been visited by the ghost of Evelyn Waugh?

Actually, it's a book that will appeal to a broad range of people and not just pipe smoking English professors!!!

Far from being an artsy-fartsy critique on the works of Proust or Dostoevsky it's a simple review of Amit Gilboa's best-selling book, entitled, "Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja".

As the title suggests, it's a lurid exposé of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, vividly describing the daily lives and exploits, of a "colourful" group of expats.

It caused a real stir in South East Asia, when it was published in 1998, due its disturbing content, searing honesty and its darkly humourous portrayal of modern day Cambodia.

The poweful combination of alcohol, drug abuse and prostitution, coupled with the brutal picture that it painted of violence, social degradation and human immorality, upset our delicate 20th century Western sensibilities!!!

Critics have said that the book is nothing more than sensationalism and tabloid-style trash, which glorifies the undiginified behaviour of perverted, pot-smoking slackers, which, to a certain extent is true, with its tales of visiting brothels, casual violence and drug taking.

But, from the moment Gilboa put pen to paper, this book was destined to challenge the writers of more genteel travelogues and he never intended to regale us with erudite prose à la Bill Bryson or Ernest Hemmingway.

For a first time author, the book is well very written and an extremely worthwhile read. It is funny and shocking in equal measures and also touches nicely on Cambodian history, society and the current political and social problems.

Gilboa is a very observant writer and the book is full of a quirky mix of styles, from narrative to diary entries to bizarre character sketches. He skilfully introduces the reader to the duality and fragility of life in modern day Cambodia and it is possible to draw some faint parallels to the work of Joseph Conrad and William Golding.

What becomes evident, is that he is trying to make sense of world in which all standards of behaviour and decency have completely broken down and the abnormal has become the norm.

I particularly like his non-judgemental perspective on the situations he encounters and the people around him. There is a sense of worldliness about his writing (which is unusual for a Yank!!!) and he approaches his subject matter with impartiality. He doesn't try to impose his own beliefs or values on the reader which is sometimes the case with the works of other writers who tackle similar subjects.

I highly recommend "Off the Rails in Phnom Penh" and for those of you contemplating a trip to Cambodia, it should be essential reading!!! Forget the Lonely Planet.....this book is the real introduction you need!!!!

The following excerpt gives you a taste of what to expect.......!!!!

".....Phnom Penh is a city of beauty and degradation, tranquillity and violence, and tradition and transformation; a city of temples and brothels, music and gunfire, and festivals and coups.
But for many, it is simply an anarchic celebration of insanity and indulgence. Whether it is the $2 wooden shack brothels, the marijuana-pizza restaurants, the AK-47 fireworks displays, or the intricate brutality of Cambodian politics, Phnom Penh never ceases to amaze and amuse. For an individual coming from a modern Western society, it is a place where the immoral becomes acceptable and the insane becomes normal......"

If you would like to know more about "Off the Rails in Phnom Penh", please visit Amit Gelboa's website at.....


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