The Cambodian Book Collector

Meet longtime Phnom Penh resident Andy Brouwer, who has assembled one of the country's largest private collections of English books on the 'Kingdom of Wonder'

Born and bred in the picturesque city of Cheltenham in the English Cotswolds, home to the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the world’s oldest, Andy Brouwer is the Product & Marketing Manager at Hanuman Travel and a producer and researcher at Hanuman Films. He also edited the compilation To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur. With such a literary background, it is no wonder he has had a lifelong passion for books, and has assembled a collection of more than 400 on the Kingdom.

How did someone from sleepy Cheltenham come to be so interested by Cambodia?

I owe a debt of gratitude to the award-winning journalist John Pilger. It was his 1979 documentary Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia that I watched from my sitting room in Cheltenham that first grabbed my attention and exposed me to the tragic story of Cambodia (then also known as Kampuchea). I was horrified. Deeply moved by the film The Killing Fields in the mid-80s, my knowledge of Cambodia as a country improved substantially, and more hard-hitting Pilger revelations in 1990 kick-started an affair that became a passion. In the early nineties, my zeal was boosted with membership of the UK pressure groups, Action Cambodia and Friends of Cambodia.

A July 1997 story on Andy’s early Cambodian obsession in his local newspaper

When did you first actually come to Cambodia, and what was that experience like?

My first trip to Cambodia, a five-day white-knuckle ride of an adventure, took place in November 1994, after the UN supervised elections had ushered in some semblance of normality to a country wrecked by so much war and strife. Two short visits followed in 1996 and 1997 as add-on side trips to tours of Vietnam. Then, a longer two-week solo tour in March 1998 cemented my fascination for Cambodia and the Khmer people.

In 1999 I began my website and blog devoted to my travels to Cambodia. I completed a 3-week trip in December 1999 which gave me a further opportunity to see a lot more of rural Cambodia, as did further adventures in late December 2000 and November 2001. March 2002 and January 2003 were to follow (each lasting three weeks) before my tenth trip in December 2003, visiting friends and venturing to other parts of the country that I hadn't seen before. Alongside Caroline Nixon, I hosted ‘3 Magic of Cambodia Days in the UK’ – to tell others all about our love for Cambodia - and our third such event took place in September 2004. Following trip number 13 in January 2007, I decided to finally upsticks and move over to Phnom Penh to live and work a few months later.

The two guidebooks to Cambodia used by Andy when he first visited in 1994

What have you been doing then since you decided to move to Cambodia 13 years ago?

In the UK, I spent 31 years at the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society as an administration manager, joining the company as a fresh-faced 16-year-old. I left that job to come to Cambodia where I joined Hanuman Travel as Product Manager. Since 2007 I’ve been responsible for all of our product development and marketing, as well as combining that role with being a producer (supervising any production shoot) with Hanuman Films, our production company for foreign TV and film productions.

I did take a couple of years away from Hanuman, to work full-time as Press Officer with local professional football team Phnom Penh Crown, before returning to Hanuman in 2017. On a side note, football has been a massive part of my life. In the UK I was press officer for two semi-professional clubs for many years, a sports journalist on radio and in print, and did the same with Phnom Penh Post for a year when I came here, before spending 7 years as the press guy with Phnom Penh Crown.

Andy at Olympic Stadium in his role as Press Officer for Phnom Penh Crown

Many people spend a few years in Cambodia and then move on, what has kept you here?

My introduction to Cambodia was different from most I think. My 13 visits as a tourist meant I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for, should I ever decide to come here to live permanently. However, that was never the intention because of family and work commitments in the United Kingdom. In 2007 that changed and I made the plunge, and have not looked back since. Enjoyment of my job, my colleagues and friends, and the Cambodian people keep me here. In addition, my brother visited me here nearly every year too. I didn’t actually return to the UK for the first ten years, but a trip back in 2017 was a lot of fun, so I try to return once a year now to show my face.

Did you start assembling your Cambodian book collection when you arrived or before?

I am a collector, whether it’s books, LP’s, videos, football programmes and so on. Finding books on Cambodia was initially a tough ask as once my initial interest began in 1979, there was literally nothing to buy. So it was a case of ploughing through second-hand bookshops in the UK that really got me started. I believe my first book on Cambodia would’ve been a dog-eared coffee-table sized book called Monuments of Civilization: Ancient Cambodia - a ton of info and pictures of the temples from the bowels of a dusty bookshop in Cheltenham in the mid-80s. Followed by a mini-collecting boom with the film, The Killing Fields and a few survivor-type books.

Andy in 2009 with Facing the Cambodian Past author and historian David Chandler

You now have more than 400 books in your collection, what drives you to keep finding more?

Certainly there’s been an explosion of books about Cambodia in the last twenty years, especially survivor memoirs and books on the Khmer Rouge, as well as the advent of self-published books too. I’ve collected over 400 but I have a list of at least another 200 books that I don’t possess, so add that to new releases, and there’s always more books to collect. I can be picky though, I don’t just get a book because Cambodia gets a mention, I need to be interested in the subject. I picked them up from bookshops, secondhand shops, ex-library books, eBay, and publishing houses who wanted me to review their new book, which I used to do regularly on my website and blog. I actually shipped boxes of books here when I relocated in 2007, but gave far more away to the local charity shops, though I did keep the vast majority of my books on Cambodia. 

Is there a particular era of Cambodian history that you're most interested in, and why?

The Khmer Rouge era was of particular interest initially, sparked by the Australian journalist John Pilger’s revelations, but once you set eyes on Angkor, then Khmer history really took over. I became infatuated with visiting remote temple sites around the country, so most of the time on my frequent trips over here was spent getting out and about, using old French maps or word of mouth and re-‘discovering’ ancient temples. That was great fun. I then wrote about my adventures on my website. It provided the opportunity to travel all over the country and really develop a deep love for the people. I can’t adequately describe the welcome I received everywhere I went.

Is that what led to your role as contributor and editor of guide ‘To Cambodia With Love’?

Technically I’m the editor of To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, as well as contributing some of my tales and introducing each chapter. It came out at the beginning of 2011 but I started badgering the contributors as early as 2006. I must say I had a fantastic group of contributors, some 65 in all, some of the top names in the Cambodia sphere at that time, and they willingly sent me their special memories and personal highlights. It was an off-shoot of To Asia With Love (2004), for which I had contributed a few articles and the series editor asked me to manage the Cambodia edition, when they decided to do a number of country-only books. I was already a keen blogger and my website was pretty extensive, so I agreed as it seemed a good fit. 

In the middle of the process I moved to Cambodia and the book took a back-seat until we finally put it to bed in 2010 and we launched it at Monument Books on 13 January 2011. In a review at the time, the Phnom Penh Post said: “Ditch the run-of-the-mill guidebooks and discover the majestic mountains, offbeat adventures and delicious flavours that define the Kingdom in the new book, To Cambodia With Love.” I was a mite unnerved to edit the experiences supplied by the likes of established writers such as Loung Ung, Dawn Rooney, Hellen Ibbotson Jessup, Denise Heywood, Karen Coates and Geoff Ryman, but they were all happy to be involved and great sports about it all.

Andy in 2013 at a book signing with Temple of a Thousand Faces author John Shors

What books would you say are the most valuable to you, either emotionally or financially?

I’d say the ones where I know the author personally, as I’m invested because of the personal contact. I would include authors such as Loung Ung, Jon Swain, David Chandler, Vittorio Roveda, Dawn Rooney, John Burgess, Philip Coggan, Denise Heywood, Ray Zepp, Sue Guiney, Karen Coates and more, in that list. Some of my first editions might go for a pretty sum, but I have no interest in parting with any of them.

Would you ever write or edit another book? If so, any ideas what stories you might tell?

Well, I was writing another book, a biography of my favourite music group, the reggae band Steel Pulse, but it never quite made it to the finishing line as I couldn’t tie down two of the band members to be interviewed. I gave up after writing 30,000 words, posted it online and moved to Cambodia. Then both of them said they were ready to be interviewed, but it was too late! I would never say never to working on another project but To Cambodia With Love was a hard grind and without the series editor Kim Fay kicking me up the behind with a deadline to get it done, it might have never seen the light of day. I’m so glad it did though, I was very proud of the finished product.

Andy with his favorite music group, the British roots reggae band Steel Pulse

Were you always an avid reader? Where do you think this love of books comes from?

Avid reader and writer, a burning desire to know more, and an anorak on the topics I was interested in, from Cambodia to my football teams, music and so on. My website and blog were a testament to my desire to report on what I had seen or discovered. I knew Cambodia’s presence on the web was minimal when I started my website in early 1999, so I wanted to tell people more about this country that I was infatuated with.

To a kid on an iPad, or an adult on their phone, how would you convince them to read a book?

Books give you the bigger picture on a subject. You can’t get the full picture from Facebook or Instagram, can you. I’ve cried real tears when reading some books, you become emotionally invested in the characters, storyline and literally cannot put it down. I’ve started a book and read it through the night, finishing it in time to shower and go to work without sleep. I’m prehistoric, I’ve never used a Kindle or an iPad!

Now for perhaps the most difficult question: top 10 books on Cambodia you own in order?

  1. River of Time, by Jon Swain, 1995

  2. A Cambodian Odyssey, Haing Ngor with Roger Warner, 1987

  3. To Cambodia with Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, edited by Andy Brouwer, 2011

  4. The Murderous Revolution: Life and Death in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, by Martin Stuart-Fox and Bunheang Ung, 1998

  5. When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge, by Chanrithy Him, 2000 

  6. Bones That Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia, by Kari Grady Grossman, 1995

  7. Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War, by Karen J Coates, 2005

  8. The Kings Last Song, by Geoff Ryman, 2006

  9. King Norodom’s Head: Phnom Penh Sights Beyond the Guidebooks, by Steven Boswell, 2016

  10. A Woman of Angkor: A Novel, by John Burgess, 2013

Andy in 2018 with Memory Manifesto author (and lawyer) Christopher G Moore

Then, what are the top 10 books on Cambodia you don't own, but would dearly love to?

  • Memory Manifesto: A Walking Meditation through Cambodia, by Christopher G Moore, 2017

  • Extraordinary Justice: Law, Politics and the Khmer Rouge Tribunals, by Craig Etcheson, 2019

  • The Khmer Empire: Cities and Sanctuaries from the 5th to the 13th Century, by Claude Jacques and Philippe Lafond, 2007

  • In the Shadow of Angkor - Unknown Temples of Ancient Cambodia, by George Groslier with Kent Davis, 2014

  • Beyond the Horizon: Five Years With the Khmer Rouge, by Laurence Picq, 1989

  • Bayon: New Perspectives, by Vittorio Rovedo and Joyce Clark, 2007

  • Perpetrator Cinema: Confronting Genocide in Cambodian Documentary, by Raya Morag, 2020

  • Britain and Sihanouk's Cambodia, by Nicholas Tarling, 2014

  • Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins, 2006

  • Pillaging Cambodia: The Illicit Traffic in Khmer Art, by Masha LaFont, 2004

Andy in 2015 at Raffles Hotel Le Royal with River of Time author Jon Swain

Last but not least: you're shipwrecked, stuck on a desert island (possibly off Cambodia), and only had enough time to save one book from your collection. What would it be, and why?

It’s a dog-fight between River of Time and Haing Ngor’s memoir, but I think the former would just clinch it, as it would transport me to that era so evocatively. Ngor’s story was shocking, upsetting and uplifting in spades, but Swain’s just clinches it. I might smuggle To Cambodia With Love with me too, just to remind myself that with a great team behind you, you can get the job done, even if it takes longer than expected.