Andrew Marshall, author of The Trouser People, once outlined the difference between going to and going into a country. The former involves travelling across borders, seeing tourist icons and securing visitation bragging rights that would one day become stories to be told over countless dinners and happy hours at bars. The latter involves entering a country for a specific mission that would assist or educate an audience or population.
It is this challenge that faces author Antonio Graceffo; tour Cambodia, cover as many new tourist destination possibilities and meet the people whose experiences and circumstances will encourage more visitors to see the country and bring enough incentive to devote some time to the hospitable people of Cambodia and make a difference in their lives.
Antonio Graceffo’s fifth book, Rediscovering the Khmers, represents a break from his traditional sojourns because unlike his previous work, this is a sponsored tour where he travels around the countryside to promote Cambodian destinations to the rest of the world. It is a journey that switches deftly between linking Cambodia’s proud and tragic past and the present day transition towards Asian tiger economy courtesy of a tourist-led boom, seemingly at the expense of abandoning Cambodia’s most vulnerable members of society. These include tribal people living near the jungle whose livelihoods are threatened, ethnic minorities such as the Cham Muslims who want nothing more than to co-exist peacefully with their neighbors, and the ever growing masses of people living well below the poverty line.
As he intricately crosses through provincial Cambodia and exposes us to new ways of seeing what the country can offer, Graceffo, the self-styled adventurist, author and martial arts connoisseur, can also adopt the title of Brooklyn’s cultural ambassador to the Khmer Kingdom. As you read about his ride on the back of a motorcycle in provincial Siem Reap, you will find yourself kissing the dust, gazing straight into the eyes of oxen, being swamped by curious adults and children, and racing past flooded rice fields and krama wearing men and women walking alongside the road. His re-counting of the roles of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism and animism in Cambodia’s society is poignantly integrated throughout his journeys, for religion and spiritual rituals bind together the legends and beliefs of Cambodia and its people. Adopting the role of tourist allows the author, and ultimately the reader, to view the nation and its unique people from a new perspective, proving that there is so much more to Cambodia than just cramming in sights and photographs of the Angkor Wat courtesy of a one day tour, and reading about the horrors committed in the past by the Khmer Rouge.
Of course, no adventure can be without frustrations and miscommunications, and Graceffo graces us with some here. There are also plenty of moments throughout this book when those who are familiar with his previous work are re-united with the kind of hysterical musings that only the “boy from Brooklyn” can produce. For instance, readers familiar with his work that have previously travelled to Cambodia will definitely relate to concocting ways of avoiding the $USD40 entrance fee for a three day pass into the Angkor Wat. Graceffo poses as a Khmer-speaking war orphan with Chinese ancestry that was adopted by an American family in Brooklyn. He pushes the limits of a scuba diving operator claiming to accommodate “almost any request” in Sihanoukville by asking for a kosher vegan meal. And during a jungle trek, Graceffo brilliantly recounts the firearms safety lecture he gives to his guide, who also happens to be a forest ranger and former soldier, while being asked to grab hold of the wrong end of a fully loaded AK-47, to avoid being swept away by a strong river current.
The social commentary is precise and neatly intertwined with each new encounter. Throughout his interviews, you will find yourself agreeing with Antonio’s sentiment that “the kindness of the Khmers is matched only by their desire to restore the former glory of their country.” This is particularly evident in meeting individuals who are doing so much to help fellow Khmers, such as Akira, a former soldier and the de-miner in Siem Reap who has his own landmine museum and helps educate some of the poorest children. Or Grandmaster San Kim Sean, the sole surviving Bokator teacher from the Khmer Rouge’s purge who has revitalized Cambodia’s lost martial art and devoting his time to teach the next generation of Bokator students.
What sets this book apart from other books in the same genre is that Antonio introduces us to ordinary people who are the real heroes of Cambodia because they have survived years of war, malnourishment, poverty, and corruption, and yet somehow continue to smile and live resiliently. Graceffo not only travels everywhere to meet these unique individuals and provide in-depth perspectives, but allows the readers to close their eyes and seat themselves next to both the interviewer and interviewee. Anybody who takes the time to explore Cambodia properly will meet individuals with similar stories, as well as the numerous organizations that help empower local populations and deliver lessons about the true meaning of development.
In declaring Rediscovering The Khmers his best book to date, fans of his work need no further convincing that Antonio Graceffo is capable of showing us new ways to extract the most out of a destination and still leave everybody hanging around for more. This is a shining example of presenting life in Cambodia as it is, as well as yearning for what it should be in a just world. Ultimately, you will find yourself addicted to his work and become a loyal follower, just like the committed readers who have long followed Graceffo’s adventures.