Surviving Pol Pot in Cambodia

Book Cover
Destination: Cambodia

Book: In the Shadow of the Banyan (NEW Scheduled Release: July, 2012) by Vaddey Ratner

If you are over 40 years old, where were you on April 17, 1975?

Ken and I were living in a 5-bedroom house we had just built on an acre of land in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was working on a Master’s degree. He was using his college-education of accounting as vice president of finance at a ranching company. Our three sons were going to school, taking piano lessons, playing baseball, joining with other boys in Cub Scouts or getting up early to deliver newspapers. If we thought of Cambodia at all, it was as a far-away place that we would never see because of the war and revolution there.

Water Buffalo in Rice Paddy
Water Buffalo in Rice Paddy

We were blithely unaware that had we been living in Cambodia in 1975, we would have been considered enemies of the revolution–educated, living in a city, driving cars, using “machinery” like refrigerators and stoves. We would have been candidates for relocation to the country. We would have been stripped of all the belongings we had accumulated in 15 years of married life. And we would have lived a nightmare–if we survived–for the next three and a half years.

Times changed, and 24 years later, we did travel to Cambodia, a beautiful and tranquil land, still bearing deep scars from the 1970’s. The people were amazing resilient. These people from a rural village are shopping from a mobile grocery store.  A man loads a bicycle with an impossible assemblage of baskets and bundles and rides through the countryside.

Shopping along the road to Banteay Srei
Shopping along the road to Banteay Srei


For those who were unaware while it was happening, or for those born after the “Pol Pot times” as our Cambodian guide called them,In the Shadow of the Banyan  comes as a shocking revelation. Vaddey Ratner has fictionalized the experiences of her family–who were not only educated and upper class, but royalty.   In an author’s note she points out that although she changed details to fit the needs of the narrative, everything that happens to Raami, the young  girl in the book, happened to Ratner herself, from the time the Khmer Rouge first ordered families to leave Phnom Pehn:

Families poured into the streets, dragging suitcases cramped with belongings, cradling baskets stuffed with dishes and cooking pans, wooden stools and chamber pots. A woman balanced two baskets on a bamboo pole over her shoulders, a child in one basket and a stove on the another, with a rice pot perched precariously on top.

Ratner weaves her story with grace and poetry, showing us the world through a seven-year-old’s eyes–eyes that have been trained by her beloved father to see beauty in small things.

Women planting rice
Women planting rice. These women in 1999 waved happily to us. Far different from the scene in the 1970’s.

The slide from a carefree life full of luxury to the mud-covered drudgery of building dikes and planting rice paddies ages the girl and takes away her ability to speak. Nevertheless her loss of innocence and exposure to the worst of mankind, never erases her memories of stories and never lessens her awareness of the love surrounding her  and belief in possibilities of better things.

It was clear to me now that while books could be torn and burned, the stories they held needn’t be lost or forgotten.

As Raami fled her family home, she ripped one page from a beloved  Cambodia epic, Reamker, a poem about the ancient past.  The page is soon lost, but she has memorized the line which although unspoken, underlies her belief that she will survive.

In time immemorial, there existed a kingdom…It was as perfect a place as one could find.

Love becomes the offer of a piece of sugar cane bartered for family jewels, when hunger puts a higher price on anything edible than on ornaments. As the slow slide to the bottom of despair continues, she ponders survival.

If I was to survive my uprooting and transportation, I must grow and stretch myself as a young rice shoot would. I must rise above the mire and muck, the savagery of my environment, while appearing to thrive in it.

Cleaning supplies Angkor Wat
Cleaning supplies Angkor Wat

Ratner captures the beauty of the landscape, not just in the serene  long views  of countryside, but in close-ups as well. Frequently the natural scene subtly reflects the larger picture of political turmoil. An almost idyllic scene of a fruit tree shading marble benches is marred by dead leaves and dirt covering a  mosaic and an army of ants marches over the marble benches.

Vaddey Ratner’s poetry does not sugarcoat the truth, but the story presented through the innocence of youth simultaneously accepts what is and believes in the possibility of better spirits that will set her free. Raami seeks reasons for the things she sees through legends. She puzzles throughout the book about the meaning of the loss of her father,  just one of the universal themes. Her mother tells her,

I’m certain, though, he remained resolute in his belief that even without him you would live through this nightmare, that life, with all its cruelty and horror, was still worth living. A gift he would’ve wanted his daughter to embrace. This, I think, it what he was trying to tell you, a story about your continuation.

 In the Shadow of the Banyan is exquisite. I do not doubt it will be on my top ten list for the year–and probably in the first position. Yes, it is sad to think of those times, and my eyes were filled with tears toward the end, but it also reflects the beauty of the land and the people in one of my favorite destinations. Whether you are booking a trip to Cambodia, or just want to know more about the history, you cannot do better than this book.

I want to close with thanks to Vaddey Ratner for persevering and writing this gorgeous book in a language she did not even speak when she first arrived in this country. I also want to thank the people who organized the refugee camps in Thailand for fleeing Cambodian families, and the generous Americans (and those in other countries) who took those families under their wing and helped them establish a new life. Cambodia has not yet found its way to a stable government where the people have an equal voice, and I hope that will come in time, just as the country has been able to  open its doors once more to tourists. (Come back tomorrow for more Cambodia photos from our trip in 1999).

Disclaimers: The publisher provided me with an e-book to review.  Quotations from the book are not necessarily the finished version of the book, as I was reading a review copy, but I hope reflect the skillful language of the author.  The links to Amazon give you an opportunity to preorder this book or do other shopping.  Although it costs you no more, you will be supporting A Traveler’s Library because I am an Amazon affiliate. Thanks so much for shopping through our affiliate links.

All photographs belong to Vera Marie Badertscher. Please do not use without express permission. Thank you.

Do you remember the late 70’s? When were you first aware of the Cambodian genocide, and how did you become aware of it?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “Surviving Pol Pot in Cambodia

  1. I think the international Khmer Rouge tribunal is a farce at best. There is no way that trying five surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership will bring either justice or closure to the millions of innocent victims who have perished or are still reeling from their genocidal rule. I think the focus should be on education and raising awareness so that similar atrocities do not happen again.

  2. Such a fascinating piece of our planet. I don’t remember much about it – I was just graduating from high school and starting college, so all wrapped up in my own little world.

  3. It’s so difficult to visualize what it must have been like in Cambodia in 1975, but this sounds like a must-read book to help you feel, smell, see and hear what the Cambodians went through.

  4. Sounds like a wonderful book. I remember those times, but I was too young and disinterested in anything that didn’t do with ME (ah, teenagers) to get too involved.

  5. So did you find that you had to take breaks from reading this? It sounds like a engrossing book but difficult to get through. I know so little of Cambodian history, I’d like to read this to better understand the country.

  6. I was living in France, and also had young children. I remember the reports. The movie Killing Fields made this conflict real for me. This book sounds worthwhile, too. Thanks for the review.

  7. I visited Phnom Penh last year and whilst I had bits and pieces out the Khmer Rouge before visiting it was only when I was there that I really got any feeling for the atrocities that took place. The old school that had been turned into a torture camp was a really sad experience but something that I’m glad that I went to see first-hand.

    1. I allowed this comment from “Kristy” but removed the advertising Comment Luv link and the url. Spammers are getting very creative. Whoever you writers are who are wasting your talents on these spam advertisers, I wish you’d get another life.

  8. Sounds fascinating. I met a woman once from Cambodia and her eyes filled with tears as she told me her story. She was touched that someone would care to ask and to listen. How could I not? I was honored that she shared her life with me for those few brief moments.

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