The Beauty of Cambodian Literature by Mitch Mabbagu


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Geographically speaking, Cambodia seemed to be the heart of Asia; bordering between Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. The people of Cambodia are called Khmers, coming from its great ancestors who lived during the great Angkor civilization. Evidences of its civilization can be found in its culture, architecture, and literature. Such examples of the kingdom’s splendor are the numerous temples, monuments, churches, reservoirs, old roads, bridges and agricultural waterways. In addition to that, It is known for its Angkor Wat the temple which was made for Hinduism. Cambodia is also known for housing different religion such as Buddhism and as it was aforementioned, Hinduism. The richness of its culture can be found in the intricacy of details that is designed and seen in their architecture and literature. Some of the traditional literature of Cambodia was even written in Khmer script, which in itself is very sophisticated.

Cambodia’s literature is as rich as its architecture and religion; it can be divided into two groups, the traditional and the contemporary literature. On the first hand the traditional literature, they have their own version of “Romeo and Juliet” and “One Thousand and One Nights”. It embodies the beauty of its culture showcasing the intricacy of their written language and the very content of their stories. However many of their traditional literature, even today, is not yet translated to English. Some of it is translated to French due to being colonized by the said country. Its contemporary literature on the other hand manifested more the feelings of the people, its love for their nation, because contemporary literature of Cambodia started in the period of Khmer Rouge.

One of the prominent contemporary writers of Cambodia, in the Khmer Rouge period, is U Sam Oeur. He wrote poems about the horror of Khmer Rouge and was able to publish his own novel about the experience he had undergone in the said period. One of his poems that encapsulated the horror of the said period is his “Only Mother Will Embrace Sorrows.”

“Only Mother Will Embrace Sorrows”

“I wade through the solitude

to the cottage where we used to

gather to drink rice wine,

enjoying false peace

I sit under the same palm-leaf roof,

gaze at your chairs

but see no one,

hear only your laughs.

Here, it’s like everywhere else—


Villages of black roofless houses;

I don’t see even one dog.

The explosion of mines,

the roaring of heavy artillery

from frontier to frontier, shake every

grains of pollen from the champa flowers.

No places to hide, no skies under which to rest;

and the moaning of  the children

and the  cries of mothers

out of blazing fire cross the land,

And your bodies, brothers, shielding us

from the bullets, and your blood

splashing over our Mother, induce my soul

to ever worship jasmine and lotus blossoms.


Reading it for the first time, one can see the emotion that is being stirred, horror from the past wars. The poem is straightforward in a sense that we get to know what the speaker in the poem was able to see and feel—which is longing for the things that they used to do. Dwelling more than that it was able to make use of imagery such as “Mother” which is likened to the country, Cambodia. From that the reader understands that Cambodia, which is their Mother, is the only one who can embrace the horror of war, the sorrow of the people experiencing it, the blood sheds and the like. Another imagery that was shown is the use of “jasmine and lotus blossoms” in the very last stanza, which is equated to one of the religion of Cambodia. Looking how it was positioned in the poem, it seemed to say that in times of war people resort to go back to their religion or rather people return to God seeking for help.

The poem, overall, is striking because it shows us the horror of war, like many of the Asian literature, it made use of literature to convey messages that war is not good or this is the result of war. Many of the Asian countries have made use of other literary genre in order to expose the ugly truth of war, one country that can be likened to Cambodia is Philippines when it undergo the Marcos era.

The goodness of studying Asian literature is that one get to see what unifies all the countries despite their diversities. The literature of each country manifest the sorrows, the happiness, the ups and downs, and the problems that it faces. Each differed when touches of culture is seen in it. And this is what makes them truly Asia; it’s the embodying of culture in their literary works despite the subject that it is tackling. Studying Asian literature became an eye opening experience it showed me that with the use of the literary elements in studying a literary work one gets to understand the culture of a country and its uniqueness.

Works Cited:

“CAMBODIA LITERATURE | Cambodia Facts | Cambodia.” CAMBODIA LITERATURE | Cambodia Facts | Cambodia. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

McCullough, Ken. “Four Poems.” Project Muse. Https://, 1 Nov. 2004. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <>.

“U Sam Oeur Says His Poems Give Voice to a ‘Higher Authority’ – The Cambodia Daily.” The Cambodia Daily. 2001. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.


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