Phnom Penh Express by Johan Smits

A few months ago I was in a small bookstore in Sihanoukville (a coastal town in the south west of Cambodia), searching for a good by-the-beach story.  I found exactly what I was looking for in Phnom Penh Express by Johan Smits (a writer originally from Belgium who has spent many years living in Cambodia). Phnom Penh Express has it all: romance, assassins, diamonds, chocolate, extremist groups. Not to mention a fantastic setting.

Phnom Penh Express begins in a little chocolate shop on Phnom Penh’s beautiful Street 240 (a familiar location for many Phnom Penh-ers). It is here we meet Phirun, our hero, a young Cambodian man raised in Belgium who has recently returned to ‘The Penh’. Phirun is a skilled chocolate chef (with a penchant for adding ‘happy’ ingredients to his cocoa-creations). When his boss asks him to deliver chocolate gift boxes to government officials in place of the usual bribe money, Phirun is sceptical. However, a post office mix-up sees boxes full of chocolate-covered diamonds sent out to the greedy bureaucrats, and Phirun and the chocolate shop quickly become caught up in a turf war between opposing factions of Phnom Penh’s diamond mafia.

I enjoyed recognising Phnom Penh (a city I have called home, on and off, for almost three years) in this novel. Smits’ descriptions of the riverside, Street 240, and the crazy traffic (among many others) are spot on. Smits paints a clear and real picture of the city – Phnom Penh is neither romanticised nor demonised (as it can be in travel guides or the media). Here is an honest account of what life is like in Phnom Penh, particularly for expats.

It was also nice to read something about Cambodia that is not preoccupied with war, and that takes a more light-hearted look at Cambodia’s culture. Indeed, Smits is even able to find some humour in the extent of Phnom Penh’s corruption. Phnom Penh Express is certainly aware of the social issues facing Cambodians today, but it does not focus on them (going from reading Just a Human Being – which I reviewed on this blog last week – to Phnom Penh Express was a huge shift in perspective!).

However, the thing I appreciated most about Phnom Penh Express was the story. In many ways, Phnom Penh Express is a Dan Brown sort of novel. It is not a work of great literature; its sentences lack the poetry of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, and it probably won’t change your life in any significant way. But it is a tale wonderfully told. The events are well-paced, the suspense sustained, and the plot as thick as a good Khmer curry. In my own writing I struggle with plotting, with tying events together to make a whole (I get lost in the details, and can’t see the story for the sentences), and I am in awe of authors who are able to do this with such apparent ease. Phnom Penh Express aspires to be an engrossing read (Smits himself admits his novel is ‘pure entertainment’), and it certainly succeeds in this regard.

Phnom Penh Express has garnered mostly very positive reviews from newspapers and magazines in Southeast Asia. One criticism, from a writer at the Phnom Penh Post, is that Smits doesn’t spend enough time in the heads of Khmer (Cambodian) people. However, I don’t think Smits needed to attempt anything like this. He is not Khmer, and does not pretend to have any great, insightful understanding of Cambodian culture. He has told a compelling story about his Phnom Penh, from his perspective as an expat. In many ways Phnom Penh Express reads as a very humble, loving tribute to Cambodia and its people. Trying to do more than that would have run the risk of feeling forced and inauthentic.

Lots of people will like this book: writers looking for an example of a tightly woven story, expats living in Cambodia, Cambodians interested in an expat angle on their country. And for people planning to visit Cambodia for the first time, Phnom Penh Express is a great introduction to everyday life (for foreigners) here. Overall, this is a unique mystery that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Funny, suspenseful, and exotic.

Phnom Penh Express was published in Cambodia in 2010. It is currently available in Cambodia and Thailand, as well as on Amazon. For more information about the novel, check out its Facebook page.

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