The Scent of Rumduol

The Scent of RumduolABOUT

Literary (meaning not a thriller, mystery, or other genre novel). Ebook only. The book’s website here will let you read excerpts, tell you about the author and his inspiration, and link to sites for purchase (Kindle etc).


Sothea wants to be a famous writer, the most famous in all of Cambodia, to write about her life, and all the bad things that happen to children in her country. And the good things, as well. Her best friend suggests that there needs to be romance too, as all the best stories have a romance.

Sokhem wants to be a web designer, and to create his own site, uncovering the things that nobody likes to talk about in Cambodia; the stuff that gets swept under the rug. His little brother, Vithu, wants to change the world, after he has finished school, gone to university, traveled, and read everything there is to read and learned everything that can be learned.

Kosal worries for his country, and feels that the Cambodian people are lost. His master has sent him from the pagoda on a seven year pilgrimage to find understanding, and perhaps even enlightenment.

The Scent of Rumduol is a modern day tale of stolen childhoods; of children forced to survive the exigencies of a world epitomized by poverty, violence, drugs, child exploitation, and sexual abuse. It is the story of four orphans whose lives touch, and are touched, by others – including a teenage prostitute, a former Khmer Rouge guard, and a disillusioned aid worker – in ways nobody could ever have imagined.

It is a story of hope, resolve, love, karma, and, ultimately, of triumph over adversity.


I found this totally engrossing.

The book opens in the present day in a village near the Thai border. An elderly retired village schoolteacher has visitors, the local policeman and a man from the city. They’ve come with a summons: the teacher is to appear at the Khmer Rouge trials as a witness, to tell what he saw and did as a low-level KR cadre during the genocide. The old man asks if there’s any point: “Soon enough we’ll all be dead, and then who will we blame for everything wrong and corrupt in this country?”

It looks as if we’re about to have yet another story about the Khmer Rouge, but after the opening the KR are never mentioned again. Instead the book follows the fortunes of four children in modern-day Cambodia as they make their way out of childhood and into young adulthood. One of them is a young monk, sent by his abbot on a pilgrimage to Angkor, the heart of Khmer civilisation: the seven years of his journey mark off the seven years of the story. The others are from the very bottom of Cambodian society – beggars, scavengers, child prostitutes. That sounds very grim, and indeed many terrible things happen, but it all rings true.

Orphanages come in for a particularly harsh treatment. There are two. The first, in Sihanoukville, is run by a wealthy barang who uses the children as his private harem. It sounds too melodramatic to be true, but somehow I get the impression that the author has someone or some place quite specific in mind. The second is in Siem Reap, and rings absolutely true – the orphanage is staffed by unskilled  barang volunteers and the children are used as to extort money from gullible soft-hearted tourists. Read this and you’ll never look at orphanages in quite the same way again.

What else? Two boys become scavengers at the Steung Meanchey trash mountain. Realistic and appalling, as is the description of the way they turn to glue-sniffing and yama. One of the girls gets a series of jobs, first in a garment factory, then a guesthouse that turns out to be a brothel. Conditions in both are described with absolutely convincing attention to detail. (And a Korean tourist is scammed by the police for child prostitution – a great set-piece). Another of the girls does turn to prostitution, of her own volition.

In short, this is the picture of a society, Cambodian society, that is deeply unjust, where lives are wasted before they begin. It ends on a note of hope, but only, it seems, if Cambodians can learn to care for one another.


Highly recommended. A little slow to begin, possibly a little confusing at first also because of the lack of plot, but it soon becomes engrossing – a rare window into the lives of the most desperate of Cambodia’s poor, as well as a warning of where the country seems to be headed.