Holiday in Cambodia

Laura Jean McKay

Holiday in Cambodia
Black Inc.
26 June 2013

Holiday in Cambodia

Laura Jean McKay

Beyond the killing fields and the temples of Angkor Wat is Cambodia: a country with a genocidal past and a wide, open smile. A frontier land where anything is possible - at least for Western expatriates. In these loosely linked stories, Laura Jean McKay takes us deep into this complex country, exploring the uneasy spaces where local and foreign lives meet.

Three backpackers board a train, ignoring the danger signs - and find themselves used as bargaining chips in a terrible game. A jaded expat, tired of real girls, falls in love with an ancient statue. As they explore the sweltering streets of Phnom Penh, two Australian tourists come face to face with the cracks in their marriage.

There are devastating re-imaginings of the country’s troubled history, as well as tender, funny moments of tentative understanding. These are bold and haunting stories, deftly told.


It’s been nearly a week now since I finished Laura Jean McKay’s collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia, and my feelings are a jumble of melancholy, pensiveness and something else that I can’t quite pin down. I still feel like I’ve recently returned from somewhere else – somewhere sweaty, dusty and crowded. Somewhere foreign.

McKay transcribes each moment from each life with a depth of understanding that is apparent and personal, and that doesn’t diminish whether the subject is Cambodian, a fleeting tourist or a long-established expatriate. Fragmented and partial, the pieces here range from the mundane to the serious. Time and chronology shift and remain unspecified – the reader must place themselves by picking up on clues from dress and dialogue. We are thrown headlong into another’s world for a brief and intense moment before being just as abruptly removed and transplanted into the next. Yet despite the variations in backgrounds, personalities and experiences, each character is solid and real, and their stories gripping.

The collection opens with ‘Route Four’. A small Cambodian boy assists three tourists on the train; they are intent on getting to Kampot, and he is intent on relieving them of their luggage. Their journey is languid and slow, until something unexpected changes the tempo of the story with brutal swiftness. ‘If You Say It, It Must Be True’ focuses on the banal give-and-take between an unhappily married couple. Anna and Ray’s constant misunderstanding and inability to communicate was something that really struck me. Their relationship was like a broken zip – the teeth that once matched perfectly will no longer meet, no matter how hard you pull.

Choppy and unpredictable, the effect of this collection is bracing and powerful, and is one that has not left me yet. Highly recommend.

Jo Boyce

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