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Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja

3.28  ·  Rating Details ·  359 Ratings  ·  49 Reviews
Phnom Penh is a city of beauty and degradation, tranquillity and violence, and tradition and transformation; a city of temples and brothels, music and gunfire, and festivals and coups.

But for many, it is simply an anarchic celebration of insanity and indulgence. Whether it is the $2 wooden shack brothels, the marijuana-pizza restaurants, the AK-47 fireworks displays, or t

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Paperback, 206 pages
Published December 1st 2000 by Asia Books (first published July 25th 1998)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Daren
I originally read this book several years ago well before I wrote reviews. I gave it three stars back then, but thinking back on it I had wondered if I undersold it. Stars are interesting - I often consider whether they are not only related to the quality of the book, but the circumstances in which it was read, and even the context in which it is read.

In this book, the author spends time with a bunch of shifty expats in Phnom Penh under false pretences - because, obviously, he is writing a book
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Jason
Dec 29, 2012 Jason rated it liked it
Although the author is certainly no Hunter S. Thompson as the cover may imply, this is a factual and intriguing look at the seedier side of an already seemy city, Phnom Penh. I bought this from a child selling books out of a basket in Phnom Penh, actually, and this book describes the Cambodian capital very realistically.

People here on Goodreads often call the author talentless, spineless, a terrible person for sleeping with hookers, etc. My regret with the novel was actually that Gilboa did not
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Josh Fish
Mar 21, 2011 Josh Fish rated it did not like it
The only thing this book is worth is the anthropological perspective on expats in the nineties in Cambodia.

These people are A-holes, using women in brothels in the worst ways possible. I just wanted to reach into this book and beat the hell out of these guys. Plus the author seems to celebrate this behavior, even partially participating in it, saying things like, that's just how it goes in Cambodia, and they really care about these women. I'm sorry, if they really cared they wouldn't subjugate
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Daniel Gauss
Feb 16, 2016 Daniel Gauss rated it it was amazing
Some folks out here have really bashed this book - and I will admit there are flaws. Yes, this book could have used better editing and there are some typos (Columbia for Colombia was the biggest) but I think we should look beyond that at what this book was able to get into the world.

This is, in part, a flat out expose of a disgustingly brutal dictator who just met with President Obama, who treated the guy as if he were the Dalai Lama. The author does a superb job of exposing Hun Sen for the piec
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Joseph
Jun 15, 2014 Joseph rated it liked it
Shelves: history
A decent look at street level Cambodia in the 1990s and a little little history.
Rueben
Jan 20, 2017 Rueben rated it really liked it
From memory, this book was an okay read. I enjoyed it, but then again, I enjoy a lot of books where people write about their disgusting behaviour. This is definitely one of those books.
Emilie
Nov 29, 2010 Emilie rated it did not like it
Shelves: memoirs, travel-lit
This book pissed me off for many reasons. I'll first begin by outlining the most trivial of these and get myself gradually more worked up to finish in a full rant.
Firstly, it's bloody ColOmbia. It's an o, not a u. Get it sorted.
Secondly, there were 2 more spelling mistakes/omissions and I do think for such a short book, that's unacceptable. Whoever edited this sucks.
Thirdly, this by no means went 'into the dark heart' of the issue. The book never attempted to explain why ex-pats are so damn depr
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Ismael Galvan
Nov 11, 2012 Ismael Galvan rated it it was ok
First off the author is completely full of shit. He tries to be a Hunter Thompson style journalist documenting life in Cambodia but is really nothing more than an ignorant American that sees Cambodians as subhumans.

His attempt at trying to be a political scientist is an utter joke. It's convoluted, bias, and not credible in the least. After a few pages of that section, I completely skipped it because there was nothing redeemable.

The book revolves around a bunch of ex pat losers hanging out and t
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Stephen Dartnell
Jun 14, 2013 Stephen Dartnell rated it liked it
Off the Rails in Phnom Penh by Amit Gilboa

Off the Rails in Phnom Penh was written by the journalist Amit Gilboa in 1998 and published by Asia Books in Bangkok. It describes the adventures of foreign residents living in the excitement and chaos of Phnom Penh during from 1996 to 1998 and is an accurate record of Phnom Penh at the time. For an individual coming from a modern Western society, it was and in many ways still is, a place where the immoral becomes acceptable and the insane becomes normal
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Caroline
Dec 29, 2014 Caroline rated it liked it
Because I live in Phnom Penh now (2014) it was fascinating to see how the place has changed in the short time (15 or so years) since this book was published. While the problems described in the book still exist, there has been a lot of progress, which is satisfying to see. Sex tourism is still a big problem here, yet it seems it is not as "in your face" as it was back then. I do find it incredibly offensive how men see it as their right to take advantage of women in poor countries. It is actuall ...more
Stacey
Nov 04, 2009 Stacey rated it it was ok
While the topics covered in this book are certainly interesting, it was a struggle to read. The writing was almost painful at times and relied too heavily on the potential shock value of the subjects and most issues of interest are approached only descriptively, with any attempts at analysis sounding a bit like those of a stoned teenager. In addition, while the author does spend a bit of time reflecting (or attempting to reflect) on the implications of the often disgusting behaviors of these ex- ...more
Scott Wilson
Jan 10, 2016 Scott Wilson rated it it was ok
I would say that this is a 2 star for people not interested in travel to Cambodia. The history section, as well as the first hand coup information, is interesting.
The justification for the blatant kid sex bothered me. The idea of a group of pederast foreigners is pretty sickening, especially when their behavior is exclusive to developing countries. It is also written as if these foreigners/travelers are providing the young prostitutes with better opportunities in life. The author tries to sides
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Sarah
Oct 02, 2013 Sarah rated it liked it
A disturbing, depressing, and shocking insight into the lawlessness of Phnom Penh. I would not have believed the extent of corruption, prostitution, drugs, and guns detailed in this book if I hadn't already heard accounts from people living in Cambodia on my several trips to the country, nor read other non-fiction reports. Even though the accounts of "shagging" and "ganja" smoking in this book become repetitive, it is balanced with government directed assassinations, bribery, arms smuggling, dru ...more
Taylor
Dec 17, 2009 Taylor rated it did not like it
Shelves: travel
For lack of something to read, I purchased this book, one of a few English language books that looked interesting, at a Chiang Mai news stand. This is possibly the worst book I've ever read. The author, who freely writes about his exploration of Cambodia's brothels, is both arrogant and disgusting in what he describes. I couldn't read the whole thing, and I only post it as a warning to not waste your time, even if you've found yourself without a book and it's the only one available to you in a f ...more
Noah
Aug 08, 2012 Noah rated it liked it
If planning a trip to Cambodia, this is a quick read that is very much worth your time. The writing is decent, if too self-aware and indulging on the personal; the author's shortcomings do not make for distracted reading. At this point, much of the intriguing sin and sleaze that form the story's backbone are more relegated to the shadows than when the book was written, giving it a slightly dated feel. One highlight is found in the detailing of Cambodia's history, especially 20th Century politica ...more
J.C.
Jun 20, 2011 J.C. rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
On the front cover of my edition of the book is a quote from Time magazine that says "like a gonzo from Hunter S. Thompson" and being a Thompson fan and a non fiction fan I thought I would be in for a real treat when it came to Off the Rails in Phnom Penh. Now it was a good book, but it was more of a travel guide than a narrative non fiction work. I was expecting more of an in depth memoir about a land of cheap drugs and prostitutes with the narrator getting out alive. It wasn't much like that a ...more
Eric
Mar 06, 2011 Eric rated it it was ok
I picked this up in the airport coming back from vacation in Thailand in 2001. The title and cover are amisleading sell. I read it back in 2001-2002. Nothing really revealing for most people except maybe how badly both Cambodians (men and women) and a few ex-patriates can treat Cambodian women. I did learn a little Cambodian (third world) history and current events. Personally, as a tourist in Bangkok and Thailand, I was not in search of the red light areas and really didn't discover it either. ...more
Victoria
Apr 26, 2008 Victoria rated it liked it
Recommends it for: SE Asian travelers
This short and entertaining journal does just what its author says: it describes the dark side of Phnom Penh (specifically in the 1990s) that is not always visible to visitors. As a newly arrived expat, it has made me pay more attention to things I normally do not: license plates and the number of of SUVs parked in front of certain establishments; the uniforms and equipment on certain people; and even the companions of many westerners in the city. For one not traveling to Cambodia, it is an info ...more
Amar Pai
Jul 25, 2009 Amar Pai rated it it was ok
Middling travelogue from a Cambodian expat who lived there 1996-1998. Hits all the expected notes: sex, drugs, violence, plus an overview of the Khmer Rouge & Cambodian politics. But it just didn't do it for me. The essays suffer from a lack of humor and the writer's voice isn't memorable.

The Exile it's not. If you want to see this sort of thing done better (done brilliantly, in fact) check out "The Exile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia" :

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30...

That
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Chris Cusick
Apr 09, 2015 Chris Cusick rated it really liked it
A rather debauched but useful insight into a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia; the Kingdom isn't quite the Wild East anymore but this book sets the scene for modern Cambodia well, with many of the problems in the book, largely the drugs, guns and prostitution, still prevalent today. This certainly isn't a book that I'd recommend to the easily offended, but I still thought it a worthwhile read to help make sense of contemporary Cambodia.
Kelsey
Apr 10, 2015 Kelsey rated it liked it
Shelves: travel, 20th, century, cambodia
Informative and entertaining, though tragic. But I find myself wondering why the author felt the need to define words like "strip mall," and "gecko." Despite the occasional condescention on the part of the author, it was an enjoyable read...Inasmuch as reading about stoners who frequent brothels offering 12-to-17-year-old prostitutes can be "enjoyable." Still though, an important read with many insights into the culture, history, and politics of this fascinating country.
Chilly SavageMelon
Jul 22, 2013 Chilly SavageMelon rated it it was ok
The writing isn't terrible, it's just not so great. And to anyone who doesn't know: 20 somethings running around the developing world have a tendency to make "adventures", no matter how base, sound more exotic than they may have been. Not that I doubt any facts presented in this sort of slap-dash collection. And as the author himself describes, things weren't the same after the '97 coup. On the other hand, what better cover when trying to memorialize the "glory days" forever gone...
Lee
Dec 14, 2015 Lee rated it really liked it
Sometimes the writing could be better, but this book delivers an interesting perspective of what was happening in Cambodia in a particular clique of foreigners during the late 1990's. Target practice, sex with 12 year olds, drugs, a coup, this book explores what happens to a people when they live in a state that just doesn't care and how foreigners come and feed off the apathy in a debauched feast.
Divya Agrawal
Sep 10, 2015 Divya Agrawal rated it it was ok
Shelves: travel
Its part memoir, part apparent research. While it gives great peek into the alleys of Cambodia's capital, it lacks details and probe. If interested in the country, its a decent read.

Picked this in a rusty old postcard cum old book store in Siem Reap. Finished once back in Bombay. Wanted to go back and head to Phnom Penh. Credit the urge to fascination and nostalgia more than the writing.
Beth
Jan 16, 2014 Beth rated it it was ok
Ugh, this was like some of the terrible books written by Peace Corps volunteers that focus on ex-pats doing stupid things and loving it. I thought it would be an interesting picture of Cambodia from an ex-pat's perspective, but really it was (mostly) just about a bunch of guys finding cheap prostitutes.
Marc
Jul 29, 2008 Marc rated it did not like it
Read this during my time with a NGO in Phnom Penh. I thought this was a mildly interesting read, so why only 1 star? Well, besides the writers piss-poor writing-skills, I couldn't get over the fact that he sympatized to some degree with some of the guys exploiting teenage girls over there and made excuses for them...besides that he came across as a rightous and self-serving person.
Carl
Apr 19, 2007 Carl rated it really liked it
I read this book weeks before visiting Cambodia and it gave me a lot to try and notice while I was there. What strikes you here is the decadence of the lifestyles of the English ex pats and the way their morals fall by the wayside in a country that caters to the unseemly appetites of modern man. This is especially striking in regards to prostitution in Cambodia.
Alison
Jan 21, 2008 Alison rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel, adventure
I bought this book in Cambodia and found it made me more aware of some of the madness going on all around me. I love books that give you an actual feel for what it is like to live in a place, and this book really creates a tangible sense of life for the expat in Cambodia.
Courtney
Apr 19, 2007 Courtney rated it liked it
Crazy investigative reporting into life in Phnom Penh in the 1990's. Note the role that the U.N. plays...
Damian
Feb 22, 2009 Damian added it
A bit amateurish -- admittedly, the author was a failed journalist in Saigon -- but interesting nonetheless. Quite sad and depressing, but real. Made me wanna delve into it's history a bit more.
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