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River of Time

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  274 ratings  ·  40 reviews
"A splendid memoir...a tale, at once tragic and beautiful, of love and loss, of coming of age and of witnessing the end of Indochina as the West had known it for more than a century."—Los Angleles Times Book Review. From the writer immortalized in the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields.
Paperback, 304 pages
Published October 1st 1999 by Berkley (first published 1995)
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It took me a while to appreciate this book. I knew any memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia during this time would be full of atrocities, drugs, bad guys, exploiters, politics, grim images etc. so I was a bit taken back with the author's statement "This was the best time of my life." However, the author's perspective is very well written with vivid details of the day to day incidents that surrounded him. His small personal and humane stories warmed me to him. Having just been to Cambodia and Vietnam, ...more
This book is haunted. This book is not so much a biography as a pouring out of love and guilt and sadness. On every page the author recounts a treasured memory mixed with people and places tragically erased by horrific circumstances. There is a sadness and a helplessness in the pages, it reads like a confessional at times, a need to get events on paper to exorcise the ghosts and experiences that haunt him. The most complete sections are those that deal with the author's witness to the fall of Sa ...more
This book suffers from ambiguous writing and missed opportunities for insight. For instance, there are various ethical dilemmas he faced that receive superficial treatment and a failure to consider in depth the connection between his wonderful colonial experience and the later suffering and abandonment of the Cambodians. The book also contains maddeningly incomprehensible sentences and long phrases of French and Vietnamese, which the author uses as important parts of paragraphs and yet pretentio ...more
This book grew on me. At first I was disgusted with the author's exotification of Southeast Asia -- his love of foreign women, French colonial culture, opium. Add to that his addiction to war and social unrest as an excuse to throw off the tedium of life in Western society. That he enjoyed the decadence of prostitutes, drugs and "free living" while the societies around him decayed slowly seemed reprehensible.

However, I just couldn't help being moved by his account of the fall of Vietnam and Phn
Chronicles the career of a war correspondent who spent 5 years covering Vietnam and Cambodia from 1970 to 1975 when an era of colonialism ended with the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to the communists. There are few events in recent history as traumatic and horrifying as the purging of Cambodia's cities by the Khmer Rouge and their subsequent brutal reign of terror that effectively destroyed the country physically, culturally and socially. Swain came very close to being a statistic in those tumu ...more
It's filled with hopeless exoticism, but a beautiful account of a war correspondent's time in Indochina and to a lesser extent Ethiopia. His portrayal of Cambodia and the rise of the Khmer Rouge is particularly evocative and moving.
This book is a disturbing read, but at the same time is hauntingly beautiful. The author has such courage to share his deep-honest views about the scarred, destructive, the ugly but yet intertwined with the beauty, the powerful meanings and definitions of what the war brings to people.

This book also allowed for small window of understanding about the charms that has been felt in Cambodia despite its turbulent time.

Recommended to those who feel near to the culture, the history, the land of Indo
Dec 12, 2009 Adam rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Travelers in Indochina
Recommended to Adam by: Vang Vieng Organic Farm
Swain's memoir of his time spent in SEAsia gives a great overview of the atrocities that the region faced during the 1960's and 70's. Following the Mekong through Cambodia into southern Vietnam, River of Time retraces his steps as a war reporter during the region's most tumultuous time.

With little knowledge of what actually happened in Vietnam, and even less of a clue as to the activities of the Khmer Rouge, River of Time offered me a personal look at these trouble countries during their most tr
River of Time is mainly a memoir of Jon Swain's time as a journalist in Cambodia leading up to the takeover of the Khmer Rouge, but it also includes parts detailing his time in Vietnam, Laos and Ethiopia. This memoir is very emotional, and you can tell that the author has a lot of emotion for the area he writes about. The early part of the book is devoted to the naive and peaceful view of the Cambodians and foreigners in and around Phnom Penh, while at the same time the rest of the country was ...more
The author does not come across well in this book but he is honest and I am not sure I would be brave enough to lay out my faults as completely. His descriptions of life in the 70's and the disintegration of Vietnam and Cambodia are extremely evocative and often heartbreaking.
Swiss Miss
I think journalists write the best memoirs and novels. They are descriptive without being too flowery, emotional without being too sentimental and most importantly succinct, each word carrying weight. I read Swain's book in one sitting which doesn't happen often. His narrative of Cambodia before and during the fall to the Khmer Rouge made me feel as though I was there in a way no other book has. And I've read dozens of memoirs on the subject. The chapters on his African abduction makes the book ...more
Steve Woods
Well my friends have been at me for years to write about my time in Cambodia in the 70's well here it is written as I would have loved to wtite it. Believe me I am transported back 40 years into another time the velevet time to the river that runs through the core of me and which I am still bound to all these years later. Uncanny, there is so much here, clearly different incidents but so much in common. I can smell the dust and the blood again, hear the evening crickets and frogs as the heat fal ...more
Saturday's Child
I discovered this book in the Neilson Hays library (Bangkok) and from the moment I begun reading it I had trouble putting it down. John has such as passion for South East Asia, especially Cambodia. I have read a few accounts of life in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge time but never one from a Western perspective so it had me captivated. I was surprised to find he also had experienced time in Ethiopia (a bonus for my reading interest). This is one book that I would highly recommend for anyone who ...more
Scott Marquardt
One of the best books I've read on South East Asia. If you want to fully understand just how great a tragedy the Cambodian genocide was definitely read this book. He has a way of putting things in perspective only as a journalist could.
I read this during a recent tour through Vietnam and Cambodia. At times the author was annoying with his smug descriptions of languishing in the good life before the wars (but at least he recognizes this to some extent). His first-person accounts of life and the politics just before and after the fall of Phnom Pehn and Saigon are very interesting, and his descriptions of the aftermath he witnessed in Cambodia is particularly haunting. He uses the Mekong River as an inspiration and metaphor for h ...more
Harrowing. You'd think you're reading fiction, but you're not.
Andy Thornton
A hugely evocative tale of wanderlust, nostalgia, courage, horror, love, guilt, indulgence, loss, life, death.

As the title suggests, as much a reverie about time and place colliding into beautifully unique moments of your own journey through life as one journalists recounting of war in South East Asia in the 1970s.

Swain shares tales that span from his 5 years living in Cambodia and Vietnam, in which he experienced more than could be lived in 100 lifetimes in another time and place. A phenomena
I greatly enjoyed River of Time and found Jon Swain's writing flowing and colourful however did feel he was using this as an emotional release for his yearning for Asia (but a lot of memoirs are just that). I'd just visited Cambodia and read about the Khmer Rouge so did appreciate the events he was recalling. His story did move between regions and covered lots of personalities, so switching between them did require some catching up but it's a great read about a very troubling time in Asia's hist ...more
Ginny Allan
Very sad book by an English journalist resident in SE Asia in the 1970s, about the Vietnam War and its aftermath, including the fate of the Vietnamese boat people and the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodia. The book is a little disjointed and the personal memoir mixed with the objective reporting doesn't strike a very convincing balance. Nevertheless, it is well worth reading, especially for anyone with an interest in Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War years in particular.
I could barely read this due to not being able to get past the author's romanticism of sexism, exoticism of South Eastern Asian women & strange recountings of pointless chauvinism. There were glimmers of beautiful writing here and there, but it was all so overwhelmed by all of the aforementioned. For me, it mostly read as an ignorant colonialist retelling of his "awesome" times with women, war, and violence - there was very little substance and a whole lot of self-aggrandizing. Ugh.
Susan Rumsey
OK, I am biased on this one, as I lived in Cambodia for three months. Be that as it may, this is a moving, true story by one of the journalists who survived the taking of Phnom Penh by the Pol Pot regime. (He was the blond journalist in the film "The Killing Fields"). The book is an insightful eye-witness account of the tragedy of south east Asia,and the author's love for a French-Vietnamese woman. It is also about the tragedy of war. I could not put it down.
Aninka Martek
I just couldn't. This book came off like a Good Old Boy reminiscing about his Adventure of Death and how romantic Saigon and Phnom Penh were. He is at least self-conscious of his nostalgia and sensitive to suffering (prostitutes excluded). Still, decades after his experiences he seems to lack the analytical sophistication of being able to read what was happening as displayed in Frances Fitzgerald's FIRE IN THE LAKE.
Evi Savvides
River of Time by Jon Swain

A great reminder of the suffering of people in South East Asia as a result of politics in the 70's and 80's. I remember the Vietnam and Cambodia wars as a teenager. Living in Asia now this book helped me remember the sequence of events and judge as an adult. Towards the end the writer becomes too nostalgic for what used to be known as Indochina.......
Read this while I was in Guatemala and it made me want to be in Asia... Swain writes a little stereotypically at times about the fall of the cities, it would be nice to see someone with something more unique to say. Also, his end part about being kidnapped was completely uneeded. However, I liked to book, I thought the story was interesting and told well.
This book reflects an account of life in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 17 April 1975 when Pol Pot won the civil war, moved in the capital city and send the people out on a long march. It also recorded the events leading to the destruction of the country's infra-structure by Pol Pot government. It's an improtant document of social and political history of Cambodia.
Camille Baird
written by ajournalist about teh horrors of Cambodia and the effects of war on the people. i enjoyed it in the manner of learning about the strength of people in the face of extreme adversity, a greater appreciation for my own liberty and a desire to protect that against the fragile hold we have when wicked people exert power and normal people don't do anything.
Anne Sprecher
Apr 02, 2012 Anne Sprecher is currently reading it
I bought this book in the Siem Reap airport after having spent two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia because I felt I needed a better understanding of what happened during the Vietnam and Cambodian wars. With only 50 pages to go, I can say the book helped me with that. It also provided a sense of the dreamy, glamorous, tattered place that was Indochina.
Excellent. I spent a year living in Phnom Penh, and this is by far the best of the books I read on the Khmer Rouge time.

Entertaining and tragic. A must-read for anyone interested in Cambodia.

Recommended to me by Sebastian Blockley, long-time Phnom Penh resident, and all-round great guy.
Personal, passionate account of a journalist's time in Indochina during the wars. Specifically deals with the Vietnam war and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Very open and honest exploration of human nature, life, death, and the appeal of war. Not just another history book.
An intriguing read that combines the history of SE Asia during tumultuous times with his personal experiences. I highly recommend this if you have spent time in Cambodia, Lao, Viet Nam, wish to do so ... or are simply enchanted by this area of the world.
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