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

3.30  ·  Rating details ·  476 ratings  ·  57 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

Paperback, 206 pages
Published December 1st 2000 by Asia Books (first published July 25th 1998)
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 ·  476 ratings  ·  57 reviews

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Start your review of Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja
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
Nov 29, 2010 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
Dec 29, 2012 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
Josh Fish
Mar 21, 2011 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
Guillermo Galvan
Nov 11, 2012 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
Daniel Gauss
Feb 16, 2016 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
Amar Pai
Jul 25, 2009 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" :


That one'
Apr 09, 2015 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. ...more
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
An interesting but problematic first draft of a book. Apart from the writing error themselves, the author's attitude is also problematic. His analysis is very surface level. He doesn't display a strong enough connection to Cambodia and doesn't find the meaning behind the events, or what was going on there at that time. ...more
May 12, 2019 rated it did not like it
One of life’s eternal questions must be ‘Why do most people behave pretty much the way they should, most of the time?’ Excluding the odd bit of swearing at speed cameras and folk who ‘forget’ a few little things on their tax returns, society gets along because the majority behave in line with the law and the norms of social interaction. You can put it down to it ethics, a desire to conform with the ‘greater good’ or even at its most base, a fear of getting caught. Even though our prisons are app ...more
Apr 10, 2015 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. ...more
Bruce Graham
Jul 11, 2022 rated it really liked it
As someone who only recently lived in Siem Reap's red light district, in a hotel populated with Russian alcoholics, local ladyboys, and random meth heads, this book has more relevance for me than most people.
Hookers, some of whom lived across the road, sometimes visited. Siem Reap is not noted for its sex business—from this observer, the local sex business looks like a tug of war between deathpats, ex-pats busily drinking themselves to oblivion, and ice-babes, yaba consuming females, intent on
Martin Koenigsberg
Jul 09, 2017 rated it liked it
Hard to give a review of this book without getting judgemental really fast. For one thing- this is NOT FOR JUNIOR READERS. This is all about adults getting their debauchery on in a big way. It's sort of a guide book to how Not to Act in a Foreign country. The author follow various semi-interesting characters he meets in a Cambodian hotel, and chronicles his sojourns there in the 1996-8 period of civil friction. Before and after Hun Sen's bloody 1997 ascension to power, Gilboa follows his cast-of ...more
James Flynn
Sep 15, 2022 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. The author is very honest and upfront, which I appreciate, and the characters he describes were interesting to learn about.
The book provides some history of Cambodia, some politics, and also some unofficial accounts of everyday life in Phnom Penh during the 90’s. I wish I could jump in a time machine and experience that era first hand.
Joe Montaperto
May 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating narration set in 1990s Cambodia of what can happen when there are no restrictions, limits or accountability on male behavior in society; a study in debauchery.
Joseph Spuckler
Oct 08, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
A decent look at street level Cambodia in the 1990s and a little little history.
Greg Robinson
Jan 02, 2021 rated it liked it
a touch on the sordid side, painting a fairly sad picture of a lovely country and people; reasonably frank but also sensitive
Stephen Dartnell
Jun 14, 2013 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
Nov 04, 2009 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
Dec 29, 2014 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
Scott Wilson
Jan 10, 2016 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
Dec 17, 2009 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
Oct 02, 2013 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
Jun 20, 2011 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
Aug 08, 2012 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
Mar 06, 2011 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
Apr 26, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Jul 28, 2020 rated it liked it
This account of the authors’ time in Cambodia gives a disgustingly fascinating insight into Phnom Penh during the the late 70s. It’s shocking to read how quickly the border of what’s right and what’s wrong can be shifted further and further, and how fast one can fall into the the darkest pools of humanity without any regrets. The easiness with which the author describes everyday child prostitution is sickening (as was his completely unnecessary “field research”), but at least it kind of forces t ...more
Chilly SavageMelon
Jul 22, 2013 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... ...more
Dec 14, 2015 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. ...more
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