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River of Time

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  567 Ratings  ·  62 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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Community Reviews

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Mar 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 01, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
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
May 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
River of Time is a beautifully written memoir by an English journalist living in the lands of the Mekong during the wars in Indo-China in 1970-1975. An outstanding and moving account of personal experiences during one of the most tumultuous periods of recent history, River of Time is essential reading for anyone interested in the haunting history of this region.

Swain arrives in Indo-China in his early 20's, at an age not much older than the average American soldier after being posted to Vietnam
Aug 18, 2014 rated it liked it
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
Adam Alston
Aug 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
One of the favourite books i've read, a really intoxicating memoir of an amazing place in a crazy time. This book briefly captures the magic of one individual's experience of Cambodia at a special time which has now past into pages and memories. The powerful and colourful recollection of the somewhat magical 'pre-war' Cambodia, and also the somewhat darker magic of War-era Vietnam, from a working journalists point of view, I found to be an extremely rewarding read. Finishing the book in 5 weekda ...more
Robert Dodds
A harrowing account of the horrors of war in Indo-China, lightened somewhat by Swain's reflections on his own youthful captivation with Cambodia, Vietnam, and their people. It is also a story of how the romantic love of his life is blighted by his own compulsion to travel to war zones and report on them. He forces the reader to face up to the desperate sadness of what we like to call 'inhuman' behaviour - although unfortunately it is all too human. We are left marvelling at the bravery - or fool ...more
Jun 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Les Dangerfield
Dec 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
A journalist's account of the horrors of the final phase of the war in Vietnam and of the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia. Depressing how the history of man's inhumanity to man repeats itself in endless circles.
Wang Hesper
Jul 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: time
There is a sad story behind every smile...
Yanhong Zhang
Nov 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Quite intense...reflective...and beautiful prose which is definitely a plus.
Prince Arora
May 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book whilst in Vietnam, given to me by a friend, and it greatly effects the atmosphere the book creates. It's devastatingly shocking and sad, yet an eye-opening read.
Jan 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read this memoir during my travels through Vietnam and Cambodia. Being in the presence of these countries has made learning about the tragic events of Indo-China a journey in itself. It was really difficult to hear about the privileges of foreigners and the harsh abandonment of the innocent and helpless. The guilt and passion for these countries and their people is strongly felt throughout - it’s still hard to believe this all happened not that long ago...
Richard McGeough
Mar 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Immensely moving memoir. John Swain witnessed some of the worst that human beings can do to each other in 1970s Cambodia and Vietnam. This is necessarily a sombre book, yet full of colour as the author brings to life the people and street life of Phnom Penh and Saigon before they fell. He describes the horrific, pitiful emptying of Phnom Penh, and of the ruined lives he encounters on returning to both cities years afterwards. Unsurprisingly, it's not a rosy book, but it's powerful and very, very ...more
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
Jul 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
A very readable and simply written book centered on Swain’s love affair with Indo-China where he spent five traumatic years, during which time the region was devastated by the Vietnam war. I was ambivalent initially reading this book as the author unashamedly indulges in the pleasures to be had in that region - in Saigon (then one huge brothel) and Phnom Penh. And like a thrill seeker, he exults in the excitement of war and the danger and deaths resulting there from. But his journalist skills, h ...more
Dec 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
In context for trip to Vietnam, interesting to see a different perspective
Oct 04, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: colonial, war
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
Oct 16, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Travelers in Indochina
Recommended to Adam by: Vang Vieng Organic Farm
Shelves: history, war
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
This book is a memoir, not a history. It is part love letter, part horror story - Swain's years in Indochina includes some idyllic times - he was besotted by the beauty and exoticism of the region - and the worst atrocities visited on Vietnam and Cambodia over more than a decade. Initially a British correspondent working for Agence-France Press in Vietnam, then as a freelance reporter, he was present at the fall of Saigon and at the evacuation of Phnom Penh. He was one of the correspondents with ...more
Aug 18, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent first hand account of the rise of the communist regime in Cambodia, the invasion of Phnom Penh and the escalation of violence in Vietnam. Great insight into the historical moments that shaped the region but also of the Westerners' lifestyles before and during the conflict, including the less sanitary habits such as frequent visits to brothels and heavy drug use.

Full of action and quite impressive acts of bravery or insanity on the part of the author who went to pretty dangerous lengths
Swiss Miss
May 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adventure
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
Nov 30, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Andy Thornton
Jan 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: war, non-fiction, biog
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
Oct 18, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: asian, history
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
Saturday's Child
Oct 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Aninka Martek
Jul 01, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: gave-up
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.
Nov 07, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography-memoir
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.
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Story spoilt by errors 1 7 Aug 30, 2013 07:33PM  
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Jon Swain was born in London and spent his early years in West Bengal and at school in England. He began his career in journalism as a teenager, working in the English provinces. After a brief stint in the French Foreign Legion, his desire to be a foreign correspondent drove him first to Paris and then, in early 1970, to Indo-China to cover the Vietnam war. He stayed until 1975, working first for ...more
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