on 21 June 2001
I bought this book while in Phnom Penh and reading it while there, added a poignancy to an already heart-rending experience. The first lines of the book said it all to me because I fell in love with the Mekong myself, and the people who live on its banks. Jon Swain's book River of Time touched me like Cambodia touched me and I came away from the country utterly entranced. The author depicts the lush beauty of these countries excellently, as well as the filth of war with its utter despair and futility. Swain has put into words my own sadness and imcomprehension of the Pol Pot regime, as well as the hope and good humour these people still possess. His power of description is marvellous and I recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone who wants to or has experienced the lands of the Mekong.
on 21 May 2003
I read this book after a three week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia at the end of last year (and having had numerous badly photocopied versions thrust at me on the streets of Saigon!) I had visited many of the places that Jon wrote about and, like him and many many others, was captivated by it all in a way that is difficult to put your finger on. This book is nothing less than a love story but a very sad and poignant one - you can literally feel Jon's heartache as he realises that the countries have been changed forever by the massive political upheaval and events throughout the 1970s, which he witnessed so closely.
I think the book spoke to me more because I had recently visited the area but I would like to think that other readers would enjoy it despite having not gone there. It is beautifully written but in an easy style - I read it over a few evenings. It is the sort of book you can't put down but don't want it to end. The circumstances of reading it obviously influenced me greatly but this is definitely one of the best books that I have ever read. Highly recommended.
Having spent a great deal of time in SE Asia, I picked up this book with some trepidation: since Michael Herr's brilliant "Dispatches" there have been an awful lot of derivative books about gung-ho boys with toys running around getting shot at during the Vietnam War. This though, was different. This does cover the war, and its effects on the region, but the slant is much more personal and thoughful. Swain realises that there is an entrenched culture of beauty and delicacy mixed with a near-veneration for death and auto-destruction. This book has come closer to understanding the people and culture of the area than any other book i can remember. The book's observations of the profound changes which the region has gone through is spot-on. More importantly, this is a love-letter to a lost land, to lost lovers and friends. The passion and deep romanticism are very moving. I can't remember the last time i read a book so sensitive and delicate.
If you want to understand what European hubris has done to world, you must read this. Is this travel writing? a love story? a war story? all of them, but it doesnt matter. Read this, and then tell your friends to read it too.
on 22 June 2015
Genocide, gang rapes, torture, pirates, brutal murders, suicide, chemical weapons…
Inconceivable brutality utterly mutilated the once beautiful and vibrant countries of Vietnam and Cambodia beyond recognition. In just several decades of ferocious civil war, millennia of history, two passionate cultures, and millions of suffering people were changed forever.
The horrors of the Vietnam War represented one of the darkest periods in all of history. The sheer level of inhumanity inflicted by both sides decimated the lives of countless millions, and the majority of their stories are simply heartbreaking. That such extreme suffering can even be endured is almost as shocking as the realisation that one human being could willingly inflict such terrible suffering on another. But from the heart of such darkness arose the most inspiring acts of courage. For ultimately, the causes, nature and consequences of this terrible war lie with the insecurities, doubts, confusion, mistakes and vulnerabilities ignited by international pressures and ideological influences on two innocent nations. The passion, beauty and vitality of the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, of all the people of Indo-China, make their vast suffering all the more painful to contemplate.
‘River of Time’, is the account of the tragedies of these two nations by a lone British journalist, Jon Swain, from 1970 to 1975. This book can be described in one word: Incredible. It is undoubtedly the most powerful book I have ever read. Swain’s journey, and the journey of several of his closest friends in the turbulent world of war journalism at that time, have even been depicted on the screen, in the Oscar-winning film, The Killing Fields. Swain lived in Indo-China for five years in the 70s for the duration of the American participation in the Vietnam War, and what he witnessed and was a part of was shocking, inspiring, heartbreaking, moving, utterly brutal and terrible in equal measure. I was not aware, as I am sure most of the world is still, of the sheer extent of the suffering of the Vietnamese and Cambodian people.
The horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, Vietcong and Americans alike undoubtedly rivalled the atrocities of the Nazis during the Holocaust. I truly feel deeply affected by what I have read. Particular moments that burn in my mind are the family separations, the death of children and babies, Swain’s time in captivity in Ethiopia, the heinous torture carried out by the Khmer Rouge, and in particular the unimaginable sadistic cruelty of the notorious Comrade Duch, in charge of the most terrifying death camp in Cambodia. But what disturbed me the most was the account of the merciless rape and slaughter of thousands of girls as young as ten by the pirates of the South China Sea as a beleagured and weary people tried to flee the communist regime after the war. Such incidents are very hard to read.
Swain writes so beautifully and eloquently of the eternal beauty of Cambodia and this only amplifies the pain of its utter decimation by the war. The raw passion and rugged charm of Phnom Penh, of Saigon, of the countryside, the people, are why Swain fell so in love with Indo-China like so many of the journalists who visited it did, many of whom lost their lives in the pursuit of the truth.
I read this book while travelling across China and Vietnam, evoking an even greater longing within me to understand the war-torn and fascinating histories of such diverse and enchanting cultures of the East, and, after reading River of Time, I feel another step closer to understanding the true nature of the human condition. One fact remains certain, that Jon Swain’s book will stay with me for the rest of my life as one of the most shocking books I have ever and will ever read.
“Nature spoke with nightfall. From a thousand arbours in the forest came the hum of insects. Then darkness dropped. The silence became complete. The moon rose and crept through the clouds, its shifting light forming obscure patterns on the waters. I felt the river carrying my body on a current of happiness. A host of memories passed before my eyes: strolls by moonlight through the temples of Angkor; the warmth and smile of a child’s face. Aspects of Cambodia which are true and good. I always hope that the perfect combination of time, place and love that made Indo-China unique, a Paradise for me, will come together again. I am ever hopeful, but how difficult it is to believe that it ever can.”
on 7 July 2010
An excellent and moving account of Jon Swain's time as a journalist in Cambodia and Vietnam in the 70s. Anyone who has visited these countries can, in a small way,identify with the pull this region had on certain people. Jon Swain is very honest about his intoxication and fascination with both the region and the horrors of war and his determination to be part of it at all costs - giving up a good job to go freelance probably stifled his early journalist career. There is a certain sadness in someone who had (and knows he had)the best years of his life as a relatively early age. I lived in Hong Kong in the 80s and I meet several Vietnam era journalists in the FCC for whom Vietnam was the peak of their professional and personal lives and everything after paled in comparison. Some of them were sad figures. However, for anyone who wants a view of the Indo china conflict from the journalist point of view I would highly recommend this book in conjunction with Christopher J Kock's novel Highways to a war, in which the main character is partly based on camerman Neil Davis who covered the vietnam war only to be later killed in a minor coup in Thailand.
on 6 October 2015
This book is superb - well-written (as you would expect) poignant and an incredible document covering a westerner's point of view of Cambodia before, to a degree during, and then after the Pol Pot regime. Jon Swain doesn't paint a picture of the Kampucheans as being some sort of innocent flower people - rather he shows them as they were and are - real human beings, incredibly courageous, incredibly flawed (as are we all) and at the mercy of a brutal dictatorship. And as with many dictatorships, when the conflict was over, the guilty parties largely strolled away with huge bank balances while the ordinary people continued to suffer. The cultural changes have all been for the worse - when the K'mer Rouge were gone, the Americans moved in importing their own culture which is fine for their own country but totally inappropriate for an eastern one. The good things that might have been saved were lost. It seems that there will be no easy way back for this tortured land and these suffering people. Very, very sad,
This is a very moving account of the author's time in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the 1970s and of the devastation wrought on those countries by war and revolution. This is often a very personal account of the author's journalistic and personal life during the years. I found this to be a hugely engaging book, in which Jon Swain's love of South East Asia and its people, and his sorrow at the losses they suffered shines through.
A wonderful, sad, moving, and wonderful written account of a time of turmoil and loss