Tale Follows Overworn Path But Emerges With True Heart

Near the close of the third chapter of “A River and a Valley Far Away,” aptly titled “Kingdom Come,” Wayne McCallum pays homage to those innumerable West­erners before him who have laid the groundwork for penning beer-sodden, orientalized accounts of Cambodia in all its humid tropical allure.

But the Cambodia he renders is, far more than theirs, a place that’s recognizable and deeply lived—not from the midst of an opium haze or the confines of the Foreign Correspondents Club—but from a rural village in the coastal heartland, where he spent a year of his life volunteering for a local conservation NGO.

A child waits by the river at Andoung Tuek, Koh Kong province, in a photograph from 'A River and a Valley Far Away.' (Wayne McCallum)
A child waits by the river at Andoung Tuek, Koh Kong province, in a photograph from ‘A River and a Valley Far Away.’ (Wayne McCallum)

One just wishes that Mr. McCallum believed in this year a bit more. He unfortunately seems to find ghost stories much more exciting than what he himself went through.

Near the end of the book, he leaves us in the middle of the action, lost with a companion on a motorbike in the middle of Kampot’s dry jungle. The map is inconclusive, the surrounding mountains filled with hidden caches of the bones of Khmer Rouge victims and, possibly, gigantic mythical serpents.

Mr. McCallum chooses this moment to spend a few pages relating a tale of three backpackers kidnapped, ransomed and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the middle of these very mountains, just 10 years before. Having told this story, he returns us to the action: He and his friend, thirsty after the long day, decide to call it a night and head home—a let-down to say the least.

Cambodia is a place with history, and the book’s continual brushes with horror are effective and appropriate. Its continual brushes with Mr. McCallum’s seeming half-wish that someone had tried a lot harder to kidnap him and force him to eat human kidneys in the middle of the Cardamom mountains is not.

Mr. McCallum’s work, to be released in Siem Reap on Saturday, has, in the end, honesty and heart—the book is written with the weighty, bittersweet love of a true conservationist.

In one chapter, he narrates a night near Sre Ambel, a town in Koh Kong province, where he believes he saw, across the waters of a wet-season swamp at dusk, a green- and-white-plumed bird that was previously believed extinct in Cambodia for over 14 years. He records the sighting with deep love.

He doesn’t manage to confirm the sighting, though he brings a bird expert to the same swamp some months later. He writes that, years later, he still believes in it: “I remain convinced that I encountered the white-eyed river martin,” he writes, though “proof of the birds’ resurrection remains elusive.”

Whether Mr. McCallum is in fact the last recorded witness of that dying species, he writes of it here with truth and wonder.

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