Bert’s Books – my Cambodian lifeline

Friday, June 13, 2014 Permalink

I’ve mentioned a zillion times that I’ve long been an avid reader. In fact, at various times in my life I’ve been somewhat addicted to the written word and tried to detox. (I know that might not make sense to some, but…)

Getting access to reading fodder hasn’t always been easy however and I’ve struggled when living overseas on a number of occasions.

I was speaking to someone recently about my time in Cambodia which brought back some interesting memories.

I was to live there for a year on a volunteer program back in 1997, but increasing unrest (later followed by a coup d’etat) meant I left after just seven months.

Fortunately for me, my previous volunteer experience in Mozambique (in 1995-1996) prepared me well for my placement in Phnom Penh. (So much so that I was pleasantly surprised on my arrival.)

My apartment was fine – it belonged to a Khmer family who lived downstairs, but it was pretty basic. I had running water most of the time, but my electricity was very intermittent.

My place in Phnom Penh. (Upstairs on the left!)

My place in Phnom Penh. (Upstairs on the left!)

A TV was out of the question and I had no telephone, so I sought comfort from my discman with little battery-operated speakers and lots of candles. (Along with chocolates and MSG-laden chips and snacks from the foreign supermarket. Oh, and Australian beer.)


My reading and listening-to-music nook. (ie. My lounge room)

My working hours were pretty short and it wasn’t safe (at that time) to travel at night if you didn’t have a vehicle, so I spent chunks of my day at home, along with all of my evenings.

Fortunately very early on I discovered the fairly famous Bert’s Books and Guesthouse. Life was pretty stressful and scary at times, so I appreciated being able to lose myself in a book and – other than the occasional outing with friends and my abbreviated work days – most of my free time was spent reading.


Nowadays – between work and other stuff – I manage about 3 books a week (two nights to finish one, plus a night off for other commitments).

In Cambodia I EASILY got through a book a day, so twice a week I’d walk the 30+mins each way (in the bloody hot sun) from my place to Bert’s and I’d buy a stack of second-hand books.

The deal was typical of a second-hand bookstore.. you pay full price (say $6-8, I can’t recall) for the (used) book and when you return the book, you receive half of that amount back. Which you then use to buy more. So it wasn’t like having access to a library, but relatively affordable for this poor volunteer.

And in retrospect, Bert’s and those (many MANY) books became my lifeline, so it was definitely money well-spent.

Are you a fan of second-hand book stores?
Any overseas tales of reading woes (or joys) to share?

I’m flogging my blog With Some Grace as it’s Friday.

PS. I left Cambodia in July 1997. I went back with the Australian Government for a month about a year later – and discovered Bert’s had gone. (I since discovered that it shut down around the same time I left. Hopefully there was no causal relationship! 😉

  • Lydia C. Lee
    June 13, 2014

    We went to Siem Reap and I just fell in love with that part of the country – it really is an astounding place, what they people have been through and how they attempt to bring the whole country along with them as they recover.
    I wonder what happened to Bert?

    • Debbish
      June 13, 2014

      I know… I should have googled that. I only found the Phnom Penh Post story about him setting up in 1994 and leaving in 1997.

  • Lee-Anne
    June 13, 2014

    How interesting, Deb…you’ve had some diverse and fascinating experiences.

    I love second-hand book shops and book exchanges but they’re dwindling with all the cheap online shopping and eBooks. I still have a favourite haunt – there’s something so nice about reading a book then returning it for a small sum so someone else can have the pleasure. 🙂

    • Debbish
      June 13, 2014

      I hate parting with books though obviously did it when I was poorer!

  • Char
    June 13, 2014

    I do like second hand bookshops. I love browsing and finding new authors. But those sorts of shops are few and far between these days. And I’ve found that I no longer need go any further than my inbox to find cheap books. I was given a Kindle for my birthday and Amazon has a Deal of the Day. A book for $2:00 or less? Don’t mind if I do.

    • Debbish
      June 13, 2014

      I get frustrated if I take new books to second hand book places and they offer you a pittance. When I moved I got rid of a heap but gave them to the Op Shop!

  • Emily @ Have A Laugh On Me
    June 13, 2014

    Wow you are a dark horse?? How awesome and adventurous are you? Oh the stories you could tell I bet! x

    • Debbish
      June 13, 2014

      Hmm… not too sure about that. Was a while ago now! 🙂

  • Bec @ The Plumbette
    June 13, 2014

    And this is why I come to your blog. To read snippets of your volunteering overseas. I’d be scared crapless doing what you did and I would have found solace in a book or two too. I rarely get to read these days with kids and I’m a shocker for starting a book and never finishing it, but since I’ve been suffering from insomnia, I have been able to read and finish 3 books.
    I usually buy brand new books but I should find a second hand book shop and invest in purchasing books from there. It would be so much cheaper.

    • Debbish
      June 14, 2014

      Yes Rebecca and the good thing about second hand book stores is that you often get new releases as well. I like to keep my books (unless it’s a book I dislike – or a James Patterson etc!) but, I know many who’ll on-sell it as soon as they’ve finished with it!

  • Jess
    June 13, 2014

    I loved Phnom Penh when I visited. Such a sad history but very interesting place. I can totally imagine that books would have been a lifeline there! What interesting experiences you have had.
    PS I am so impressed and jealous of your 3 books a week!

    • Debbish
      June 14, 2014

      Ha! Perhaps it says something about how boring my life is….

      I’m a bit of a ritual girl, so after work in the early evening I retire to the bathtub for an hour or two of reading. I also read really quickly!

  • M
    July 20, 2016

    Bert looked great in 2013!

  • jeff
    August 29, 2022

    Hey Deb. I spent some relaxation time in Phnom Penh back in ’95 after about 9 months in Ulaan Baatar and about a year in Hanoi. First time I saw Bert’s Books I was thrilled- keeping myself in English language books was seldom easy- especially in Mongolia. The expat community was pretty small back then. I still remember the sinking feeling which came over me when looking through the shop. It was was a testament to popular bestsellers- Grisham, Clancy, romances, fantasy, detective novels- basically everything that I didn’t read. And Burt was always kind of depressed and vaguely surly. I did love the shirts though. Bert’s Books “Always carry a book- you won’t look so damn stupid.” -Burt
    Would have bought some, but he was charging US$15 each (back in ’95!), and they were the thinnest cotton imaginable. Oh well. I heard later that he closed up shop and took off not long after the Hun Sen coup.

    • Debbish
      August 29, 2022

      Yes, I was there then and recall that a lot of businesses were closing up in July – Aug ’97 as things got a bit dodgy.

  • J
    February 28, 2023

    Lovely blog. Thank you. Burt’s was one of the most important places of my life. I stayed there briefly in ‘97 before the coup and its closure. I have a huge amount of nostalgia for that time and place, when I was working at The Daily. There’s no place in the world like Burt’s – no place as magical – and there never will be again. I wish you happy memories.

    • Debbish
      February 28, 2023

      Thanks and it’s wonderful you have such warm memories of the place. I’m the same. It made a huge difference to me (and my sanity!) during the 8 or so months I lived in Cambodia. (At around the same time!)

  • Eduardo
    January 30, 2024

    Today Jan 29, 2024 while cleaning my basement I found a book purchased in Bert’s Books sometime between 1992-1994 when I worked in UNTAC. I searched internet for the place and found this post. Intense memories of my 2 years in Cambodia.
    I am now 65, living in New York.

    • Debbish
      January 31, 2024

      Oh… such memories. I think I mention this in the post, I was there in 1997 (post UN and pre coup d’etat!).

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