A Tiger Rules the Mountain

The world's longest serving Prime Minister and Cambodia's pursuit of democracy

The story behind the story

How A Tiger was born

Election 2013

‘Change, no change?

The election of 2013 startled me. I had never seen such passion about an election before as people shouted for change. For a country where freedom of expression and political activity were curtailed, everybody wanted to talk about politics. Cycling to play table tennis one day, a student on a moto pulled up beside me and started quoting Winston Churchill. In democratic Britain, I had left political apathy and cynicism, whereas in authoritarian Cambodia, I found a vigour for voting that came from a belief political parties could transform lives.

That moment in Cambodia was extraordinary, but the world didn’t know about it. Indeed, they maybe only knew Cambodia for the Khmer Rouge and Angkor Wat but Cambodia was on the cusp of far-reaching social and political change.

Election 2017

The Tiger’s Tail

I had returned to Cambodia a couple of times and the idea for a book was still in my head but it was when a Cambodian friend, Rithy, visited me in Australia, that I realised what the story could be. Walking near the beach buffeted by the wind, Rithy told me that he was worried what Prime Minister Hun Sen would do in response to increasing support for the opposition, because a tiger is at its most dangerous when it is cornered, and someone is trying to catch its tail.

I didn’t know what Hun Sen was going to do either but I knew that the story that I had witnessed beginning in 2013 was becoming even more dramatic; would the opposition build on its momentum and take power or would the world’s longest serving Prime Minister regain complete control?

Writing a book

Tuk tuks, minivans and motos

I conducted about 175 interviews gathering testimony and reflection from dozens of Cambodians. I was living in Australia and would travel to Cambodia, cramming in as many interviews as I possibly could while there. Cambodia’s minivans that beep and blast their way around Cambodia got me to Siem Reap by lunchtime, Banteay Meanchey in the afternoon and Battambang at night. The overnight bus could then get me back to Phnom Penh for the next morning if I needed to.

I was helped by people all over Cambodia who introduced me to people and helped translate, and some trusted tuk-tuk drivers who got me around Phnom Penh if I couldn’t on my bike – or it was the wet season!

Praise for A Tiger Rules the Mountain

Gareth Evans

former Australian Foreign Minister

An intriguing kaleidoscope of Cambodian voices, giving enriching insights into why the country is still so far from becoming the true democracy its long-suffering people need and deserve.

Mary Ann Jolley

Senior Reporter, Al Jazeera

‘An extraordinarily compelling tale of the courage it takes to stand up to one of world’s most repressive and corrupt regimes and why the “little” people of Cambodia need the support of the international community more than ever.”

Prof. Sophal Ear

Arizona State University

‘A must-read, at times gripping and remarkable ringside view of the last decade of Cambodia’s fight for the survival of democracy under a Leviathan Prime Minister who no longer brooks dissent.’

Sebastian strangio

SE Asia Editor, The Diplomat

Rich with the voices of ordinary people and keenly attuned to the country’s cultural and social dynamics, A Tiger Rules the Mountain is vital reading for anyone wanting to understand where Cambodia has come from, and where it might be going.’

Sue Coffey

Author, Seeking Justice in Cambodia

‘A tour de force, skillfully weaving together a remarkable array of individual voices to reveal the complicated landscape of Cambodia today. He probes all sides of the political divide to show the nuances in a riveting, vital contribution to our understanding of Cambodia.’

Tom Doig

Author, Hazlewood

‘A gritty, from-the-ground-up view of recent Cambodian politics, which privileges the voices of ordinary Cambodians. Meticulously researched and spun into a gripping story by Conochie, this is a vital piece of narrative non-fiction and social history.’

Speaking events & book me for your Book Club

Book me to speak with your club in person or online. Or gather a group of friends for a chat about Cambodia. I do presentations to Rotary clubs and other associations too. You can even choose what you want to hear about from the different presentations below. Or be greedy and ask for the grand tour of them all!

Cambodia is full of stories! A Tiger originally had chapters about Indigenous people starting their own political party to win back their land and forests, about a whole community living in a slum metres from Angkor Way hoping not to be evicted, and a retired police and prison leader who took me back to the Khmer Rouge. Their some of my favourite people and stories but the book couldn’t be the size of War and Peace. This is your chance to hear what nobody else knows about.

You’ve read about them in A Tiger but there’s so much more to tell.

Hear all about the people who appear in the book, what they’re like in person and more about their history – plus what happened to them after A Tiger.

You’ll also get to hear about the Cambodians who worked with me to bring the book to life.

Let me take you to the hidden corners and secret treasures of the country called ‘A Kingdom of Wonder’.

I’ll take you to the places you’ve read about in the book – Veng Sreng Street full of garment factories; the charming Battambang home to Sin Rozeth; the temples of Angkor Wat; and the mountains of Mondolkiri. As well as my old home – the electric capity city of Phnom Penh.

Dusk was upon us and my friend Midy was insistent we had to get back onto the tarmac road before it was dark. Then he stopped to go to the toilet and…needless to say we didn’t make it to the tarmac road before dark. We were luckly to find the mechanic’s house who patched the moto up as best he could but things didn’t quite go right on the way home…

That was just one story from the years of travelling around Cambodia writing A Tiger. There were missed flights, dashes for new passports, overnight busses with water pouring on me, being picked up a stranger and taken away on his moto and the nervoursness every time my ID was checked.

Hear what it took to write A Tiger Rules the Mountain

About me

Gordon Conochie

I was born in a wee place called Perth in Scotland and studied politics and international relations at the University of Glasgow. I went to live in London for a few years working on health and social care policy and it was there that my colleague, Annalise, suggested I would love working overseas and it was then my journey to Cambodia began.

I went to an information meeting organised by VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and after a few rounds of selection was offered the chance to work on education policy in Cambodia. There, I worked with closely with the Ministry of Education, international organisations like the World Bank and UNICEF, and Cambodian NGOs to develop national strategies and reforms.

I did that for just over two years as a VSO volunteer and then worked as Head of Programmes in the VSO Cambodian office. An unexpected twist saw me going to live and work in Australia, where I still am although I have returned to Cambodia many times since leaving, sometimes two or three times a year.

In Australia, I’m an adjunct Research Fellow at La Trobe University and work in Aboriginal health policy.

Contact me

    Galleries & Excerpts

    Read exceprts alongside images and videos from the moments in the book.

    The Tigers

    Meet the three tigers who have vied for control of Cambodia – although only one has ever ruled.

    Book Club Speaking

    Book me to speak online or in-person for your book club, group or association.

    Buy the Book

    Online & in store