Book review: The Gods Drink Whiskey

The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha, by Stephen T. Asma (2005). See it at

Before I left the U.S. to go traveling in Cambodia this summer, I searched and asked around for recommendations for non-history books, not travel guidebooks, about Cambodia. A lot of titles came my way, but nothing seemed suitable for reading on buses and boats, at bedtime in third-rate hotels, etc. A novel would have been acceptable, if it promised me the real flavor of the country, but I couldn’t find one that seemed right.

I’m not sure exactly how this book came to my attention, but I’m very glad it did. It not only suited me perfectly while I was experiencing Cambodia for two weeks in May; I liked it so much I read it twice. I’m prepared to recommend it to anyone who is thinking about going to Cambodia.

Stephen T. Asma is an American college professor who was invited to the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to teach a philosophy of Buddhism course to graduate students there. And if you wonder how and why a non-Asian, American guy got into a position of teaching Buddhism to Asians in a Buddhist country — well, suffice to say that after you have read the book, you’ll probably feel fine about that.

The cover blurbs on this book are very misleading. They say it’s a “hippie road trip” and make it sound rollicking and irreverent, with an emphasis on pizza topped with marijuana. Such a pizza is consumed, yes — but in the company of a Sri Lankan traveler who challenges Asma with a head-pounding dissertation on Buddhist beliefs that I read four times. The pizza? Not nearly as interesting as the exploration of karma and rebirth.

Here and there, Asma’s very personal approach might have been smoothed out a bit by a firmer editor, but for the most part, his opinions humanize the story and ground it in the experience of a man who is mostly open-minded about other cultures and humble enough to know he doesn’t know them. That’s not to say Asma is an altogether humble person. (His opinions might offend someone who thinks Christian missionaries are doing good work in countries such as Cambodia, for example.) But what impressed me a lot — especially on second reading — was how a guy with a Ph.D. in philosophy doesn’t presume to fully understand the very thing he teaches. His ability to really see, and really hear, the people he met in Cambodia was in some ways a gate that allowed me to see more, and hear more, than I could have without his help.

The book manages to explore the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, the present-day sex trade, Western pop culture, the relative innocence of young Cambodian adults (Asma’s students), crime and gangsterism, religious hegemony, and the mystifying pantheistic practices of Buddhism in Cambodia — all in a deceptively casual, non-academic manner. (My favorite: How Asma’s students reacted to a visit by Maha Ghosananda, and the backstory, set in the bloodiest days of the Khmer Rouge.)

The oddest thing about my experience reading this book was that when I came to the end the first time through, I felt kind of let down. I was sitting on a bus traveling from Kompong Cham to Kampot, with seven days remaining in a 15-day trip. I had a book about Angkor in my backpack, but instead of taking it out, I started paging through The Gods Drink Whiskey again. I was thinking the book had not been what I had expected, but for each topic my mind tossed out (Buddhism, Khmer Rouge, the character of the Cambodian people, economic development, etc.), I realized that Asma had, in fact, written about that. So I began to think that maybe jet lag (or culture shock) had clouded my brain in the first few days of reading, and I decided to just start on page one and read it straight through again. (This is NOT something I do often at all, by the way.)

Well, that turned out to be a wonderful decision. On my second reading, I felt as though Asma’s book and the country and I were all in perfect sync with one another, and we danced in a threesome that felt natural and right. I’m not saying I saw everything the same way as Asma did, but I understood what he wrote and I appreciated how he viewed what he saw. He helped me hear the rhythm of Cambodia more clearly than I could have on my own. When I felt sad to be leaving Phnom Penh in the middle of my 15th day, I had Asma to thank, in part.