Kep, Cambodia

Feeling uninspired, I told myself to pick a random photograph to write about.

Which led to some weeding out. Why on earth do I keep all these? I asked myself, over and over.

This one brought me to a stop.

The first time I saw this image, it was like seeing a ghost.


That photograph was taken in the early 2000’s. This one, in 1961.

This was the boarding school I attended for a year at Kep, in Cambodia.


It was right on the sea shore.

The setting was idyllic.

Maybe it’s because I have photographs of Cambodia on my walls, that I think of it so often.

Though if I didn’t want to remember, those photos would not be on display.


That year in the boarding school was unpleasant in many ways but when I left the country, I carried Cambodia in my heart. One day, I thought, I will return.


After the war and the genocide, I could have gone back but I did not have the courage.

For a long time I had nightmares about being back in Cambodia, trapped and hunted by awful people.


Going back would have been too emotional. I could not understand what had happened, could not conceive of such brutality in what had seemed such a gentle people.

If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere. I preferred to keep the fond memories of before.


In due course, though, my friend Tim went and as he expected to go to Kep, I told him where to look for the building that had been my school.


When he got there, the building was functioning as a police station, but he was allowed to take photographs of the surrounds and the unused upper floors.

I believe it had been used by the Khmer Rouge for interrogations.

The building was demolished a few years ago. Tourism was back.


The two upper floors were dormitories, each of which slept about 100 girls on cots like the ones in the image.

We had a thin kapok mattress and a mosquito net. The bed seemed hard at first. I learned not to write home about it and soon adjusted.

(Our mail was censored)


This is where I slept, somewhere in the middle of that long room. All along the side under the windows were sinks where we washed. There was a shower and toilet at the far end. This was a Western toilet. During class hours downstairs, we were obliged to use an Asian toilet.

As such, it was not a problem.


One of my first views of Cambodia.

Our flat overlooked the Tonle Sap and its confluence with the Mekong.

The shores were always frantically busy.


As my mind had gone back to Cambodia, I dragged out my father’s album containing photographs of the ruins.


Ta Som 12th Century.

Preah Khan 1191

Ta Prohm 1186


The trees are called Fromagers.

Their roots had little respect for the abandoned temples.

Their dense foliage shut out the light creating an almost twilight feel.


Banteay Srei 967

Angkor Vat 12th Century

King Suryavarman II

The causeway.

Total of 2 tourists. Us.

Angkor Vat 12th Century

Decorated in fine detail.

Late afternoon sun.

Angkor Vat 12th Century

The corridor of the gods.

Angkor Vat 12th Century

Tower for Vishnu

Angkor Vat 12th Century

Bayon 13th Century

King Jayarvarman VII

Tower for Buddha

Bayon 13th Century

Bayon 13th Century

Angkor Thom 13th Century

South Gate

The Giant’s Causeway

Devils on one side, saints on the other.

Banteay Srei 967

Banteay Srei 967

Banteay Srei 967

Banteay Srei 967

Chau Say Tevoda

also called Chau Som

12th Century


Banteay Kdei 12th Century

Angkor Thom 12th Century

Ta Som 13th Century

My father did his best, using an old guidebook, to annotate the photographs, adding his own impressions.

All these decades later, I still remember the ruins of that vast and complex culture, rotting in the jungle.

The smell of bats, the sound of the forest, a sort of “tick tick tick” interrupted by the call of a gibbon or the flight of a horn-bill. The whine of mosquitoes.

But overall, the stillness.

10 thoughts on “Before

  1. Until I just familiarised myself with Cambodian history I had forgotten that it was only in 1998 that Khmer Rouge declared a ceasefire. I don’t think they have ever declared peace! What a wonderful experience to have gone to school there, although you probably didn’t think that at the time.

  2. Hard to imagine being the only 2 tourists. One of my friends and his wife went there recently, and it was very crowded. The war and what followed must have had a profound effect on you. It is understandable that you didn’t want to go back.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. In part it was because I was afraid I would look at people in the street and wonder what part they had played. Some of the Khmer Rouge must have blended back in since they all look the same. The girls I was at school with were from “well-placed” families so maybe they all escaped. But all those others…the people we saw in villages and markets, happy, sweet people. I shall never understand.

  3. Wow, I look through these old photos and think how wonderful it must have been to be able to visit here so many decades ago. Nowadays people take pictures of all these places, but they are always filled with tourists. Your dad’s photos are definitely unique and create a very different atmosphere than today’s touristy pictures.

    1. Tourism and all that it entails will have taken from those ruins the awe. To view it as it was, lying in the jungle, you could not help but think os the culture that once thrived and fell as all great civilisations do. Even at 9 years of age I was impressed.

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