Phnom Penh: A retrospect from a photographer’s eyes

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Phnom Penh riverfront taken from Chroy Changvar. The foreground shows the vegetable plots on the peninsula before land reclamation. Kevin Bolton

Two decades ago, Phnom Penh was different. It was a transitional period for the city that was being confronted by harsh realities. But in the midst of that chaos, there was a certain amount of charm as photographer Kevin Bolton discovered. His exhibition, ‘An Out Of Date Retro Presentation: Phnom Penh 1998’, that opens today at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Riverside showcases his best photos during that period. He speaks with Anith Adilah Othman.

When he arrived in Phnom Penh on one July evening in 1998, British-born photographer Kevin Bolton thought to himself: “This town is especially quiet. I can live here.”

It was love at first sight for Bolton as he stood across Street 144 at five in the evening, watching some 20 vehicles passed him by. Today, of course, it would have been a completely different sight – fleets of multi-colored tuk-tuks flurrying up and down the streets and vendors trying to make small trade with passers-by.

Stung Meanchey Municipal garbage dump. Photo: Kevin Bolton

Armed with a medium format Fujifilm, Bolton spent the most part of 1998 and 1999 taking pictures of every nook and cranny of the city that he grew to adore, at least for the next nine years.

“It was right after the coup so there were not many tourists or expats because it was still considered a ‘dangerous’ place. Even if there were, they would come and leave soon. Overall, it was very quiet,” he said, referring to the 1997 clashes when Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted his predecessor Norodom Ranariddh in a violent coup d’etat.

“Phnom Penh then…I mean, nothing like it is now,” Bolton reminisced during an interview with Good Times2.

Bolton, who was teaching English in Hong Kong for some 20 months, made his way to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar before he found himself in Cambodia.

“I still remember it vividly. I was renting the back room on the first floor of this building for $100. There’s a Thai restaurant just a couple doors away. From my room, you can hear a lot of noise from the alleyways.

Cyclo Sisters, Sothearos Boulevard. No school on Sunday, so the girls decide to take the family cyclo out for a spin up the road. Photo: Kevin Bolton

“The Searchers’ Love Potion Number 9 was a popular song then so you could hear it everywhere you go.

“See, the front room on the same floor is vacant, and it has a balcony. So I would get myself some coffee and I would sit there for hours.

“I remember seeing these little boats coming up from Tonle Sap…Back then you could do that because the view was unobstructed. That was when I really decided to stay,” he said.

Bolton continued to travel around the country where he photographed everything that caught his eyes – from the Stung Mean Chhay refuge dump to the cyclo-drivers, to even the impressive architecture with colonial imprints.

Corner St 5 and St 130. Photo: Kevin Bolton

In 2002, Bolton released a book called ‘Phnom Penh People’, where most of his photography works between 1998 and 1999 were encapsulated in 153 glossy pages.

The pictures, however, did not get the exposure they deserve. While copies of the books are still being sold at Monument Books outlets to this date, the photographs he took were never displayed publicly.

But that is about to change.

Bolton, who now resides in Kep where he enjoys being far away from the noisy city, is back in Phnom Penh for his solo exhibition at the Foreign Correspondents Club at Riverside beginning tomorrow (December 1).

The old Pharmacie on St 106, built In the early 1900s. Photo: Kevin Bolton

“Look, I am not trying to tell a story about Phnom Penh, there is no specific narrative that I am going for. 1998 was two decades ago so I figured it would be nice to have them showcased…maybe people can see for themselves what I saw through my lens 20 years ago.

“Most of the time when I bring up these pictures, people would be surprised. They’re like: ‘Did you really take that then?’ Especially the locals. I mean, of course I did,” he said.

The exhibition, entitled An Out Of Date Retro Presentation: Phnom Penh 1998, will showcase nearly 30 of Bolton’s best works, colour-printed in A3 size. On the opening night, he will also be signing the prints from his published works.

Bolton, who left Phnom Penh initially for Battambang in 2007, recounted his final days in the city and ultimately, what drove him away.

“In 2004, I read a European magazine about how Cambodia suddenly was the ‘trendiest’ place to live. From then onwards, the hipster population started to grow here. The atmosphere was beginning to feel different.

“Phnom Penh wasn’t perfect but it was interesting. There were pockets of the city where it’s quiet all-day round. It was dangerous, sure. I was even robbed and held at gunpoint three times. Fortunately, they only got $18 and a jacket out of me.

“But all of a sudden, the city became cramped immediately. Bars were scattered. It is hard to retain its charm when you’ve got development all over,” he said, with a heavy sigh.

Fast-forward to the present, Bolton decided that the capital is still ‘a little bit crazy’ and he has no plans to return as a resident.

“Just last night I heard somebody singing on the karaoke machine at 4am through the door of my hotel room. The whole ‘fiasco’ was resolved eventually, because I think somebody else came to shut them up, but no I would not want to come back here.

“I am happy in Kep where it’s still quiet,” he said.



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