As a young man growing up in England, Colin Grafton yearned for warmer and more exotic surroundings, so in 1969 he packed his bags and travelled overland to Asia.
He first settled in Laos, sidestepping Air America pilots in Vientiane’s seedy bars, and found work as an English teacher in the small country where the United States was staging a secret war against the Communist Pathet Lao at the time.
After leaving Laos in 1973, he headed to Cambodia, again finding work as an English teacher, and stayed until 1975, getting one of the last planes out from the old Pochentong Airport to Bangkok just before the city fell to the Khmer Rouge.
He has since travelled extensively in Asia, working in refugee camps in Thailand and later spending much of his life in Japan, with some time in South America.
Back in 1974, when he was living and working in Phnom Penh, he took a helicopter trip to the little town of Pailin near the Thai border.
He was astonished to find hundreds of people searching for gems, mostly sapphires, known in Thai as “philin”, very similar to the name of the town. It was a far cry from the war zones around Phnom Penh at the time.
He only had one film for his camera, but managed to capture some of the excitement and drama in black-and-white photographs, which will be exhibited at Meta House next week.
He recently returned to Pailin for the first time in 40 years and tried to retrace his footsteps. He showed the old photos to people in the streets and temples, much to their interest and amusement.
However, he could not find some of the key locations and did not meet a single person who had been there in 1974. In the 1980s, Pailin became a stronghold for the Khmer Rouge after Vietnam invaded Cambodia, the area’s mountains and thick jungles forming a natural barrier and giving shelter to the guerilla fighters.
“In 1974, as the Khmer Rouge inexorably tightened their stranglehold on Phnom Penh, Pailin was another world,” he recalled.
“It was a thriving metropolis of wooden shacks with a nightlife of its own, people walking the streets with wads of money in their shirt pockets, comparing gems on street corners.
“In the rivers, hundreds of workers panned for sapphires and other precious stones. I hope this exhibition of rare photographs conveys something of the atmosphere of Pailin at that time.”
The exhibition opens at Meta House at 6pm on Tuesday, October 17.