When Paul Cummings first arrived in Phnom Penh in 1983, in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, motorised vehicles were rare, there was just one hotel for foreigners, and telecommunications were virtually non-existent. Still, he considered the country virgin territory for a tour company. A year later he would escort some of the first Western tourists to visit after the regime.
“I had the very rare privilege to see quite a bit of the country,” said Cummings, who spent two years trying to get a visa before Cambodian officials warmed to the idea of restarting a tourist industry. “Not only the tourist side, but factories, schools, all of that.”
Cummings, now retired from the travel industry, is donating hundreds of photos he took in the 1980s to Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre.
On Friday, the centre will launch an exhibition of 23 photographs from the collection.
Cummings’s company, Orbitours, already specialised in bringing Western tourists to Vietnam and Laos but a non-communist tour group had not travelled to Angkor since civil war broke out in 1970.
Bophana cultural events assistant Marie-Josee Blanchard said the photos are of great historical importance.
“Cambodia was still not open to visitors, and photography was not so accessible. The war had just ended and people were thinking about survival.”
The pictures, mostly taken in 1983 and 1984, show Monivong Boulevard before the tuk-tuks and Angkor Wat before the hordes.
“It was a time of recovery. People had freedoms they hadn’t had for a long time, but they had to create an economy out of almost nothing,” said Cummings, who added infrastructure was in terrible state.
“The telephone system was in complete disarray, so it was easier to take a cyclo across the town than make a telephone call.”
Despite Cambodia’s dilapidated state, Cummings realised the allure of Angkor Wat was enough to draw a limited number of tourists back to the country. The security situation had improved to the point that tour groups kept in the right places were safe.
Throughout the decade, a steady flow of tourists kept Cummings busy as he operated one of the very few non-communist access points to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. With the country entrenched in the Soviet bloc, most other visitors were Eastern European professionals sent on business.
“The world was divided by an iron curtain, from the Berlin Wall to the Mekong. I’m not political, but I thought that encouraging some contact between these two worlds would be a good thing,” he said.
After waiting two years for a visa, Cummings took a preliminary trip in 1983 and returned the following year with 20 Western tourists. The first tour lasted three days, and included two days of sightseeing in Phnom Penh and a day trip by plane to Angkor Wat.
The tour was a hit and attracted international attention, reintroducing Cambodia to the tourist map. The humanitarian situation was more captivating than Angkor for most tourists, Cummings said.
“In those days, everyone had a story they wanted to tell. Everyone had an extraordinarily bad time; they had lost family members and somehow survived. People were very keen to tell them [the stories] if you had any interest.”
With the end of the Cold War and the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, Cummings left Orbitours to create a new travel company as tourism in Cambodia normalised.
Cambodia has now come full circle, said Cummings.
“There’s a whole generation of young Cambodians now growing up who know peace, which is wonderful. But there’s a whole painful and difficult chapter of history in between.”
Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre will display 23 of the photos for the Cambodia Rediscovered: Life After the Khmer Rouge exhibition.
They will be displayed from February 15 to March 15 at its centre on #64 Street 200.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bennett Murray at [email protected]