Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A glimpse of life in the pre-Khmer Rouge ‘bubble’



A glimpse of life in the pre-Khmer Rouge ‘bubble’

Historian Steven Heder digs a bomb shelter alongside his wife Davy, (right) and Tony Malcom, an Australian teacher, (left) in 1974. Supplied/Colin Grafton
Historian Steven Heder digs a bomb shelter alongside his wife Davy, (right) and Tony Malcom, an Australian teacher, (left) in 1974. Supplied/Colin Grafton

A glimpse of life in the pre-Khmer Rouge ‘bubble’

When Colin Grafton arrived in Phnom Penh as an English teacher in 1973, he had little knowledge of the unrest in the countryside that would soon engulf the capital. In virtual ignorance, he would witness the last days of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge, and the photographs he took over the course of the next two years would go on to provide a rare record of everyday life in the capital before the fall.

“I arrived here in March 1973, [and] the first month or so was really peaceful,” Grafton says. “I arrived just at the beginning of the end – without knowing it at the time. That was the first time the Khmer Rouge got really near to the city during the dry season and of course [later] in 1974 in the first few months … they were bombarding the city.”

But Grafton’s photographs don’t capture scenes of war or the battlefields snapped by well-known photojournalists of that time. Rather, it was “business as usual and just life as usual nearly all the time except maybe the last few weeks”.

One photo shows a group of young men and women in what at first glance seems like a casual hangout, except they’re actually digging a bomb shelter at a friend’s place. “Over 300 shells came in on one night so we went out the next day to go build a bunker at his house,” Grafton explains.

Selected from over 400 shots taken over two years on a Pentax Spotmatic, the substantial collection of photographs going on display at the Bophana Center today carry a nearly surreal quality of a viewer free from panic in an otherwise darkening moment.

Mr Bigsmile. Photo supplied/Colin Grafton
A motorbike driver who drove Colin Grafton – at that time a teacher in Phnom Penh – from Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar. Photo supplied/Colin Grafton

“It was sort of a dream. You can see we were in this bubble, and that’s what I want to convey with these pictures,” Grafton says. Even as Grafton left on an American plane to Thailand, just 10 days before the Khmer Rouge took over on April 17, 1975, he imagined he would soon be back in Phnom Penh.

“I had this idea that it was... going to be probably a fairly benign change of regime and I might be able to get back in after a few months, and I hung around in Thailand, in Laos … waiting, listening for news and thinking that maybe I could go back,” he says. “A few other people had the same idea.”

Grafton says the situation was unclear given the competing narratives from two untrustworthy sides – the Americans and the Lon Nol government on one and the Khmer Rouge on the other.

The reality set in as the years went by. Looking at a photograph of the students he taught at the ETAPP language school, Grafton points out the hip 1970s dress before his tone changes.

“If any of them are still alive, and they came and saw the photo, or someone who knew them – anything, it would make me very happy,” he says.

Phnom Penh Before the Fall: Snapshots From a Besieged City opens tonight at 6:30pm at the Bophana Center, #64 Street 200 and runs through April 29.

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh unveils rules for post-lockdown transition

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration issued a set of detailed guidelines for the seven days to May 12 after the capital emerges from lockdown at the onset of May 6. In the 14-page document signed by municipal governor Khuong Sreng released on the evening of May 5, the

  • SBI LY HOUR Bank Launches Cross Border Money Transfer Service between Cambodia and Vietnam on RippleNet, utilizing DLT

    SBI LY HOUR Bank Plc and Hanoi-based Tien Phong Commercial Joint Stock Bank (TPBank) on Friday launched the first Cambodia-Vietnam money transfer service in real currency via RippleNet, provided by SBI Ripple Asia Co Ltd to provide safe, fast and convenient services. SBI LY HOUR

  • Gov’t issues guidelines as lockdown nears end

    The government has issued a five-page set of instructions to be enforced when the three-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Takmao town in Kandal province ends on May 6. According to an announcement signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 4, the instructions cover a

  • Cambodia ready to exit LDC status

    Cambodia is well-prepared to minimise economic risks when it graduates from its Least Developed Countries status, according to a senior official at the Ministry of Commerce on May 7. Four LDCs – Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Nepal – met at a virtual workshop last week to explore potential

  • Nine US franchises eye Cambodia debut

    Nine famous US franchising companies are looking for business opportunities and expansion into Cambodia to build a footstep for a strong foundation in Southeast Asia. The US embassy in Phnom Penh, in partnership with the US Foreign Commercial Service and with support from the American

  • Lost in translation: ‘Starvation’ in capital’s designated red zones

    “DACH bay” is a Khmer slang meaning a “loss of income”, that could also be literally translated to «deprived of rice”, which alludes to starvation. However, civil society organisation (CSO) officials have independently confirmed the government’s prior assertions that there are no cases of