Return to Kep

(© Cristóbal Bouey 2017)

(© Cristóbal Bouey 2017)

Return to Kep, by Soko Phay

The scent of jasmine and roses whisks me back to the riverbanks at Kep for a moment as I lie in bed suffering from a nasty cold since my return; I have noticed that I often fall ill when I come back from Cambodia, as if I missed it so much it eventually lowered my immune system. The Parisian chill hardly helped of course… When I got your photo and dried flowers I remembered life before my little land of monsoons was dealt a blow by History as well as our snippets of conversation like a distant tale…

You said: Kep was my home from home. Everything around this coastal town is like a huge novel.
I said: My dad built that lovely ochre yellow house in the Sixties well before I was born at a time when Kep was the most popular seaside resort: « the pearl in the Gulf of Siam », as they used to say in the radio ad.
You said: What makes this place so special are all the windows of the little restaurants looking out to sea, the crab market, the single road, the pathway skirting the seafront, the damp heat, the great expanse of sky, the people, the music on the beach, music everywhere, and the old abandoned villas…
I said: My mum was so proud of her lush orchard surrounded by white walls; amongst the coconut trees she had planted some fruit trees, shrubs, papaya and mango trees, jackfruit and jamalac with their red blossom and fruit. As night fell, fragrant flowers scented the air around the trunk of a majestic Banyan tree near the fresh water well.
You said: I think that maybe we should shoot a film. A recording of moments on selected themes, with a bit of backtracking and some new departures. And then forget all about them.
I said: My brother and I loved playing hide and seek with the neighbour’s sons in our scented garden before going for a dip in the sea just as the sun was setting and the light was soft. I remember how carefree we were, how we laughed and joked and walked with our mates on the island opposite looking for giant starfish
You said: One day I will tell you the story of my great grandfather who left Brittany to go to the other end of the world in South America and how he built a seaside resort on a rocky seashore.
I said: My childhood is like the beautiful pale butterfly that my young neighbour (whom I had a crush on) offered me in upturned palms but it quickly flew away.
You said: We should also film this abandonment… What we should say is how elusive this place is…
I said: Everything has disappeared, burnt to the ground, hardly anything remains, just the shadow of the architectural splendour of yesteryear; vegetation has taken over, a tree has even pushed its way through the ground inside the rotunda.
You said: The wild mango trees and frangipani shrubs are living archives here…

Nostalgia not only evokes the sadness of distance, it can also have an active meaning. In the word « nostalgia », there is both « return » (nostos) and « sadness » (algos). This journey into the melancholy past is what I feel every time I go back to Cambodia, especially Kep whenever I have the chance to go there. I see a « place of ghosts » that reminds me of an imperfect past, but oh, how beautiful and alive it all was


Soko Phay is an historian and theorician of art, teaching in the plastic arts department of the University of Paris 8 and at EHESS. She just published Les vertiges du miroir dans l’art contemporain, Les Presses du réel.