A few weeks ago I went to Siem Reap in Cambodia. After working in Singapore for a week it was one of the locations I wanted to visit as I moved up through Asia towards Bangkok where I was due to fly home from.
The Angkor Wat complex has fascinated me for some time (probably since my days of playing Tomb Raider as a kid), and I was excited to finally be able to go there and see this main temple – the largest religious monument in the world – for myself.
Unfortunately I was left somewhat disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an awe inspiring place. I am always interested to see ancient architecture, and give me any temple, church or cathedral and I’m pretty happy to walk around and admire them even without a religious bone in my body. However, no matter how impressive this complex was, I was overwhelmed and very much taken about by just how touristy it is.
There were times when I was wandering around that I felt like this was a Cambodian version of Disneyland, with an uncomfortable commercial side of things overriding the beauty and grandeur that should be prevalent.
My excitement and anticipation prior to this trip seemed to fade away the more time I spent there, and it was only by finding a driver who could take me to some of the smaller, lesser visited temples that I could really start to enjoy the location for what I felt it should be, and wander around in relative solitude.
Perhaps it was my naivety prior to visiting here that made me disappointed. I hadn’t really expected to be visiting a mystical place that was shrouded in secrecy and guarded by monks, but I hadn’t really been prepared for the level of tourism that I faced, with Tuk Tuk drivers all touting for rides, the perfect English of the majority, the US dollar as the main currency, and the Hard Rock cafe just around the corner from my hotel.
Either way, it was within the first few hours that I started to feel that something wouldn’t be quite as I had hoped, and then this was solidified the following morning.
Getting a Tuk Tuk from the airport, I felt awesome finally being in Cambodia. Riding around the streets and watching kids playing on the side of the road, motorbikes moving past us carrying 3 generations of a family (or 40 dead chickens), and the run down shop fronts that are a world away from what I’m used to I was looking forward to my adventure. I dropped my bags off at the hotel and grabbed another Tuk Tuk to head to the complex and buy my pass for the days ahead. The place selling the passes was pretty busy, but before my trip I had read that this was the case and didn’t worry about it. 10 minutes later I was on my way and setting off to watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. After hiking up the hill for 10 minutes I found myself…um…nowhere near the temple but at the back of a pretty long queue. Eventually the queue became shorter and shorter, and I found myself climbing the stairs to the viewpoint, where two or three hundred other people seemed to be waiting.
I put this down to it being a lovely day…and thought that the rest of the trip couldn’t possibly be like this, so resigned myself to simply sitting and watching the sunset, doing a little bit of people watching, and shortly after sunset I headed back down the hill to get back in to Siem Reap.
The following morning I rose early, found myself a Tuk Tuk driver and headed on up to Angkor Wat for sunrise. The sun was due to come up sometime shortly after 6.30, so I got there in good time at 5.50 in order to get my spot. I assumed there would be myself and 5 other photographers there for sunrise, but something felt amiss when I arrived at the location and found myself walking alongside a mass of other people. Odd, I thought, that there are so many people here – when generally a sunrise is left to the hardcore photographers and typical tourists don’t stray out until later in the day. I did not get a spot beside the reflecting pool that day, and luckily the sunrise was uneventful. I resolved to getting there earlier tomorrow.
Te next day I left earlier and arrived on location around 5.15 in the morning. Again, I couldn’t believe how many people were there already, and though I was able to get a spot beside the lake/pond/whatever it was at the left hand side and not the spot I wanted. I set the camera up, but there were a heck of a lot of people that were in the shot. I opted to simply put my tripod in the water, roughly compose the image, and then sit on the bank using a shutter release to trigger the camera. I also opted to arrive earlier the next day.
The next day I arrived at 4:45am. I was the only person there, apart from those checking tickets, and they waved me past so that I could wait by the doors of the temple for opening time. Being dark, I mustn’t have seen the sign that stood near the doorway stating entry was not until 5am, and I walked onwards through this and quietly, and alone, to the reflecting pond. I found the spot I wanted, without anyone else in sight, and set up my camera – I was very pleased to be the first, and so far only, person on site. At 5.05 I was joined by about 30 people, by 5.15 I couldn’t see much behind me other than bodies.
I witnessed a lovely pink sunrise….about a mile to the right of the temple and very much out of camera.
The shot above is therefore from my second morning, with lots of people cropped out of it. Here’s the original two images I used for this shot.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Cambodia. I did, in many ways, enjoy the temples at the Angkor Complex. I feel very fortunate to have visited such a location. However, I do feel like I’m missing something when so many people say so many nice things about it. Each to their own, but for me there was something missing here.