We haven’t been writing much about our experience in Cambodia, and we are about to leave this country: tomorrow morning we will go to Vietnam where we plan to spend more or less 3 weeks before continuing on to Laos. But we have some posts about Cambodia almost ready that will probably be out in the next few days. Also we did so much shooting in these last weeks, and we’re really looking forward to sharing some pictures showing the beauty of the places we’ve visited and the people we’ve met.
We arrived in Cambodia on the 18th of January, after a couple of days in Bangkok, where we met Ewa and Antoine, two great friends of ours who were at the beginning of their three week trip in Southeast Asia. We sorted our Cambodian e-visa and the four of us took a bus to Aranya Prathet, which is the Thai side of the border crossing. Once we cleared the customs, we walked on to Poi Pet, and finally entered Cambodia.
Because Antoine had done his homeworks, we managed to avoid any possible scam or annoyance and everything went pretty smooth. I’m not sure these border scams are frequent nowadays but reportedly until a few years ago experiences like the one told on this blog were possible.
In Poi Pet we were accompanied by a friendly policeman to a free shuttle bus which brought us to the nearest bus station. From there we took a taxi to Siem Reap. The taxi was probably the wisest choice, because its price shared among the four of us, ended up equalling the price of a bus.
The road to Siem Reap run through the countryside with its immense rice paddies interspersed with tiny villages made of wooden huts standing on tall poles or pillars sticking out of the ground. The view inspired such a peacefulness that before she could realize, Romana fell asleep. When she woke up we were already in town and she said she felt a little bit disappointed with the visible impact of tourism: Golf courses, 5 star hotels, clubs, clubs and more clubs (including Irish pubs!)
We managed to find a nice and cheap guesthouse, off the main streets in a quiet area. Well, at least quiet until 5.30 am, when the temple next door would start playing loud Cambodian traditional music, but I guess we got used to loud music coming out of temples, when we were in India 🙂
Siem Reap is the gateway to the stunning Angkor temples built during the Khmer empire, between the 9th and 13th century. Angkor is the reflection of the highest point ever touched by the Khmer civilization, and it looks like in 2007, an international team of researchers, after various studies, concluded that Angkor had been the largest preindustrial city in the world. No wonder the area is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Angkor Wat is the first temple on the way from Siem Reap, then the next big complex, further ahead from there, is called Angkor Thom, which is where the other famous temple, the Bayon is situated. Continuing after Angkor Thom there are other complexes, but they are quite a few kilometers away.
There are different ways to visit the area, including cycling, hiring a rickshaw or a motorbike with a driver (it looks like you’re not allowed to drive the motorbike yourself), or going with an organized tour. We cycled on the first day and went with a Rickshaw on the second and third day.
With so many temples out there you really need time to enjoy them and soak them up. Or else you can go and tick the boxes, but then you won’t be able to appreciate their beauty and their atmosphere. Visiting the temples can also be physically challenging as most temples have steep staircases and you need to be really fit if you want to keep climbing on them all day.
Your ticket to Angkor can be a treat to your budget if you’re travelling like us, but I suppose it won’t be a problem for those who are on vacation for one or two weeks. The best option in my opinion is to buy the three day ticket, with non-consecutive days. This ticket costs the same as the three day ticket (currently 40$) with consecutive days, but it gives you more flexibility.
Someone may well tell you that midday is the best part of the day to visit the temples, because there are no organized tours around, but at that time the sun is too high and too strong and if you are into photography you know that that light will compromise the quality of your shots.
If you want to take good pictures, make sure you read carefully your guide, ask for advice, or just study the map to figure out when you get the best light in each temple you’re planning to visit. For example, Angkor Wat is worth visiting at dawn (we did that on the third day) because the sun rises just behind it, creating blazes of orange and red in the sky, which make a perfect backdrop for a silhouette. Many photographers also take advantage of the pond on the left hand side, to create compositions that include the reflection of the temple on the water. I couldn’t resist myself and had to take one of those compositions myself 🙂
If you go to Siem Reap, make sure you visit Bayon in Angkor Thom, with its 216 faces, and Ta Phrom, also nearby, which is considered to be the most photogenic temple in the area. The distinctive characteristic of Ta Phrom are its spung trees whose enormous roots interweave with the structure of the temple itself. Ta Phrom was also used a few years ago as a location for some scenes of Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie.
Because it is impossible to organize your days in Angkor in order to have the perfect light at each temple – of course unless you are very patient or someone pays you to do the job – I ended up taking a lot of terrible pictures. Nonetheless there are a few shots we are particularly proud of, including portraits of people we met along the way. Here they are, I hope you enjoy them.