The Temples of Angkor: Part I

Two days straight.  It’s 3:50am.  A strange noise steals our attention to sleep.  The first day it was the alarm waking us to make sure we made the bus to Incheon Airport.  Any other mornings only the apocalypse would be worthy of such an early rise.  But we had to make it to Cambodia.  Twenty-four hours later, the alarm made sure we made it to Angkor Wat.  It was imperative that we marked watching the sun rise over this iconic temple off our bucket list.

When we arrived in Siem Reap last night around six pm,  the guesthouse we were staying at arranged our pick-up from the airport with Mr. Tong.  After spending a day on planes and in airports, it was refreshing to sit in the back of the tuk tuk while the cool evening air welcomed us to a jungle climate.  There’s nothing quite like changing seasons in twelve hours.  We left the winter behind in Korea, and embraced the summer in Cambodia.

Before I get to my attempts at a romantic description of the sunrise over Angkor Wat, let me just take a moment to say how impressed we were with our hotel.  We always make it a goal to travel cheap, so when we booked our room at Motherhome Inn for about 30 USD a night (mid-range price during peak-season for backpacker budgets), we weren’t expecting much.  But we received five-star service.  Their hospitality was unlike any we’ve experienced in any paid lodging.  Upon arrival we were greeted with smiles, cold drinks, and ice-cold damp towels.  The smiles were always on, and new towels were always handed to us anytime we came back from exploring.  The food was great, the whole establishment was immaculate, and the front desk was beyond helpful at accommodating our questions and requests.

OK, enough of selling you on our sleeping arrangements.  Back to that inhumane hour before the sun rises:

In our groggy state we stumbled out the front doors of Motherhome Inn, and were surprised to meet Mr. Tong again.  This time it was 5am instead of 6pm.  Before we could enter any of the temples of Angkor, we had to buy passes.  The money generated by these passes helps support the ongoing work to maintain and restore these wonders of the world.  After making our purchase, Mr. Tong took us to the west gate of Angkor Wat.  On arrival, it seemed our romanticism would be dashed by the hundreds of other tourist hoping to see the new day begin.  In the back of my photographer’s mind I wondered: “How the heck do the pros always get those people-less iconic photos?”

The night was a moonless black, and crossing the ancient mote would have been difficult if not for the general flow of tourists.  Once across and through the gate, we found a spot void of people and parked ourselves.  While waiting for the light of day, we ate the breakfast our Inn prepared for us–a tasty sandwich and some fruit.

As the sun’s rays began to pierce the atmosphere, the low-lying clouds were lit up below with brilliant shades of pink and orange.  With my camera already set up on its tripod, I began to fire my first Angkorian temple shots.  I’ll let my photos describe what my literary inability cannot:

Brilliant Pink Over Angkor Wat

Pink fades to orange as A New Day Begins at Angkor Wat

After the sun was thirty minutes above the horizon, we decided to take our guide book’s advice to leave the crowds behind at Angkor Wat and head to Angkor Thom to see the famous Bayon in early morning light.  As it turned out, our book was right.

There were few people when we arrived at Bayon temple, the exact center of the massive Angkor Thom city.  Yet the absence of people didn’t deter from the feeling that we were being watched.  No matter what angle we observed, there was at least one, and usually more, giant stone faces looking down upon us.  To step back and take it all in was to be under the many prying glares of the self-proclaimed god-king whose face they resemble.

Early Morning at Bayon

Sun on Stone Faces


Stone Faces Show Age Too

Bayon's Vaulted Passages

Bayon's Apsara Dancer

An hour was really all we had with the cool morning light and mostly vacant temple before the crowds started to show up.  We stuck around only a little longer to explore the upper tiers of Bayon before making a B-line for Prasat Sour Prat.  These twelve laterite towers are just east of Bayon, on the other side of the main road that runs north and south through Angkor Thom.

Laterite Towers & A Woman on a Bike

Prasat Sour Prat

I try to avoid shooting in midday, as this is usually the worst light, with the least interesting shadows, so by the time noon came around we hopped into the tuk tuk and headed back to Motherhome Inn.  We were also tired from two mornings of 4am rising, and hungry for lunch.  We ate a great meal by the pool of our Inn, then relaxed in the poolside lounge chairs until the sun started to make its way to more interesting angles.

Two-thirty was our cue to meet Mr. Tong again.  It became apparent after we tipped him for picking us up from the airport that he wanted to do all our driving for the week.  Which was fine with us because Mr. Tong had great advice on where to go at what times, and he was incredibly friendly.  His safe driving (relative to tuk tuk standards) put our minds at ease when navigating some of the more pothole-filled and congested roads.

Our first stop on the afternoon circuit were two temples that sit right across the street from each other just outside the eastern gate of Angkor Thom.  Being that many tourist only stay in Siem Reap for two to three days, these two temples are often forgotten in order to see the more major sites.  Fortunately for us, we had five full days, and enough time to stop at these less touristed locations.  By three o’ clock in Cambodia, in late January, my favorite time to shoot was beginning.  This is the time photographers like to call the ‘golden hours’ because the light is warm and at such angles so as to create dramatic atmospheres.  It was the perfect time to shoot Chau Say Tevoda and Thommanon.

Chao Say Tevoda

A Nun at Chao Say Tevoda

Doorways of Thommanon

Moving on from Chau Say Tevoda and Thommanon, Mr. Tong drove us to Ta Keo which is unique because it was never fully finished.  “According to inscriptions the monument was struck by lighting during construction which may have been a bad omen, leading to its abandonment (Lonely Planet, Angkor Wat & Siem Reap: p. 83).”  It was easy to recognize Ta Keo’s unfinished state due to the fact that most of its stone work was lacking the intricate stone reliefs that grace the Angkor temples.

A Young Boy Sells us Postcards for $1 At Ta Keo

Jill Climbs the Steep stairs of Ta Keo

The Unfinished Remains of Ta Keo

As unique as Ta Keo was, it is left in the dust by the particularly amazing Ta Prohm.  This ancient temple from the second half of the twelfth century has been allowed to crumble under the slow recapture of nature.  It is an atmospheric paradise for a photographer such as myself.  Giant hundreds-of-years-old trees cling to roofs and crevices, slowly strangling this fine Angkorian monument.  After sixty minutes of shooting, and loosing light fast (the sun sets around 6:30 pm in Cambodia at this time of year), it was clear that we needed to mark this as one of the temples to see more than once.

An Ancient Wall, and a Younger Tree at Ta Phrom

The Iconic Tree at Ta Phrom

Light is fading in Ta Phrom

It’s hard to venture out to try new restaurants when your own lodging makes such great food.  In the evening, sitting outside Motherhome Inn by candle light,  we ordered an awesome three-course meal (drinks included) for seven USD each!  The quality and amount of food we received could have easily fetched forty dollars a person in many western nations.  We talked over our favorite experiences of the day while enjoying our entrees and went to bed satisfied by the days events, and excited for those to come.

Sign up to follow this blog and find out when new posts are made about our trip to Cambodia!  The Temples of Angkor: Part II is coming soon!

235 thoughts on “The Temples of Angkor: Part I

  1. Andy,
    I enjoyed reading this blog. It was a good read almost like I expereinced you and Jill’s adventures also. Loved the pictures as always too. Its cool how that tree kinda grew around the stone wall. Looking forward to Part II 🙂

    • Thank you! Bayon is iconic, and I took sooo many photos there. The faces are everywhere. We went back a day later in the late afternoon for more shots–they’ll be in Part II.

  2. I love your photos! My family is from Cambodia and we went back to visit in 2005. Your images totally captured the temples. I can’t wait to see the rest! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Ive been to Cambodia twice and both times went to the temples. They are simply amazing! Thanks for posting this. It brought back great memories.

    • That’s awesome! I’m sure the Cambodians were grateful for your service. We actually met some people there who were doing aid work too! Thanks for your comments, they are appreciated.

    • It seems Cambodia always has its way of making people love the country. It was AMAZING. I bet November was even better to visit than January. There were so many tourists when we went in peak season. Thank you for your comments!

    • Your work is stunning! You’ve got a great ability to capture not just the moments of people’s weddings, but also their stories. Wedding photography would be awesome with Angkor temples as the backdrop! Thank you for your comments!

    • Thank you for your comments! I’m glad you like Bayon’s Vaulted Passage. That one was more difficult to capture because I had to take a long exposure, and I had to wait until there were no tourists walking through the image! But I was grateful it turned out!

  4. I visited Siem Reap October last year. I enjoyed my stay there, visiting the temples, also toured the city of Siem Reap. Alas, I was one of those “2 days tourists”. Cambodia is incredible, I’m planning to take my family there in the future (I was attending an intendedly-crossing-the weekend regional meeting of my office).

  5. Very nice work, crisp details and interesting lighting / layout. Thank you for sharing. I hope that I soon can have an amazing travel experience as well. I am writing of my last trip, a romantic adventure. I was living on a tent on a beach for 5 months with a woman from Spain. Amazing time I wish I had more photos. Cheers!

    • …and not only did they build, they beautified! The intricacies in the stone base-reliefs are everywhere and stunning–like nothing they do today. Thank you for your comments!

  6. Amazing photos. I look forward to part 2. We are in China and Angkor is on our Bucket List of places to see before moving on. Any other travel tips to offer? Funny just last week I wrote a blog about where we would like to travel… traveler’s bucket list. This post really makes me want to go there more than ever!

    • Thank you! Depending on how long you’re there, make a list of the Angkor temples you absolutely want to see as there are soooo many. If you have time on your hands, you should check out some of the lesser visited temples as they’ll have less people around. If you can, I would go on off season to avoid the crowds at places like Angkor Wat.

    • Yes, before we went I wasn’t sure how large the Angkor site was, but it spans a extremely large area of land. When there we definitely felt like we were in the middle of a once great kingdom. Thank you!

  7. WOW Big picures really take you to the place, the photos are great. I bet it took you long to edit these photos and choose the ones to post… amazing work! And nice country!

    • Yes, I think it helps to have the photos take up more of the screen, that way people can really be engaged by them. It took me about a week just to edit my photos from .raw for the pics I took on the first day! If I keep on the same pace, it will take me 8 or 9 weeks to get through them all! Thank you, I’m glad you liked the post!

      • yes, editing is the hardest part of the process and sometimes becomes very subjective… you can get attached to a photo because of its meaning or for how difficult it was to get and not for it’s beauty… not your case here all photos are great. see you around.

    • Thank you! As of now, I don’t have a way to sell my photography online, but I’ve been doing a lot of research into how to connect a small online store to this blog. Check back for the changes in the near future.

    • Thank you! You should visit if you ever have the chance! It looks like you’re having a great time in Qatar! You’re blog is really informative about this region of the world–a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time!

      • Really appreciate the good words regarding my blog! I highly recommend a visit to the general region. Besides enjoying Qatar, Oman is a great place to visit! Keep up your wonderful work; you have a great eye! Your photos are stunning, and do make me want to visit Angkor Wat!

  8. Beautiful photos! And you managed to get your ‘people-less’ shots after all. One question for our future trip. Do you consider your hotel kid friendly? We will probably go when our kids are 3 years old.

    • Thank you! As I don’t yet have children, I’m not the best person to answer this question, but I’ll try. If you’re concerned with safety or cleanliness, don’t be. Everything is up to modern standards. If noise is your concern, don’t let that bother you either as Motherhome Inn sits back off the main street. Their food menu spans eastern and western cuisine if your kids are picky eaters, AND it’s good! They have a nice clean pool as well if they want to have a little fun swimming. Overall, I think it is kid-friendly. But if you email them, they are really good about responding with any other questions:


      I hope this helps!

  9. Your photos are wonderful. Haven’t seen many photos with high quality like them before.

    Angkor Temple also reminds me of Borobudur in Indonesia. They are amazing places, with so much art and culture inside it, and moreover, remembering that they were built when technology was nearly non-existent. Too bad Borobudur’s a little damaged in the huge Earthquake in Indonesia last year.

    • I haven’t been to Borobudur, but it sounds wonderful. It is sad that the earthquakes did some damage. That is one thing I was thinking a lot about when there: how the heck they built all these massive temples before modern technology!? Thank you for your kind words!

  10. Reblogged this on Highways and Hallowed Halls and commented:
    When I think about Hallowed Halls … the Temples of Angkor Wat are a prima example. Even photos of these buildings are so breathtaking that they feel more George Lucas than reality. The trees are also remarkable. I will go here some day. I have never reblogged something before, but these photos are amazing and definitely deserve a wider audience. Enjoy!

  11. Pingback: The Temples of Angkor: Part I « Till We Have Faces………………………… « current affairs

  12. all the “wats” have been on our hit list for some time now. We love photography. Chao Say Tevoda is my favorite shot here, I really like the toning you gave the shot, but all are wonderful. Particularly like the bright yellow modern umbrella amongst the ruins, and the shot looking up the stairs.
    Thanks for taking us there, until we can get there.

    • In all these particular shots I’m using the Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM. It works great for wide angles and also stays crisp throughout its zoom range. The only downside is that its f-stop doesn’t go below 3.5, so for lower light situations, I almost always used my tripod. Thank you for the compliment!

  13. Thank you so much for this post! What wonderful photos and narrative! I hope that I can some day visit this area. Your information about the lodging and meals with prices was very helpful, too! 😀

  14. Recently went to Siem Reap and Angkor Temples as well and you captured them beautifully! They truly are so amazing though, it’s such a great experience. Btw, while you were in Siem Reap, did you get to visit Touich restaurant? Best eat out we had while we were there. Fantastic photos, hope they help you chronicle many more of your travels and experiences! 🙂

  15. Fabulous photographs that bring back fond memories of my visit on 15 April 2011, (see my blog for that day.) I compliment you on the patience to pick the optimum time of day to get the best light, it has paid off as the results show. My efforts were much more modest, limited by schedule and equipment, an iPhone 3GS. I look forward to further installments.

  16. Thank you for sharing your trip. I loved the photos (LIGHT IS FADING IN TA PHROM) is now my new wallpaper. I love the moss green on the stone wall.

    If you get a chance to watch a specific film (In the mood for love) – watch it all the way to the end. It has significance to your blog, and its a great film.

    Thanks again for sharing. Fantastic photography.

  17. Lovely. Where in Korea were you? I lived in Seoul, near Noryangjin fish market. I didn’t do much traveling outside the country (though I did go to Japan once), but the traveling within the country was pretty astounding — there are so many temples, ancient sites, and so much beautiful scenery. I’m glad I got to experience that. If you get a chance, I highly recommend the temple on the sea in Busan — called Yonggungsa. I’ll be following your blog!

  18. Wow! I went there a couple of months ago but I couldn’t take such beautiful photos! The temples were all overwhelmingly spectacular but I didn’t know how to find a good angle to take photos. Well done! =D

  19. There are moments when photographs can make me scream like a mad woman – looking at these photos make me want to scream in the middle of this rainy night!!! These photos are overwhelming that make me want to be in this place as the sun rises tomorrow. I will be going to Cambodia next month and this blog post definitely increases the level of my excitement to the optimum level!!. 😀

  20. Pingback: Photography Weekly Digest for the Week of 2/10/12 to 2/16/12 « Inspired Vision Studios

  21. Pingback: ABC Award – not just for family anymore « Canadiantravelbugs's Blog

  22. Pingback: Phu Quoc’s Colors « Till We Have Faces…………………………

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