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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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