Empires. The world has seen many empires come and go. No matter how powerful they were, they have all disappeared for various reasons and you can see the remains of them today if you willing to travel.
The tiny country of Cambodia in southeast Asia was home to one of humanity’s most powerful empires – the Khmers (802 to 1431 AD). They were ambitious people led by even more ambitious kings who wanted wanted to be worshiped by their subjects – so they declared themselves to be god kings. To demonstrate their status as such, they erected stone temples that were built on a massive scale – unlike anything one could imagine, even to this day. These temples dwarf most European cathedrals, even though the Khmers built them many centuries before. They were truly an advanced civilisation.
I recently had the privilege of visiting Siem Reap in northern Cambodia which is an experience I will never forget. The main reason for my visit was to see (and photograph) these magnificent structures – the other, to spend some time with the Cambodian people (still referred to as “Khmers”) who are some of the friendliest on the planet.
I spent a lot of time preparing for this trip as I was traveling a great distance and wanted to make sure I had everything I needed with me. The purpose of this article is to share my experience(s) so that photographers can prepare for their journey to this remarkable part of the world.
This article is in five sections:
As you are traveling to a remote, tropical part of the world, there are a few items you will want to make sure you have before you leave home:
Obtain a Cambodian Visa – All visitors to Cambodia require a visa, except for citizens of Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. The Cambodian government have an online e-visa program which makes getting a tourist visa (T-class) simple if you are arriving at one of the the two international airports (Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) or select border crossings. Just fill out your personal information online, upload a recent photograph and pay a $US 37.00 fee via credit card. Within three days you will receive your visa via email, however, I received mine within a day. Make sure you print two (2) copies of the e-visa and bring them with you to Cambodia (one copy is for entering the country, the other copy is surrendered when you leave).
The other option for tourists is to apply for a visa on arrival (VOA) after you land at the airport – it costs $US 30.00 plus you will need one passport photo (if you do not have one, they will scan the one in your passport for a $US 2.00 fee).
On most international flights into Cambodia, the airline staff will distribute the visa form to you. Fill it in and upon arrival, you will need to queue (prior to proceeding to immigration) at the VOA desk to apply for your T-class visa. Here you will surrender your passport and visa application, then you will be directed to wait in another area while your paperwork is being processed. Listen carefully as the Cambodian officials will call out something that resembles one of the names in your passport when your visa is ready – then you will be asked to pay a $USD 30.00 fee.
Once you have your passport (with tourist visa) in hand, head over to the immigration queue to be officially admitted to Cambodia, then collect your luggage. The whole thing might sound a bit complicated, however, it is a very easy process. Tourist visas are good for 30 days and can be extended for another 30 days if need be.
If you wish to stay longer than 30 days in Cambodia, I highly recommend reading this excellent article on the available options, specifically, the renewable ordinary visa (E-class).
Hat and Sunscreen – As Cambodia is in the tropics, the sun can get really intense, especially around noon. You will burn to a crisp like a fatty piece of bacon if you are not careful. I chose a wide brimmed hat as it kept the sun off of my neck and shaded my camera a bit. Many people use umbrellas to protect themselves. Keep in mind that when you visit an area of worship, be respectful and remove your hat before entering.
Mosquito Repellant – As I was in the Siem Reap area for my entire stay, I did not require malaria medication but there are still many mosquitoes. They will eat you alive if you do not use insect repellant plus they often carry Dengue Fever for which there is no preventative medication.
I kept a small bottle of deet based repellant with me at all times and would reapply it a couple times during the day as I was sweating profusely due to the extreme heat (at least 40C most days). I also made sure that I covered up as much as possible and used the repellant liberally to reduce the risk of being bitten by a Dengue Fever mosquito. From my research (which includes several discussions with Cambodian medical professionals), your chances of contracting Dengue Fever in Cambodia is much higher than malaria – I actually met someone who contracted it during my stay here. Prevention is the best medicine, so be safe and take the necessary precautions.
Comfortable walking shoes – At the temples, you will be walking long distances (several kilometres at times) on uneven stone paths. Your feet will be unhappy unless you are wearing comfortable and supportive footwear. This is one area where you don’t want to save money – buy the best shoes you can afford.
Hire a (tuk tuk) driver – I wanted to make sure that I had a driver arranged before I left home. You can book drivers via your hotel once you arrive, but I had a couple really great drivers recommended prior to my departure from home. I am an independent traveler and like to do my own research about a place so I usually don’t hire a guide unless there is a major language barrier.
What I found out was that the best drivers often have a great deal of knowledge about the temples and know the best time(s) to see each one to avoid the crowds. As a photographer, this was really important to me. Many tourists travel in tuk tuks. You can also book an air conditioned car or bus, but I believe using a tuk tuk is the way to go. They are inexpensive to hire for the day plus you get great views when you are riding around. You can find recommendations for tuk tuk drivers on many websites (like TripAdvisor) and as mentioned, your hotel can book one for you if need be.
Note that the drivers are not allowed to accompany you into the temples – you will need to hire a separate guide (about $US 25.00 to 30.00 per day) in addition to your driver if you desire commentary as you walk through the site. I found that a bit odd but those are the rules.
Visit from October to March – As Cambodia is in the tropics, saying that it is hot is an understatement. Traveling in the dry season (October to March) means that you will minimize the chance of rain (and intense humidity) plus it will be cooler than the rest of the year. I visited in February and the temperatures often got up to 45C. Several staff at my hotel told me that if I visited later in the year (April or May), the heat would be unbearable. Yikes. I struggled enough as it was – I could not imagine the weather getting any hotter, but it can.
Learn about Cambodian etiquette before you leave – Cambodians understand that visitors will not be familiar with most of their customs. However, if you make the effort, it will help you gain their trust and overall, you will have a much better experience. Here is a great article that helped me understand some of the Khmer customs.
Bring good condition US dollar notes – The official currency of Cambodia is the Riel but as it not convertible outside of the country, most people use (and accept) US dollars. The exchange rate is fixed at around 4,000 Riel to the US dollar. You will use US dollars for most of your transactions and Riel is only given for small change. If you do bring US dollars with you, make sure they are in good condition as they will not be accepted if they are torn or have marks on them (creases are OK).
There are many bank machines in Siem Reap which will dispense US dollars, however, I found that most ATMs often charge a fee of up to $US 5.00 to make a withdrawal from a foreign bank (keep in mind, that does not even include any fees your bank at home might charge for foreign transactions). The exception to this is Canadia Bank which charged me nothing, so if you plan to make several cash withdrawals while in the country, keep this in mind as these fees add up over time.
Credit cards are accepted at hotels and other tourist establishments, but there is often a surcharge (3% typically) to cover their bank fees.
Buy a good book (or two) on Cambodia – I purchased two books for this trip – a general country guide plus a pocket guide. I especially liked the pocket guide as it contained useful descriptions of the temples and sights in Siem Reap, yet it was small/light which meant I always had it with me.
Whether you are a well seasoned professional or just a beginner, anyone who enjoys using a camera is in for a photographic treat. There is so much to see and photograph here that you might suffer from sensory overload, as I did. As the focus (sorry, bad pun) of my trip was photography, here are some useful tips for anyone traveling with a camera to this region:
Obtain a one, three or seven day pass – There are three options for a pass to Angkor National Park to see the temples:
Your driver will take you to the ticket booth where they will take your photo for the pass. They are not transferable and if you are caught using someone elses pass, you will have to pay a hefty fine (they check your pass at each temple and quite thoroughly too). The three and seven day passes are for consecutive days by default. However, if you ask at the time of purchase, you can request that the three day pass be valid for a week (i.e. three individual days of temple visits during a seven day period) or the seven day pass be valid for a month (i.e. seven individual days of temple visits during a month long period).
Also, if you purchase your pass after 5:00 PM on any day, you can get a free sunset viewing at the temples that day as you are not required to activate the pass to do so.
Keep your gear to a minimum – The Cambodian heat (and humidity) is beyond description at times, but I was forewarned about this. Carrying a 10 kg backpack in this heat will drain your energy in no time at all. Another thing to keep in mind – sometimes you have to climb up very steep and uneven stone steps of the temples. Often, there are no handrails, so do everything you can to keep your balance because if you fall, you can seriously injure yourself. It is difficult to maintain your balance when you have a lot of weight on your back or shoulders.
I observed many people using DSLRs and large lenses but they often looked quite weary. Most camera systems now are extremely competent, so you will have to decide for yourself what suits you best and how much weight/bulk you are willing to schlep around in the extreme heat.
I decided to bring an APS-C mirrorless camera kit with me that consists of a:
This made for a nice, light kit (about 3 kg including the bag and accessories) with excellent image quality. Everything fit perfectly in my Think Tank Turnstyle 10 – it is a great bag for a working photographer as you do not have to remove it to access your gear.
As I tend to see the world from a photojournalist’s perspective, I often used the Fujifilm X100s (with its fixed 23mm f/2 lens) and X-E2 with the 60mm lens – I really like using the 35mm/90mm (equivalent) field of view. In fact, I shot over 80% of my images with this combination alone. The other lenses came in handy once in a while, but mostly stayed in my bag.
There were times I wished I had my Fujifilm 55-200mm zoom lens for more reach, but they were few and far between. Having said that, I met people who shot everything at the temples with their wide angle zoom lens (typically 16-35mm) on a DSLR. It is all a matter of how you see the world and the perspective you bring to it.
My best advice – if you can, try and keep your kit as light (and compact) as possible given the heat and terrain you will be navigating.
Beware of condensation – If you have hired an air conditioned car (with driver), you may experience condensation on your camera gear when you exit the cold car and walk through the hot, humid air. If the condensation gets excessive, you will need to wipe the moisture off of your lenses. Avoid changing lenses as your camera gear warms up since you do not want condensation to form on your sensor. As I was traveling by tuk tuk, I did not encounter this issue as my gear stayed at the ambient outdoor temperature all of the time.
Dust, dust and more dust – Cambodia during the dry season gets quite dusty. I have been to Africa four times and I encountered more dust in Cambodia. One of the drawbacks when traveling by tuk tuk is that you are exposed to this dust all of the time. Be very careful when changing lenses and try your best to keep dust out of your camera bag. I wiped down my equipment every night with a microfiber cloth plus I had to wet clean my sensor a couple of times to get rid of all of the dust bunnies. Did I say it was really dusty?
Ask for permission – I am of the opinion that portraits are “given” to a photographer by the subject – they are not “taken.” The Khmers are very photogenic people and will enjoy posing for you. Most people speak some English so try and engage them in light conversion first before pressing your shutter release. If you can form even the slightest connection with them, it will result in a much better portrait. It is important to respect this when photographing the nuns and monks. Always ask for their permission and place a little money (usually $1.00) in their donation box afterwards.
Angkor Wat is only one of the many (and massive) temples built by Khmer Kings over several centuries. It is the largest and best restored, but you will want to visit the others whilst in the area. As there is a lot to see, I have attempted to summarize my experience here – plus a suggest few other places worth visiting in and around Siem Reap.
Early to bed, early to rise – As you probably know, sunrise and sunset are often the best times for photography. During the day, the light gets quite harsh (plus it gets really hot) so keep that in mind. I made a point of being at certain temples before sunrise and others at sunset. Here are my recommendations:
Make the trip to Banteay Srei – Banteay Srei is a very small temple and the only one not commissioned by a Khmer King, but rather, by the women. The carvings in the pink stone are simply amazing, especially when you see the detail in them. It is a about an hour tuk tuk ride from Siem Reap and your driver will charge you extra to travel here. Try to arrive as close to sunrise as possible as the carvings glow beautifully in the morning light. The tour buses start arriving about an hour after sunrise.
Make the trip to Beng Mealea – This temple is the best example of the jungle being completely out of control. The temple was not restored and the jungle has taken over much of the site. It is about a two hour tuk tuk ride from Seam Reap and you will have to pay an additional fee to your driver to travel here. Also, the $US 5.00 admission fee is not covered by your pass to Angkor National Park, but it is well worth the time and extra expense. Try and arrive as early as you can – in addition to the morning light being lovely, the hordes of tourists start arriving about 9:30 AM.
This was one of the most fascinating temples that I saw during my trip. I encountered many mosquitoes here, so be sure to cover yourself up and use your insect repellant.
Angkor Wat is amazing and overwhelming – I visited Angkor Wat for the first time on the fourth day of my trip and quite frankly, I was overwhelmed. This temple commissioned by King Suryavarman II is beyond description. When my tuk tuk driver asked me how I liked it, I said, “It is too big.” There is so much to see as the complex is massive and every square centimetre of wall space is adorned with carvings. The Bas Reliefs will simply blow you away with the sheer scale and artistry. The planning (and labour) it took to build this complex is astounding and pure genius.
I would recommend spending several hours here and taking it all in slowly as there is so much to see. I ended up viewing it over two separate half days due to its size. Be aware that this is the most crowded temple, especially at sunrise and sunset. I thought that by waking up very early, I would have the place all to myself so that I would be able to get that unique, award winning photo. Yeah, right. I was far from being alone as shown in the photos below – there were literally hundreds of people fumbling around in the dark when I arrived at 5:00am (don’t forget to bring a flashlight with you). It was quite entertaining watching them jockeying for the ideal position, with a few getting quite aggressive at times. Someone actually got pushed into the reflecting pool the morning I visited, but that is the exception and not the norm.
Here is a tip for you – after sunrise is over, most of the crowd returns to their hotels in Siem Reap to have breakfast which is a good time to see the complex without too many people – not to forget, it is much cooler. Just note that by 10:00 AM, it gets extremely hot at Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat at sunrise on a a very cloudy morning, Cambodia
The crowd at sunrise, Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The crowd at sunrise, Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Phnom Bakeng is overrated. A lot of people come here for the sunset as you can view the evening light pouring over the rice fields and surrounding area. If you look carefully through the trees, you will also get a glimpse of Angkor Wat in the distance (you will need a long lens for this, I recommend 200mm). It takes about 20 minutes to climb the hill, but be forewarned: you will have to share the view at least a 1,000 people.
It was pure chaos when I was there – I don’t regret going, but I wouldn’t do it again.
Choose two major temples to visit each day (and fit in smaller ones as time permits) – What I am really telling you here is not to rush through the temples, especially as a photographer. This area of the world has an astounding number of historical sites. If you try and cram them all into in one or two days of sightseeing, everything will become a blur as each temple will eventually look like a pile of rocks and you will leave feeling “ruined.” Don’t do that – this is a really special place.
I spent a total of seven days of my time in Cambodia visiting temples and went at a fairly slow pace – keep in mind that the heat is exhausting. By giving yourself extra time, you can revisit the temples that you really liked at optimal times. So, take your time and enjoy what you are seeing.
Visit the Psar Leu Market in Siem Reap – This is one of the biggest and best southeast Asian markets and it is in Siem Reap. It was beyond chaotic and I loved it. You might have to dodge the odd motorcycle (or seven) while walking, but there is an incredible amount of fresh produce and many interesting people which made for great photo opportunities. If you show up after a rainstorm (like I did), there will be mud everywhere.
Try to walk around the outer perimeter of the market as the light tends to be best there (it is quite dark in the interior)
Visit Wat Bo Monastery in Siem Reap – This a quaint monastery along a dirt road in central Siem Reap. I spent hours here and found the monks to be incredibly friendly – I even spent two hours speaking to one as we found each other fascinating. I love the saffron coloured robes and it was amazing how many people waved and smiled at me. It was wonderful to feel this welcome.
Visit the Tonle Sap – The Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. At the peak of the wet season, it doubles in size. There are several floating villages with houses on stilts and it is well worth a visit.
The Tonle Sap is about a 45 minute tuk tuk ride from Siem Reap and a 90 minute boat ride around the villages is $US 25.00 per person. Do keep in mind that if you visit during the peak of dry season, the water levels may be quite low and as such, the lake/villages may not be as picturesque.
Here are a few things to keep in mind that are not photography related, but are still important for an enjoyable (and safe) trip:
Drink plenty of water – You will dehydrate quickly in the Cambodian heat, so it is important to keep up your fluid levels. Bottled water is available everywhere (even at the entrances to the temples) and the price is reasonable.
DO NOT DRINK THE TAP WATER as you will be asking for trouble if you do. BTW, brush your teeth with bottled water, not tap water. I learned that one the hard way.
Children at the temples selling goods – As soon as you step out of your car or tuk tuk, you will be inundated with children trying to sell you postcards, books, etc. They are harmless, though persistent, and a firm “no” usually works. Some children will follow you for a long time before they give up their sales pitch. Unless you are serious about making a purchase, do not engage them in conversation or ask questions about an item. If you do, you’d better get your wallet out.
Watch out for “impromptu guides” – As you walk around certain temples, a friendly young Cambodian gentleman will approach you, start discussing the history of the temple, tell you where to take “good” photos, and then demand a tip for his services since he will claim you just hired him as a guide. I knew about this before I arrived in Cambodia, so when I was approached, I would state upfront that I did not need a guide and thank him for the offer. Be firm but polite. You will then be left alone.
Watch out for the “baby milk” scam – While you are in central Siem Reap (Pub Street where many restaurants are located), a woman will approach you (carrying a baby) and say that they do not want any money from you, but perhaps you can buy them some baby formula. They will then take you to a store where you will purchase it for them.
After you leave, she returns the baby formula to the store and will receive half of the money you spent with the shop owner keeping the balance. As the baby formula doesn’t go bad, they just keep selling it over and over again to the unsuspecting.
Wave and smile at the children outside of the tourist areas – I was fortunate enough to have my tuk tuk driver take me to several small villages that tourists do not visit. No one tried to sell me anything and when I waved to the children, I instantly made new friends. The adults in the stands where they sold their goods often gave me sweets and fruit – and wanted nothing in return. They are unbelievably warm and friendly. The best experience that I had on this trip was getting out of the tourist areas and getting to know the Khmer people in the villages a little bit better.
Take a nap – There were some days when the heat and humidity were unbearable (for me). For a small surcharge (typically $US 3.00), your tuk tuk driver will take you back to your hotel in Siem Reap for a break and you can resume your tour later in the afternoon when it is cooler.
So, on extremely hot days, my driver dropped me off at at the hotel at 11:00 AM where I had a nice lunch, took a nap, and then he returned at 3:00 PM to pick me up.
That was a much better way to spend the hottest part of the day. Heat stroke is not fun.
Cover yourself up at religious sites – Make sure that your shoulders (scarfs don’t count) and knees are covered if you plan to enter a religious site, such as the central (and tallest) tower at Angkor Wat. If you aren’t covered up, you won’t be allowed in. It is that simple.
Tipping – I was told that the average Cambodian makes approximately $US 2.00 per day. Yes, you read that correctly. When I went to restaurants or for a massage, I usually left $1.00 as a tip which means a lot to someone making meager wages. I know most Cambodians do not expect it, but they really appreciate it when you do. My tuk tuk driver was with me for six days and treated me extraordinarily well, so I was quite generous with him.
The bottom line is that if you receive really great service, a modest tip is always appreciated.
Avoid giving children candy – At some of the temples, you will be approached by children asking for candy. It is not a good idea to do so as they probably don’t have access to dental care plus they should be in school (and not begging). I saw many tourists give the children candy and yes, their teeth were not in good shape. Of course, this is up to you but there are consequences in doing so.
Get a massage – Walking around in the extreme heat carrying a small backpack for hours makes one tired and very sore. Cambodian massage is inexpensive, about $US 6.00 for an hour of heaven. I ended up getting massages on the last four days of my stay and my body really thanked me for it.
At first, I was nervous about finding a “reputable” place (as a solo male walking around, you might be approached by someone offering a “special” or “boom boom” massage) but there are many reputable establishments in Siem Reap. A fellow tourist that I met went to a spa at a 5 star hotel and was offered something else other than a massage, so be careful.
A rule of thumb: if your massage therapist has a lot of makeup caked on her face, her priority probably isn’t massage.
Cambodia is a nation that is rebuilding. Despite the greatness and grandeur of the Khmer Empire, recent history was cruel to its people. What I find remarkable is the kindness and serenity they show towards others despite all of this – it is nothing short of miraculous.
The best advice I can give to anyone visiting Cambodia and her ancient temples is as follows:
Cambodia is a place that will impact you in the most positive way. I was inspired and humbled by what I experienced during my assignment.
I definitely plan to return and hope to do so sooner than later. Until then, I will always have very fond memories of this distant land.
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