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. Keep in mind as you read this that I spent all of my time (nine days) in the Siem Reap area of Cambodia, which is a much longer visit than most.
This article is in four 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 your visa very easy if you are arriving at any 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 the $USD 25.00 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 entry into the country, the other copy is surrendered when you leave).
You can also apply for a visa when you arrive at the airport (or border crossing if coming from a neighbouring country) but you will need to bring a passport photo with you and stand in line for an undetermined period of time. Either way, it is a very easy process.
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.
Comfortable walking shoes – At the temples, you will be walking long distances (several kilometres at times) over uneven stone paths. Your feet will be quite 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 to me before I left.
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.
I hired a gentleman named Mr. Pit Savuth who was beyond fantastic – I cannot say enough great things about him. He is a tuk tuk driver that knows just as much as any competent guide plus he went out of his way to make sure I accomplished everything I wanted to do. He came highly recommended to me and I am glad I booked his services.
You will find recommendations for other 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 mid September to early March – As Cambodia is in the tropics, it is very hot. Traveling in the dry season (September 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 late 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 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.
Credit cards are accepted at hotels and other tourist establishments, but there is often a surcharge (3% typically) for 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.
As the focus (I know, bad pun) of this trip was photography, here are some useful tips for any photographer traveling 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 Cambodian heat.
I decided to bring my mirrorless camera kit with me that consists of a:
This made for a nice, light kit (about 2 kg) with excellent image quality. Everything fit perfectly (with room to spare for my video light and accessories) in my Think Tank Sling-O-Matic 10 which is a great bag for a working photographer (as I did not have to remove the bag to access other gear, change lenses, etc.).
The lenses that I used the most were my Fujifilm 18-55mm f/2.8~4 zoom (27mm to 82mm equivalent), 35mm f/1.4 prime (52mm equivalent) and 60mm f/2.4 (90mm equivalent). The 14mm f/2.8 (21mm equivalent) came in handy for really wide shots, but it was my least used lens. My 18mm f/2 (27mm equivalent) stayed at home as the 18-55mm zoom lens is sharper at 18mm (IMHO). 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.
Early to rise, early to bed – As you 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 big tour buses 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 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 is astounding and took 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. Here is a tip for you – just after sunrise, 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.
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 temples and ruins. 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 six of my nine days in Cambodia visiting temples and going 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.
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?
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)
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.
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 colours of the robes and it was amazing how many people waved and smiled at me. It was wonderful to feel this welcome.
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 TAP WATER as you will be asking for trouble if you do.
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 some for them. After you leave, they return the baby formula to the store, and the woman will receive half of the money 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 60.00 per month. 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, only $US 5.00 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 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 the 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. Plus a thousand images
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