Cambodia was our first destination in Southeast Asia. At the time, when I made the flight arrangements, I didn’t see any compelling reason to go to Phnom Penh. I figured we would see more than enough temples throughout Asia and the experience would be similar to Siem Reap, the town closest to the Angkor complex of temples. We only scheduled two nights and three days for Cambodia, and in hindsight, we could easily have afforded to stay longer. Cambodia was probably the least expensive place we have visited so far in Southeast Asia. Tourist who used to flock to Thailand for the travel bargains are now going to Cambodia instead. For me, it seems to offer more of the underdeveloped rural experience than some of the more modern Asian countries.
After reading horror stories about people crossing the border from Thailand, we decided to fly directly to Siem Reap. And although flying into the major airports allows you the convenience of getting a visa upon arrival, we opted to get our visa online while we were in Australia. We waited until just 4 days before our scheduled arrival to get our visa, but they were very fast processing it, so I had it within 2 days of applying for it. Although they are fast, I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute. We printed two copies as instructed and when we arrived, having our visas beforehand saved us from waiting in a long queue to get one on arrival.
We booked our stay on AirBNB at a small homestay on the edge of town, very close to Angkor Wat. Our room was less than $24 per night and was as comfortable as any luxury hotel room in town. Our room was huge, the bath spacious and the air conditioning worked well. Our host, Thony, runs his large residence much like a hotel, but makes each room very homey with personal touches along with his gracious hospitality.. He has 6 rooms on AirBNB and he appears to make a comfortable living from his property’s income.
A couple of days before our arrival, Thony contacted me through AirBNB and made arrangements to have someone pick us up from the airport. As it turned out, our driver, Mr. Samur would be our transportation for the next 3 days. Our little tuk-tuk wasn’t the fastest thing, and the roads often made it a bumpy ride, but its open air seating and slower pace made it a better choice for getting photos of the surrounding countryside and its sights. Samur kept track of the how much each day would cost, depending on the length of time we spent with him. The first day after our arrival was probably the most expensive since he made the long trip to the airport and we used his tuk-tuk until well past dark that night. At the end of three days, with his tip, our transportation cost about $65. I know we covered hundreds of kilometers and some days we were out for 12 hours, so the cost seemed like a real bargain. Getting a driver in Siem Reap is much cheaper than getting one inside the Angkor complex. If we didn’t already have one, we could have hired a driver for each day for about $30, less if I bargained.
Cambodia is one of a few countries in the world that use U.S. currency as readily as their own local currency. In fact, the local ATMs dispensed U.S. twenties and hundreds. This was actually very convenient for us, because we left on our trip without enough U.S. currency and this was a great opportunity to make up the difference we needed. One U.S. dollar was roughly the equivalent of 4,000 Cambodian riel. About the only time you would see riels is when you would receive them as change for transactions in dollars, where 1,000 riels would be like 25¢. Most of the larger hotels and tourist oriented restaurants would also take credit cards.
We discussed with our host where we should go during our short visit and we made the arrangements with our driver. The primary reason people come to Siem Reap is to go to the temples of Angkor. Unless you’re a local or related to one, you must pay to enter Angkor. You can buy tickets for the number of days you plan to spend temple hopping at the Angkor entrance. 1 day is $20, 3 days is $40, and 7 days is $60. We bought the 3 day ticket, which isn’t consecutive days, and actually lets you to use any 3 days during a 7 day period. This allows you to take a break to do other things in town, but since we only had three days, every day was temple day. After our visit, I just can’t imagine spending 7 days going to various temples. After only 2 days, everything was already beginning to become a blur. By day 7, I would be spent. We didn’t try to see too many things each day and tried to take the heat into account by not being out in the blazing sun around midday.
The name translates to, “Citadel of Women,” and is about 20 kilometers north of Angkor. It’s a much smaller Hindu temple—almost on a miniature scale—and the pink and red sandstone is intricately carved, hence the name. It was built around the 10th century C.E. Since the carvings are so delicate, much of the temple is roped off to prevent damage from people touching it. Because it is small with limited places to explore, it’s also quite crowded. We arrived in the afternoon and it was overrun with throngs of Chinese tourists, all pushing and shoving to get their pictures in front of every little thing. There is supposed to be a route through the temple to control the congestion, but nobody seems to pay attention to the signs. The pathways and doorways are very narrow and sometimes only one person at a time can go through, but some people just don’t seem to acknowledge queues.
Because I was waiting to take pictures, Sheri and I got separated. Luckily, we both had our phones with us, and our cell plan includes Cambodia, so she sent me a text. About those pictures; the afternoon sun wasn’t the best for photos. I would have rather come in the early morning or closer to sunset for better photos, however, we didn’t have enough time to be that picky. We spent about 45 minutes going through this temple and I think it was plenty.
Located about 10 km. east of Siem Reap, Bakong is the largest of a group of Hindu temples called the Roluos Group. Built around the early 9th century C.E, this temple sits at the center of Hariharalaya, considered the first capital of the Angkor kingdom. The center tower is about 15 meters (50 feet) high and the large outer wall is surrounded by a moat and plenty of vegetation. This temple was one of the first to use stone and not brick for its construction and is an excellent example of a mountain temple, i.e. built to resemble a mountain. There is a Buddhist monastery nearby as you enter the complex, and if you’re lucky, you may see them wandering around the ruins making for wonderful photos.
Photography wise, I didn’t get many shots I liked at this location mainly because we arrived in the afternoon when the sun was behind the temple, causing harsh shadows and haze that is hard to overcome. Again, this is another place best photographed in the early morning when the sun is shining on the front of the temple.
Upon first approaching this temple, it look a bit more run down than most of the others we’ve seen. However, it has gone through a restoration of the well-preserved carvings and, on closer inspection, is richly detailed with bas-relief and false doors. Like Bakong, Pre Rup is a mountain temple with views of the countryside. It was built in the later 10th century C.E. and is better architecturally than earlier temples such as Bakong.
Since it sits on a corner lot, we were able to see the entire temple from two different angles near the road. This made for some interesting photos and I wasn’t constrained by the sun’s position in the sky. There really wasn’t that much to cover here so we only spent 30 minutes at this site.
Ta Prohm is well-known as the location where scenes from the movie, Tomb Raiders, were filmed. It has been left partially unrestored allowing the large fig and silk-cotton trees to grow among the ruins, over and through the stone. Its jungle location and atmosphere make for visually striking photos. It was originally constructed in the 12th and early 13th century C.E. as a Buddhist monastery with enormous wealth and power. It was believed to hold vast amounts of gold and jewels in its heyday.
Today, the wealth is gone, probably plundered by other kingdoms, and all that is left are corridors and large courtyards to explore. The complex is very large and it’s easy to get lost or turned around. It was here that we came upon a local guy who claimed to be helping with the restoration of the ruins. He became our guide, pointing out lots of little details we easily would have missed and showing us some excellent places for photos, often away from the crowds. Of course, during the time he walked with us, he told us his sob story about his family, how his mother needed some sort of surgery, and when we were about to leave, he hit us up for money. When I didn’t give him enough, he asked for more. He ended up with $5, which is cheaper than a guide. When we left, we noticed that the actual workers and guides had uniforms, so he was obviously not “official.”
Throughout the ruins are plenty of photo opportunities with tree roots growing in unusual places. Time of day doesn’t really make much difference since there are plenty of different places with incredible scenery, however, blue skies will make the stark white of the trees really pop. Ta Prohm is very photogenic and should be on anyone’s list of places to see in Angkor.
Some of the most recognizable images of Angkor are the huge stone faces of Bayon. This Buddhist temple represents classic Khmer art, and although the architecture epitomizes the Khmer style, it varies and appears pieced together by different designers. That could be because building lasted over a century before it was completed. There are 37 towers within this complex, with stone faces at cardinal points on most of them. It’s unclear whether the faces represent Bodhisattva or Jayavarman VII, the king at the time most of the construction occurred. The walls on the lower levels and surrounding the towering faces are adorned with exquisite bas-reliefs. Many of these depict everyday life along with the ever popular conquering battle scenes.
Bayon offers many photo opportunities, but can be a bit challenging. The dense tall jungle surrounding the complex makes the area dark in the early morning or late afternoon, making for a very flat light. Much of the stone is dark to begin with, so this is one of the few places where bright midday sun is actually desirable. It gives the huge stone faces and bas relief depth and brightens the overall scene. The complex is big and there was plenty to see so we spent about 45 minutes here.
This massive Hindu temple-mountain is the main reason people come to Angkor. Built in the early to mid 12th century C.E, as a three-tiered pyramid with 5 towers as the centerpiece, the temple itself covers one square kilometer. The temple is surrounded by a 5.6 km. wall and a large moat. The lower level walls are covered in very detailed, well-preserved and restored bas-reliefs depicting historic battles, heaven and hell, and other classic Hindu myths. We were glad that we saved Angkor Wat for the end of our visit, because if we had seen this first, most other temples would have paled by comparison in both scale and artistic quality.
On the third level of the pyramid are stairs leading to the 5 towers and interior courtyards. Since the inside of the towers and passageways are somewhat narrow, access to the stairs is controlled to prevent the overcrowding that occurs at other temples. At times, the queue gets quite long, but it seems to move along fairly quickly. Signs ask that you limit the time you spend there, however, a visit to each of the four Buddhas at the cardinal points is a must-do as it’s said to bring good luck. Wait, Buddhas? Wasn’t this a Hindu temple? It was, but in the 14th century, Cambodia became predominantly Buddhist, so the temple was repurposed. That explains why Buddhist monks are frequently inside the temple offering prayers and blessings in exchange for a donation.
Our driver wanted us to visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon. The afternoon sun provides dramatic lighting to the temple as you enter through the surrounding wall. With the light behind you lighting up the towers, we would experience the most visual impact in that first sight of it. However, mid-afternoon brings with it 35°C+ heat and huge crowds of rude Chinese tourists. We decided we would wait.
A very popular option for visiting is to experience a sunrise just outside the walls or inside beside a reflecting pond. We arrived before 5 a.m. on the west wall by the moat. Positioning myself about 50 meters south of the bridge entrance, I waited for the vivid colors just before sunrise. Come early and stake your claim to a high spot on the wall if you’re going to try and photograph the sunrise. The most color occurs just before the sun actually rises. The other option is to make your way inside the walls to the reflecting pond on the northwest side of the temple. Crowds will gather here to capture an image of the sun rising over the towers.I wanted to position myself near the water’s edge to capture the reflection of the towers, however, by the time I arrived inside, the crowd was already 5 or 6 persons deep. This was where my tripod and wireless shutter release came in handy. I extended my tripod and held it up over the heads of people in front of me. There was plenty of water to reflect and after several attempts, I was able to get a few good shots. I continued to wait for the sun to peak out from between the towers and took a few more shots. I didn’t have to fight the crowd and was able to eliminate people in my photos as well.
After sunrise, the temple is bathed in golden hour light, making for great atmospheric photos inside. It was also the coolest time of day to visit and there were actually fewer crowds to deal with. Since there was a queue to go to the topmost level, and because of the sheer size of the place, we spent about 3 hours here.
It’s unfortunate that our last temple in Cambodia was Preah Khan, because after Angkor Wat, everything else was anticlimactic. Besides, after three days of seeing ruins, we about had enough. Preah Khan was another Buddhist monastery and school, with about 1,000 monks at its peak. It was constructed in the late 12th century C.E. of the Bayon style very similar to Ta Prohm. In fact, the jungle growth has taken over large sections of the interior walls, making some unusual shapes that lend themselves to some great photo opportunities, in case you missed out at Ta Prohm. The compound is large enough that one could get lost, but the layout is a bit more straightforward so it’s not as easy to get confused. One distinctly unique feature of these ruins are the round columns on some of the structures on the west side of the temple. It’s believed that these were created in a later period.
The interior of this temple has large cotton-silk trees and the surrounding jungle is quite dense, so our midday visit actually offered good light for photos. I would imagine that morning and evening golden hours might be too dark. Our driver expected us to be here for an hour, but since it was packed with Chinese and Korean tourists and very little was new or unique to us, we spent only 30 minutes here.
Siem Reap City
Three days of visiting temples in the heat of the day eventually takes its toll. After a while I just didn’t want to see another heap of rocks. A good break from all of that was to spend some quality time in the evening exploring Siem Reap. From the night markets and street food to dance performances and Pub Street, there are plenty of ways to unwind. The town has a carnival atmosphere to go along with the street party, with lots of lights, lanterns and music. Add a great exchange rate making your money go further and it’s a winning combination.