Since we were a little bit in love with Bangkok, in the airport we both had the same question in our minds: “do we really have to go to Siem Reap now?”. At some point we were not ready for Cambodia. Maybe because we had not done our research (as always).
The getting on-arrival visa went pretty smooth, it is just that everyone gets the visa in the airport. The queueing takes time. We had our photos, but it turns out, that with paying a little bit more, it is possible to get the visa without a photo. I am not sure how legal it is though…
Once we got through all the procedures another waiting was ahead of us. The driver, who was supposed to pick us up was not there. We first checked all the drivers holding the signs (about 50 of them) and only then called our guest house. They promised a car in 15 minutes. Ok. We had time to get sim cards and some money. I did not know that US dollars and Riels are equally accepted currency in Cambodia. I was quite upset, when I could get only USD out of ATM machine. Instead I foolishly exchanged 50 EUR to KHR for a very bad rate. Oh, well.. lesson learned. In fact, both currencies are used everywhere. In most of the tourist places the prices will be in USD, but paying with Riels is possible. And other ATM machines offer to withdraw both currencies.
Arrival at Siem Reap
Our driver arrived after 40 minutes of waiting. We were not very delighted, but at least we got a free ride from the airport.
Our guest house was not the most pleasing either. The first night for sure not. It was tropical hot and humid. The staff could not get our AC working. They claimed that it had worked the day (or two) before, but was not working now. Or they could not find the right remote. It was not a great night. And the room was not so fabulous either. It was one of those moments when you just have to “suck it up”. The owner promised to call a technician and try to solve the AC problem. Breakfast was included in the price. The little breakfast did include a small toast, some super sweet jam and half a cup of tea or coffee. Nothing more. Ok, so our guest house is not going to be our favourite place to hang out. (Later on the AC “got fixed”. We assume that the real problem was the poorly working remote and almost dead batteries… As simple as that.)
The thing that we were not ready for was how touristy Cambodia was. New roads, big resorts and restaurants, shops and Spas. Immense buildings dominate the city centre. The structures are as for regular private houses, but the proportions are exaggerated. My hypothesis is that it is a heritage from the colonial period, though it requires further research.
Kunda Village delights
Some time ago I had read about the Kunda village in Siem Reap. The alternative (or call it hipster, if you wish) scene to bar streets and resorts. It was actually close our guest house (about 10 minutes walk) at it was the first thing we saw in Siem Reap. The place gave me a subject for some serious contemplation, but it was very adorable too. The following days we returned there few times to get some good food in more relaxed atmosphere. The Little Red Fox is great for coffee and iced drinks (I enjoyed the grandma’s carrot cake too), The Hive is great for breakfast and lunch, having lots of veggies, fruit, smoothies, salmon, feta and falafel on the menu (we returned there few times), Mamma Shop with an Italian at the lead is great for pasta.
Most of the places are run by expats. No wonder they are very popular – the expats know, what people on the road miss and they know what is trending. It is very hard not to notice that many places fight for a good cause and are related to some sort of NGOs. They are everywhere. It seems that the country is half run by NGOs. In a conversation with a Cambodian based American photographer I learned that my observation was correct. Cambodia has one of the highest densities of NGOs in the world. There are charity fonds, socially engaged training cafes and beauty salons, local fair trade handcraft boutiques and shows by students of social art schools. Most of them are doing a great job, but some of them are not quite so convincing.
Angkor What for “free”
Back to Siem Reap, of course, we were there to see the famous temples. I did not realise exactly how famous the temples are. In the north-eastern part of Europe the pyramids of Egypt and the China wall are still trending more… I was quite amazed to hear that people are doing a bus trip from Bangkok just to see the Angkor Wat and then go back. The entrance fees are high. 20 USD for one day, 40 USD for 3 and 60 USD for a week + the driver (15 – 20 USD per day). But once you are on the temple hunt, the disappointment for the price paid disappears.
We did what all good Loneley Planet followers do – we got our tickets the afternoon before and still went to peek at Angkor Wat in the sunset because like that you can get in “for free”.
We rented bicyles from our guest house and first stopped to check out an exhibition about Cambodian modern architecture, which became a good guide for our next destinations in Cambodia. We rode through the back streets of the main road and encountered the Cambodia we had in our minds. Dusty, bumpy countryside roads with the modest houses of locals along the roads and excited (sometimes naked) kids. Before 5 pm we were at the ticket office of the temples, in line with tons of other, who wanted to get the extra free sunset around Angkor Wat. At 5 pm sharply the selling of next day’s tickets begun. We were lucky to be one of the first ones to get photo-personalised tickets and could immediately take off with our bikes. It was a nice ride towards the temple site. We even got into a race with school boys going back home.
We got in the Angkor Wat, but did not have time to explore the interior. By the time we got to the back side of the complex, the sun was not gone yet, but the guards already started to push everyone towards the exit. I guess it makes sense, as the place is huge and gives many opportunities for hide outs. We could still enjoy the atmosphere and a horse eating grass in the middle of it. With the last bits of light, we had to leave Angkor Wat to return tomorrow.
The same evening, we paid a visit to the bar street, as we were looking for a place to eat. We soon realised, that it is definitely not our cup of tea. We settled in a mediocre restaurant. Had mediocre dinner and decided not to come back to the pub area. Too crowded, too flashy, too much of copy/paste. And too many drunk and loud tourists. A no-no for us.
Stijn had done a good research and had made our own itinerary. The tuk-tuk drivers have their own petit and grand tours that they offer to tourist as a standard. We had a driver arranged by our guest house and we were very, very happy with him. Despite the condition of the place, in general the owner of the guest house was very helpful and willing to assist us with our temple route and bus tickets too.
The great temple hunt day
Our temple hunt begun early in the morning. We had ordered the driver to pick us up at 4:30. I had read too many “I was too late for the sunrise” stories.. We hoped to see the light hitting through the (Lara Kroft) Ta Prohm temple, but it turns out only few places are open for the sunrise. So we could pick only from few. As our general direction was against the traditional flow, we picked the Sras Srang with a view on a small lake. The temple itself was literary a pile of stones and few left over sculptures, but the sunrise over the lake was quite spectacular. We were lucky with a cloudy dawn, that was reflecting the rising sun in many different shades of red, orange and pink. While the visitors were enjoying the show of colours, the work day for locals had begun. With the first rays the fisherman was in the lake for the daily catch and the children were sent out for their daily hunt – selling tourists sets of postcards, whistles and other minor crap (pardon my french…). “Laaaady, you buy postcard? One-two-three-four…- ten postcards only one dooooollarrrr! Pleeeeease ladyyyy… No moneey for schoool… Pleeeease…”
Once the light was there, we moved to the next temple, but it was still not open. We had more than 30 minutes, before the opening. We spent the time chatting with the kids (who were still trying to sell us one-two-three… 10 postcards for 1 doooollarrrr). One of the boys was quite fun and could make the most amusing sad faces. Tourist restaurants are full with posters suggesting not to give in the begging children. Buying the goods only encourages them to beg more and not to go to school. I quite go with the concept, besides, we do not really have space for souvenirs, so it is easy to say “No” to them. There are so many NGO schools in the area, I simply do not buy the “no money for school” story.
At 7:30 am the gate of Ta Prohm was open and together with a big bunch of other enthusiasts, we entered the tree haunted temple, that had become popular thanks to Angelina Jolie. I herd few tour guides bragging about meeting her and what a ‘no big deal’ it was. The tourist groups lined up to pose at the trees seen in the movie and quickly moved to the next tree, paying little attention to the temple it self. The guides didn’t even bother to give more than the minimum information about the temple it self, rather urging the crowd move to the next three from the movie.
The next temple (Preah Khan) we paid a visit to, in our eyes was more impressive. It is bigger than Ta Prom and the influences of different periods were more visible. We could crawl over piles of rock, walk around to discover other parts and get absolutely lost in it. The air was hot, while it was still relatively early. We still had quite some temples a head of us.
By the time we got to the Angkor Thom our energy level was rapidly decreasing. I even felt asleep while having a rest against one of the ancient columns of Bayon. Of course the huge faces of the temple are impressive, but I have limited level of enthusiasm that I can express in one day and my limit was about to die out. We had another nap on the stones next to the Phimeanakas temple. We decided not to climb it, but to walk around the area, which turned out to be more interesting. Having a walk in the shade of trees seemed more rewarding than making to the top of yet another temple.
We had quick lunch in one of the numbered row restaurants on the other side of the road along the Terrace of Elephants. As our tuk-tuk driver took us to one of “his places”, we got a 2 dollar discount on each of our dishes. At least that. The food was really overpriced it the rowed stalls with questionable hygiene standards. We crossed our fingers and hoped to greet tomorrow without a food poisoning.
Before going to the Angkor Wat, we still pulled our selves up in the Phnom Bakheng on the top of a hill. It seemed, that just in time. Recently they have limited the number of people allowed on the top of the temple to 300. Before the stairs everyone gets a badge, that has to be returned once you come back down. No badge, no climbing up. Maybe the sun set can be impressive from the top, maybe not, but tourists are ready to squeeze shoulder to shoulder to witness it. We still had THE temple to do. As we got down the temple, the line to go up had stretched very long. I doubt that most of the people did even got to go up. It seemed that many of the people we saw on the top had already settled down to see the sunset (it was around 4/4:30 pm, sun to set around 6 pm).
We were just too late, to get the chance to climb the stairs of Angkor Wat (like 3 people in front of us too late…), even though it might have been a breath taking view (I’m improvising..), we were not too disappointed. We had no energy left. I chose to sit at one of the entrance portals to absorb the atmosphere, while Stijn still had his last photo moments while the light was still good.
What an exhausting day. More than 12 hours running around the temples. That must be my personal record! As we got back to our hotel, we needed a shower and a rest.
Tasty and creepy dinner at Bugs café
To celebrate our achievement, we decided to try out the Bugs café. The name of the cafe is exactly what you get on your dinner plate. We had ants, tarantula, crickets and who knows else what for our meal. The interior of The Bugs Café is made with tasteful humour and, of course, bugs dominating the decoration of the simple setting. We had spring-rolls with ants, tarantula samosas and bugs burger. We wanted to try the cheese cake with crickets, but it was already sold out. While I have general discomfort with maggots, I can tolerate eating the ants and crickets. To be honest, you can barely taste them and the food is very good there. Absolutely recommend it!
As bugs is considered the food of the future, we had to try it. And I am glad we did it. It was also overcoming some sort of superstition, aesthetic dislike and fear in a comfortable and hygienic environment.
Stijns side of the story, in short:
Traveling for months together can be challenging for every relationship. Doing a 12-hour day tour chasing temples and good light in tropical hot temperatures too. Needless to say, we had quite some arguments that day. We were both exhausted. But it was absolutely worth it. And we survived.
Trying to save some budget, we planned to do the most interesting temples in one day. Before we started the tour, I did read suggestions on the temples, looked for photos online and checked where the sun was going to get up with an app called TPE and figured out a itinerary which would avoid too many tourists if possible.
The plan was to start the day at Ta Prohm. It is said to be a pretty place before the sun sets and fog surrounds the place. Unfortunately, because the temple only opens at sunrise, we had to start somewhere else. So we went for a temple nearby next to a little lake. We arrived at first. It was very dark. While I was trying to find a good angle to have a photo of both the small temple and the sunrise, the first tourists however arrived. As this is one of the smaller unguarded temples, people started climbing and crawling over the ancient rocks. Flash lights constantly on. It was very clear that combining temple and sunrise were not going to be an option. So I opted to go and stand to the far left side of the lake. At first I was sitting there alone, but after a while a young guy came and deployed his fishing nets.
Gradually I came closer, showing interest in his fishing. Though he could not speak English, his friend could and we managed to have a small conversation. His little son was also on the area: trying to sell postcards to tourists while he was fishing. In the end I took some 50 photos of the young man throwing out his nets. I did do buy some postcards to thank them for the kind moment. Hoping the money will be spent well.
Photography at Siem Reap
The temples in Siem Reap is the most photographed location in Cambodia. I had already seen many astonishing beautiful photos. But soon I gave up on what could be “price-winning” photo. Though it’s not my goal, I do of course strive to capture the scene and moments at its best. Reality however is different. Some reasons why making everlasting photos at Siem Reap temples are not so obvious.
You’re almost never alone
Yes, you can be alone at some of the temples. For a small moment in time. Yes, you can make photos without anyone else in the picture if that is was you want. But you’ll have to wait. And you have to be bold. Angkor What without people? Get in early or get out as the last person. Ask the guards kindly to step aside for one last photo. They almost never deny.
Hard light, hard time
Obviously, the best moment of the day to make photos are at sunrise and sunset. The rest of the day the sun is making hard shadows, uninteresting light and makes it almost impossible to make a good photo if you don’t want to waste time using HDR techniques.
Since I don’t have a heavy tripod with me and I forgot my Neutral Density filter (filter that blocks light) at home there were not so many options.
Hot, hotter, hottest
Ow yes, it gets very hot here. Unless you are used to these temperatures, you give up very soon on finding the best spot. Walking around with a backpack full of camera gear and plenty of water is exhausting.
Plan, visit and re-visit
Rushing through many temples in one day certainly is not a good idea. Trying to plan a good route is a good start but it’s only once one the spot you really see how the situation is. I figured out a morning photo session near the Baphuon and Phimeanakas temple or Preah Khan temple would probably be much more interesting. Preah Khan also only opens after sunset, but the area around Baphuon and Phimeanakas temple should be accessible. Next time we’ll try again.
Bring the right gear
I’m not a landscape photographer during this trip. And I’m traveling light. The following items are not in my camera bag this time, though they could strongly improve the quality of my photos here:
- Wide angle lense to capture more of the complete scene
- Tripod to both use longer exposures and better bracketing
- ND filter to get longer exposures during the day
- Polarizing filter to remove reflections and get better colors
That doesn’t mean of course it’s not possible to have fun and still make many great photos. I was happy to find some beautiful details that did feel special and inspiring to me. Lack of the right gear is only an excuse. Focus on the photos you can make instead of those you can’t.