- Posted August 27, 2013 by
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Cambodia’s spectacular ruins
Chasing the light around Siem Reap
- sarahbrowngb, CNN iReport producer
I spent six days doing what can be described, as “chasing the light” on a photography tour throughout Siem Reap, Cambodia.
On my first morning, I along with hundreds of other tourists braved the dark dawn and flocked to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Flashlights are a must as darkness still shrouds the temple at this hour.
Most tourists pass through the large front gates to enter the Angkor Wat complex. On my second day, through by my local guide, I discovered the more tranquil entrance off to the left hand side of the temple unused by most tourists, where you walk in darkness through a temple door, and amongst the trees until you end up directly at the lake in front of the temple.
To secure a spot right in front of Angkor Wat, the dedicated begin to assemble as soon as the temples open, officially at 5am. Arrive later than 5:30 am and you will most certainly catch a tourist or two in your photos, particularly if you want to set up a tripod. Camera or no camera, if you're lucky enough to witness the sun illuminate the clouds that silhouette just above the temples, a glorious shade of pink, it is a scene you will cherish for a long time.
Early mornings are the best time to visit the ancient ruins, bypassing the operators that start their tours around 8am. The early morning light gives the temples an ethereal character. At this time, the temples are generally fairly deserted but for a few equally dedicated tourists, so you are able to explore the temples and indulge your imagination, perhaps pretending you are discovering the temples for the world for the first time, or in my case, Lara Croft’s “tomb raider.”
We spent our days shooting at dawn till about 10:30 am, and re-convening for sunset shots at around 4pm. Siem Reap in the middle of the day is scorching. But I found that biking throughout the temple complex was often shaded by the enormous trees, and importantly very safe for a single female traveller.
August is part of Cambodia’s rainy season, and therefore is less busy during this time. However, the rain adds a green beauty throughout the ruins, as moss covers the stones and scatters through the walls and facades. The way that the plants and the roots of the jungle burst throughout the temple roofs as in Ta Prohm, or poke their way through crevices and creep up the walls, like in the unrestored temple of Beng Mealea, causes you to think the temples are alive in their own way.
Apart from being a tourist attraction, the ancient sites of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are still very much revered, and in use for religious reasons. Although Angkor Wat was said to formerly be a Hindu temple, it is now widely used by the Buddhist devotees, and is home to scores of monks, also providing education and housing for orphaned young boys and men whose parents have died in one of Cambodia’s many conflicts, or have left them there to make ends meet by working abroad.
My photography tour guide was led by a national geographic photographer, Nathan Horton. He knew when the best light was going to hit and where, and had developed relationships with local temples, monks, nuns and several local Khmer people over the years, who didn’t mind having their photos taken by his group.
Apart from learning from his invaluable technical experience, through his relationships, I was able to encounter the human side to Cambodia’s often rather touristy centers.
We photographed monks who lived in the complex, locals in the rice fields or passing by on their way home, and met a woman with the happiest expression, his old friend, a nun the size of a hobbit, graced with the largest smile and who gave me the warmest blessing I’d received in Cambodia.
We were also able to photograph a woman collecting her daily water from a lake named Sra Sang as the sun rose on another magical morning. I love scenes of rural life, probably because living in developed countries, such scenes are more and more rare. I also caught a man washing the very pants that he wore to the river – and wondered if they were the only jeans he owned. These signs reminded me that Cambodia was still very much a country trying to find its feet.
The tourism to the Angkor complex no doubt helped their economy, and signs of improvement and development could be seen all around Siem Reap. Most tourist guides could speak very good English, and impressively, could also give tours in Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese and a host of other languages. My own tour guide could speak English, Khmer and Thai.
On my last day in Cambodia, I visited the local market, where only Khmer people did their shopping. I think they were all rather amused at my presence, a tourist in probably what they consider to be the most ordinary of places. But this place was also equally special to me, and while the temples in Angkor Wat were stunning and fascinating, I thoroughly enjoyed the Cambodia that I saw that morning in the faces of the women in the market.