When I first told my friends that I had decided to go on a photo trip to Cambodia with four other photo enthusiasts, I was met with incredulous looks. They could not fathom how I could bring myself to go on a trip with perfect strangers.
I, on the other hand, welcomed the idea of going with like-minded people who shared my enthusiasm for photography. At least there would not be a need to justify myself for setting the alarm clock for 4am, and postpone dinner to a much later time. And so, five strangers met for the first time at the airport’s departure lounge, embarking on a journey together to Siem Reap to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Road to Angkor
This trip turned out to be a wonderful experience of discovery from the moment I stepped out from the plane. We were met by our Tour Guide, Sorn, who introduced himself in English and ushered us to three waiting tuk-tuks. Tuk-tuks are motorbike-drawn carriages that can seat up to a maximum of four people. I was thrilled to use this form of local transport. The adventure had begun! After leaving our luggage in the hotel, we climbed into the same tuk-tuks and headed for Angkor Wat. At the entrance and checkpoint to Angkor’s Archeological Park, we got down to have our photos taken – a pre-requisite to be attached with our 7-day Angkor entrance passes.
The Angkor Pass gives you entrance to all the temples and monuments in the Siem Reap area. Three types of passes are available for purchase – One day (US$20), Three days per week (US$40) and Seven days visit per one month (US$60). Remember to bring your passports with you. It would be such a shame to go all the way there and be denied entry because you left your passport in the hotel!
The straight road to Angkor leads up to a beautiful lake. The tuk-tuk makes a left turn and then a right, giving the visitor an uninterrupted view of the lake on the right-hand side. From a distance, I can already see moving figures crossing the causeway connecting the mainland with the temple. The heart starts to beat a little faster, with a heightened sense of anticipation. My eyes stay glued to the structure that becomes bigger and bigger until at last – I am in the presence of the iconic Angkor Wat!
The first glimpse of this architectural masterpiece from the road never ceases to amaze, etching itself in the memory forever.
Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s best preserved temple. This iconic Hindu temple comprises five soaring corncob-shaped towers and is surrounded by a wide moat. The laterite and sandstone complex of towers, moats and stone walls are believed to represent a mini universe.
Angkor Wat was built around 1150AD. The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, venerated as one of the five primary forms of God . The 5-meter tall statue of Vishnu stands at the entrance of Angkor Wat. It is carved from a single piece of sandstone draped in colourful clothing with offerings from pilgrims visiting the temple. This stone statue has eight arms and the head of Buddha! De??? Apparently, when Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple, the head of Vishnu was replaced with the head of Buddha!
As you walk further in, the intricacy of the layout becomes more obvious. Every nook, corner and door entrance is filled with fine detail. The bas-reliefs with plump figures and battle scenes are exceptional in craftsmanship, boasting of a history that was once vibrant, colourful and robust. The intricately-carved stone walls tell stories from Hindu mythology and a military procession led by Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat.
The heart of the temple, the Pyramid, is built on three levels. During my first visit to Angkor some years back, the Pyramid was closed to public. A look at the photo and you can probably guess why. The stone steps are very steep, narrow and sloping down. One slip and it’s an agonising slide all the way to the bottom! Since then, a wooden staircase has been erected so that visitors can climb up to the third level. There are usually long queues to go up and down. However, if you are willing to make the steep climb to the top, you will be rewarded with fantastic views in every direction.
Here’s the burning question. Why was Angkor Wat built in the first place? Was it for worship or funeral purposes? This confusion arises from the fact that entrance to the site is from the left, and the gallery of bas reliefs is viewed anti-clockwise; the direction associated with death. Nowadays, it is generally accepted that Angkor Wat was used by Suryavarman II for worship during his lifetime and then became a mausoleum upon his death.
To Catch the Sunrise
Dinner on our first night was at the Red Piano Restaurant. I discovered only much later that the Red Piano was Angelina Jolie’s favourite eating place when she was filming Tomb Raider. My new-found friends ordered Cambodian Curry Chicken, while I tried the Chicken Vol au Vent. After dinner, it was a quick walkaround in Pub Street to check out the night life. Then it was back to the hotel to catch some sleep before setting out at 4:30am to shoot the sunrise.
It was still pitch dark when we made our way across the causeway and turning left towards the lotus pond. What a difference in atmosphere from our previous day’s visit! The whole place had a quiet air about it – a bit eerie, I felt. People were using torch lights to find their way around. To my surprise, quite a number of people were already at the lotus pond, laying stake on the real estate which commanded the best views of the sunrise. Worse still, about 50 red plastic chairs had been carefully arranged at the edge of the pond, making this prime spot out-of-bounds to the rest of us! Fortunately, the really big crowd had not yet arrived, and I managed to find a small space at the water’s edge to set up my tripod. Any closer and it would have fallen into the pond!
About 10 minutes later, the crowd descended upon us, calling out to one another in loud tones, pushing and squeezing to get the best vantage point to watch the sunrise. I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep, an empty stomach, the jostling and loud voices, or trying too hard to achieve lense focus and correct exposure in the ever-changing light. All of a sudden, I felt like throwing up! It was a scary few minutes with all kinds of thoughts going through my mind.
The only available spot to throw up is the lotus pond right in front of me. How embarassing to be sick in front of everybody! Another option. I could ask the lady on the red chair if I could please have her plastic bag of fruit. Not the fruit. Just the plastic bag. On the other hand, this might not be a good idea. I might throw up all over her before finishing my sentence. Have you even heard of anyone being sick at Angkor Wat? Not me! I don’t want to be the first one either! The gods would not like it, that’s for sure. Guess I could consider the third and last option. I always knew my camera bag was destined for a greater purpose!
I decided to do some stand-up meditation in the hope that the feeling would go away. By and by, I noticed that the incessant talking had stopped. The place had become much quieter.
The clouds had blocked the sun’s rays during those crucial few minutes. By the time the clouds cleared up, the sun had already made it’s way up to the sky!
We packed up and decided to go for breakfast at one of the local stalls across the road from Angkor Wat.