The Angkor area is crowded. The road in is a little like an L.A. freeway if all the cars were replaced by motorcycles pulling carts and the trucks by aging Korean minibuses pumping out clouds of diesel exhaust. The temple area itself is a lot like Disneyland; overpriced food, lack of shade, a souvenir shop always within sight.
Even the people look the same. A group of retired Japanese or Korean tourists wearing matching hats and khaki vests follow a bouncing flag. An American with his gut spilling over nylon pants, wheezes up a nearly vertical staircase. At Disneyland you can plunge fifty feet into water from Splash Mountain, here you can plunge fifty feet onto sandstone from one of the unguarded ledges.
For a place often mentioned in the same breath as the Pyramids at Giza or the Roman Colosseum, the crowds are expected. Angkor Wat is not a lost temple in the jungle. It’s in a park with manicured lawns, trimmed trees, swept streets, and cleaned canals. The tourist restaurants, $900 a night hotels, and international airport are a five-minute tuk-tuk ride to the south. East, north, and west, Cambodia’s rice fields reach toward an almost unbroken horizon.
Angkor is hot, awash with people from all over the world, and filled with kids who hang on your arms, begging you to buy postcards. Angkor is also breathtaking. Climbing to the top of the towers is almost always rewarding. Hours can be spent deciphering complex Hindu and Buddhist mythologies from the massive carved walls. There are temples where brick intertwines with ancient trees and pools where reflected towers at sunrise ripple into an abstract painting.
Sonya and I visited the park three times. Once with a guide, once at sunrise, and a final time at sunset. There were times when the temples all began to look the same and there were times when we walked through a low archway and saw something that made us stop and stare.
On the second day we arrived at Ta Som, a temple on the outskirts of the complex. There were fewer people here and I guessed maybe only a thousand or so visited each day. We walked past jumbled stone down a long corridor. We passed through towers that once housed rare antiquities like engraved sandstone pillars or intricate carvings. Stolen or removed for safekeeping, all that remained were holes in the floor to show where the treasures once stood.
We were tired and thought about turning back but walked all the way to the end of the temple and out the other side. Looking out from the last stone doorway I could only see a dirt path leading to a few decaying huts and some hanging laundry. Outside I looked back on the temple and saw the roots of a large tree grew down the side of the doorway and enveloped the wall next to it. It had the same kind of lost temple feeling as the larger Ta Prohm but without the people. Besides a few postcard-selling kids who challenged us to a game of tic-tac-toe, we were alone.
From a photographer’s and even a writer’s perspective, Angkor Wat and its surrounding area is challenging. The problem is not that the place isn’t photogenic, the problem is that the temples are too photogenic. Literally everything there has been photographed. Every time I clicked the shutter, it was likely someone had already taken the same shot with better light, better gear, a better angle, and more skill than I had. The same can be said about writing anything original about the place.
I think I’ve mentioned before how photographer clusters are one of the worst parts about being a photojournalist. Those times when you, along with every other photographer and videographer, get pushed into one big group to all shoot the same angle on some important event. Usually I try to escape those, but at Angkor it was all one big cluster. Even at five in the morning, the pools outside Angkor Wat were lined with hundreds of tripods supporting hundreds more expensive cameras all shooting nearly identical photos.
None of this stopped me from shooting and by the end of the three days I had almost a thousand photos on my hard drive. Some of the photos were bad, some were cliché, and a few even turned out better than I expected. Most of the photos on this trip have been landscapes. Views of beaches or temples gobbled up with my wide-angle lens.
I am beginning to realize how much I miss photographing people. Not just the kind of people photography that steals a photo through a long lens or captures a crowd in a wide one. I miss the kind of photography where people let me into their lives, told me their story, and allowed me to tell part of it to the world. I hope as the trip slows and we make our base in Chiang Mai there will be more time for that sort of thing.
I’m also beginning to realize how much more people matter to me than places. The best part about having a guide wasn’t what he told us about Angkor but spending a day talking to a Cambodian about his life and country. I don’t want to downplay how amazing Angkor Wat and its smaller neighbors were but at the same time, old stones have never been the reason I traveled.