Angkor Temples: Romance vs Reality

ADVICE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS PLANNING A VISIT TO ANGKOR, CAMBODIA

Many travellers’ aspire to photograph the temples of Angkor in Cambodia with its awe-inspiring Khmer architecture. A once in a lifetime trip, perhaps?

And why not? The place is special.

However, like many popular global destinations, Angkor has not been immune to mass tourism pressures. Visual expectations of romantic, lost jungle temples based on other photographers’ past work may not meet present-day reality.

This article attempts to guide the photographer away from a “Disney-like” temple theme park experience towards a rewarding photographic exploration. I outline the main issues photographers need to be aware of – a reality check against any romantic imaginings you may have for a first visit. Also, for returning photographers, because the place keeps changing. I then offer suggestions to make your photographic exploration of Angkor more enjoyable.

Note: As I write this blog, much of the world is under COVID restrictions. As conditions improve, there may be windows of opportunity for photographers to visit Angkor in late-2021 or 2022.

Khmer boys playing, swimming and bathing in an ancient remnant baray (reservoir) during the late afternoon at Banteay Chmar.

 

ANGKOR INSPIRATION

If you are like me, you admire Steve McCurry’s Angkor photographs, inspired by his compelling images from the late 1980s and 1990s. His pictures capture artistic photojournalistic scenes of ruined temples with glimpses of Khmer life. Rustic images captured in vibrant Kodachrome colours.

Another photographer who has captured the essence of Angkor is fine-art photographer, John McDermott. John photographed Angkor on black and white infrared film. He subsequently hand-crafted, iconic, ghostly looking, analogue prints. These prints sell for a premium in his Siem Reap Gallery and globally – deservedly so, they are masterworks of art.

Two entirely different photographers with contrasting styles, but they both have something very much in common. McCurry and McDermott captured their images over a considerable time before mass budget air travel and mass group tourism descended on Angkor. Before smartphones and selfies. Notably, a time when Cambodia emerged from decades of brutal civil war – formally ending in 1979 with the Vietnamese overthrow of the Khmer Rouge but continuing as deadly skirmishes until 1997.

Angkor was quieter and more rustic in the 1990s. Regardless, the images of McCurry and McDermott still inspire. I highly recommend a visit to McDermott’s gallery in Siem Reap. Nothing beats looking at large photographic works of art mounted on a wall. Also, I recommend visiting the nearby Angkor National Museum for further inspiration and historical background.

Early morning sunlight and reflections at Banteay Srei temple, Angkor. A small beautiful Hindu temple built in the 10th Century dedicated to Shiva. The temple is also referred to as the pink temple, ladies temple or the citadel of women

ANGKOR TODAY

Tourist hotels have sprung up all over Siem Reap. Restaurants, bars, nightlife, and road traffic. The temples are under pressure from crowds. The Government of Cambodia is striking a delicate balance between tourism dollars, local employment and, conserving their proud Khmer heritage sites.

I have been photographing Angkor sporadically since 2012. For me, it is a challenging place to photograph. In particular, when trying to create a simple photographic composition amongst multiple distractions. Also, a challenge is finding space between waves of tourist crowds flooding through the temple courtyards. However, I keep returning, it is a wondrous place, and I hope my photographs improve with each visit.

GROWING INCONVENIENCES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS

Increasing mass tourism

Mass Tourist numbers are increasing as cheap flights and package tours proliferate. Many tourists, particularly those in large groups (of all nationalities), show little consideration for lone or small group photographers. They can see what you are doing; however, they cannot wait a minute and rudely push forward to take their selfies and group photos. The biggest crowds are always at Angkor Wat, Prasat Bayon, and Prasat Ta Promh.

Tourists at Angkor Wat protecting themselves from the afternoon sun with an umbrella. Mass tourism is now the norm at Angkor Wat.

Restricted temple hours

The best solution for crowd avoidance was early-morning photography (6 am to 7 am) while many tourists are still sleeping or eating breakfast. Sadly, this is no longer a strategy for many temples, including Prasat Ta Promh. The authorities have introduced restricted opening hours for foreigners, supposedly to reduce crowd impact on the temples. An 8.30 am opening time at Prasat Ta Promh was introduced in 2017. People are already queueing at the entrance gate before opening.

Ropes, barriers and signs

Another inconvenience for photographers – the proliferation of wooden walkway boards, barrier ropes, and “keep-out” signs in temples. On my first visit to Angkor in 2012, these obstacles were minimal. The walkways and barriers are to protect the ancient paving and masonry. Also, to prevent people from climbing walls and towers. The obstacles ruin the aesthetics of photographers—ugly distractions to avoid in photographic compositions. Cloning in Photoshop will not help in many cases.

Eco-Vandalism or necessary conservation?

Some of the strangler fig trees at many temples, including Prasat Ta Promh, are being selectively cut back or chopped down to prevent temple walls from collapsing. The trees eventually cause mass damage to the temples – the extensive root systems cause instability to the walls and foundations. Ultimately when a tree dies and collapses the temple damage is significant. Tree culling is understandable to an extent, but again negatively impacting natural photographic aesthetics. McCurry and McDermott did not have to worry about this. In fairness to the temple authorities, they have tried to conserve many trees. The strangler fig trees provide the romantic backdrop to the “Tomb Raider,” jungle temples that people come to see.

Large strangler fig tree (banyon tree) in the courtyard of Ta Promh temple, Angkor

Glimpses of Khmer life

Today, you are unlikely to see rustic Khmer scenes of lotus pickers, or solitary temple caretakers with dogs inside the temples, as McCurry captured. And if such local people were there, they would be overwhelmed by tourists with mobile camera phones and iPads. Khmer life scenes exist elsewhere – take time to visit the surrounding countryside, villages, and remote temples away from the main Angkor Complex.

Visiting Buddhist monks from all over Asia is still commonplace. They make popular photography subjects, but politely ask before you point cameras at anyone or be discreet.

 

Monks and tourists at Angkor Wat

Rural scene near the Roulos temples – Khmer farmer and boys on oxen and carts transporting hay

ANGKOR: SOLUTIONS AND ADVICE FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS

Should you still go? Absolutely, Yes, great photographs are still possible.
Thankfully, Angkor is still a special place for photographers to visit. Angkor has not become a tourist attraction like the Tower of London or Le Louvre in Paris where crowds herd through in long lines. For the most part, one can still freely explore Angkor and find quiet forested corners giving you the “Indiana Jones” experience. There are crowd-avoiding strategies you can take with careful planning.

Just be aware that in many temples, you will have to work much harder with the camera. Be extremely patient and explore in-depth.

Rainy Season colours

Consider going to Cambodia in the low season. July to September is the rainy season; the tourist numbers are lower. Importantly, rain brings out vibrant colours from the mosses and lichens on the temple walls. Photograph in the morning before the heavy rains arriving in the late afternoon or shoot between rainstorms. Bursts of sunlight between rainstorms highlight the intense colours.

Apsara carvings, ruined tower and walls of Ta Promh temple, Angkor, Cambodia

Consider hiring a specialist Khmer guide

Consider hiring a specialist Khmer guide experienced with the photographer’s needs (they do exist). These are not the guides and tuk-tuk drivers hanging around hotel entrances in Siem Reap. An experienced photography guide may save you a lot of frustration if your time is short. I consider a professional guide similar to a good golf caddy. The guide may not know all the technical details about cameras, but they know the best approach like a caddy. Experienced photography guides know when temples are relatively quiet and free of crowds. Importantly, they know the times of day when sunlight direction is best for each temple. They may also advise on good viewpoints for camera composition. However, be aware these are previous photographer’s popular views. Take their viewpoint advice as a starting point and then explore further.

Temple timing

Avoid the sunrise crowds at Angkor Wat (special pre-paid tours with coaches of tourists). However, do visit Angkor Wat; it is essential. I have found the best time to be around 4 pm onwards when the temple is in golden light with striking shadows in the courtyards and galleries. A time when tourists are slowly exiting or leaving parts of the temple complex empty.

Although many Angkor temples do not open till 8.30 am, an early morning start is still better than turning up at 10 am with the masses and inferior light quality. Early morning, you can photograph many temples from the outside. Try photographing the reservoirs and exterior terraces of Angkor Wat at sunrise. The gates, stone carvings and walls of Angkor Thom make compelling photographs. Visit the smaller, less well-known temples. There is still much to see and photograph with careful timing.

Khmer warrior statues lining the main entrance (South Gate) into Angkor Thom. Some of the original statue heads have been stolen and looted over the centuries and are now replaced by modern ornate carvings made by local Khmer artisans. The original remaining heads are weathered and lichen covered.

Finally, stay out until late evening, as late as permitted by temple guards. I have enjoyed some beautiful moments in Prasat Preah Khan between 4 pm and 5.30 pm when most of the crowds have disappeared, rushing to evening dinners and shopping.

Creative Camera Composition

Look for detail in quiet corners of temples. There are so many beautiful wall carvings and bas reliefs. Explore different compositions with a wide-angle or telephoto lens. Use a telephoto lens and shoot above the crowds – particularly for the Buddha faces at Prasat Bayon. I recommend using a camera tripod in low-light. Tripod use may not be possible always, and sometimes maybe an inconvenience. However, I used a tripod for many of my best photographs, usually away from the crowds. There seem to be no restrictions against tripods at the time of writing, unlike many temples in India or Sri Lanka.

Three lichen covered faces at Bayon, Angkor Thom after a heavy monsoon rainstorm

Explore the quiet corners of Angkor

Explore the less well-known temples. There are so many quiet sanctuaries hidden in the forests. The Angkor temple complex is vast, built over many centuries. It is surprising how many tourists stick to well-trodden routes and rarely venture far from their parked buses in Angkor Thom. Climb above the roads at Victory Gate or explore the Eastern Gate for unusual and unique compositions.

Faces and trees at the Victory Gate at the eastern entrance of Angkor Thom

Stay Longer

Stay in Angkor longer – the minimum stay should be three days. Try pacing yourself over five days or more. Make repeat trips to temples you like. With more time, your eyes become accustomed, and you see more detail and nuances. Do not attempt to visit every temple in the park within three days; your photography will fail, and you will be tired and frustrated. Research and select a few for detailed photography. If the photography is not so important, then sure, zip around on a tuk-tuk, see all the sites, and have fun.

Remote Angkor Temples

Consider a plan to go further afield. The tourist crowds rapidly thin away from Siem Reap (for now!). The Khmer Empire was geographically extensive. There are Khmer temples scattered over northern Cambodia, extending into Thailand and Laos. Many remote temples have only been cleared of landmines in the last 20 years and are now UNESCO heritage sites. Although not as spectacular as the main Angkor temples (at first sight), many are a delight for photographers. You will not reach many remote Cambodian temples on a day trip from Siem Reap. More days are required, different accommodations, and careful planning. Examples include Koh Ker Complex, Banteay Chmar and Prasat Preah Vihear.

In conclusion, compelling and beautiful photographs are still possible when visiting Angkor. Inspiration comes from past photographers who spent significant time practising their craft when fewer foreigners visited during the 1990s. In today’s environment, the photographer must adapt to the crowd pressures and the new visitor restrictions applied to the temples. Photography requires planning, more time and application of creative photographic techniques to make outstanding images.

A large group of tourists enjoy the sunset at Angkor Wat. Mass tourism is now the norm at Angkor Park.

Angkor still inspires awe and wonder for every visitor, and everyone takes away their own vivid, personal memories of this remarkable place.

Mark Chamberlain is a travel photographer, writer and Southeast Asia, specialist.

See my Angkor photographs available for sale.

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