(First Part of a Two-Part Series)
By LARRY ANTHONY PANNELL
Whether it is your first visit to the jungle-shrouded Buddhist citadel or a return trek to re-witness the wonders of its timeless palatial opulence, you cannot help but be engulfed by an overriding sense of calm and tranquility when you arrive at Angkor Wat.
The pervasive ataraxia of its impeccably harmonious temples and flawless relief décor impart a universal feeling of hushed spiritual peacefulness that surpasses any personal religious or devotional bias.
Cambodia’s expansive Angkor Wat complex — one of the largest religious monuments in the world, spanning over 400 square kilometers — is also one of Southeast Asia’s most important archaeological sites, a prodigious testimony to the grandeur and narrative architectural accomplishments of four centuries of Khmer civilization.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 (and simultaneously added to the roster of World Heritage Monuments in Danger because of Cambodia’s sorted history of pillaging, illegal excavations and brutal armed conflicts), Angkor Wat, with its delicate bas-relief carvings and lotus-spired temples, is the artistic expression of a now-vanished empire, cast in stone and forever immortalized in the graceful, cadenced rhythm of its edifices.
Originally constructed in the early 12th century by the great religious reformer King Suryavarman II, who first introduced Hinduism to the Khmer people, Angkor Wat was designed as a shrine to Vishnu, the god of preservation and mediation.
But by the second half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat had been transformed from a bustling Hindu center of worship to a serene monastery of Buddhist meditation, and it remains so to this day.
How you arrive to Angkor Wat will depend on where you are staying in Siem Reap, the capital city of the northern Cambodian province where the ancient temple is located. A popular resort town and gateway to the entire Angkor region, Siem Reap is the inevitable starting point for any tourist visiting the gleaming Khmer structure.
From most Siem Reap hotels, Angkor Wat is a short but bumpy 30-minute ride in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi that will run you about $10 round-trip.
I should mention that, as a tourist in Cambodia, pretty much every financial transaction you make will be done in U.S. dollars — your tuk-tuk ride, your meals and anything you purchase. If you do not have any dollars, there are ATM machines at most banks where you can get cash before you head off to Angkor. When I went, I used one of the banks near Pub Street and the Night Market, but your driver can show you where to go.
There are several fixed itinerary tour options, ranging from approximately $20 for the “Small Circuit” to nearly $30 for the “Large Circuit.” I found the prices to be fair, and depending on which tour you take, your outing will last between half a day and a full day.
The first day you arrive in Siem Reap, you will want to decide how many times you are planning to visit the temples. Your next stop will be the government Angkor Wat ticket office. For a one-day ticket, the cost is $37, for three days, the price is $62, but these days must be done within a one week period. Being in Seam Reap for 10 days, I opted for the seven-day pass, which was $72 and could be used over a one-month period.
One hindsight, even as an avid photographer, I found that I didn’t really need 10 days to visit Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. I believe most people can easily cover their interests in five to seven days.
A lot of tourists come to Angkor Wat to witness and photograph the sunrises, which are certainly majestic, but I would not recommend doing this on your first day for a number of reasons.
Instead, I suggest arriving to Siem Reap on Day One in the early afternoon. This has a couple advantages: It will leave you time explore the grounds before sunset and photograph the temple while it is still light outside, and, most importantly, it will allow to explore your ideal sunrise in advance, since it will be pitch black outside when you arrive at Angkor the next day.
While we are on the subject of photographing Angkor Wat, let me continue with my thoughts on how best to capture its beauty at sunrise. Then we can return to the topic of exploring the temple grounds on your first day.
The time that you arrive at Angkor is important. My tuk-tuk driver wanted to leave at 4:30 a.m., which would have gotten me to the site at 5 a.m., when the grounds officially open. That proposal would seem logical, but, as everyone knows, there is always a line to get in.
Consequently, I insisted on leaving my hotel at 4:15 a.m., and those extra 15 minutes made all the difference in the world. I was the first to arrive on both days, which was important because there are not many places to get the exact view I wanted.
Most people are aware that there is a mirrored reflection of Angkor Wat in the moats that surround the main temple, and the the sun rises from behind that temple. But what they do not realize is that they actually have two choices of where to “stake your claim,” with each of these positions having advantages and disadvantages.
There are two small ponds in front of the main Angkor Wat Temple. The pond on the left, which most people run to to take their photographs, has the advantage of the sun rising more directly from behind the structure.
The main disadvantage is the fact that the pond on the left is filled with lily pads, which means that it does not have as much “clean” water for a miraged reflection. Also — and more importantly for me — the Cambodians have recently been doing reconstruction and renovations on the building, and their equipment and scaffolding can ruin the view of the temple. That is not what I wanted to appear in my image.
For that reason, I opted for the pond on the right. It had plenty of “clean” water with some, but not many, lily pads. I also noted on the first day when exploring that, if you position yourself just right, you can have a clear view of all eight of the temple towers, exquisitely framed by tropical palm trees.
All of which gets me back to my initial point: You need to research where you will take your sunrise picture ahead of time. If you are not in the right position when the sun begins to come up, at least one of the towers will be blocked from your view. There is only about a three- or four-foot area to set your tripod in order to get the photo between the palm trees.
The disadvantage of taking your sunrise photograph from the side of the right pond is that the sun does not rise exactly behind the building. It rises a little to the right, which changes the way the light hits it.
Okay, so now let’s get back to your first day at Angkor Wat. My first stop was the main Angkor Wat Temple, which is what I suggest as an ideal starting place. To reach the temple, you will have to cross a large pontoon footbridge that spans a moat. I spent the majority of my time walking around the outside of the temple and found that the south side had the best photographic opportunities.
One warning: Do not leave your purse, backpacks or food on the ground. If you do, they will immediately become the property of one of the numerous monkeys that inhabit the temple grounds. I saw monkeys climb down the walls, grab their booty and scale back up the walls before their victims even noticed they were being robbed. If you do fall prey to the pirating apes, odds are you will never get your stolen items back, so consider yourself forewarned.
After visiting Angkor Wat, I ate lunch at one of the many small restaurants that are adjacent the temple, located near the parking lot. I found the food to be very good and reasonably priced, but if you have a sensitive intestinal track or are prone to Delhi Belly, you might prefer to bring a bagged lunch from your hotel.
On finishing lunch, I took a 20-minute trek to a hot-air balloon ride (you can also get there via tuk-tuk). The balloon is tethered and rises from 400 to 600 feet above the ground, depending on weather conditions. I found the balloon ride to be well worth the $15 since I could see the temple and surrounding areas from an incredible panoramic vantage point.
Then, I took a $5 tuk-tuk ride to the Ta Prohm Temple. Ta Phrom is best known as the temple where the movie “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider” was filmed.
But it is also one of the best-preserved and most beautiful Angkorian sites, with mystic twisted figs trees growing out of its ruins and fecund, untamed jungle surrounding what is left of its temples.
Occasionally, as you wander through this sacred sui generis wat, you may be joined by a solitary, golden-robed Buddhist monk, who is also enjoying its beauty and tranquility. If you are, always ask permission before taking his photograph and never, ever try to touch him. Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch women, but if you are male, they may spontaneously take your hand and bless you in a soft voice, something which has happened to me on more than one occasion.
Ta Phrom is an amazing site and the grounds are quite large, with many undulating passageways, relief-engraved rock walls and elegantly sculpted structures.
I spent about two hours exploring its temples. It can be done in less time, but I suggest not rushing through Ta Phrom, instead, taking the occasion to fully appreciate the otherworldly allure of this ancient Buddhist shrine, slowly being enveloped and reclaimed by the forces of nature.
On the way back to the hotel, be sure to ask your tuk-tuk driver to take you to Pub Street for dinner.
There are many great restaurants and shops to explore there, and, for a small extra fee, your driver will be happy to wait for you to finish your meal and then take you back to where you are staying.
Larry Anthony Pannell is a professional photojournalist originally from southern California who is also a licensed acupuncture physician with a degree in traditional Chinese medicine. Since 2010, he has served as an “acupuncturist at sea,” offering his services on several international cruise lines while traveling the Seven Seas. He specializes in landscape, travel, nature and wildlife photography, and more samples of his work can be seen on his webpage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.