Sunday, July 7, 2013

Angkor

Angkor Wat just before sunrise.

Our photography workshop concluded in Siem Reap with a visit to Angkor, the majestic complex of temples in the Cambodian jungle near Siem Reap. Angkor is the collective name assigned to the temples in the complex, and includes Bayon and Preah Khan and others. Angkor Wat itself (in the photo) is the best preserved temple in the complex and was built in the mid 1100s as a Hindu temple. As Theravada Buddhism became the dominant religion in Southeast Asia, the temple became a Buddhist worship center. 

It was "rediscovered" by French explorer Henri Mouhot in the mid 1800s (although this implies that it was lost, which is not the case, it's been in constant use as a worship center and certainly the people of Cambodia knew it was there). 

Tourism has come to Angkor in a big way. It's Cambodia's most visited tourist site and millions of people visit every year. The Siem Reap airport, which has direct flights to most cities in Asia, exists solely to serve Angkor. The hotels, bars and restaurants in Siem Reap all cater to tourists who come just to see Angkor. Since peace came to Cambodia in the mid 1990s, Angkor has become the engine that drives the Siem Reap economy. 
Tourists wait for the sunrise at Angkor Wat.

People photograph the sunrise.

Angkor is in danger of being overwhelmed by mass tourism (some would suggest that's already happened). We were in Angkor during the "low" season and it was packed. 

It's a tribute to the perseverance of the photographers in our group that they were able to photograph the majesty of Angkor without photographing the mass of tourists there. 
A Cambodian woman prays in the Bayon. She was blessing tourists as they walked through the temple,  I waited about 15 minutes in the dark to make this picture until she was by herself. 

It takes a lot of patience to photograph Angkor without photographing the tourists. It means finding your photo, waiting until the frame is clear and then making your pictures as quickly as you can. 
She was also blessing people as they walked through the temple, in this case Preah Khan. I sat against a wall opposite her and waited until she was by herself. This photo is not posed - 100% luck that she looked up in that light at that moment.

In some ways Angkor is like the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Both are majestic places, both host millions of tourists, both are in danger of being destroyed by tourism, both need the tourism that threatens them to survive (money from entrance fees goes into maintaining the sites) and both, despite the tourism leave an indelible impression. Just as there is no bad day at the Grand Canyon, there is no bad day in Angkor Wat. 

There are certainly bad times to be in both places (specifically mid day when the light is harsh and it's hotter than blazes) but whether it's in the rain, whether skies are clear or cloudy, you're in a crowd or by yourself in a corner of an abandoned temple, Angkor, just like the Grand Canyon, is a place that awes even the most jaded traveler. 
A woman at a blessing ceremony in the monastery. 

A man is blessed by a monk at a monastery near Bayon. 

Fortunately the mass tour groups follow a very predictable schedule and route so with a little planning it's possible to find a part of Angkor where you are (relatively) alone. That's not to say you'd be the first traveler there. I think travelers have come to every corner of Angkor, but there are places that have survived in relative anonymity, like the small monastery above. I've been there several times (truth is, it's one of my favorite places in Angkor) and I've seldom seen more than one or two other people there. And that's just fine. I go there, relax, talk to the monks and novices, make some photos and leave. It wouldn't be the same place if the tour groups stopped there. 

I stand in the Angkor complex and consider my country's history. European settlements in the Americas were still centuries away when Angkor was a thriving metropolis. Europe itself was just coming out of the so-called "Dark Ages" (a now discredited term) when Angkor was built. It's truly humbling.