#927. Visiting Angkor

By Steffen Kamprath | How-To

Nov 11

It’s still 2011 and I’m traveling Southeast Asia. Last time we were on a boat on the Mekong River and cruised from Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. This time, I’ll keep it much shorter (Phnom Penh is great and traveling through Cambodia’s country side is as exciting as it gets) and will focus on one particular spot instead. Which is, as you might guess, the amazing Angkor.

Standard view on Angkor Wat temple
Famous Angkor Wat temple with tourists and, unfortunately, under construction at our time.
Angkor Wat at sunset with lovely colors
Many people mistake Angkor and Angkor Wat: Angkor is the whole area, Angkor Wat just the famous temple.
Inside Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat basically translates to “City temple”. The original name is unknown but might had to do with Vishnu.

Angkor had been the capital of the Khmer empire from the 9th to 15th century and is located deep in the jungle, north of Tonlé Sap lake. The Khmer rulers were very successful and their area of influence grow rapidly. Tradition has it that success is connected to religious belief and more and more temples had to be built. Furthermore, Khmer kings changed their faith from Buddhism to Hinduism and, of course, the new gods needed to get better and larger temples. During their heydays, Angkor had the size of today’s Manhattan with over one million residents — at the same time, London had only 8.000.

Srah Srang water reservoir, Angkor
This is not one of the large Barays but Srah Srang, a small, 725 × 400 m water reservoir. For comparison: The West Baray measured 2.2 × 8 km.

With so many residents and workers needed to build the city and temples, it became increasingly complicated to supply these people in the midst of a jungle area. Giant, artificial water reservoirs were built, spreading over several square kilometers each. But it didn’t work out and during the course of the 15th century, they abandoned the area and moved the capital further down south of Tonlé Sap to what is today Phnom Penh, still the place of the Cambodian king (Cambodia is a monarchy, officially “Kingdom of Cambodia”).

From top of Ta Keo temple, Angkor
The treads towards the temples are usually very high (about 1 m). The Khmer wanted the way to the gods to be literally strenuous. Here at Ta Keo temple.

As the Angkor area was abandoned, only some monks remained to maintain the lost temples. Over time, all wooden huts and houses decomposed and only the massive stone temples remained, overgrown by deep jungle, and now spreading over a large area with sometimes several kilometers of distance between them. It was only until the 19th century that French explorer Henri Mouhot “rediscovered” Angkor – actually Angkor was never lost and was even visited by some Europeans in the centuries before but Mouhot and Louis Delaporte with Adolf Bastian later made Angkor popular in the western world again.

Gate with strangler fig to Ta Som temple, Angkor
Ta Prohm is not the only temple with jungle atmosphere. This is Ta Som, a Buddhist temple similar to Ta Prohm but smaller.

Today, Angkor is the world’s largest temple complex and, of course, UNESCO world heritage. Many temples have been freed from jungle and restored, but still new buried temples are found every once in a while. It’s a world-effort to rebuild and maintain the temples, and it seems that each nation is dedicated to one temple.

Entrance to famous Ta Prohm, Angkor
For me, one particular temple, Ta Prohm, stood out because they decided to leave it largely as it was found …
Wall with trees inside Ta Prohm, Angkor
… with giant trees growing on the structures …
Inside Ta Prohm, Angkor
… and walls half-collapsed.
Inside Ta Prohm, Angkor
Ta Prohm consists of a temple, a monastery, and several smaller buildings, surrounded by a wall with several towers and gates.
Building overgrown with tree inside Ta Prohm, Angkor
Sorry, I can’t replicate this awesomeness in a single photo.
Construction work inside Ta Prohm, Angkor
Of course, it takes some effort to keep this state stable and not having it fully collapsed and dangerous for the visitors.
Banteay Srei temple, Angkor
This is Banteay Srei, a Hindu temple, 20 km Northeast of Angkor Wat.
Guard creature at Banteay Srei temple, Angkor
It is called the “Lady temple” because its ornamentation is so detailed, that people say it could only be created by women.
Guard creature at Banteay Srei temple, Angkor
Anyway, it’s the most artistic site in the Angkor area.
Devi inside a shrine at Banteay Srei temple, Angkor
It’s incredible detailed. Look at that devi, a goddess!
Guarding figures at Banteay Srei temple, Angkor
And here are some monkey guardians. They also have wild pig guards, if you need.
Court inside Preah Khan, Angkor
Preah Khan could be the remains of a proto capital that later became Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer kingdom.
Buddhist statue inside the library of Preah Khan, Angkor
Preah Khan was build as a Buddhist temple but later transferred to Hinduism and then Buddhism again.
Blocked alleyway inside Preah Khan, Angkor
But Preah Khan is more than a temple, it’s was a fully fledged town – but the layout is confusing.
Outside of Banteay Kdei monastery, Angkor
Banteay Kdei is a Buddhist monastery …
Inside Banteay Kdei monastery, Angkor
… with a labyrinthine structure …
Statue inside Banteay Kdei monastery, Angkor
… that reveals treasures in every corner.

Angkor is the primary tourist destination in Cambodia and therefore visited by millions of tourists every year. But, from my (2011) experience, it is a) absolutely a must-visit because it is a breath-taking experience to see and feel these structures and b) the amount of tourists is very manageable because most visitors where only carried to the main temples, such as Angkor Wat, Bayon and Angkor Thom. They also have very specific crunch times, like mornings and afternoons. We took a private tuk-tuk (around $20/day) and could easily avoid the masses. And, personally, the smaller temples are even more interesting and walking a bit through the jungle and discover the sites on your own is a much better and personal experience. The tuk-tuk drivers can act as guides as well. Ours was a former school teacher and told us many interesting facts and stories while driving, but mostly left us alone exploring the sites. They also know how to avoid other tourist and when it’s best to visit particular sites.

Tonlé Sap from Phnom Bakheng temple mountain, Angkor
View from the temple mountain Phnom Bakheng over Siem Reap to the Tonlé Sap lake.
Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng temple mountain, Angkor
And a look to Angkor with Angkor Wat.
People at sunset on Phnom Bakheng temple mountain, Angkor
Of course, you’re not alone there. But this site at sunset was really extreme – but worth it.

In a nutshell: I can only highly recommend Angkor. I was not aware what would await me. All I knew were some pictures of an ancient site that looked like straight out of Disney’s Jungle Book. And I was already hooked. Being there is amazing from a spiritual side, from an archaeological perspective, cultural, scientific … or even just picturesque. Even if you’re only somewhere in Southeast Asia, I’d recommend to fly over there (daily flights from Bangkok or other cities to Siem Reap are easy, cheap, and quick) and spend 3-5 days. It’s absolutely worth it.

Cambodian rural scenery, Angkor area
Rural Cambodia … just get off the beaten track.
Cambodian rural street scenery, Angkor area
Our tuk-tuk at a sugar-cane stand, a local sweets specialty – but super-sweet, actually too sweet.
Village in Angkor area, Cambodia
A ride through the country side.
Thick jungle, Cambodia
Cambodian jungle.

For the gear heads, I was using a Konica Minolta Dynax 7D (aka Maxxum 7D or α-7 Digital). It was my first DSLR and I bought it after a trip to Southern China in 2004, still with my film camera. I wanted a sophisticated, modern DSLR, and that was the Dynax 7D with a big and heavy body, and enough dials and knobs to make a space shuttle cockpit look like a minimalist’s work. And it already had in-body image stabilization to get the best out of the mind-boggling 6.1 megapixels. After this trip I used the camera just once more (it was already 6-7 years old) and then switched to the Sony A77 because it created twice as large photos with its 24 MP sensor (plus some other catch-up). Already in Vietnam, my wide-angle zoom lens died as it dropped from a table and literally broke apart. I finished the rest of the trip with my normal primes and a tele-zoom only. I guess, this incident was the foundation for my love for longer focal lengths — and my hatred for Sigma lenses. Today, looking at the old photos from the CCD sensor still give me pleasing feeling. The organic look it rendered is gone with modern cameras. Adam wrote about it some time ago when he explicitly bought an old, “flawed” Leica M9 for that particular look.

Btw. You can see more photos from my trip spanning from Hanoi to Saigon, Phnom Penh and Bangkok in my Flickr Album.

Sunset on Phnom Bakheng temple mountain, Angkor
If you can’t escape them, embrace them.

​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    One of the delights of belonging to DS is that it’s a bit like National Geographic – we can all tour the world by enjoying other members’ photos, and still be ecologically correct, as Pascal urged us to the other day, by stying in our homes, watching.

    Love your photos, Steffen – and particularly enjoyed the travelogue that came with them. That’s another thing we’ve been urged on these pages to do while we’re photographing – keep the tourists out of the frame. I never realised, all you have to do is say “tut tut” and they vanish – as so they should, after being tut-tutted.

    Sigh – I’ve seen so many articles by professional photographs claiming that 6MP was just fine, as long as you don’t over-enlarge the shots. Then over the intervening years – and not many of them, either! – this has climbed to 12, to 20, to 24, to 36, yo 45, to 54, to 100. Maybe I’m delusional, but I think there’s something funny in all of that – a bit like Detroit making “last year’s model” so old fashioned that you had to buy this year’s. Why? – well, because . . . well anyway, they’ve changed the over-riders on the bumper bars!

    Sorry to hear about your SIGMA lens – I had two the 24mm & 50mm FF ART lenses. Terrible back focus problems with the 24mm, so I junked it – but the 50mm has always performed extremely well.

    • Hi Pete, the worst thing that environmental protection efforts should do to us as human is not to witness other cultures on the other side of the world. That is very dangerous, IMO. We don’t need to go back to zero, we just need to reduce everything a lot.

      6 MP is enough for online and photo book prints. When it comes to double-page prints or larger wall prints, it’s not enough. For me, 24 MP is the perfect middle ground. But it depends on what you want to achieve. If you always want to sell large prints, a lot MP is a lot better. If you shoot for news agencies, you’re probably fine with <12 MP. For the camera brands, it's very easy to promote them: Higher is better. It's even easier than marketing cars. What does the Golf 8 have over the Golf 7? Looks a bit different. Specs? Dunno.

      Sigma lenses are usually good, very good or excellent. But they're large and heavy. Once I got rid of my large and heavy Sigma, I found my priorities and what I'm looking for in lenses.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Hi Steffen,
    Great memories… I spent 2 weeks in Siem Reap in 2016; Angkor Vat is quite unique; also, some temples up North still have that magical “just found in the jungle” feeling 🙂
    This is the second time your picture have a strange effect on me; not only their simplicity, which connects me with those days we were just documenting our travels rather than thinking as “photogs”, but yes, they have something charming, organic… still your old CCD Minolta?

    • Thank you, Pascal. Would you agree with my description of Angkor 5 years later?
      Yes, I try to make my photos look as casual as possible. I think it makes viewers relate to them easier. When was the first time you noticed this “strange effect”?
      And yes, it’s still the Minolta with its CCD sensor, as mentioned in the last paragraph. But it was her last or second to last use as it was already quite old then and was replaced by the A77, staying in the same system.

      • Pascal Ravach says:

        Yes, Steffen, Angkor Vat didn’t change much… still a magnificent place, heartily recommended.
        But people keep changing (or not?)… zillions of tourists, with some less than ideal attitude, so even early or late the site is flooded with them… not a good place to dream; must be patient, clever and lucky 🙂
        On top, I purchased the 6-days ticket… and got “temple-sick” after 3 days… a real overdose 🙂
        Hence my preference for more “lost” temples like Preah Vihear or Koh Ker… the “vibration” is intact there… until they will become famous too… familiar story with un-un-destinations 😀
        Moreover, I stayed in SR with a Belgian friend married to a Cambodia woman; so I watched a lot of the local dramatic issues, like the police corruption (in plain sight…), the terrible administration guys, former Red khmer having managed to stay powerful and merciless, etc… it likey put me way less in a dream state…
        The first time was your former post, from Saigon (where I live with my Vietnamese wife part of the year) and Cambodia…
        I now use a Sony too (the A7R2, superb match for my legacy Olympus lenses), but the charm of CCD sensors is “real” to me… some fans of former Leica models seem to agree 🙂

  • >