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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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