The Temples of Angkor – Part 1

Quite simply, the temples of Angkor are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Guidebooks will tell you the scale, and you’ll think you can comprehend it, but it defies words. Our visit to the temples of Angkor was split over the course of multiple days, letting us tailor our experience for photography but also avoid tourists.

The Lonely Planet tells you that you should buy your pass the afternoon you arrive in Siem Reap and then catch sunset since this gives you an extra “day” free. We didn’t do this, but Lonely Planet isn’t wrong. However, access to Phnom Bakheng is now limited so you may or may not get the acclaimed “sunset view.” I hardly think it matters; Angkor Wat at sunset is spectacular from nearly any vantage point.

Because of the vastness and diversity of the temples, I’ll be splitting posts across the days we visited. Today, I’ll focus on Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Angkor Wat.

Bayon Temple
Our first access to the park came in pre-dawn darkness. We hired a tuk tuk to pick us up before dawn and made our way to Bayon to catch first light on the faces of the temple. The only light was that from the tuk tuk headlight that illuminated the road in front of us, hardly enough to comprehend what was around us. We made our way through the imposing gate of Angkor Thom and into the jungle that covers the immense grounds. Although we couldn’t make it out, the jungle made its eerie presence felt. A couple turns later, the tuk tuk stopped and deposited us at the causeway leading to Bayon temple. We used our headlights to illuminate our steps down the causeway to the temple. Anne and I felt like explorers illuminating a long lost temple for the first time. 

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Bayon temple isn’t on the scale of some of the other temples, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in personality. Large faces anoint virtually every aspect of the temple, 216 of them in total. Combined, they make for an imposing structure, and one that begs for photographic attention. Morning light is great after the sun crests above the trees, providing warm rich light and adding depth to the carvings. Since the temple isn’t typically a first stop for most tourists you can also have the place mostly to yourself.

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The top level provides the best access to the faces but there are many hallways that also have interesting surprises. APSARA authority workers will often bring their children with them to the temples making for interesting compositions.

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Anne and I visited the temple twice, once during sunrise and once at sunset. At sunset, many of the tourists have already departed for Angkor Wat, and there’s a steady stream of Cambodians making their way home on bikes. Monks in the neighboring temple come out and eat or drink energy drinks around or in the temple, making for different yet equally amazing photography (those pictures in a subsequent post).

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Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is most famous for the large strangler figs that wrap various parts of the temple, slowly demolishing it. Ta Prohm walks a fine balance of restoration and wilderness, a curated “Tomb Raider” scene. We visited Ta Prohm mid-morning based on advice from the Lonely Planet guide book indicating that it would have fewer tourists at that hour. If that was the case, it wasn’t evident.

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Regardless of tourists or heat, Ta Prohm is an incredible place to wander. The scale is hidden, both by the jungle and the ruin of the temple. Work is currently in progress at several locations around the temple, most notably at the central tower and causing some areas to be closed off to visitors.

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Careful exploration will allow you to find new and interesting scenes that haven’t been photographed to death (which is difficult given the number of tourists). At mid-morning, the light was harsh enough to make most photography difficult. We also found the photogenic spots that spoke to us most were west facing, indicating that later afternoon would have been more ideal for photography.

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Angkor Wat
Anne and I concluded our day with sunset at Angkor Wat. The temple faces west, which pairs nicely with the afternoon light. We arrived around 4PM thinking this would give us plenty of time to look around and scout the best locations for sunset. However, we spent over an hour just approaching the temple because of all the various people, monks, and religious ceremonies going on. If you’re going to go for sunset, plan for extra time to explore the people and culture…

The temple has undergone restoration over the last couple decades, restoring much of it and giving visitors a real sense of its original glory. The temple is surrounded by a 190m wide moat forming a giant rectangle that measures 1.3km by 1.5km. Inside the moat is a wall that runs around the entire complex. A wide causeway crosses the moat and leads to the temple from the west. There are three towers through which visitors can enter the grounds of the temple. In the right tower, you’ll find a large statue of Vishnu that was originally located on the third level of the central complex. This statue is now used as a place for locals to make offerings and provides a window into local religious culture.

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Continuing through the wall, the causeway continues into the large courtyard. Libraries stand on either side. Here we found a couple monks who we engaged in conversation. One of them spoke with very good English. His friend was slightly more timid. We talked for a while, about where we had traveled, where we were going, and where their home was. When he found out that Anne was from Canada, he admitted that he loved Celine Dion and asked Anne to sing a song for him!

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We continued into the temple to make the best of the quickly fading light. We bypassed the extensive Bas reliefs and went straight for the third level of the temple, which unfortunately closed at 5:30PM. As we were getting ready to leave, we did have a guard come ask us if we wanted to pay him for a “private” tour of the third level. We declined (though we were tempted; encouraging this sort of entrepreneurialism is the sort of thing that leads to archeological poaching) and headed back to town.

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You can’t go wrong visiting the temple at sunset. With a clear sky you get some great light on the western aspects. Virtually any window facing the sun will allow for interesting compositions. However, I found the highlight of both days the Angkor Wat to be the people. From children to monks, they added warmth and personality to the place. I do wish I’d taken some long exposure shots on the main causeway or the steps to the third level to show the energy of the tourism, but my only regret is that we didn’t spend more time there.

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