A journey worth 40 years to reach.
Angkor Wat is in Cambodia. It is the county’s most notable tourism feature and the largest religious monument in the world, covering over 154 square miles, with numerous archaeological temple sites that visitors can access. The site is protected today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with restoration and preservation maintenance being done at many of the temples since the early to mid 1900’s.
Tourism to the area rose rapidly since the turn of the century. Before 2000 less than 10,000 visitors were said to have visited the site in a given year. In 2013 more than two million tourists were recorded visiting Angkor Wat. For photographers, Angkor Wat offers the complete range of opportunities to satisfy every commonly known style of photography there is – from landscape to travel, architecture, and documentary, even portraiture. I tried to think of a typical category of photography that couldn’t be found in Angkor but could not.
Getting to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat requires some clever planning, or deeper pockets than a backpacker ordinarily likes to wear.
The airport at Siem Reap is one of the more costly destinations for international flights to fly into. It’s the luxury choice for travelers who have more money than time or tolerance for multi-staged travel. Fortunately this isn’t the only way into Siem Reap, or the favored option for that matter.
There are a few other options for general travelers and small-budget backpackers. First, and most popular, is flying into Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, then traveling up to Siem Reap by domestic air, bus or shuttle on the highway, or boat up the Tonle Sap river.
Getting to Siem Reap via Phnom Penh is a backpacker and tourist favorite.
It affords two destinations to visit in one trip. Travelers often stay overnight or longer in the big capital city, then make their way up to the temples of Angkor Wat and stay in Siem Reap for a few days to explore the sights before heading back to Phnom Penh for their return flight or to move onto their next destination.
For the more adventurous traveler, there is another route across country from Bangkok, Thailand which crosses the border at Aranyaprathet/Poipet. It is a less taken route – likely because the border crossing is a bit complicated, and definitely not a hassle-free connection point for travelers.
This route is best recommended for the adventure backpacker and the super-budget traveler. First-time international travelers, wheeled-luggage laden tourists, visitors with families and small children, or timid and easily persuaded personality types might want to avoid this option.
There are cross-country shuttle buses that coordinate travel all the way from Bangkok, through the border, and onto Siem Reap which try to simplify the journey that families or wheeled-luggage tourists might opt for, but option is costly and some people I spoke to said it got a little confusing at the border.
If you are the adventurous type, the backpacker that is looking for the most immersive experience, then the train across Thailand to the border is the way to go.
My trip from Bangkok started early. The train to the border departs Hua Lamphong train station at about 5:30 am. A ticket on the open-seat, open-air train costs a whopping 48 baht, or roughly $1.30 USD. The trip is roughly 5 hours, and crosses some of the most amazing countryside.
The adventure ratchets up a notch at the border because that’s where the train travel ends and hiking, tuk-tuks, and highway shuttle buses are the next modes of transit onwards to Siem Reap.
The rail stops at Aranyaprathet and there is no railway in Cambodia to link up with so over-the-road shuttles or buses are the only option.
Tuk-tuk drivers (motorcycle taxis) are at the train station in droves so finding a driver wasn’t the most difficult thing to do but wasn’t a guarantee either.
The challenge is negotiating a reasonable fare – because after living in China for so long, everything is a haggle. Not that the drivers are out to shaft you with an inflated quote – the norm is 100 baht. But if you haggle, you might get the driver to drop his rate to 80 baht or 60 if you’re wicked good at haggling.
A bigger, and far more important negotiation to win was getting the driver to drop me off at the real border. There is also a fake (not government operated) border visa office that will most likely give the driver a commission for every uninformed traveler they drop at the door. Drivers like to take you there. My driver dropped me there but thankfully I already has all of my documents so the employee inside simply showed me to the exit door and pointed toward the border crossing.
Cambodia is not a stamp-on-arrival country for U.S. travelers. They request an entry visa and a fee. You can take care of this early by online application and have your credentials all in order before you arrive. You can get your visa at the border also and the approval process is fairly short, but if the lines are long or you get there late in the day you might be spending the night in the casinos at the border. If you fall for the fake border you’ll pay out the nose and might still have to pay for an official visa once you get to the real border.
Traveler posts at many popular online travel websites warn against this practice and recommend to avoid spending any more time than necessary at the Aranyaprathet/Poipet border, and to avoid the casinos all together.
Navigating the border crossing by foot can be a bit daunting. Signs directing foot traffic are small and at one point it will appear to dead-end at an open market. Keep at it and you’ll see the narrow fenced entrance to the departure corridor.
Once you cross into Cambodia there is a free official shuttle to the bus depot. From the bus depot you can grab the next shuttle heading for Siem Reap.
Watch out for unofficial vans or cars right at the border offering to go to Siem Reap though. They might take you all the way to your destination. They might stop halfway and try to negotiate for more money. They may stop along the way at roadside tourist traps and “suggest” you buy a few things before heading on to Siem Reap.
It’s best to stick with the official shuttle to the depot. From the depot, shuttle drivers will depart once they have enough riders to fill their bus or shuttle.
From the depot to Siem Reap takes roughly 2 to 3 hours. If the border lines are not long and your shuttle fills quickly at Poipet, you can be in Siem Reap by late afternoon – in time to check into a hotel, clean up, get a short rest, and be ready to hit Pub Street for dinner.
From the train, through the border, to the shuttle Depot took me roughly two hours. I was on a small cramped shuttle van maxed with passengers by early afternoon. Soon I would be in Siem Reap and once we were underway I felt the stress of crossing the border and finding the shuttle so I closed my eyes and slept most of the ride across Cambodia.
The shuttle-bus arrived at the edge of Siem Reap a few hours later where I hopped out, grabbed my bags, and repeated the process of negotiating a ride with a tuk-tuk driver – this time to get me to a hotel.
Siem Reap is a small town with gravel roads, dirt roads, dusty pavement, and shacks for roadside convenience stores. It also has some modern developments, fresh construction, newly painted facades, and lots of small restaurants and boutique stores which cater to international tourists.
It’s one of those towns that wouldn’t likely exist if not for its close proximity to a famous tourist destination. And as such, the city is rich with local culture infused with international influences. The shops, boutiques, and especially the night markets are flush with local goods for tourists. Restaurants serve everything from authentic local cuisine (further off the main tourist streets) to international foods – Mexican, Italian, Irish, American pizza and burgers, and more (mostly along the main restaurant road named “Pub Street”). “Pub Street” is a block stretch of international restaurants lining both sides of the street but no pubs to speak of, which is a little misleading. The best bars are off pub street and most businesses take US dollars so exchanging to the local riel is not necessary.
When I crossed the border into Cambodia I went to the currency exchange window and, unsure about the cost of things, exchanged $100 US to Riel. Big mistake! First, the exchange rate is roughly 4000 to 1 so by exchanging $100 I was handed a huge, fist-tall, stack of cash. It is not easy to pocket such a wad. Second, an embarrassing learning curve – locals instantly slash the zeros from any price quoted in their currency. So when I asked the cost of a bottle of water and the man quoted me “four” my mind recoiled with shock and a slight panic. I wondered how I’d ever spend half a million Riel in a week if things were so grossly inexpensive. However, I needn’t have worried. The smallest note I had was a 1000 Riel and as I waited for the chunk of change coming my way from the single note I handed him I quickly understood my math was off – him standing with his hand out still waiting for the other three notes and me pocketing my “Costanza’esque” wallet. My water wasn’t 4 Riel – it was 4000 Riel. Awkward. And my instant new wealth evaporated as suddenly as it had developed.
One dollar for water may not seem like much coming from the states but where I live year-round, a bottle of water is more like $0.27. So Siem Reap is an affordable backpacker destination but it isn’t a budget holiday by every measure.
Other items vastly span the splurge-or-thrift spectrum. Hotel rooms run the range – from $3-4 dollars-per-night hostels to $50 and higher first class private retreats. Meals can cost from a dollar for awesome local stir-fry to costly fine dining with white tablecloth service.
Siem Reap has just enough to offer the traveler to entertain them when they’re back from Angkor Wat. Afterall, the reason the town thrives is its close proximity to one of the world’s oldest, largest, and most popular archeological sites – Angkor Wat.
To get into the temple grounds, you need a visitor pass. They sell three versions at the main entrance – the day pass, a three-day pass, and a seven-day pass. The passes are very straightforward in how often you get to enter – the day pass is just that, valid for the day, a three-day pass gives you access to the park for three consecutive days, but on the seven-day pass you can access the park up to seven times within a month. Each time you visit, a guard at the gate will punch your card to count the number of visits you’ve had.
I went with the seven-day pass. Angkor Wat is an enormous park with quite a few temples and structures to visit. A one-day or three-day pass just wasn’t going to be enough for me, knowing that I was staying for a week and had planned to photograph sunrise and sunset on at least four of the days while I was there.
Awake for sunrise isn’t one of my strong points but I was going to have to get over that to experience the best Angkor Wat had to offer. Angkor Wat faces west. The most photographed temple of the complex shows best at sunrise when the sun comes up over its three towers and sets the foreground lake alight with glittering reflections of the structure and sky above.
Seeing and photographing sunrise over the temple is so popular, in fact, that tour guides, tuk-tuk drivers, even gate personal and hotel staff, plan for this each day. Guides and drivers know the best time to set-off to get to the temple steps in time to set up your camera. Hotel staff will set out an early to-go breakfast for you if you ask the night before. And gate agents appear to be at full staff the moment the gate opens in order to keep the surge of visitors already in line well before dawn from bottle-necking too much.
I negotiated a deal with the tuk-tuk driver I met on arrival at Siem Reap to be my driver for the duration of my stay in town.
After a good night’s rest and a lite bit of walking around the night markets and restaurants I was ready to see Angkor. I had plenty of time to take in all of the sites so I wasn’t in a big hurry to see sunrise of the first morning in town. My driver, John, and I planned to start a bit late the first morning, pick up the visitor pass and drive around the entire grounds. Like we discussed, John came to pick me up around mid-morning. We picked up the pass and drove through the entire Angkor Wat compound. It takes a while just to drive through the entire park. After riding through the park, we headed back to Siem Reap and I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around town. There isn’t much to do in town during the afternoon. Since most people there are visiting Angkor lots of stores and restaurants are closed. The night market is empty and everything is very quiet, almost abandoned feeling.
The second day in Siem Reap I was ready to see and photograph sunrise over Angkor Wat.
John picked me up at a few minutes past 4 am. I was walking across the temple entrance in absolute darkness. The small circles of light scattered across the stone walkway from the early arrivals’ headlamps, flashlights, and phone screens was a surreal experience. Guide books don’t mention it. Reviews and news articles don’t talk about it. It was one of the many moments throughout my journey that was a welcome surprise and one that had to be lived to best be appreciated.
The other experience that travel guides and news articles seem to like to talk most about, the crowds, was a different story. If you’ve never lived outside of the US or you enjoy a US supersized circumference of personal space around you, then you are in for a rough experience.
Fortunately I’ve been in China, living in a city of more than 12 million people for a long time now so my US size personal space buffer has shrunk like a wool sweater washed and put in a drier set on high heat.
I was one of the first people to get to the water’s edge to set up my camera for the sunrise photos. However, it wasn’t long – ten minutes or so – before the shoreline was packed and the crowd of people coming to see the sunrise grew row by row deeper behind me by the minute after that.
There is no reason to be rude but you do need to stand your ground when the person to your left or right starts squeezing their tripod under yours or tries to nudge into the inch or two space of rocks in front of you. Otherwise you’ll soon find yourself being backed into the crowd as more people assume it is OK to just nudge their way into another tiny space in front of you.
I found it best to just explain that I was photographing with a wide angle lens and unless they wanted to be in my photograph there was an invisible line not to cross. It’s most likely the person next to you is also a photographer also shooting wide and also appreciates not having someone’s shoulder in their shot.
After sunrise the crowds thin out. Some head back to get breakfast. Others begin to filter into the temple.
Photographers know that the morning “golden hour” comes just after sun-up so that’s the best time to head into the temple to capture those beautiful long shadows and amazing textures in the reliefs carved into the walls. And since the heaviest crowds haven’t made it into the park yet and most of the sunrise watchers are back having breakfast, you’ll have the place almost to yourself. That was my experience. It made for some great intimate scenes where just one or a few people were idly taking in the sites.
By the time the crowds begin to file into the temple halls the sun is high enough in the sky that angles are gone and at this point I’ve been shooting for the better part of four hours. It’s time for a break. It’s time for more coffee.
At the parking grounds in front of Angkor Wat there is a restaurant, the Blue Pumpkin, that serves coffee. It is a costly quaint cup of coffee, but caffeine nonetheless.
After a refreshing cup of coffee, a chance to settle down, sit down, and rest, it was time to see more of Angkor.
Photography was still an important part of my trip but now that it was creeping toward mid-day and the light is at its worst at that time, photographing was not my driving motivation. I wanted to see Angkor. I wanted to explore the ruins. And I was not left disappointed. Angkor had plenty for me to see.
Afternoons, turns out, are the best time to head back to the cool comforts of the hotel room, charge up any batteries that were depleted, and download all of the images from the SD cards to an external hard drive.
A lot of visitors to Angkor bike in from town on rented bikes or bikes provided by the hotel if the hotel has this service. The comments at online travel sites vary from “Best biking ever!” to “Riding a bike to Angkor Wat was the worst idea ever!” with plenty of peppered experiences in between.
The hotel I stayed at had a bike they let me use for the day to bike to Angkor Wat. It was a fine experience. It does make you realize very quickly how much gear you’re hauling and the reality check is a great way to lighten your load and leave a few things back at the hotel that day.
Over the next few days, I arranged to see and photograph sunrise one more time, and photograph the super-moon moon-rise on the night that was to take place. I visited Angkor five times, biked in and around Angkor one day, saw all of the most noteworthy temples, climbed hundreds upon hundreds of steps, and hiked through a bit of the jungle between temples.
Visiting and photographing Angkor Wat is definitely a must-see place to visit during your lifetime and I am more than satisfied with my experience there.
It is a place I would like to return to someday.