Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Travel Cambodia by Photos

We’ve never had a disappointing photo trip to Cambodia or Myanmar (Burma) and once again both destinations delivered for us on our recent photo tour.

Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temples

Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a “bucket list” type experience and of course we were no exception. The only problem is that it always seems like every tourist in Cambodia has the same idea. It’s still possible to get some incredible images (I took the one to the left despite the scene around me looking like the image below).

One great thing about photographing Angkor from the West at sunrise is that the structure itself is silhouetted. That can be important as there is nearly perpetual restoration work on the temple itself so there are always some unfortunately colored green tarps somewhere on the towers that are hard to hide and painful to remove in Photoshop. But of course with a silhouette shot it is much easier to ignore them.

Once the sun is up you begin to realize just how many other amazing structures are lurking in the forest nearby. Some of them like Angkor Thom are actually larger than Angkor Wat and offer even more impressive photo opportunities like those we found at the North and East Gates and the Bayon towers. This year Cambodia was blessed with a very strong rainy season so many of the pools at the temples had plenty of water.

Since much of the source of power for the Khmer empire was their irrigation system—allowing them to have two or three rice crops per year, freeing up citizens for the army and temple building—and the temples are in many cases built to help glorify those efforts it is always special to see them in their natural condition with the various ponds and reflecting pools clean and full.

Cambodia Today

As inspiring as the many ancient temples are they are only one reason to visit Cambodia. This primarily rural country has many small villages full of friendly people, colorful markets, and lots of opportunities to learn about and help with some of their unique problems.

A large portion of the Cambodian population was either imprisoned or killed under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Their “liberation” by the Vietnamese communists who then governed the country for another twelve years was only a relative improvement. But since their independence in 1980 the Cambodians have made great strides in creating the institutions of democracy and a market economy.

But the legacies of decades of war are still visible. One of the most horrific was the seeding of the country with millions of landmines from the literally dozens of different armed groups that were involved in the string of conflicts that raged through Southeast Asia in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Temples off the Beaten Path

Some of my very favorite temples are ones which are a little off the beaten path or not on the “whirlwind tour” list of sights. Standing beneath their towers in the dead quiet jungle you can almost imagine that you were back a thousand years ago when they were built.

It is hard to believe when you first see the mammoth stone edifices but the Khmer never invented the arch, so all of the temples are made of stacks of large blocks of rock using either lintels or corbelling to create interior space.

More incredible is that they did not use any type of mortar so the structures were all “dry-stacked” together, in many cases so carefully hewn that a piece of paper would not slide between blocks each weighing many tons—and hauled as far as 60 miles from where they were originally quarried.

Beng Melea has been left nearly untouched from the way it was found in the jungle. Since it was surrounded by landmines until it was cleared just a couple years ago it is also very well preserved.

Wandering around it makes you feel a little like Indiana Jones.

Srah Srang Reservoir at Sunset. Water was central to the Khmer empire, whether it was the huge lakes used to feed their irrigation systems or “decoratitve” reservoirs like this one used by royalty.

Bantay Samre is nearly as intricate as the larger Angkor Wat, but because it is a little harder to get to it is much less crowded.

Stairs in this temple, like many, were steep on purpose as the “stairway to heaven” was supposed to be difficult. Today many of them are protected with wooden overlays which will preserve their rock faces and make climbing much easier for visitors.

Beyond Angkor—Rolous

Many tourists never get a chance to get very far from Siem Reap and the Angkor temples, since it typically requires having a driver and vehicle and it helps to have a Cambodian guide to translate as needed with the locals.

We always take a day to venture a little further afield and visit both the Rolous Group of temples—the pre-Angkorian Khmer temples—and the surrounding towns, monasteries and markets.

Many of the more remote temples are treated as a regular feature of village life by the locals. This girl was on her way to school cutting through the temple grounds when she stopped to pose for Alison to capture her portrait. Many of the children enjoy having their photos taken and even posing for shots in exchange for getting to look at the results in the LCD.

By: David Cardinal


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