Thousands of people crowd around in the dark. The day is already hot and it’s not even 5am yet.
“You buy? For sale, you buy?” a boy, maybe twelve, holds a few books in his hands… nothing more than pamphlets, really. I wave my hand in a universal, “No thank you” gesture and he moves on. The ear numbing clicking of cameras and the snapping of phone apps collide violently with the foreign songs of native birds that fill the surrounding trees and temples.
The moon is still full as digital nomads set up their tri-pods and little girls with baskets of handmade bracelets bombard the masses. “You buy? Very pretty on you, yes? You want? You buy?” With sad eyes I wave my hand again, which has become a multiple-times-a-day practice.I gently push my way forward, and stand on a rock to get a head up on those around me. The sun begins to rise as I look through my lens. I focus, take a breath and steady myself.
For a moment I join in on the maddening digital assault.
I move to the left so that elbow is not in the frame.
I move to the right so his hat isn’t blocking the reflection on the water.
I take another just for good measure.
I lower my camera and look at what sets directly in front of me. Breathtaking. I settle for what I have and while everyone else takes a million more photo’s, I move across the bridge and into the first temple.
It’s gorgeous, ancient, and cool in the shadow of the morning. This is what I came for.
I drug myself out of bed at 3:30am, caught a TukTuk by 4:00 and anxiously joined in the rat race bound for the entrance of Angkor Wat. The ride alone was a thrill, and once at the gate I paid what, at the time, was equivalent to about $20 USD. I stood in line, had my picture taken, and waited for my pass to be printed. It was early and no doubt I looked a bit rough, but it was a fabulous souvenir that didn’t take up very much space at all in my pack! I had settled on the 1 day pass, but they have other options if you’re a real history buff and want to spend more time there.
Angkor Wat is a temple complex just outside of Siem Reap, and the largest religious monument in the world. It’s surrounded by a moat and outer walls approximately 2 miles in length. This area is massive! The grounds are vast, roughly 500 sprawling acres, and part of our deal with the tuk-tuk driver was that we had him all day. He took us from one temple to another, which proved very convenient.
There are bikes for rent and even though we had thought seriously about riding our way through Angkor Wat, we were ultimately very happy we decided against it. I didn’t want to risk losing time by getting lost, frustrated or the like. And even though it was a day in late November, it reached a stifling 90 degrees.
The humidity and lack of shade proved an intense pair, and we happily poured back into the tuk-tuk between temples, secretly pitying the sweat-drenched tourists on bicycles.
A well known “Fun Fact” about Angkor Wat is that it was featured in Angelina Jolie’s film, “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider.” So of course we had to see the locations we recognized from the movie! And, you guessed it, they happen to be a very hot spot for photo op’s. You can’t tell in the photo, but I’m being watched by at least 200 people.
DISCLAIMER: No judging my pants! They were really common when I bought them while making our way through Malaysia. But oh boy did my friends have a hay-day when they picked me up at the Chicago airport and I came walking out of the terminal wearing them!!
Okay, back to my experience at Angkor Wat… Yes, so I had to get my photo taken pulling out my glocks! I’m a nerd, what can I say!?
About 2.3 million people from all parts of the world flock to Siem Reap year-round just to catch a glimpse of Angkor Wat. Generally speaking, you can rely on sayings like, “The early bird gets the worm” and “The earlier the better” … and although I’d agree with the latter, you still need to expect crowds. And I mean SERIOUS crowds. Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is a thing. And rightfully so, it’s absolutely gorgeous during the morning hours. The heat isn’t so bad either! But it really doesn’t matter what time of day (or year!) you decide to go, you need to bank on it being chaos.
So if you are a photographer – or just one at heart, like myself – patience is key! And lucky for me, my girlfriend has more than I do! So she kindly waited… and waited… and waited for me to snap the shots I did. But don’t be fooled, there were thousands of people here the day we were – Thanksgiving day, actually! I’ll add a photo at the end of this article so you can see the mass of people I’m talking about.
Our tuk-tuk driver gave us loads of information during our short rides between temples. Explaining to us how and when they were built, who they were built for and why. Information that I didn’t quite retain all of. But so informative, which was great since we didn’t pay the extra money to book a tour (our daily budget was 12 USD – combined!! And we had already more than blown it by purchasing passes. I’ll elaborate more on how we averaged 12 USD a day in the near future).
There’s also a small restaurant that if you take a tour, your guide will incorporate into your day. I’ll be honest, the food wasn’t amazing and is extremely over-priced. We were used to spending around 50 cents per meal but here the cheapest menu item was around 5 USD! They definitely jack up the prices for tourists, but on the up-side, it’s going to a good cause. Everything you spend at Angkor Wat either goes to the individual selling the merchandise, or to the Temple Complex itself – helping to maintain the condition it’s currently in for visitors to come.
If you’re ever in the area I highly recommend spending a day at Angkor Wat, although personally anything more than a day would have been over-kill for me. They provide one day, three day, and seven day passes. Generally they are about 20 USD apart:
But please check online in advance for ticket prices, as these are always changing and due to increase in the coming months. They have also made a more strict dress code because some tourists took some nude photographs during their visit. These temples are considered sacred, and it’s highly disrespectful to do such things. Beginning January of 2017 you must have your shoulders and knees covered, or you will be turned away at the gate. I’d take a wrap or a sheer scarf for your shoulders, with the heat you won’t want anything more than that!
And I can’t stress enough in these SE Asian countries – haggle!
Haggle, Haggle, Haggle!
If I’ve learned one thing during the course of my life, it’s that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. You want to save some $$$? Listen up! One USD is about the equivalent of 20,000 KHR. You shouldn’t pay more than 15 USD (61,000 KHR) for a tuk-tuk guide for the day. When I struck up the deal with our tuk-tuk driver to not only pick us up and drop us off, but to be our “guide” throughout the day, we ended up agreeing on just under 40,000 KHR which was a little less than 10 USD. To give you an idea of their economy and cost of living, generally Cambodians make just under 3 USD per day at any given day job. That’s under 13,000 KHR. Keep this fact in mind when you’re getting played by tuk-tuk drivers or street vendors! If you don’t negotiate – or haggle – you’ll be paying their bills for the whole month! And you’re just ONE person! (Read my The Art Of Haggling post here to learn more!)
As for the crowd shots I promised ya earlier… I’m a stickler for taking human-free photo’s, but here’s a few that I kept solely for this purpose!
Been here? Headed here? I would love to hear from you! Share any thoughts, tips, or advice in the comments section below!