May 31, 2020

Rising with the Ancients || Angkor Wat

Rising with the Ancients || Angkor Wat, Cambodia November 2018 ||  Nikon D850, Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 46 mm, f/10, 0.8", ISO 50 & Lee 3 stop ND grad filter

Angkor: My Journey, Stories and Tips! (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

Have you heard of Angkor Wat? Have you dreamed of seeing the marvels of the Khmer Empire and an epic sunrise at Angkor Wat

On a more trite note, have you seen "Tomb Raider" with Angelina Jolie and wanted to see those amazing ancient temples being consumed by the forest and massive trees? Haha yeah

If "YES" to any or all of that, then this post is for you. All of that can be found at Angkor north of Siem Reap in Cambodia.

What you will learn from this blog post: 

- About my journeys, stories,  images and even a book I wrote from my trip to and time at Angkor

- Travel and photography tips getting to Angkor and maximizing the photography experience

- Some history and other information about the location


This post is a bit longer than usual--  but hey there is SOOO much to cover from this incredible trip and place! Angkor is massive.  I could have spent weeks to months there. So, grab a coffee and I hope you enjoy reading... it all. 

Why Journey to Angkor?:

Since childhood, I have had a fascination with the Middle Ages predominantly in Europe and Japan. Medieval architecture specifically castles captivated me with their beauty as incredible feats of complex construction. I also discovered during the same period all over the world, many civilizations built castle-like structures with similar designs and features despite significant interaction.

I first learned about Angkor and the Khmer Empire in middle school but unfortunately the curriculum of my history classes did not cover these topics in a meaningful way. While Khmer architecture does exhibit some medieval features similar to European castles, Angkor structures have unique distinctions which drove me to want to see and experience first hand.

As part of my 2018 tour through Southeast Asia (that included Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Japan), I reserved 6 days for Cambodia specifically to visit Angkor Wat, capture an epic sunrise there and photograph as much of Angkor as possible with limited time. While I was not able to visit or photograph the entirety of Angkor due to its sheer enormity and an almost endless number of temples and sites, I managed to cover the most famous locations and many others in a very short period of time.

Summary of My Trip:

At Angkor, I took approximately 2,000 photos in 6 days, learned more about the history of Cambodia, its people, the Khmer Empire and Angkor, and had many once in a lifetime experiences not even depicted in this book. Some of these experiences included:

- I witnessed the most epic sunrise of my life, from the shore of The Northern Reflection Pond at Angkor Wat, and shared the sun in the shadows of the ancients hearkening back to how they must have enjoyed this spot centuries ago. This experience left an indelible sense of spirituality within me. I took hundreds of images here (many presented below), morning, day and night.

- Angkor Wat may be one of the most visited locations on Earth each year. While I felt overwhelmed by tourists at times, I learned later I joined approximately 2.6 million other visitors during 2018 (and approximately 300,000 visitors during my time November 5-12, 2018) in my journey to this incredible destination.

- I learned Cambodian people may be the friendliest on Earth perhaps cultural heritage descended directly from the Khmer Empire. While analyzing Khmer art across Angkor, I noticed happy, smiling faces, celebration and joy predominating the scenes.

- I experienced this same spirit daily through locals. Sadly, I learned deeper details about the terrifying history of the murderous reign of Pol Pot and The Khmer Rouge that occurred from 1975 to 1979, and the acts of genocide this maniac waged that nearly wiped out an entire generation of Cambodian people. I visited locations in the Kulen Mountains close to where The Khmer Rouge fled during ouster. My guide avoided taking me anywhere near the dangerous land mine laden locations that still exist and claim lives every year. While far reaching effects are still felt from this period of darkness, Cambodia is recovering. I was amazed at how the people are still so happy, friendly and kind-hearted given that painful and horrifying history.

- I made my first land border crossing in southeast Asia from Thailand into Cambodia near Krong Poi Pet by Giant Ibis Bus line who made this entire experience wonderful.

- I saw preparations being made by Cambodian rice farmers for a December harvest, which probably looked this way hundreds to thousands of years ago.

- I froggered over rocks in a rushing river to take pictures of the most famous waterfall in Cambodia. I met amazing photographers, travellers and new friends, from all over the world, at every stop along the way.

- I wrote a book about it: “Angkor: Glory of the Khmer Empire (802 - 1431 AD),” which is a history and travel photography book that begins with the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire, as a backdrop to set the stage for the book’s images depicting the magnificence and beauty of Khmer art, architecture and landscapes, and offers travel tips and picture taking insights for a journey to Angkor and a few surrounding areas. If you are interested in reading or even buying this book, you may visit my  Products link to the left or go directly to Blurb for more information. 

While my book "Angkor" features hundreds and hundreds of the images from my time there, and an account of the actual history of this marvelous place, which I encourage you to check out and buy if you want the real full story, I write this blog post as a supplement to tell other parts of the story, and share images not in the book that I captured on the fly with my iPhone. I hope this blog post will help you find your way to Angkor and assist with logistics, whens and wheres, and how to capture amazing photos of your own.

How to Get to Angkor:

Angkor is located in the forests of Siem Reap Province, north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Angkor holds the endless treasures from the Khmer Empire which includes over 1,000 temples and is the world's largest single religious monument. 

As of the date of this post, over two-million visitors make their way to Angkor annually which presents a host of new challenges to preservation. In 1992, Angkor finally became protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The best ways to get to Angkor are:

- Flying - this is the easiest. Fly into Siem Reap

- Bus - for those who want the adventure like I did, I highly recommend making a land journey by bus from Thailand or Vietnam and enjoy the thrill of cross country touring and border crossings. I used Giant Ibis, see the gallery below. 

Giant Ibis Bus:

On Monday November 5, 2018, I awoke in Bangkok very early to get packed and make it in time to the Giant Ibis bus station. After a coffee at 7 AM, I left for the station and arrived at 7:20 AM (after coaching the taxi driver how to get there). I arrived to a massive line at the tiny Giant Ibis terminal. They have no space for seating, it was merely a kiosk. To describe the scene with one word: chaos. People were unsettled due to the uncertainty of the situation and lack of communication. Departure was set for 7:30 AM. Suddenly, the bus began boarding in no order, loading bags, with no announcements or information -- it was tough and crazy. I suggest arriving early to be safe.

Once we boarded, things settled down and became very fun. The staff on the bus was hilarious. They gave us a muffin, a water, a coffee in a can and lunch which was all very good for "bus food" in my opinion. The drive from Bangkok to the border was fairly uneventful. They have free WiFi and while it was spotty, it worked enough to let me listen to music the whole way! I loved this ride. 

Crossing the Border:

I enjoyed this entire experience which represented the first land border crossing for me in my life in an international destination. Many folks have asked me for details about this so they can understand ahead of time. While it can be a bit disconcerting (especially for those control freaks out there, haha you know who you are), just relax, smile, go with the flow and know it will all work out. 

Generally speaking, crossing the border was much easier than expected. First, we got off the bus. Because I had an e-visa, it made it even easier for me on the Thailand side of the border (and no handing over my passport to the driver at this point --I recommend this for speed and peace of mind but not necessary at all). Second, we walked through rows of Thai vendors selling all kinds of trinkets. Third, we walked into the customs office and there was no one in line (not sure why as it had been rumored to be extremely long line, long waits with commotion, and very hard to cross--NOT at all to me)! Maybe our guide insured we were there at the right time? Hard to know. We walked up to the agents, and they stamped our passports and we left. So easy, I was amazed.

Fourth, we walked into Cambodia to then get stamped on the other side. But, first we needed to meet up with our Giant Ibis Bus and team.  We walked out of the customs station and made our way to a casino nearby to meet the Giant Ibis bus on the Cambodian side of the border. That walk might awaken some to the tragedies of life for the poor here. It did for me sadly. The smell was very difficult to stomach. Be a bit wary here as there are folks looking to scam tourists.  We hurried to the casino. It was of course clean and air conditioned. The heat was unreal and fairly stifling. We had time to use the restroom but no time to play games. 

Next, we boarded, waited, our guide took our passports to get stamped by Cambodian customs agents  (while this is always a bit uneasy for me in a foreign country, rest assured all is fine with Giant Ibis), returned in 15 to 20 minutes and we were off to Siem Reap. In all, no where near as hard as many had told me before, easy in my opinion, actually fun and somewhat enjoyable. Enjoy the experience!

  • Giant Ibis First Stop

    A wide shot of the Giant Ibis bus at our first stop along the Thailand freeway

  • Inside Giant Ibis

    Leather seats, clean with head protective cloth, the ride was smooth and comfortable the entire way

  • Loading the Bus

    The loading process was fast and easy and plenty of head space to bring along your gear and belongings (no issues with safety, security or anything really). Great provider.

  • Riding the Giant Ibis Bus

    A shot while riding of the main guide and tourists enjoying the comfortable ride

  • Lunch on Giant Ibis

    Giant Ibis provided a nice stir fried rice lunch and it was actually very good.

Thirdfold Residence:

The bus ride from the border to Siem Reap was very uneventful, peaceful and spent enjoying music and writing in my journal. The bus stop in Siem Reap was only 3 blocks from my hotel (I cannot remember if I planned that or if that is dumb luck)! The Giant Ibis crew unloaded our bags and lined them up. I grabbed my things and walked to the hotel. I entered and was immediately greeted by the staff at Thirdfold Residence (formerly Sumeru Boutique and Hotel) who are the nicest people about anywhere.

Upon check-in, I inquired about a private driver for the week to lead me around Angkor to minimize transportation issues and maximize photography time. I hired Boren, a vibrant, fun, inquisitive and thoughtful 25-year-old, at an incredibly low rate for the entire 6 day stay. I spent nearly 14 hours with him each day during my trip. I owe much of my trip and its success to the kindness and expertise of the staff at Thirdfold Residence but especially Boren--thank you so much!

I would have preferred to stay in Siem Reap for weeks or even months to experience the treasures of Angkor over and over, but I only had 6 days this time. I will go back. By the way, staying in Siem Reap can be done very affordably. I chose Thirdfold Residence for its reviews and proximity and easy access to Angkor, as a bit more north, away from the Siem Reap downtown, and CHEAP! I think I spent less than USD$75 per night. 

There are many great hotels in Siem Reap and around plus AirBnBs and more. Choose something affordable and more north of the city to minimize travel times and traffic disruptions to and from Angkor. 

  • Thirdfold Lobby

    Lobby to the Thirdfold residence and the friendly staff always with a smile and helpful

  • Wall of Busts

    Thirdfold Residence was ornately decorated and these busts adorning the wall in the lobby are a great example.

  • Thirdfold View

    A view from my room / terrace looking down into the pool area nearing sunset

Angkor: Getting Your Pass / Ticket:

For non-Cambodian citizens, visiting Angkor (and essentially all of its locations) requires a pass/ticket. Pick your pass length based upon the length of your trip and how ambitious you feel about covering the grounds of Angkor (which mind you are massive and take many days if not weeks in my opinion to really enjoy it. Go slow and enjoy).

Angkor Enterprise offers 1, 3 and 7 day passes and only at the Angkor Ticket Office. I chose 7 days because my trip was 6 days and I wanted to cover as much as possible. For more information about ticket office locations, hours, pricing and more, visit this link.

For a very helpful link on the process to obtain your Angkor pass, visit SiemReap.net's dedicated post

My experience getting a pass was an absolute dream: short lines and 5 minutes! More often than not, due to the popularity of this destination, this process can be long and arduous (see the pics below noting the large number of windows and the ropes set up to handle thousands of customers at once).

Once you pay the fee, they give you this awesome laminated pass (an absolutely terrible picture of me haha but it was nearly 100 degrees and I was very weary from tons of travel). Keep this pass with you at all times as it is vital to access and enjoy the full experience. 

  • Angkor Ticket Office Window

    The lovely and wonderful agent awaits my approach,smiles and was SO friendly and helpful. This is where you buy your pass/ticket. You must have a ticket to go to the sites of Angkor, do this first thing upon arrival.

  • Angkor Wat Ticket Office Lines

    I lucked out, the lines were basically non-existent when I arrived. This is not typical, be prepared for fairly long waits. Arrive in the morning first thing is best or late afternoon perhaps. It moves fast though anyways. Get a coffee to pass the time.

  • Geoff's Pass

    My laminated 6 day pass, and HORRIBLE pic of me lol ...hey it was SUER hot and I was VERY tired to say the east. LOL

Tuk Tuk by Vonny:

My first Cambodian tuk tuk experience and its driver totally rocked! Thirdfold Residence provided me a personal tuk tuk driver (Vonny, see below) to take me to get my Angkor pass, for my first day trip and journey to Angkor Wat. Vonny met me promptly outside the hotel, loaded up my gear, drove me to get my SIM card, to a ANZ Bank (my favorite overseas) and then to the ticket office.

I really enjoyed riding in Vonny's tuk tuk. He did not speak much, but when he did it was very wise. Vonny stopped at one point to speak with a friend on a scooter, I didn't mind. The ride from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat is fairly fast depending on traffic (from 20 to say 45 minutes or so). I enjoyed a coffee on the ride! Vonny waited all day for me, in the blistering heat in the Angkor Wat parking lot, and drove me home after sunset at about 6 PM. He was amazing and so friendly and helpful. I especially loved the night rides which were cooler and a good way to see Siem Reap and its night life. 

  • Behind Vonny

    A view from behind Vonny right as we started, he was such a great guy and driver.

  • Vonny & Friend

    Vonny stops to chat with a friend, all good I enjoyed every moment of this slow ride! :)

  • Streets of Siem Reap

    A view from behind Vonny but to give a sense of the typical streets of Siem Reap on the way to Angkor Wat.

  • Angkor Prep

    My gear sits anxiously waiting for arrival to Angkor Wat and to get to work!

  • Tuk Tuk Coffee

    A small coffee obtained at the ticket office and for the ride to Angkor Wat. I have a VERY long day ahead so this was MUCH needed! And very good by the way too.

Tuk Tuk to Angkor Wat (Slow Ride)

Tuk Tuk Night Ride

Angkor Wat: Day 1 & Scouting Mission:

For many years, I had seen incredible images of sunrises at Angkor Wat and dreamed of capturing my own. Millions of tourists make the journey to Angkor Wat each year in hopes of capturing one of these sensational sunrises. Due to its popularity and depending on the luck of the day, the shores of The Reflection Pond could see hundreds to even thousands of visitors. This adds to the complexity of capturing images from this location. I researched the location ahead of time to ensure optimal results.

Boren and I planned two sunrise trips to Angkor Wat. But, I wanted to be well prepared for each of those to maximize shooting and insure successful results. So, I used my first trip t Angkor Wat as a scouting mission for the next day's sunrise , but also to see its grounds, explore the temple and learn the location. 

Vonny dropped me off in the parking lot and I made my way over The Rainbow Bridge, through the west entrance and down The Avenue of Angkor. After a few hours enjoying the North and South Libraries and inner courtyard, I made my way to The Northern Reflection Pond for two reasons: to take a few afternoon shots of Angkor Wat enjoying the sun and to scout the location for tomorrow’s sunrise photo shoot knowing that hundreds to thousands may attend.  I quickly determined the best spot and had it all to myself that afternoon.

The afternoon’s aqua sky reflected in the calm and cool waters of the pond and added some comfort, physically but perhaps more psychologically, against the sun’s stifling heat. I could not believe the vibrant colors mirrored in nearly perfect reflections only disturbed by an occasional breeze which augmented the magic with tiny ripples. Large lily pads cover the eastern shore of the pond where local children frolicked about such as the young boy shown here enjoying an abandoned kratie (small boat). I lasted only 30 minutes for this shoot due to the heat but captured some of my favorite images of the day. I marked my spot mentally and made my way to the nearby shady trees to enjoy a brief rest and drink before venturing inside Angkor Wat. See the image below.

I took about 2,000 photos in 6 days all over Angkor with my Nikon and probably another 500 with my iPhone. Since this blog is a supplement to my book "Angkor," see below some of the additional iPhone photos that did not appear in the book and to give a general sense of my first day and notable events, insights and spots at Angkor Wat. 

If you can afford it, and given the length of my SE Asia tour and more limited stretched out budget I could not, I highly recommend hiring a guide for this temple and well virtually all of Angkor. This will allow you to slow down, learn more, get a deeper, insider view to the temples, and maximize the experience. But be wary, there are many bad guides and even some scams. Ask your accommodations provider about the best guides. 

Aqua Reflections || Angkor Wat

Aqua Reflections || Angkor Wat ||  Nikon D850, Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 45mm, f/10, 1/5, ISO 50, Lee Filter System and Circular Polarizer, 3 Stop ND Grad Filter

  • Rainbow Bridge

    The Rainbow Bridge connects the mainland to Angkor Wat over the moat

  • West Entrance

    A view of the west entrance from across the moat and from the Rainbow Bridge

  • West Entrance CLoseup

    A closeup view of the west entrance to feature the palmyra palms (borassus) and naga balustrades

  • Avenue of Angkor

    A view through the west entrance and looking down The Avenue of Angkor towards Angkor Wat in the distance

Rising with the Ancients: Angkor Wat (Day 2):

My two sunrise trips to Angkor Wat were both complete successes. For my first trip on Wednesday November 7, sunrise was to begin at exactly 6 AM. To arrive in time, I woke up at 3:45 AM, packed my gear, put on a thick layer of mosquito repellant and made my way to the lobby to meet Boren. We made the drive in about 25 minutes because the streets were relatively empty.

Boren led me in the pitch black to the gate at the Rainbow Bridge. We arrived at about 4:20 AM and were the first people there! Security guards arrived soon thereafter and I chatted with them through Boren. Many others began arriving and with each one my excitement and anxiety grew because I knew a mad dash to secure my spot would ensue. My visit to Angkor Wat the day before gave me an advantage that allowed me to know exactly where to go even in the dark.

At exactly 5 AM, the guards retracted the rope and began randomly admitting visitors. Unfortunately, arriving first to the gate did not mean first onto the grounds but I remained patient. My turn came, a guard inspected my ticket and I began a brisk walk in the dark to beat others to my chosen spot. Traversing the steps of the west entrance and navigating the uneven cobblestone path of The Avenue of Angkor posed challenges in the dark. I avoided others ducking off onto the dirt pathways of the inner courtyard around the North Library to reach my spot. Luckily, my planning paid off and I arrived at the shore of The Northern Reflection Pond first!

As I set up, a young boy appeared, who called himself James Bond, and offered to bring me coffee for $2. I said yes. What an added treat! I settled in and watched hundreds of others arrive. While difficult to precisely estimate, I believe at least 300 to 500 others joined for sunrise that morning.

As sunrise neared, the sky transformed from blue to pink, then began to glow in a faint orange but quickly intensified. Minutes later, the sky exploded with a fiery sunburst of orange, yellow and hints of purple. As the sun began to peek over the horizon, its power unleashed a sudden heat breeze that washed across the pond into the crowd evoking a collective gasp. I could not believe the power that gripped me and the sensational scene that unfolded before my eyes. It was very spiritual for me. Some visitors became emotional and others screamed, sang or stood silently in astonishment or awe. I realized at this moment why the ancients had placed Angkor Wat and The Reflection Pond in their positions. They must have enjoyed this scene every day.

I took hundreds of images this morning. My favorite I entitled "Rising with the Ancients" (seen as the blog post image at the top) which is a two shot composite to properly balance the explosive power of the sun’s light and its effect on the sky, reflection pond and Angkor Wat. Below are a few shots from the shores of The Norther Reflection Pond at dawn to show the other sunrises and photographers, as well as after sunrise to show those milling about enjoying the morning including a very short clip of a video to get the feel for the morning. 

A trip to Siem Reap and Angkor cannot be complete without getting up for a sunrise at Angkor Wat. Do it! You will not regret it. 

  • Looking south to the other tourists and photographers who joined me on the shore of The Norther Reflection Pond on my first Angkor Wat sunrise trip

  • Looking north to the other tourists and photographers who joined me on the shore of The Norther Reflection Pond on my first Angkor Wat sunrise trip

  • A still frame from my iPhone of those enjoying the sunrise at Angkor Wat on my second sunrise trip

Rising with the Ancients (Time Lapse):

Angkor Wat seen from The Northern Reflection Pond at sunrise depicting a 16 minute window of the sky’s most explosive moments of transformation, each a single shot and captured with my Nikon D850, Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 46 mm and with internal camera settings as noted in each photo below.

#1: 5:36 AM || The morning’s blue hour wanes, mist and haze lifts and the sky begins to glow in a lighter shade of plum violet (f/8, ISO 50, 30”)

#1: 5:36 AM || The morning’s blue hour wanes, mist and haze lifts and the sky begins to glow in a lighter shade of plum violet (f/8, ISO 50, 30”)

#2: 5:48 AM || Orange and red colors begin to intensify overtaking the blue and purple tones (f/10, ISO 50, 5” )

#2: 5:48 AM || Orange and red colors begin to intensify overtaking the blue and purple tones (f/10, ISO 50, 5” )

#3: 5:49 AM || The sun begins nearing the horizon behind Angkor Wat brightening the already explosive orange and red colors while some blue lingers (f/10, ISO 50, 2.5” )

#3: 5:49 AM || The sun begins nearing the horizon behind Angkor Wat brightening the already explosive orange and red colors while some blue lingers (f/10, ISO 50, 2.5” )

#4:  5:52 AM || 8 minutes to sunrise, the sky erupts further in a fire-orange burst bathing the entire scene and overhwleming the crowd with a heat breeze rushing across the pond (f/10, ISO 50, 2.5”)

#4: 5:52 AM || 8 minutes to sunrise, the sky erupts further in a fire-orange burst bathing the entire scene and overhwleming the crowd with a heat breeze rushing across the pond (f/10, ISO 50, 2.5”)

Temples of Angkor & Around:

The forests, jungles and farmlands of Siem Reap Province surround the ruins of Angkor located north of the modern-day city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, and north of the Great Lake (Tonlé Sap) and south of the Kulen Mountains and Kulen Hills. At its peak, Angkor covered an area of over 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles) and contained more than one-thousand temples varying in size from tiny to massive including Angkor Wat, the largest single religious monument in the world.

As before, I had 6 days....6 days! Hahaha I walked for 14 hours a day, in stifling heat, and began to suffer from what is commonly referred to as "temple fatigue." It is a real thing. Try to avoid it by slowing down, less is more especially if you have only a few days, take your time, walk slowly, take breaks and bring PLENTY of water!!!

I feel incredibly proud of the ground I covered on this trip. I saw all of the following: 

Early period structures: I saw Ta Keo, Banteay Srei, Pre Rup, Baphuon and Angkor Wat.

Angkor Thom: I saw the most of the notable treasures from Jayavarman VII within his huge city including Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Ta Som, Victory Gate and Bayon.

The Kulen Mountains & Angkor Rice Fields: See more below, but I made a journey to the Kulen Mountains including seeing the famous Kulen Mountain Waterfall, Preah Ang Thom and its pagoda, Kbal Spaen ("River of 1000 Lingas"), and Angkor rice fields.

My book "Angkor" holds hundreds of full frame high quality images from these locations but below is a gallery of just a few iPhone photos to wet your appetite from the most notable locations.

  • Eastern gate and entrance to Banteay Kdei with the smiling face of Jayavarman VII, and above featuring the gateway’s laterite walls and ornate aspara reliefs backdropped by the canopy of the forest

  • Closeup of the eastern gate and entrance to Banteay Kdei with the smiling face of Jayavarman VII

  • This sweet and kind lady awaits your entry at Banteay Kdei, gives a blessing and is well worth a small donation.

  • Well preserved dancing aspara carved into a sandstone pillar with original red pigments in The Hall of Dancers

  • Massive banyan tree consuimg the laterite wall of Banteay Kdei

Nature Always Wins (Banteay Kdei):

One of my favorite temples at Angkor was Banteay Kdei. I spent several hours here wandering its hallowed halls.

Jayavarman VII built Banteay Kdei, meaning “The Citadel of Chambers” or also referred to as “Citadel of Monks’ Cells,” as a Buddhist temple in the Bayon architectural style (similar to Ta Prohm and Preah Khan) in approximately 1181 AD. Located by a short walk to the southeast of Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei is considerably smaller than other temples of its time (a tight space of 65 m by 50 m or 213 ft by 164 ft) consisting of only two enclosed areas with concentric galleries and their towers. While the exact reason behind why Jayavarman VII built Banteay Kdei or at this location is unknown, this temple represented his first completed construction having many similarities to its contemporaries Angkor Wat and the Phimai Temple in Thailand. Notably, some archaeologists believe Jayavarman II built Banteay Kdei earlier in honor of his religious teacher.

Based upon estimates of when Banteay Kdei was abandoned, as of the date of the photograph below, the tree is approximately 600 to 700 years old. I spent two hours here taking photos and chatting with other tourists, each of us contemplating how the temple looked prior to the tree taking root, its age and centuries of incredible growth. I enjoyed watching shadows move across the scene as the late afternoon waned and in total awe of the beauty of this amazing tree. While a bit saddened at seeing the ruination of the ancient’s majestic creations, I found a sort of solace knowing that nature always wins in Earth’s test of deep time.

Nature Always Wins || Banteay Kdei

Nature Always Wins || Banteay Kdei, November 2018 || Nikon D850, Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 31mm, f/10, 1/6, ISO 50, Lee Filter System and Circular Polarizer, 3 Stop ND Grad Filter

Ta Prohm:

Commencing in 1186 AD, Jayavarman VII began a large scale public works project which included the construction of Ta Prohm. Originally called Rajavihara or “Royal Monastery,” Jayavarman VII built Ta Prohm in honor of his family, in typical Bayon style as a monastery and university, and one kilometer east of Angkor Thom on the southern edge of the East Baray. Built in the image of the king’s mother as well as Prajnaparamita ("Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom" in Mahāyāna Buddhism), Ta Prohm compliments Preah Khan built in dedication to the king’s father.

Featured in the film “Tomb Raider” due to visual appeal and eerie nature, Ta Prohm gained even more acclaim. While the film took liberties with the depiction of other temples of Angkor, the producers depicted Ta Prohm accurately and close to its actual appearance.

I loved this temple and made two trips here! Crowds can be overwhelming. Set aside plenty of time if you want to capture pristine images devoid of tourists. Also, stay patient and maintain a pleasant attitude to really fully enjoy the experience. 

Ta Prohm Spung

Ta Prohm Spung

Inside Ta Prohm the opposite side of the main gopura and its massive banyan tree rooted to the rooftop and laterite walls

Door to the Past

Door to the Past

An ancient doorway inside Ta Prohm lined with spindle colonettes is consumed by a massive spung tree rooted atop its laterite roof

Roots of Ta Prohm

Roots of Ta Prohm

A sprawling spung tree root systems fans across the cobblestone walkway leading to the east gopura of Ta Prohm

Take a listen to the sounds of the Angkor forest near Bayon (in the video below). I thoroughly enjoyed just traversing the paths through the forest between temples imaging how it felt and sounds during the Khmer Empire--probably just like this! I was told the high pitched constant drone was made by cicadas and other insects. I couldn't believe how powerful and loud the sounds of the forest actually were. 

Kulen Mountain Waterfall:

I learned about the beauty and historical significance of The Kulen Mountains while planning my trip to photograph Angkor and from my guide Boren while in Siem Reap. During the Angkorian era in approximately 802 AD, atop Mahendraparvata (the mountain of Great Indra which lies within present day Kulen National Park and The Kulen Mountains), Jayavarman II declared himself chakravartin (the king of kings) an act that scholars consider the foundation of The Khmer Empire. For a period of time, this area served as the capital and center of Angkor, became a metropolis under the expansion efforts of Udayadityavarman II and holds key archeological and historical sites including Kbal Spean (“Valley of a Thousand Lingas”), Terrace of Sdach Kamlung, Preah Ang Thom and the reclining Buddha and a series of waterfalls (some depicted on subsequent pages of this book). Sadly, this site holds additional historical significance because the murderous reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge ended in 1979 with flight to The Kulen Mountains where they continued to operate as a guerilla movement until the late 1990s.

As part of my private tour package, Boren agreed to spend a morning and afternoon in The Kulen Mountains leading me to as many of those sites as possible in 8 hours. After shooting the sunrise at Angkor Wat, I met Boren in the parking lot and we began the one and one-half to two hour drive. We planned to go to Kulen Mountains Waterfall first and other locations thereafter. Boren even packed me an incredible picnic lunch, several waters and snacks.

Kulen Mountain Waterfall consists of two main falls: the first is approximately 4 to 5 meters high (12 to 15 feet) and the second 15 to 20 meters high (45 to 60 feet). The second falls offers a more dynamic scene for photography and has national acclaim so I chose to spend my time there instead. We arrived very early. Boren chatted with the guards, bought tickets, paid fees and took care of all logistics. We parked and made the short trek from the parking lot to the falls. Broken cement tiles along the path and dislodged iron steps and railings made the walk a bit treacherous at times but Boren traversed it with ease and I followed closely behind.

We arrived at the river’s edge to the thunderous roars of the falls causing Boren to yell excitedly. He confirmed the flows were stronger than usual and attributable to recent monsoons -- great! The power of the falls caused massive sprays and thickened the air with a fine mist. We arrived early enough to have the location all to ourselves ahead of the daily onslaught by tourists and locals.

After a quick survey of the scene, I realized the best spots for shooting the falls were on giant sandstone outcroppings within the river. Boren knew the plan without speaking and began a game of frogger, jumping from slippery rock to rock, avoiding sudden gushes and navigating to the largest group of rocks (seen off-center to the left in the photo below) showing me the way. He continued to a set of rocks closest to the falls, stood straight up, feet together, arms stretched out as wide as they could go, tilted his head backwards and allowed himself to be doused in a pose like a cross. I watched in awe for a moment then froggered to my own set of rocks in the river. While I enjoyed setting up in the middle of a rushing river and pointed directly at a massive waterfall, I worried about being stranded if the flows continued to intensify. Boren made his way back to my spot, allayed those concerns and showed me alternative ways back to shore.

I shot images for about thirty minutes, my favorite being the one depicted to the right. Boren politely waited and even took pictures of me working. Time was short and the strong flows hindered reaching other spots for different compositions. However, the spot I chose satisfied me extremely. Tourists and locals began arriving and some used a small swing tied to an overhanging tree to catapult themselves into the pool beneath the falls. I reflected on how Khmers must have played here in ancient times and sat on this very spot enjoying the waterfall and its flows.

Khmer Flows || Kulen Mountains

Khmer Flows || Kulen Mountain Waterfall, Kulen National Park  ||  Nikon D850, Nikon 16-35mm (f/4) @ 20 mm, f/10, 0.5", ISO 50, Lee filter system and circular polarizer

  • I saw this picture of Kulen Mountain Waterfall on the wall of my hotel room foreshadowing my own trip to come and photos to capture!

  • Boren packed a picnic lunch for me that we enjoyed on the grounds of Phnom Kulen National Park chatting about every topic you can imagine

  • Me setting up on a sandstone outcropping in the middle of the rushing river getting ready to shoot pictures of Kulen Mountain Waterfall

  • Boren took the time to capture some great images of me working and shooting the Kulen Mountain Waterfall, this being one of my favorites

Angkor Rice Fields:

The rice fields of Cambodia yield two crops each year during a monsoon-season and a dry-season. The monsoon-season is the longer cycle planted in late May through July. Heavy rains begin in late May softening the ground and ideal conditions for rice. Transplanting occurs from June through September with the main harvest in December. The dry-season yield takes less time to grow (only three months from planting to harvest) but is much smaller totaling less than 15% of annual production. Planted in November in areas that have trapped and pooled earlier monsoon rains, the dry-season crops are harvested during January to February each year.

On our way from Banteay Srei back to Siem Reap, traveling south along Cambodia Route 67 east of Angkor’s East Baray, Boren and I came upon this glorious monsoon-season rice field in full bloom awaiting a December harvest. I asked Boren to pull off the road and find a place to park. He responded immediately and found a safe spot. I hopped out of the car, grabbed my gear, crossed the road and set up on the edge of the road looking into a seemingly endless rice field. While the bright and vibrant yellow color of the rice in bloom juxtapositioned with the younger green rice still ripening originally caught my eye, the palmyra palms stole the show. White, puffy clouds strewn across a baby blue sky disguised the intensity of the afternoon sun and added to the serenity scene. While I worked, Boren brought me a palm tree coconut dessert that he bought from the farmer who owned the fields. We devoured the treat in record time. It was delicious!

I shot for about thirty minutes at this location. Many travelers passed by honking and smiling at my efforts. As I packed up my gear, I reflected on the experience staring into the fields which probably looked exactly like this one thousand years ago in the time of Angkor.

Harvest Awaits || Siem Reap

Harvest Awaits  || Angkor rice fields along Cambodia Route 67 northeast of Pre Rup || Nikon D850, Tamron 24-70mm (f/2.8) @ 32 mm, f/10, 1/20, ISO 50, Lee Filter System and Circular Polarizer, 3 Stop ND Grad Filter

  • Me along Cambodian Route 67 taking photos of a glorious Angkorian rice field in full bloom (photo by Boren)

  • Me hard at work along Cambodian Route 67 taking photos of a glorious Angkorian rice field in full bloom (photo by Boren)

  • Me along Cambodian Route 67 taking photos of a glorious Angkorian rice field in full bloom (photo by Boren)

  • Me along Cambodian Route 67 taking photos of a glorious Angkorian rice field in full bloom and to show just how close traffic passed by every few seconds (photo by Boren)

Angkor Rice Fields Behind the Scenes

Embassy Khmer Gastronomy: 

I absolutely LOVED Embassy Khmer Gastronomy which came highly recommended by a close friend who is an expert chef. Every aspect of this experience and its fine dining and culinary arts is a must do in Siem Reap. I failed at taking notes, but at least I grabbed a photo of the story, menu for the evening and wine list. Everything was divine and I would go back!

Feral Cats of Angkor & Cambodia: 

Feral cats were everywhere in Angkor and Cambodia it seemed, which to me is....GREAT! I love cats. Almost every time I saw one, they would say hello. I thought about the fact the cats I saw in the temples are relatives of ancient cats who lived in Angkor during the Khmer Empire, that's pretty cool.

  • Sleepy Kitty

    This adorable kitty was sleeping but took time to give me a smile, the heat was VERY tough at this time.

  • Black Cat

    This kitty jumped right up next to me to enjoy lunch together! She was adorable.This ADORABLE black cat jumped up to enjoy lunch with me. He was so friendly and stayed the whole time right beside me (well I guess she wanted food haha).

  • Black Cat Stalking

    He stayed and did stalk other cats playfully lol

  • Gorgeous Cat

    This gorgeous cat sat on a chair at one of the vendors, I had never seen such a unique cat like this in person, his eyes were amazing.

  • Hello Meow

    This unique and amazing cat did give me a nice friendly meow to welcome me to the vendor's booth. I think he was tired and hot.

  • Gorgeous Tiger Cat

    This cute tiger striped cat seemed a bit sad but he did eventually smile for me.

Final Thoughts:

The 629 years of the Khmer Empire left a considerable and significant mark upon human history as well as a unique legacy to the world rich in faith, art, architecture and advancements in construction, design and infrastructure. The Khmer kings and their subjects were all steeped deeply in a religious, spiritual and mythological providence that drove their industrious lives to build some of the most magnificent, magical and mysterious marvels the world has ever seen, far ahead of their time. While the societal structure during the Khmer Empire appears typical to monarchies of the time and throughout history, with undoubtedly those in an elite inner circle with advantages over the outsiders, based upon the sheer brilliance of Khmer architecture and a happiness depicted in their art, the Khmer may well have experienced some moments, even if fleeting, of utopia or paradise on Earth together in the sun. 


Writing my book "Angkor," and reliving the experiences through this blog, my notes and photographs, gave me almost as much joy as the journey itself. I enjoyed researching and writing about all of the places I visited during my trip to Siem Reap and throughout Angkor. While I am not an expert on the history of Angkor, I did my best to assimilate information that I learned on my trip while on site, as well as from reputable and notable sources online, to present as accurate an account of what appears in my photographs as possible given that some information has been destroyed or lost over time and at times I faced a significant language barrier. My apologies to you, my Cambodian friends and colleagues, if any information in this book may be slightly incorrect.

Hopefully this blog will inspire you to make the journey to Siem Reap and Angkor, as much as Angkor inspired me while there!

THANKS FOR READING!

~ Geoff Piper

  • Vitor Pereira

    on June 2, 2020

    What an incredible life experience. Thanks for sharing na and really cool you wrote a book about it along with all the beautiful pics you took.

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