First Sunrise of the Year

After going to bed early the night before, we woke up early for the experience we had been planning for the trip, seeing the first sunrise of the year 2011 at Angkor Wat. We were ready to go before 6 am when it’s still dark. Our tour guide Vanna and Hour came on time to pick us up. They looked quite sleepy; it turned out that they actually went to celebrate New Year’s Eve in downtown Siem Reap as well, and they stayed there until after midnight.

The short drive from the hotel to Angkor Wat went like the day before — we waited a little bit at the entrance of the Angkor Archaeological Park to get our entrance passes checked. When we arrived at Angkor Wat, however, we realized that there were significantly more people compared to the previous morning. We’re not the only ones with the idea of going to see the first sunrise of the year at Angkor Wat. Perhaps some people even went directly from celebrating in downtown Siem Reap to end their New Year’s celebration with watching sunrise at Angkor Wat.

The picturesque north pond near the temple was already surrounded by the crowd waiting for the sun to rise and seeing the reflection of the temple on the pond. We decided to go to the south pond across the walkway instead. It was less picturesque as the pond’s water surface seemed a little murky, but there were not that many people there. So I set up my tripod and camera to wait for the sunrise. As we waited for the sunrise, we saw a group of Cambodian children with some adult chaperones gathering near us. It seemed like they were a group doing a field trip — perhaps children from villages or from an orphanage. They seemed to have fun; entertaining and great to see on the first day of the year.

The sun finally came up. The sky was a little cloudy, so the sunrise was not as clear as the day before. I was glad we were there the previous day and got the nicer photos already, but it’s still nice to fulfill our plan of celebrating the beginning of the year at Angkor Wat. It’s definitely a New Year’s Day to remember.

The photo below was taken after we took some photos on the south pond. We walked to the other side to watch people watching the sunrise there. You can see the crowd waiting to see the magical moment near the pond.

New Year's crowd

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

After a good night rest following a long day that started with a trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, followed by a visit to Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng, and completed with attending an apsara dance performance over dinner, we’re ready for another day full of activity in Siem Reap area. We started very early in the morning, leaving our hotel around 6 am when it’s still dark. The first activity of the day, back to Angkor Wat to watch the last sunrise of year 2010.

This activity was as popular among tourists as going to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. It was still dark when we arrived at the entrance gate to the Angkor Archaeological Park, but we could tell that it would be quite a crowd judging from the line of cars waiting to get the entrance passes checked by the officials.

When we arrived inside the Angkor Wat complex, there were already many people in there, mostly waiting near the pond in between the library and the main temple building. That seemed to be a popular spot to wait for the sunrise as from there you could see the silhouette of the temple with the sun rising behind it, and the temple reflected on the pond.

The area near the pond was already full of people, so I decided to set up my camera and tripod a little bit further to the side so I had room to capture the image with long exposure at low light with the tripod support. It worked pretty well, though there were several takes that had to be redone because I had people walking in front of my camera setup as they didn’t realize I was taking photos there.

After a little while, the sun had been rising for a few minutes and it’s getting brighter. Many people had left the pond area, so Kristi and I decided to get closer there to take photos of the temple reflected on the pond. I was able to still get the effect of sun rising by changing my shutter speed to be very high. That allowed me to take some photos like one below without the aid of tripod — very helpful as there were people around me that made it difficult to do any set up at all that require space. It was a great experience, and I was glad that it was a nice, clear sky and we could see the sunrise nicely as we hoped for.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Worship at Angkor Wat

When visiting Angkor Wat, most foreign visitors come to see a magnificent monument / structure and the intricate details of the bas reliefs in the galleries of the main temple structure. One thing to note, however, is that Angkor Wat is still actively being used as a place of worship by the Cambodians. As such, I think it is important to have the proper respect and reference when coming to visit the place.

As we walked around the main temple building, we saw tourist groups accompanied by their guides visiting the galleries and looking at the details. When we reach certain parts inside the temple, however, we noticed that there were not as many foreign tourists there, but instead you see local Cambodians coming and setting up mats in front of statues of Buddha, and brought with them offerings to use for worship. In one of the guidebooks I read, it mentioned that during the Lunar New Year time, this was even more pronounced as the locals would come in numbers to worship, and this might be the time for tourists to yield to the locals and instead observe the use of the temple as it is intended to be rather than simply as a historic monument.

I think it’s also important that before coming to visit places like Angkor Wat that has special meanings to the locals to be reverent and pay the due respect to the traditions and culture. Often times you see visitors who come and think that because they’re the guests who paid their way to come and visit, they should be treated like royalty and they can do whatever they want. That’s very insensitive, and it’s what often times give certain group of people bad stereotypes from the locals.

The following photo was taken from a little distance when I saw the locals in the process of doing their worship ceremony. We watched silently from a bit of distance to ensure that our presence did not cause any distraction or interruption to the worship ceremony that was in progress.


Tourism at Angkor Wat

When visiting Angkor Wat, one thing you’re sure to notice is that you’re not alone; there are thousands of other tourists from all over the world coming to see the same sights in the area. So if you’re imagining having the place for yourself and take photos like what you might have seen in guidebooks, well, good luck…

The increase in tourism in the area in the recent years is definitely welcomed economically for a country like Cambodia that is in the process of recovering from years of civil war. But I thought it’s interesting to observe this first hand, and to hear the thoughts from a local Cambodian like our guide Vanna.

It’s pretty easy to notice the official tour guides in Cambodia as they are required to wear a uniform (tan-colored, long-sleeve shirt). What’s interesting is when you listen closely to the tour guides talking to to their guests, you might actually hear these Cambodian tour guides speaking fluently in many foreign languages. Vanna was very fluent in English; he even volunteered as an English teacher during his time off from guiding. During our tour around Angkor Wat, we also overheard other Cambodian tour guides talking in German, French, Japanese, and Chinese to their respective guests. Vanna said each tour guide pretty much decides what language he/she wants to master, and then they would look to guide tour groups that speak that language. English, French, and German were pretty popular languages for most visitors from Western countries, but apparently in the recent years there were quite an increase of tourists coming from other Asian countries like Japan, China, and Korea.

I asked Vanna if he had any particular group of people that he preferred or liked guiding. He said generally the Europeans and Americans were pretty nice. The Japanese were generally quite generous. He didn’t like the Koreans because typically they came in big groups with their own Korean tour guide, and his words were translated into Korean by the guide and most of them wouldn’t listen anyway.

Another thing I noticed was there were many little kids and locals trying to sell snacks, drinks, and bootlegged guidebooks to the tourists. During a hot day, sometimes those bottled waters might be nice even though they might be overpriced. And I’ve read that the bootlegged guidebooks, though might be a bit poor in print quality, might be a good, informative reference to have especially if you’re exploring on your own. What’s impressive though was to hear even some of the kids that must have been the age of 5 to 10 years old being able to promote their goods in fluent foreign language like English, and they could have conversation with the tourists when asked about what they have to sell.

One thing I also thought was the interesting contrast between the tourists who have come from far away to see such a magnificent sight, perhaps for that one time in their lifetime, and the locals who live nearby and have seen Angkor Wat on daily basis. It’s no longer a special place, and I suppose when you’re trying to make ends meet, the last thing you think about is learning about the history of the temple…

The photo below was taken as we walked through one of the galleries at the temple. You could see the tourist groups, each listening to a tour guide wearing tan long-sleeve shirt.

Tourists at Angkor Wat

First Visit to Angkor Wat

So you plan to visit one of the world’s famous monuments like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and now you’re finally there… now what? I think for most first-time visitors coming to Angkor Wat, what they’re expecting to see is something that’s big, grandeur, magnificent, as that’s what you read about or even see in travel programs featuring the place. But just like many other iconic places like that in the world (the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty came to mind), you really need to come and see it in person to be able to put your own words on the experience. And I think a combination of having done some homework to learn about the place, having a knowledgeable guide to accompany you experiencing the place, and being observant of what you’re seeing around you (the details, other visitors’ take on the experience, the locals, etc.) would enhance your experience there.

For me, prior to coming to Angkor Wat, I had done some cursory readings of guidebooks on Cambodia (the ones from Lonely Planet and National Geographic Traveler are quite good) and watched a couple of travel programs on TV on Angkor Wat / Cambodia. So in my mind, I had quite an expectation of seeing something ‘grand’ and ‘large in scale’. As I mentioned yesterday, the initial approach to Angkor Wat was not what I expected. After getting our entrance pass to visit the temples, we continued our drive, and we saw what looked like a lake or river on the side of the road. I asked Vanna our tour guide if that was a lake, and he said, ‘No, that’s the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. You’re looking at Angkor Wat across the moat.’ From the distance, we only saw trees in a forest across the moat; there were no magnificent temples to see from the ground level. But few minutes after, we approached the west side of the complex where the entrance gate and bridge was located, and then I saw the outer part of the magnificent temple complex for the first time.

Our driver dropped us near the bridge, and after showing our newly-printed entrance pass to an official who checked that near the bridge, we walked across the bridge just like hundreds of other visitors to enter the temple complex. Honestly, at that moment, with so many visitors who are clearly tourists (a large number of them came as part of large tour groups in big tour buses), it felt more like walking in from parking lot to the entrance of an amusement park. Fortunately we didn’t have to wait for a long time to go through the gopura (gate) to get to the pathway towards the main temple building. This was where you could hear the ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ from the visitors and they saw the panoramic view of the magnificent temple building for the first time.

The next thing I noticed was that there were a lot of tourists there. We came to visit towards the end of the year where it was somewhat of a ‘high tourist season’ there, so that was somewhat expected. But there were a LOT of them… So we had to work our way around large tour groups as we walked into and toured the interior of the temple building.

We spent about three hours walking around the temple interior. Vanna turned out to be quite knowledgeable about the history and the details of the temple — I could tell he’s done his own study on the topic, and had done the tours many times before). He gave us an overview of the history of the Khmer Empire around the time when Angkor Wat was built. King Suryawarman II built the temple as his state temple and capital, and since he dedicated the temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, some said that was the reason why Angkor Wat complex is oriented to the west, contrary to most of other temples in the area that had eastward orientation.

Around the temple interior visitors can observe the galleries of bas-reliefs that depicted stories from Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and one section depicting King Suryawarman II and the life in the Khmer kingdom at the time. As we went through these galleries, Vanna gave pretty good overview of the scenes/stories that were depicted on the wall. I tried to follow along, but honestly there were so many details that after a while things kind of blurred together in my head, so I thought I’d just remember the main themes, and focus on taking detailed photographs of parts of the bas-reliefs that seemed to be good representatives of the story, and moved on. I think that’s probably similar case for most of the visitors who came there — they didn’t spend as much time looking for the details because they were part of large tour group that had to keep moving on, or they didn’t care as much learning about the details. If you really want to take in as much as you can and appreciate what you’re seeing there, I think it’s probably best if you allocate at least a day of your visit to be go there on your own and just take your time to observe the details.

The photo below was taken as we toured the interior of the temple. This was one of around 3,000 apsara (celestial dancer) figures that were carved on the temple walls. This particular one looked like she was looking from behind the wall of carving, and the afternoon light came through at an interesting angle from the left.

Apsara behind the wall