Shooting Angkor

The torch light flared across the bridge towards Angkor Wat. Puddles of water from yesterday’s rain filled the wide spaces between the flagstones. It was five am and pitch black. We were walking in the middle of the Cambodian jungle but an eerie quiet surrounded us. Our photo tour guide Nathan, hurried ahead, his flash light quickly disappearing. It was another hour before sunrise but we had to position ourselves before the hordes arrived.

“Set up your tripods here,” he told us. “Right up to the edge of the reflecting pool. Focus on the temple. That way. Stay tight and close together.”

Moths flickered to the torch, smacking into the glass face with frantic taps. Waving the insects aside and spitting out the papery taste of bug wings, I pointed the light to the ground. I placed my camera on the tripod, focused on a vast blank sky and waited for the sun.

The trip to Angkor started with a chance visit to Nathan’s website. Spectacular images of Buddhist monks against glorious Khmer ruins captured my imagination. Nathan offered travel photography tours to Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Nepal. He researched the best locations for photo shoots, provided technical coaching and taught the ethics of street photography. As I was to find out, the best travel photos were the ones enlivened by human content. However the hardest lesson to learn was how to engage with strangers. The secret to start, Nathan said, was to look them in the eye and smile.

Nathan’s pictures inspired me to visit but they didn’t prepare for the scale and grandeur that was Angkor. Altogether, there are over 70 temples covering 400 square kilometers. At its height in the 12th century Angkor was the center of the ancient Khmer empire which  included Thailand and Vietnam. The city was a metropolis of a million people with a sophisticated culture of art, religion, urban planning and tactical warfare.

“Coffee? Tea? One dollar.”

A woman’s lilting voice floated through the lightening darkness. Her flashlight danced across the banks of the pool and against a growing press of people. In the twenty minutes since arriving hundreds of tourists had gathered behind us. Whispered words in French, German and English multiplied into a buzz of anticipation. Faint shadows of light rippled across the sky. As the first silhouette of Angkor Wat appeared, a murmur of collective awe rose from the crowd.

Two million tourists visit Angkor every year. It was reclaimed from the jungle, divested of land mines and declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992. Although a tourist attraction, it is still a sacred venue for Cambodia’s active Buddhist community. Later in the morning Nathan arranged for a water blessing by a resident monk for good luck, long life and happiness. Over the next four days, I relied on that blessing as I clambered over narrow stone ledges and slippery, rain slicked rocks. Once, while crab walking down a steep and tumbled stair case I overheard Nathan cautioning a fellow shootist.

“Watch out for that centipede. It might be a flesh eating one.”

I scanned the stone block where my hand rested and looked around the floor before planting my next step.

“A friend of mine was bitten and he’s in a bad way.” Seeing my concern, he continued. “Don’t worry, it’s not the same one. Probably.”

Back in Angkor Wat the sun had broken through but heavy rain clouds loomed over the horizon. I packed away my camera and stared at the temple shimmering in the morning light. Outside of the narrow frame of the camera’s viewfinder the temple revealed itself in full glory. Its three tiered pyramid structure and lotus like towers rose from the ground like a massive temple-mountain. Despite the early hour, a steady line of people was already making its way across the moat. Two orange robed monks stood out against the sand colored stones. This picture of Angkor is one that has endured for a thousand years. A rising sun over a breaking new day. An ancient temple filled with reverent people. Devout monks ascending the steps to prayer.

Nathan Horton offers photography tours in Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal and India.

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