The torch light flares across the bridge towards Angkor Wat. Puddles of water from yesterday’s rain fills the wide spaces between the flagstones. It is five am and pitch black. We are walking in the middle of the Cambodian jungle and an eerie quiet surrounds us. Nathan our photo guide, hurries ahead, his flash light disappearing into the dark. It will be another hour before sunrise but we have to position ourselves before the hordes arrive.
“Set up your tripods here,” he tells us. “Right up to the edge of the reflecting pool. Focus on the temple. That way. Stay tight and close together.”
Moths fly to the torch light, hitting the glass with frantic desperation. Waving the bugs away and spitting out the papery taste of insect wings, I point the light to the ground. I place my camera on the tripod, focus on a blank sky and wait 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 those enlivened by human content. The key to good photography was human engagement.
Nathan’s pictures inspired the visit but didn’t prepare for the scale and grandeur that was Angkor. Altogether there are more than 70 temples covering 400 square kilometers. At its height in the 12th century Angkor was the center of the Khmer empire which included Thailand and Vietnam. The ancient city was a metropolis of one million people with a sophisticated culture of art, religion, urban planning and tactical warfare.
“Coffee? Tea? One dollar.”
A woman’s lilting voice floats through the lightening darkness. Her flashlight dances across the banks of the pool and against the growing press of people. In the twenty minutes since arriving hundreds of tourists have gathered behind us. Whispered words in French, German and English meld into a buzz of anticipation. Faint shadows of light ripple across the sky. As the first silhouette of Angkor Wat appears a collective wave of awe travels through 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.
In the morning after the sunrise, Nathan arranges for a resident monk to give us a water blessing of luck, longevity and happiness. Over the next four days, I depend on luck as I clamber over narrow stone ledges and slippery, rain slicked rocks. Once, while crab walking down a steep and tumbled staircase I overhear Nathan cautioning a fellow shootist.
“Watch out for that centipede. It might be a flesh eating one,” he says.
Perturbed, I scan the stone block where my hand is resting and look down before planting my next step.
“A friend of mine was bitten and he’s in a bad way.” Seeing my concern, he pauses. “Don’t worry, it’s not the same one. Probably.”
Back on the morning of the sunrise over Angkor Wat, after the sun had broken through the horizon, I pack away my camera and stare at the temple shimmering in the light. Outside of the narrow frame of the camera’s viewfinder the temple reveals itself in full glory. The three tiered pyramids and lotus like towers rise from the ground like a massive temple-mountain. Despite the early hour, a steady line of people is already making its way across the moat. Orange robed monks stand out against the sand colored stones. This vision of Angkor has endured for a thousand years. A rising sun over a new day. An ancient temple filled with reverent people. Devout monks ascending the steps to prayer.
Photos taken in Angkor, Cambodia in 2014