Photographing the Temples of Angkor
Okay, got your tickets? Good. Now get ready to view one of the most impressive sights on earth. The immense stone temples of the Angkorian era were built between the 9th and 13th centuries and thanks to the work of dedicated archaeologists and conservation efforts, many of them still stand today in good condition.
Angkor is a temple hopper’s dream come true. Dozens of massive stone sites stand toe to toe with the jungle and sometimes overlap with it. Intricate architecture reflects the spiritual pursuits of the Khmer empire that built the temples and multiple levels of meaning seem to permeate every stone.
In days past, elephants would have formed the convoy hauling those stones in and out of the various temples. Today, the elephants have been replaced by steady streams of tour buses. Their presence in Angkor is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the influx of tourist dollars is a boon to the long-suffering Cambodian people, on the other, the temples often resemble something more like Cambodia Disneyland than the spiritual sanctuaries their builders intended.
Avoiding the tourist hordes can be an irritation particularly for a photographer hoping to recapture some of the splendor of the past days when the temples stood silently in the jungle. But crowded conditions and the area’s other potential dangers should not be enough to keep you away. That said, it is important to be aware of some of the hazards in the areas so you can best avoid them.
Top of the list of pitfalls is the presence of landmines in the area. For the most part, the temples of Angkor have been de-mined and wandering off the path should cause you no anxiety. Only at some of the further reaching temples like Kbal Spean and Phnom Kulen should you strictly stick to the paths outlined for visitors. There are still mines in these areas and you don’t want to be the person to find them.
Much less serious, but important to note are factors such as malaria, (less of a presence in Angkor than in the rest of Cambodia, but still worth researching prevention), dehydration, and some practically non-existent safety standards on the roads. You may find yourself exploring the area on the back of a motorbike while dodging gaping potholes and wearing no helmet. If you’re not comfortable with this, the cheapest option, you’ll have to pay more for every step up on the safety ladder from tuk-tuks (motorcycle drawn-carriages) to cars and buses.
Visiting the temples of Angkor costs $20 for a one-day pass, $40 for three days and $60 for the best-value seven day pass. To give yourself the best opportunities to catch the better light, consider the seven-day pass. Unless you have a low-tolerance for temple hopping, you likely won’t find yourself bored and with a number of temples further away from Siem Reap, you can easily fill your schedule for the full seven days. That said, if you are pressed for time, a three-day pass will allow you to see a good number of the sights and perhaps even give you the chance to revisit a your favorite site along the way.
The vine-entangled Ta Prohm, the mysteriously-carved Bayon, and the mighty Angkor Wat can each captivate you for at least a half day, but if you have budgeted the time, you are likely to want to make more than one stop at each. While these are probably the three must-see temples in the area, don’t think for a second that you should ignore the others that didn't make this top trio. At the smaller or more remote locations, you may occasionally find some peace away from the tour busses and a better opportunity to photograph the sights without having pesky tourists in the way.
Plan to come in the dry season. One guide told me that Cambodia only has two seasons: hot and hotter. Keep in mind that the hotter season is accompanied by more rain than you’re likely to want on a day of shooting. December to April are the driest months with December and January being the coolest time of the year by a degree or two.
A few general points on the light conditions include that both sunrise and sunset are fruitful – the light was sometimes spectacular and the skies lit up in gorgeous, textured fire on a high percentage of days. However, during the times when the sun is low in the sky, you may have to contend with shadows from the trees at more forested temples. And of course, midday was harsh especially at the more forested temples.The following temple guides give more information about the lighting conditions at some of my favorite temples:
Angkor WatAngkor Wat is a good deal more spectacular than descriptions can portray. It is considered to be the largest religious structure in the world and each stone is another opportunity to be dazzled. Detailed carvings and statues litter the walls surrounding the sprawling grounds.
Sunrise and sunset are both popular times and the tour buses descend on the site in swarms. With good reason – both times can be spectacular at the expansive temple. Few trees surround the area so the sun’s light progresses uninterrupted to the stones and the orange/yellow glow of the low sun gives additional life to the already impressive masonry.
Midday is one of the less crowded times at Angkor Wat, so if you’re looking to dodge the masses, consider this as an option.
Sunrise is perhaps best viewed from West of one of the Royal Pools, with the North one being the more popular option. Here, the sun will rise directly behind the temple’s towers and the sky’s colours will be reflected in the still waters of the pools.
Sunset may yield a glow on the main complex of the temple and again, a location behind the royal pools may be your best bet to capture the illuminated towers. However, once the light has faded, don’t immediately pack up and head for the exit. If you’re lucky, a few wispy clouds may remain in the sky and they may transform into a myriad of reds and yellows before you've left.
Also of note is that in the late afternoon, Buddhist monks are likely to be found wandering the grounds of Angkor Wat in search of a friendly companion with whom they can practice English. Don’t miss this opportunity to speak with some of the most kind and soft-spoken people you are ever likely to meet. And if they are willing to have their photo taken, their brilliant orange robes create a spectacular contrast with the dark grey stones of Angkor Wat.
Phnom BekingOn your first day, consider going to Phnom Beking for sunset. When you purchase a ticket to the temples at around 5:00 pm, your pass starts the next day, but you are free to enter for that evening’s sunset.
These days Phnom Beking is a zoo at sunset. You may feel like you’re at Cambodia Disneyland instead of a centuries old temple. The crowd of tourists jockeying for the best view of the descending sun can be a sight in itself. Of course, they are there for a reason. One of the few elevated points in the area, Phnom Beking provides one of the best views of a sunset that you will find in the Angkor area.
Ta ProhmThe vine and tree root constricted temple can be challenging to shoot on a sunny day because the forest throws patchy shadows on every surface. Such is the price you pay for having trees growing directly from the roofs of the temple. Instead of trying to fight the sun and the harsh shadows, try going on a cloudy or even a rainy day. The softer light is a lot more flattering in photos. If the weather forecast is clear for your whole stay in the area, try making it to Ta Prohm before sunrise. At least then you won’t have to contend with the crowds.
BayonThe mysterious faces of Bayon are well suited to the early and late glows or sunrise and sunset. But morning at Bayon can be an especially popular time for the tour groups, so consider the late afternoon. The light can be fantastic and most of the crowds have already started to make their way to Angkor Wat or Phnom Beking. While the sun descends, take note of when it will hit the treeline. Leave a few minutes before the sun finds itself behind the leaves to head to Angkor Way where you can still catch some of the sunset at the more open temple.
Beng MealeaPerhaps even more than Ta Prohm, there is no especially good time to visit Beng Mealea. The temple is entirely overgrown and sunny days will produce highlights and shadows that your camera meter will just refuse to judge correctly.
Again, try to find a cloudy day to make the long trip out to Beng Mealea. It is well worth the distance. Ruined towers and strangling vines will truly make you feel like an adventurer. Few tour groups reach this far-flung destination, so you may have the temple much to yourself. At which point, few people are likely to look at you funny when you start humming the Indiana Jones theme song to yourself.
EquipmentBring along your preferred landscape lens to Angkor. A good wide-angle zoom will serve you well. A telephoto zoom may come in handy at some temples like Bayon if you’re looking to get shots tight to the stone faces. Bring along your tripod for early morning, evening and indoor shots of the temples. Consider rain protection for your gear as well. Wet conditions will drive away the tourists, so you may have little company at the temples – just make sure you can keep your camera dry!