THE HIDDEN TREASURES OF SIEM REAP
It was almost 5 o’clock in the morning. Regis picked me up early in my hostel to secure the best spot for sunrise watching in Angkor Wat. Regis is the French photographer who I hired for a Photography tour in the Angkor Complex.
It was still dark and I could barely see anything. There were very few lamp posts in the main road and the Tuk Tuk’s headlight was the only light helping us see whatever it covers as we drove along the partly cemented and partly rocky road on the way to the temple.
In the entrance I was surprised to see a Cambodian man sitting in his post that early. He stood up to check our passes and allowed us in.
I could only sense the small stones and fine soil under my shoes, and hear the faint murmurs of insects around. Then it’s plain black.
Before we moved further in the dark, Regis stopped and asked.
“Do you have a flashlight?” Of course, I didn’t have one. I wasn’t prepared.
My original plan was to set off alone to the temples with a bicycle. But Penang Island taught me enough about cycling, and Melaka showed me the difference of traveling with a local. So I scratched it and booked a travel photography tour the night before my arrival in Siem Reap.
My simple temple excursion program turned into my very first photography workshop and loads of personalized treasures.
I have never heard about photo tours before. I soaked into the violet, blue, pink, and green color transitions of Menara Tower while I sat in a balcony and read more about this unique activity.
This is what I’ll get from it - a professional photographer will tour me around Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, teach me photography skills, and help me fill my memory card with great photos of the temples.
I’ve always been curious to see how professionals see through a scene, compose and shoot. All I did for the past years was imaginary practice. Read. Turn the dials and play with the shutter button. I won’t miss this chance.
Even though it was raining the whole night in Malaysia, I contacted the company and arranged a meeting with Regis. Rain isn’t good for a photo tour, I thought. But when I learned that my company would be a French man who has lived there for years, I did not think twice. A non-local? Interesting.
We arrived at the facade of the Angkor Wat, a shallow pond in between us, the silhouettes of the four towers and trees in the background reflected on the water. On the foreground were seemingly bits of small leaves scattered all over the pond, making it seem like there were flocks of bird flying above the temples.
The sky has the gradation of dark to light blue with shades of light pink. We were first on the spot and just right on time. But it wasn’t enough to see what’s in the landscape around me. After a few minutes, I heard voices and footsteps heading towards us.
We set up my tripod a little bit over the water and the muddy edge of the ground. Regis leveled my camera and composed the landscape, while I stood there, speechless, in awe of the view.
He started sharing composition tips, some rules and camera settings. I, on the other hand, remained frozen, gaze fixed in the colors and shapes.
Spellbound by the beautiful scene in front of me, I became like a robot, moving only by his order and speaking only when he asked: ‘Try a different frame,’ ‘Shoot this one,’ ‘You like it?’
When pink and white hues covered almost half of the sky and as the local eatery became visible on our left, we disassembled my tripod and weaved through the crowd I didn’t realize were there watching with us.
He taught me further about framing and how to break the rule of thirds. We shot more of the sunrise in different perspectives from an isolated piece of the complex that looks like a guard station.
The four towers appeared like a painting from its large rectangular window, sky colored with blue and mixed with pink and light violet.
“Every day, it is different here,” he smiled.
I thought one would rather not come to Siem Reap and not experience this mesmerizing golden hour from Angkor Wat.
I have never appreciated the power of light and colors until that day. So I marked these photos as my first treasures of the tour.
Moving into the interior section, we played with the silhouettes of the lion statues and the apsaras carved on the columns in the corridor.
I stayed alert of his movements: whenever he would stop and adjust his stance, tip the angle of his camera, look into his viewfinder, and press the shutter. I engraved it in my memory as precise as I could.
I simply waited by his side, wondering how differently he sees things. He would stop to take a shot, when I don’t notice anything. And I would stop to take a shot, when he would just move on.
“It’s all about light,” he explained.
That’s right. The light. I noted it in my memory, ALL CAPS. With a yellow highlight. Now I know what he searches first in a scene. I programmed my mind to do the same and increased my sensitivity to light.
We moved further in the east and exited through a backyard where a cemented pathway leads to another secluded piece of Angkor Wat at its end. Tall and healthy trees lined up both sides.
The structure looks beautiful with its main door aligned to the center of the pathway, though there wasn’t any light. I’m addicted to pathways and corridors. I was tempted to take a shot, but I noticed that he’s not measuring it at all. So I controlled myself and just let myself be absorbed in the present.
“I noticed that you know something about ISO and aperture,” he said.
“Yes, I read photography books. And I have friends who shared me tips about it,” I smiled, feeling grateful about them. Regis won’t have a headache teaching me about it.
“What about exposure compensation?” So we stopped in the middle of the path and I listened to his lecture.
We continued walking as soon as he finished. Suddenly, the dim end of the road brightened up as if a spotlight was turned on in front of the building. I stopped, raised my camera to my eye, and there. I captured the light.
Smile painted all over my face, I turned to him and showed the photo.
“That’s beautiful. I like it,” he, too, seem pleased. And then the light went off, like a curtain close at the end of theatre show.
I marked it as my second treasure.
“Let’s head to Ta Prohm. It’s more beautiful than Angkor Wat. For me,” Regis remarked.
We met our Tuk Tuk at the East gate and headed to Ta Prohm. We drove into a forest-like area. And there it was, engulfed in the middle of old, humongous trees.
“You’re right. It is more beautiful here,” I reckoned.
Elevated on the ground were broken mossy tiles. Trees stood by in a beautiful fashion within those tiles. A main door sits at the end, where some people are taking photos of them.
I kept my watch over Regis. Looking how he would frame it.
“Let’s wait until they leave,” he said.
“It’s ok,” I replied, thinking that human element would be fine.
We took portrait and landscape shots. He would check my work and share more tips on composition. What’s the main subject. Removing the unnecessary detail. I kept scribbling notes in my head.
We moved in, encountering lion statues and wide tree trunks shooting at a height the camera can’t capture, its wide trunks hugging the walls of the temples as if sapping energy from it.
We hangout in the popular backdrop of the movie, Tomb Raider. An impassable door with tangled roots embracing its top, walls crumbled.
Amused enough, we went on and arrived to a pile of the pieces of a corridor. It’s chaos. I stared long enough, thinking how I can compose it.
“Storytelling,” he advised.
“Arrange the pillars so that it will tell the viewers that it was once a corridor.”
There, I have my third treasure. Storytelling. Now, stored in my memory.
It’s past 10AM and my tour is about to end. I only hired him for a half-day tour.
We explored the rest of the area and dropped by a nipa hut, though I’m not certain they call it the same, where a few Cambodians work and two young girls play.
Regis noticed earlier that I like shooting portraits. He helped me remove my camera’s sound when it’s focusing and gave me some tips.
Then he talked to the children in Khmer language while I try to take some photos of them. They were both shy but kind enough to smile back to us.
Fourth treasure. For the memories and interaction with this cute Cambodian.
We walked out of the forest, my camera filled with test shots and my precious ones. We took the exit less taken by the tourist.
“This afternoon, you can visit the Bayon Temple. There are 200 faces. It’s beautiful with the afternoon light. Then, watch the sunset in Angkor Wat,” he suggested.
“I can tell the driver to pick you up around 3:30PM, take you there, and back to your hostel.”
Since I have nothing on my itinerary, I agreed and thanked him for all the knowledge he has taught me. This is my chance to practice more, collect more treasures.
Afternoon came. Now it’s just me and Mr. Tuk Tuk. I felt bad for not asking his name. He would only smile to me and turn to his motorcycle and drive. He parked in front of the temple, and gestured that he’ll wait for me there.
Bayon temple looks like legos from afar. Pillars attached on top of one another. I climbed up to the third level where the stone faces were displayed.
The stairs were steep. I climbed up with extra precautions, and alas! Stone faces are present wherever I look. The faces are identical with broad lips, eyes close and mouths exuding a content look.
It was cloudy so I circled the temple and waited for light. Nothing came. So I practiced composing instead, applying the rule of thirds, framing, and even changing into a 50mm lens. Some stone faces were built too high, impossible to reach.
When I thought the gray skies will stay, I looked for the stairs I used to enter the floor. I cannot find it. North, South, East and West looks the same. I got lost on my way out and worried about Mr. Tuk Tuk waiting. I don’t have a sim card for Cambodia or extra cash to pay another service.
I stopped circling and used the next stairs I saw. When I reached the ground level, he wasn’t there. I started panicking a bit. Did he leave? Did I stay too long? Maybe this wasn’t where he dropped me.
I closed my eyes to recall, but I couldn’t remember any mark.
I started circling before it gets dark. I did not see any light posts anywhere and I still don’t own a flashlight.
On my second turn, my heart relaxed as I saw him beside another Tuk Tuk.
“I’m sorry it took me so long. I got lost,” I said, catching my breath.
“It’s ok,” he said, smiling. He handed a bottle of water like he did this morning. I hesitated at first, but I accepted it in fear that I might offend him.
We exchanged smiles and drove out of the Bayon Temple.
We passed by a short bridge where Cambodian army-looking statues lined it up. I turned my head to the lake as its reflection attracted my attention. The gray sky is now tinted with reddish-orange color. I quickly pointed my camera to the sky and shot it.
Though it was fuzzy, I didn’t ask Mr. Tuk Tuk to stop to get a better image of it. I don’t want to request any further. I already made him wait too long.
Overflowing with gratitude, I looked at Mr. Tuk Tuk as he drives.
Had I cycled alone, I wouldn’t have discovered the photo tour online. I wouldn’t have experienced the Angkor sunrise because I can’t bike in the dark. Even if I brought a flashlight with me, I won’t risk my adventurous self.
Had I toured alone, I wouldn’t have learned from an expert. I wouldn’t have progressed even 1% in my photography skills. I would go back to my books and wait until my next holiday to practice.
Most importantly, I wouldn’t have learned more about generosity and contentment from Mr. Tuk Tuk.
I paid him $10 for his afternoon service. Add up his payment from Regis, I still think that wouldn’t be enough. That’s his income for the whole day. I knew how it feels to live with that. My family came from that status.
Not to mention the memories of the recent war that could still be hunting him and his fellow Khmer people. I can see through the creases on his face, yet he effortlessly make those up with a contagious smile.
So while he concentrates on the road, I lifted my camera up one last time, and snapped a photograph of him.
Marked. The hidden treasure of Siem Reap.