CAMBODIA – ANGKOR FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS – 8 TIPS
Of all the places I’ve been in the world, Cambodia’s Angkor complex is one of my top favorites. I count myself lucky to have been able to visit the temples many times, and each time I go, I come away with new discoveries and different photographs.
Since Angkor is one of the most popular tourist destinations in SE Asia, there isn’t really an ‘off season’ for this park. Although the majority of visitors come during the dry season (October – March), the park remains busy all year long. And being able to photograph the temples without busloads of tourists in blue and red jackets is kind of important to me, as a photographer.
Boy near pond in Angkor Wat
So let me give you some tips on how to get the best results from your visit to Angkor.
- The Angkor complex, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is really, really big. Seriously, it’s about 400 square kilometers. Seeing the entire site is pretty much impossible for the typical traveller who visits for just a week or less. Plan to see the most important temples, and if you’re energetic, a few more of the less popular ones can be added to the mix.
- Tourists come by the busload. Lots of busloads. Luckily, they can be spotted at a distance by their bright colors and loud noises. Unluckily, they will often get in the way of your beautifully framed photo that you were just about to shoot. So, knowing when and where to be for tourist-free photos is one of the most important skills you will need for this park. Tell your local guide that this is super important to you. They know the secrets.
- So, that said, early mornings and later afternoons are the best times to shoot photos in Angkor. Coincidentally, that’s also the best time in general to shoot landscape photos, so lucky you! And by ‘early’, I mean really Like 5 am early. Getting to the park for sunrise is a ritual in Angkor. Thousands of others will be with you early in the morning too, but not nearly as many as there would be after 9 am.
- Get to the park for sunrise photos of Angkor Wat (a must-have photo), and anchor yourself by the edge of the reflecting pond in front of the temple. Plant your tripod into the soggy ground and wait for about an hour. Bring mosquito repellant, a flashlight, maybe an iPod and some coffee. About 6 am, the colors in the sky will start changing and if you’re lucky, there will be some clouds behind the temple, making for a beautiful sunrise. At 6:30 it’s all over.
- If you’re up early, you can avoid most of the crowds that arrive about 9 am. You can usually get several hours of beautiful morning light shooting in before breakfast, then return to your hotel for said breakfast and a shower and a nap. You can return to the park after lunch, for several more hours of amazing photos, but with the sunlight waning instead. Aim for the more popular sites early in the morning, like Ta Prohm, La Bayon, Angkor Thom, and Preah Kahn. Your local guide can get you there easily.
- Most of the temples are a bit of a challenge to climb up on, with large and sometimes slippery stones. Many are under continual repair, but you can usually still climb around most. So travel light if you can. Although it’s tempting to bring every item you own in your camera bag, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll use that long telephoto, or that second flash. Leave those behind, and carry less with you so that you can comfortably walk and climb. It can get nasty hot out some days, so bring a towel to wipe yourself dry, a few hundred times per day. And bring a small umbrella. Yes, even in the dry season.
- Bring – and USE – a tripod. ‘Nuff said.
- There will be many young children in the park, trying to sell you some postcards or t-shirts. I am not interested in their postcards, but for the same money, you can usually convince them to be included in some photos. This goes the same for the other locals that you’ll encounter in the park – like nuns and monks. A small donation to their temple will go a long way, and maybe make for some great photos. Be generous, and they will be too.
Angkor Wat temple reflected at sunrise, in Angkor, Cambodia.
The South Gate to Angkor Thom, in Angkor, Cambodia.
It’s quite likely that your first visit to Angkor will be overwhelming, at least visually. It’s an incredible location to be with your camera. It’s slowly being exhumed from the jungle, and more is being discovered all the time. And at the same time, temples are falling apart from overuse.
A young Monk inside the Bayon Temple, in Angkor, Cambodia.
My advice is to be patient and take your time to absorb it all in. Angkor took hundreds of years to build, so you can wait a few minutes for that person to walk out of your frame. It will be worth the wait.
A rainbow appears after a rain shower, in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
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An old man waits out the rain, in a temple inside the Angkor complex, Cambodia.