Thanks to my work! I got a short assignment and had the opportunity to visit Cambodia. My work schedule was very tight but for one who considers photography a therapy, finding time to shoot is not a problem. And that’s what I did.
Jan 29 -31, 2012
From Manila, I arrived in Phnom Pehn, via Bangkok route, on a Sunday night. The flight was generally smooth and hassle free except for a nerve-racking immigration officer who was so unkind to some arriving tourists especially to a Chinese-looking lady who could not understand what she was being instructed to do. Trying to avoid a possible argument with this officer I looked around if I could transfer to another officer but the cue in the other booths was long already. So I decided to stick to my line and wait for my turn. Lucky enough the unkind officer did not show me any negative behavior while checking my passport. After waiting for my luggage for a few minutes, I went out of the airport and had my first glimpse of Phnom Pehn. At the exit, I met my colleague Dr Sithirit Mak (with his son) who gave me a warm welcome.
With only 2M people, Phnom Pehn is not yet crowded compared to other big and densely populated cities in South East Asia like Manila, Jakarta and Bangkok. On our way to the hotel, Sithirit asked me about my first impression of the city. Without much thinking I told here that Phnom Pehn, except of the modern cars running on the road and internet connection, looks like Manila in the 70s. The Riverside area where my Hotel is located looks like Malate and Manila Bay in the 70s with a lot of tourists enjoying their time eating and drinking in small but beautiful bars and restaurants, walking by the river, enjoying the cool breeze at the boulevard and having a romantic night cruise.
I stayed in a 3-star hotel called Lux Hotel. It was relatively clean and cheap charging only 40USD with a nice buffet breakfast. Since it was only a short walk (literally short) to the Riverside Boulevard, I had managed to walk around the area to take some photos during the golden hours, before and after work.
Jan 31-Feb 1, 2012
My next destination was Kampot Province, located 130km from Phnom Pehn and in the south-east part of Cambodia. It is also the third largest coastal province in Cambodia hence we headed there to visit two fishing villages. Together with me in the trip were Sithirit and three other Cambodians (working with local NGOs) who took turn in giving stories about the rich history of Cambodia, Budhism, Khmer Civilization, Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and of course the famous story of killing fields.
After more than three hours, we finally reached Kampot. The place looks to me an upcoming tourist destination with a number of beautiful hotels, guesthouses and resorts are available. The sun was about to set when we reached the hotel. Again I felt that adrenalin rush which pushed me to run quickly to my room’s terrace to witness and capture the incredible performance through my lens. Again I shot a beautiful sunset over the mountain range which separates Cambodia and Vietnam. That for me was already a good alternative for shooting a lovely old French Colonial-era building in a perfect sunset or shooting sunset over Kampot river.
After receiving that beautiful scenery at the terrace of my hotel room, I rested for a couple of minutes before heading to visit the eco-tourism center of a local NGO called Children and Women Development Center of Cambodia (CWDCC). CWDCC is potential partner for my organization and is actively working in Kampot on issues of women, children and environment. While at the CWDCC Eco-Tour center, I (together with Sithirit) had a small chat with some of its staff over a simple seafood dinner and a can of Angkor Wat beer. We exchanged pleasantries and stories about Philippines and Cambodia. Of course, they had enthusiastically shared their struggles in working on the concerns of women and children in Kampot as well as their struggles and successes in protecting their people and their mangrove forests. Having no ownership and no management policy developed by government, a huge amount of mangroves in Kampot have already been destroyed and converted to salt beds and shrimp farming projects. For the locals, protecting the remaining mangrove forests is important for the restoration of some fish species, birds and some other important fauna and flora. Destroying the mangroves or taking these out of their control will endanger the livelihood and lives of many poor fishers, women and children in various fishing communities.
I was wanting to stay a little longer in Kampot to experience the mangrove tour in late noon and experience its popular sunrise over the Kampot river but our tight schedule pushed us to go back again to Phnom Pehn right after our meeting with the leaders of the fishing communities.
Feb 2-3, 2012
From Phnom Pehn, one can go to Siem reap either by bus, car, boat or plane. Since we only had two days for this trip, we explored going there by plane but to no avail. Flights from Phnom Phen to Siem Reap are always fully booked. One needs to make an advanced booking to get a flight as there is only one company, Cambodia Angkor Airline, which flies this route. So we had no choice but to travel by car.
Along our way to Siem Reap, our partner NGO Salvation Center Cambodia (SCC) brought us to its one project site. It was a relocation site where most people are living in extreme poverty. People do not own the lands and access to water and basic services is difficult in the area. There we saw how SCC runs their education program for children and the livelihood training for women.
After a long travel which lasted for seven hours we finally reached Siem Reap at 6:00pm. We first stopped at a small temple at the center of the city, bought a bunch of lotus flower and a few sticks of incense to offer at the temple. After saying a short prayer, we went to a group of monks and received a welcome blessing. After that interesting Budhhist ritual, we proceeded to Apsara Angkor Resort to spend the night.
Our meeting in the next morning was scheduled at 9:00am. I took advantage of the early hour in the morning to have a quick visit to Angkor Wat and witness its magical sunrise -- the only personal thing which I wished for in this work travel and I was really determined to make it happen. I was lucky enough that one staff of the SCC offered to accompany me at 5:00am in the morning and offered me a ride so I could be in Angkor Wat in time for the sunrise.
Excited and upbeat, I woke up at 4:30am the next day. By 5:00am I was already at the hotel lobby to wait for Rota but he did not arrive on time and by 5:15 I was already worried that I could not anymore catch the sunrise. I was already counting every minute and figuring out what to do if Rota would not show up. Finally he arrived at 5:20 but with the Tuktok because their service car was blocked by another car at the parking lot of their hotel.
The tuktok ride from my hotel to Angkor took only 20 minutes. And because it was still early getting a ticket at the ticket booth was easy. The Angkor Wat is being managed by a private company so everything is in order and controlled. Indeed, every foreign visitor has to be taken a photograph, at the ticket booth, before he/she can enter Angkor Wat.
I finally reached Angkor Wat at 5:45am. It was still dark but a lot of tourists, mostly photographers, also started to arrive with their gears including small torches which they use to light the way to the sunrise area. The management did not install so much light in Angkor Wat to preserve its natural atmosphere. It’s good that Rota’s mobile phone has a flash light so were able to manage our way to the sunrise view area.
The sunrise view area was full (around 1000 tourist waiting for sunrise) when I arrived but I was still able to get a good spot to shoot. I believe every one of us there was excited and wanting to get a beautiful photo of the temple with the sun rising and beautifully reflected by the small lake in front of the temple. The waiting took a little longer. But when the sun started to rise at around 6:40am, I heard the clicking of cameras as if like music to my ears. Every one of us there was trying to take the best photo of the Angkor Wat sunrise. For 15 minutes, I savored every second of the magical view of Angkor Wat. My wish has finally come true.
By 7:30am we were already heading back to our hotel to prepare ourselves for the morning meeting with our partner. Rota told me that we could again go back to visit some temples after our work and before we travel back to Phnom Phen.
The construction of the city of temples or Angkor Wat is a concrete display of Khmers’ greatness which happened even before Spain colonized my country. It was the start of a true Asian civilization, a great architectural phenomenon. Seeing and understanding the stories of its various temples is enough for one to understand the great intelligence of Khmers and their rich culture. Traces of how people live during the pre Angkor, Angkor and post Angkor period are still strongly present in the various temples.
My Angkor visit was very rapid but a very enriching experience. Indeed, one of the three temples that I visited was the one where Angelina Jolie shot her famous Lara Croft movie Tomb Raider.
Walking through these temples, I noticed that everyone looks almost the same but once you hear the story behind each temple, you will understand that every one of them is unique There are temples that are just ruins, some have been taken over by nature with big century-old trees growing over the walls and co-exist with the ruins. I hope I could have spent more time in this place to visit more temples and hear stories behind each one of them. Maybe more time is also needed to just sit down, enjoy and experience the peace that the place offers and listen to the birds and monkeys in the jungle behind the temples.
Rota and Sophal (also a staff of SCC who is a former tour guide) told me that Cambodia has more than 2000 temples and more than 200 of that are in Siem Reap. So far I have visited three and I feel that a lot of things are still worth discovering in Ankor Wat. Hence I will definitely include it again in my future travel plans, but a more extensive visit next time and of course hopefully with my wife.
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