Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Temple Hopping and Freedom Fighters

When I think of jungle temples in Cambodia, I immediately think of Indiana Jones. I think of him running through moss covered hallways with intricate carvings everywhere, blow darts, boulders, and snakes. I have an image in my head of what a 'temple' looks like because of those movies and the awesome ride at Disneyland.

As it turns out, Spielberg and the Disney Imagineers were pretty spot on in recreating forgotten temples…minus the booby traps and Nazis chasing you down.

Today was day 1 of my temple hopping in Cambodia, and I left my entire schedule up to my awesome Tuk Tuk driver Rona. Whenever you go traveling, one of the first things you should do is befriend the locals. They will show you places that the tourists don't know about and, in general, take care of you. It's their country, and most of the time they want to share it with you. Break away from the tour groups and really get to know the country you're visiting (I'm talking to you, Koreans!).

My day actually started with breakfast on the terrace of the guesthouse. I got a late start today because, as I was eating, I was chatting with an Australian professor who was getting ready to start her day too. We chatted about NGO's, charitable organizations, and social change. You know…the average person's dinner talk. Eventually, we got to the part where she wanted to give me some advice. It seems like a normal trend when I travel: I look 18, so everyone wants to give me some life advice, as if I can't figure it out on my own. 

This time around, she gave me some advice that really stuck with me. The simple version of our hour long discussion: do what you love, and everything will fall into place.

The longer version went like this: 'kids' my age are focused on money and security. That's what they want, and who can blame them? But we act as if we're the only group facing this kind of economic crisis, when it's happened time and time again throughout history and each generation found a way to make it work. We are no different, and should stop pretending that we are. We should also find something we believe in and act on it, no matter what. That will see us through and bring us the most happiness. Money doesn't matter nearly as much as we think it does…

But anyways, that was a tangent. I know. It was a remarkable way to start my day though, and a kind reminder that maybe…I am doing things right.

Rona and I jetted off to the temples around 9am this morning, and our first stop was a distant one literally in the middle of nowhere. It was about an hour's drive through the Angkor Wat Archeological  Park, and so I had plenty of time to equip my 7D and my telephoto lens to a tripod mounted in the Tuk Tuk to do some 'on the road shots'.

Buying tickets for Angkor Wat is simple. You can buy a one day pass for $20 or a three-day pass to be used within a week for $40. After today, you honestly don't need more than 3 days, but you should definitely spend more than one. It's huge.

On the way to the distant temple were scattered Cambodian villages occupying the one poorly-paved road in the region. This was the country side…and about as 3rd-World as you could get. That means seeing people living in hammocks between trees, kids playing around butt naked, the perpetual smell of fire, and the perpetual sense that the place was contaminated with every known deadly disease that we hear about on CNN. 

But, as I've been learning in my travels, the 3rd-World isn't nearly as scary as you think. These people are really some of the kindest people you'll ever meet. They've seen literally decades of war, and want nothing but happiness in their lives. They live simple, and often are just trying to survive. That forces you to have perspective on the things that are truly important, and really makes the worries we have in the Western world seem petty in comparison. Life truly is simple.

They also need a lot of help, and that's when I started seeing signs of 'sponsors' that helped build the native Cambodians homes. They were cookie-cutter houses, but they were nice and very efficient. It was an incredibly refreshing sight for me, but I couldn't help but wonder if the people on the signs even came here in the first place to help out, or if they're just a name from a far away land with the big checkbook.

After an hour of driving, we arrived at the first temple. It was a much smaller one than Angkor and its siblings, but it was still very impressive. Most of the temples here follow a similar style. You have an outer wall shaped as a perfect square. Many have moats on the outside. You walk through the main gate and enter the grounds, where a central walkway leads you the main temple. Two ponds sit on the sides of the walkway. The main temple is usually decorated with very detailed carvings of the story of the Gods. Some are awesome, like how all the gods teams up to beat the crap out of Shiva because she was being a jerk, and employed a thousand demigods and all the animals of the air and sea to engage in a tug of war with all of Shiva's demon friends. Some are just very straight-forward: here's whoever this temple is dedicated to. Here's what they look like. Add random Buddhas. Rinse and repeat.

The majority of the temples are made of sandstone, and so over time they begin to change colors and erode in very unique ways. Some temples were red and brown, while others were a dark black with greens and yellows. Many of the temples had trees growing on top of them or, literally, right through them. What made the construction of the many temples in the Angkor Wat region is that they were brought here from quarries literally 50km away. These temples aren't carve into the mountains: they're literally sitting in the middle of plains of flat jungles. And they're huge: they dwarf the countless palm trees scattered around.

For a photographer, the temples were both impossible to shoot and a cornucopia of eye candy just waiting to be devoured. The light in Cambodia, being near the equator, is harsh. Very harsh. So, between the morning and late afternoon it is almost impossible to get a proper exposure on the often white sandstone buildings. Many of these temples are massive in size and hidden in jungles, so getting a wide shot of each complex is nearly impossible. There was often so much to shoot that I didn't know where to start. The moats alone were 300 yards wide and a mile long. You can't properly capture that on camera sometimes…the huge scale of the place you're visiting.

At the same time, the lighting when you got to the temples with trees covering them or intricate tunnels and rooms was so dynamic and diverse that I would literally giggle in delight when I was taking those pictures. Traveling by myself also allowed me to take as much time as I wanted, and I truly got some amazing pictures. That's a good thing, because the detail of some of these places is out of control. Once I have stable internet, I'll be posting them. Also, you can thank the Chinese, Indians, and Koreans for that one. They helped restore the majority of the temples here in the Angkor Wat region.

One of the hectic problems I had was the slew of tourists when you got to some of the major temples like Angkor or the Capital City. Many were European, Chinese, or Korean. I have problems with tourists, and you can check out my feelings on a earlier post from Thailand. The big problems with the tourists here were how they dressed, how they acted, and those DSLR's that hung around their necks. 

Many of the tourists dressed much like they would at home, and that's a big problem when you're in one of the poorest countries in the world. I was taught to dress conservative, not in my bright Euro-colors or my high-heels, Snooki sunglasses, and booty shorts. Not only does it show that you have money, but it is extremely disrespectful and unclassy. You're in a temple: a  place of worship for many people. Treat it with respect.

A lot of the tourists would also litter and berate the children and natives trying to sell them stuff. I know, it gets overwhelming when people are trying to sell you postcards at every stop. But this is how they make their money, and they're just trying to make a quick buck. You can just as easy smile and say "No thank you" and they'll move on. Or, like me, you could buy a $1 Cambodian hacky-sak and play with the children and Tuk-Tuk drivers (seriously, that was one of my most tender moments in my travels, and one that I'm not soon to forget). Treat them like people, not like your servants.

I do like the DSLR revolution. Putting the tools in the hands of the people have given us some pretty creative and exciting photos and videos. At the same time, EVERY person thinks they are a professional once that device is hanging around your neck. You should get practice with it, and the only way is to use it in the field. But don't be trying to compare your equipment with mine or giving me weird looks when I use mine different or go for a shot that isn't the 'essential' shots. And also don't snicker because I have two with different focal lengths hanging from my neck. They are tools. Cameras are tools, and only as good as the operator using them. Learn and come up with your own techniques and workflow before you go judging mine. And please take an ethics course…taking pictures of kids begging and starving is not cool.

I do rant on tourists a lot, so I should say that today was truly an amazing day. We ended it on a mountaintop temple overlooking the entire province just as the sun was setting. While people were taking pictures of the sunset, I was taking some amazing pictures of Angkor Wat. Up here, you could truly appreciate how huge this place is. 

My last moment of the day was when I got back to the Tuk Tuk, where Rona was chatting with the other drivers. They were all hanging out in his Tuk Tuk when I arrive, and they all where clearing out so we could get on our way. One of the drivers pointed to Rona and said "he's a good man". I responded "Yea, he's pretty awesome. He's been talking care of me." The driver responded "That's because he's a freedom fighter for Cambodia."

I asked if this is true, and Rona just nodded as we sped away. I couldn't believe it. Rona was awesome already, and always had a smile on his face. He told me about his wife, and how she's 3 months pregnant and how he hopes for a boy, but would be ok with a girl. He's so eager to show me his country, and now I know why: he fought for it during the Khmer Rouge. That makes him a hero in my book, and, although I won't bring up the subject again with him, will always look up to him for what he's done. 

I'll talk more about the modern history of Cambodia in a later post, as I did spend nearly 2 hours talking with an American Vietnam Veteran who was working at the Landmine Museum. That story is eye-opening, heart-wrenching, hopeful, and concerning…and merits a good read once I finish it.

What a day…Day 2 is over, and I still have the better part of week to explore. From here it actually slows down a bit, as I get to do some more interesting things in town and spend more time getting to know the area. Today was more a whirlwind tour, and I had the Tuk-Tuk hair to prove it (It's when your hair stands straight up cause you've been in a Tuk-Tuk all day). Time to go to bed...

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