A Buddhist nun in Ta Prohm, Angkor, Cambodia
“How long will you stay in Pousat?”
“Oh, two nights? In Pousat? Why?”
That was the usual response we received when we told people we were planning to stay more than one night in the city of Pousat. While the town itself isn’t overly exciting, it was the proximity to the countryside that made us want to hang around (mostly people stop here overnight on their journey between Phnom Penh in the south and Siem Reap in the north). With no real plans other than to ‘find some nature’, I grabbed a few tourist pamphlets from the lobby of our hotel and started looking. One of them listed a few waterfalls and rainforests, so we made plans to head there the next day.
After a quick trip to the market down the street to buy some snacks (which mostly involved a lot of pointing and smiling, since most of the Khmer words we knew were: chek ambong, chek numva, and orkun cheraown), we were off. The drive was about an half an hour on the highway and another forty minutes (almost an hour) on dirt roads. The lack of signs combined with help from locals that pointed us in every direction turned the trip into an almost two-hour journey. As we climbed deeper into the forest along roads that were becoming more sand than solid, mum looked at me and said, “This better be worth it.”
When we finally pulled up, paid the entrance fee, and hopped down to the river, I let out a sigh of relief. It definitely was.
We walked along the banks in one direction for a while and then headed up the path the other way. While we didn’t make the whole trip (so we missed seeing the actual falls) due to both confusion as to whether the path had ended or not and mum’s sore back (that I’d aggravated by making her climb up some ruins the previous day), the part of the river we did see was pretty spectacular.
The water was icily cold but crystal clear; you could see right to the bottom of the shallow water and the details of the rocks there. In some parts the water flowed pretty fast and heavy, but not strongly enough to be dangerous if you got caught up in it. A few metres down the river it slowed to a gentle current.
Each person we saw at the river (none foreign tourists where we were, at least) was incredibly friendly. They all smiled and waved and asked us how we were, giggling when we responded with the little Khmer phrases. This friendliness was something we experienced all over Cambodia, particularly in the more rural areas. We ate lunch near the river, where we chatted to the woman who cooked us lunch via our guide, and she gave us a hand of bananas when we left.
We’d had a great adventure, and it was only just midday.
Our trip to Angkor Wat for sunrise was an eventful one. My Mum, who I was travelling with, hadn’t been feeling well the night before and wasn’t feeling enthused about the predawn wakeup call. When our alarms went off at 4am she sat up on the bed, pale-faced, and told me to go on alone. I made sure she was okay and settled before heading off to make the trip that hundreds of people make every morning: visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise. I’d forgotten to bring a torch with me (I only had the light from my phone), but I didn’t need to be worried. The lights of everybody else sleepily shuffling across the stone bridge was enough for me to see. By the time I’d arrived the crowd by the left reflecting pool was about six-people deep, so I decided to watch from the reflecting pool on the right, where only two people stood. (This, of course, changed as more people arrived.) I huddled down, wishing I’d brought another layer of clothes with me, and waited.
The sun rose slowly that morning, and burst into pinks and blues instead of glowing orange. I can imagine how, several years ago, watching the sun appear here would have felt magical. (It was hard to conjure this same feeling while people complained about their cameras not working, about how they couldn’t see, how cold they were…). Still, watching the silhouette of this ancient building shift from two-dimensional to alive was pretty amazing. It’s so easy to get caught up in other people’s experience of an experience and not have your own. Part of me (the part that of me that is not a morning person) wanted to be grumpy and annoyed at the constant chatter and people shoving and elbowing their way around. And I have, in the past, given in to this – and it ruins things. At 5am, I wasn’t ready to have my day ruined and my experience damped because I was too busy feeling somebody else’s feelings. So I just took a deep breath and made myself realise how lucky I was to be sitting there, in front of building that is hundreds of years old, watching the sun rise.
In the end I left pretty quickly, not because I was bored, but because I’d already seen a spectacular sunrise and I still had so much to see. Once you step away from the reflecting pools the rest of Angkor Wat feels abandoned. The calmness of the exterior is surprising. The lakes at the entry of the temple were so still and so reflective, and standing alone on the stones just watching the sky lighten across the water was one of the most serene moments I’ve ever had.
If you ever visit Angkor Wat at sunrise, I encourage you to come and stand at the front of the building in the predawn moments. It almost embodies the mystical nature that I imagine everyone is chasing inside.
Hurtling down a rickety track, bracing for bumps, and feeling the air hit my face as we rush past the countryside. It’s a guaranteed way to make me smile. The Bamboo Train is just outside Battambang, Cambodia, and is a remnant of a railway that previously extended all the way down to Phnom Penh. Now it’s mostly used to take tourists on a quick trip down to the end of the line and back.
We climbed on top of the bamboo frame (called a norri) and waited for the engine to sputter to life. Then we were off, faster than I imagined a wooden platform could realistically travel. The walls of trees start to blur together and the adrenalin kicks in: go faster, faster, faster!
Out of nowhere people appear, heads poking out of bushes or suddenly appearing at next to you on the tracks.
Everyone else seems fairly unfazed by the tourists hurtling along the tracks beside them, walking or biking on the well-worn paths that run parallel to the railroad.
The train slows down as we near people walking across the tracks as bridges, carrying food and other items to take home. The precision with which the operator dulls the engine and pulls into a crawling pace is amazing to me (as someone who knows practically nothing about engines).
But this is a one-way track. Suddenly another carriage appears in the distance and as they both slow down, I begin to wonder what happens here. Are they both going to stop? Is someone going to turn around? Should I jump off now to save myself from the crash?
Instead, they pull to a halt and begin to disassemble and remove one of the norris from the track. The cart lifts effortlessly off the wheel axles, which are then lifted like weights onto the grass. Normally two or more men help to do this, but I watched our driver remove his cart from the track and replace it by himself several times.
The journey to the end of the line and back takes around an hour. (At least this is what Google tells me. I have a bad habit of not keeping track of time or dates when I travel unless I absolutely have to.) And it’s definitely an hour well-spent.
In January this year I headed off on another short adventure, this time to the beautiful country of Cambodia. Travelling there really opened my eyes to so much I had never noticed before. It taught me that kindest truly is universal, that scars can run deep, and that back home we take so much for granted. Cambodia was, emotionally, a hard place to visit, and deserves more than a few rushed words to talk about it. In the meantime, I’ll be starting to share photographs and stories from this amazing place.
– Molly xx
I love photographing people in a different way to how much I love photographing architecture and landscapes. Photographing people candidly is something I really enjoy; capturing people’s actions when they don’t realise they’re being watched is interesting and very insightful. When I travelled to Thailand I wanted to capture images of the people as well as the landscape, as an inherent part of the country and its culture. Nervous and awkward I slowly worked up the nerve to ask people for their photograph. Most (if not all, I think) consented, but I snapped quickly and thanked them, feeling slightly uncomfortable.
On one occasion, in fact for the last photo in this post, my Mum and I were at a small market, laughing and chatting with the stall-holder and the woman in the photo (presumably the stall-holder’s mother). The old woman didn’t speak much English but smiled when we did, showing her betel-stained teeth. I asked if I could take a photo of her and she nodded, assuming the pose in the above photo. Something about the whole situation made me a little uncomfortable and I felt really awkward. After that I shied away from asking for photos and stuck to pictures of buildings, trees, and other non-human subjects.
There is always a debate raging somewhere about taking photos of people while travelling. Personally, I love seeing photographs of the humans that inhabit a place; they’re often some of my favourites because when they’re done right they can tell so much story (a skill I have yet to attain). But it’s something I still feel a little weird about, and will probably continue to do so until I can reconcile it all my in head. In the meantime I’ll keep going with my gut and hope it works out for the best!
Anyone have any tips and tricks for photographing people? How do you feel about it when you travel?