As part of the Jungles program on Human Planet we have come to Cambodia to investigate a place where nature has reclaimed the site of a former human civilization. That place is the 200 square kilometre area of Angkor in Central Cambodia, former home to, amongst others, the great Khmer empire of King Suryavarman the second. Satellite surveys suggest that Angkor once comprised an urban sprawl of some 3,000 square kilometres, making it by far the largest preindustrial city the world has ever known. The notion that a place of this magnitude could ever become abandoned is a fascinating prospect, the concensus agreeing that it was a combination of the declining Khmer empire and one final conquest by the Thais in the 15th century that caused a shift of power over to Phnom Penh in the east, thus sealing Angkor’s fate as a forgotten city, destined to be reabsorbed into the surrounding jungle until its modern day resurgence as the seat for Cambodia’s most recent all-conquering empire, early 21st century tourism.
Control of this phenomenal stone-built metropolis has passed between nations over the years, most notably between the Cambodian Khmers and the Siamese (Thais), the modern day tenure currently residing within the hands of the rubber and petroleum giant Sokimex, who own the right to profit from Angkor’s highly lucrative tourist industry. Ask any local and they’ll insist that Sok Kong, the owner of Sokimex is Vietnamese and therefore this deal represents yet another conquest of Angkor by a foreign invader. Having never met Mr. Kong myself I can’t confirm this, but whatever the truth, it is certainly a bone of contention in this neck of the woods which will no doubt add more fire to Angkor’s intriguing history.
Yesterday we spent all day filming within the ruins of Ta Phrom, possibly Angkor’s most visually stunning ruin. Many visitors before us have also acknowledged this fact, most famously Paramount Pictures, who used it as a backdrop for a number of scenes in the video game inspired blockbuster Tomb Raider, a production which appears to have employed almost every local resident of Angkor if they are to be believed. I had a quick look at said scenes today and I must admit that I really love what they did with the lake in front of Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the complex, bringing it to life with a mass of boats and floating water lilies. Large Hollywood productions invading ancient temple sites is definitely not to everyone’s taste I know, but you have to admit, it really does look absolutely amazing.
If you are planning on making a photographic pilgrimage to Angkor, be prepared to share your space with a number of like minded enthusiasts. Don’t let this put you off however. There are still loads of temples that get overlooked by the package tour groups who tend to stick to a well trodden route. Similarly, if you turn up at sunrise or sunset you’ll not only be blessed with the best light, but also complete solitude in my experience, and Cambodia is a nation of early risers so you’ll have no trouble getting a tuk tuk to drive you out to the temple complex before first light.
Whether you like it or not, the urge to photograph a monk amidst the overgrown ruins will no doubt overcome your sensibilities at some point, and when it does, make the most of the experience by spending as long as you can engaging in some friendly banter and cultural exchange. The monks I have met here are very cool cats. They quietly put up with a hell of a lot of probing lenses and they aren’t all touting for dollars as many foreigners will have you believe.
I am leaving you with this picture of 75 year old Kong Di, from Ta Phrom monastery (famously, background monk no. 7 in the scene where Lara Croft arrives at Angkor Wat by boat from across the lake) standing in another ‘famous’ Tomb Raider set location. For those of you who are more photographically inclined, you might be wondering why I used a fisheye lens to shoot this picture. Simple. Last year, a raised wooden viewing platform was built just 3 feet away from the doorway, complete with security guard and a rope barrier to keep tourists from clambering onto the tree roots. Using a 15mm lens was the only way I could get wide enough to edit it out of the photograph. Beware the subjective eye of the photographer!
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