Dateline: Siem Reap, Cambodia
My plane descended through murky grey cloud. Gradually the eerie landscape came into focus though it was hard to discern visual separation between sky and the endless fog-shrouded sea beyond. Treetops seemed to float in what appeared to be an optical illusion . . . but I knew the ocean was more than three hundred kilometers south. Gradually it became clear what the mighty typhoon Ketsana had unleashed. You could see water forever with only an occasional rooftop poking through. Ketsana had laid waste to the Philippines on her course toward Vietnam. But Vietnam is narrow and its terrain offered little resistance. So Ketsana decided to engulf next-door Cambodia before her fury tired just one day before I arrived.
The treetops grew closer, whizzing past with ever gathering speed and it started to worry me this wasn’t an amphibious aircraft. Then just inches above the water, the runway finally rose to greet us. My sigh of relief was audible and then we touched down. The flight attendant promptly announced we had landed at the international airport of Siem Reap and to please keep our mobile phones switched off and our life jackets handy till we moored at the boat dock.
My taxi ride into the city was a bit wet . . . if you can call it a taxi. Actually the locals call them ‘tuk-tuks” but they’re not quite the same as those in Thailand. These are open-sided carriages towed by a motorbike with a pivoting hinge mounted on back, connected to the royal carriage where I was clinging for dear life fending off the onslaught splash of speeding vehicles trying desperately to drench my camera bag. The roads were just passable–only in places was it knee-deep in the after wake of Ketsana’s wrath.
My first day was spent swimming . . . well, so to speak. The streets of Siem Reap became more submerged each day though the rains had long since stopped. The waters up north relentlessly made their way downhill, which left the city in an ever-deepening backwash.
I stood in almost knee-deep water when I shot my first fine art photos in Cambodia, “Run Yellow Run” and “First Came Red,” both from peeling paint signboards:
Then I made my way to Deadfish where I first ran amok.
Please let me clarify: I don’t mean “amok” as in “stone-throwing anarchists running amok.” My online dictionary says this word comes via the Portuguese from the Malay word “amok” which was a noun denoting a Malaysian in a homicidal frenzy and that it is now used as an adverb which dates from the late 17th century–a time when the Portuguese were running amok in the area and probably felt this word accurately described their uncontrolled excitement and exaggerated behavior of forced land acquisition.
“Deadfish” is the name of a fantastic restaurant in the heart of Siem Reap, an establishment of rustic warehouse design with multi levels suspended rather precariously between rafters and with water troughs below that house big fish (live not dead)–an architectural design that could tantalize just about anyone’s visual appetite. I waded through knee-deep waters to get there and this is the first place I tried “Khmer Amok,” a culinary delight. It’s a thick coconut milk curry dish with fish or chicken or pork (your choice) saturated in local spices and usually served in a banana leaf bowl or in a young coconut shell. I’m not sure where they got the name. But It’s simply delicious and after the first taste I swam amok through the streets of Siem Reap looking for more.
This was my third trip to Angkor and its magical overgrown temples from a time one thousand years past–the architectural renaissance of Southeast Asia. Less than two decades ago there were very few hotels nearby. Now the place is chock-a-block with endless five-star accommodation. Check out how tree roots have engulfed nearby temple ruins over the centuries.
The first time I came here was in the early nineties when there were hardly any tourists and the infamous Khmer Rouge had almost departed. They had slaughtered millions of Cambodians in previous years and the blood stains still linger today. My guide back then was a machine-gun-toting soldier whose mission was to protect me from a possible handful of stray Khmer Rouge outlaws still roaming the area and who frequently hid in the unending nooks and crannies of the Angkor temple ruins. But fortunately my guide and I were the only ones present that day. He also kept me on a path safely away from the stray land mine or two. Just a couple of months before I arrived, three tourists had been kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge and killed. You can see my Angkor photos from back then at Getty Images.
Today much of the encroaching jungle has been cleared and in its place we find boardwalks and roped-off temple paths and thousands of super-sized buses laden with camera-toting tourists all safe from the long departed Khmer Rouge. Now you have your choice between helicopter rides, hot air balloons or transporting yourself straddled atop an elephant to garner unique views. I stood for a full thirty minutes waiting for what seemed like hundreds of sightseers to pass (I kid not) just to take this one photo in a split second sans humankind and reminiscent of ages past. The threatening scowl I threw an encroaching tourist was enough to freeze her in stride on the boardwalk for just the quick moment I needed.
Notice how the tree strides atop algae-covered temple ruins and how its roots found every possible avenue through gaps between stones. Indiana Jones would surely have loved it here. This place is awesome. But please don’t come.
You might not find an empty hotel room though hundreds of hotels now exist.
So, I spent most of my time during this trip swimming and dodging tourists and piranha-like touts. I kept looking for fine art compositions bathed with magic light in hard-to-find isolated sectors of the temples. Typically I lean toward warming my images a tweak using Photoshop when I encounter overcast skies like during this trip. This time I shifted gears and cooled most of my photos a bit thus enlivening drab grey stones by washing them with hints of blue.
Local authorities don’t recommend running amok through temple rubble at midnight hoping for shades of blue light in your photos.
See these books to learn more about the Angkor and Cambodian culture.