One of the most life-altering events in my life was a visit to a Steve McCurry photo exhibit while I was working as a jet mechanic in San Diego. Among his photographs were a number of beautiful scenes from the jungle-swallowed temples of Angkor in Cambodia. Standing before the large prints in a gallery at Balboa Park, I was completely immersed in fantastical scenes of orange-robed monks wandering the overgrown ruins of the Khmer Empire.

Photo by Steve McCurry -- SteveMcCurry.com

Photo by Steve McCurry — SteveMcCurry.com

Exotic would be an understatement, and McCurry — already famous for his breathtaking work — became my new hero. Becoming a globe-trotting, land mine-dodging travel photographer was suddenly more desirable than ever. So it was then and there, standing before images from Cambodia, that I decided to quit my job, go back to school in Utah, and pursue photojournalism.

Photo by Steve McCurry -- SteveMcCurry.com

Photo by Steve McCurry — SteveMcCurry.com

That was 2004, and just over a decade later I finally arrived in Cambodia myself, camera in hand, dreaming of emulating my inspiration’s work. Of course, his images were made long before I’d arrived and well before I even first saw them and much had changed in Angkor since.

Angkor Wat, CambodiaFor starters, I can’t imagine McCurry fighting his way through bus-loads of tourists at the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat as we did. It took a very early start and a furiously fast bike ride to find any peace and quiet in the now famous temples. Unfortunately, this excluded Cambodia’s crown jewel, Angkor Wat, which was jam-packed before first light as the masses gathered for sunrise.

MWJ_3216It was a circus from dawn to dusk, don’t let the other photos fool you. It took some very careful composition to show the beauty of Angkor without also including a) a family from China; b) a crowd of kids selling 10 postcards for a dollar; c) a handsome couple with a selfie stick; or d) a poorly placed platform and railing for tourists to pose on for photos.

How bad could it be, you ask? Well, instead of roping off an area to protect it from even a short distance, developers built platforms and railings mere inches from the most beautiful trees and ruins. This gave little or no chance to admire the quiet, untouched scenes that had drawn us there to begin with. Pretty much the equivalent of building a viewing platform for Mount Rushmore on the tip of George Washington’s nose.

MWJ_3060Thankfully, the once-great city of Angkor was a massive sprawl — of which only the stone structures survived —and with enough determination and pedal power, we managed to escape the madness to find some peace and quiet. (For those who can afford an entire week at Angkor, a car ride to the more remote ruins on the northern border would probably be the best cure for the crowds).

Angkor, Cambodia, travel, SE Asia, South East Asia, Temple, Ruins, Khmer, Tomb Raider Temple, Angkor WatThat being said, it was still glaringly obvious why the crowded temples of Angkor were so damn… crowded. They were out of this world! Built by Khmer Kings convinced of their divinity, the temple were “the dwelling places of the immortal lords of heaven.” For that reason, they were built well with durable brick and stone that has lasted over 1,000 years since the great empire flourished between the 9th and 13th centuries.

Over time, the jungle reclaimed many of the ruins following the empire’s mysterious collapse, but the joining of ancient architecture and nature still makes Angkor irresistible to all modern-day tourists. Therefore, we suffered the rampant overcrowding, which authorities are planning to control at some of the most frequently visited temples in future.

Angkor, Cambodia, travel, SE Asia, South East Asia, Temple, Ruins, Khmer, Tomb Raider Temple, Angkor WatSome of us will moan and complain, unable to witness the grandeur of Angkor in a quieter time, but it’s all good for the Cambodians, who received approximately 4.6 million international visitors in 2014. These ruinous temples of the great Khmer empire are now helping modern day Cambodians fund the rebuilding of their country, just decades after the horrific genocide of the Cambodian civil war.

Angkor, Cambodia, travel, SE Asia, South East Asia, Temple, Ruins, Khmer, Tomb Raider Temple, Angkor WatAnd eventually I did find some monks to photograph… although I think McCurry still has me beat. 😉

About The Author

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Mark is currently traveling for a year with his wife Britnee. Besides that stuff, (traveling and his wife), Mark's other likes include: mountain bikes he can’t afford, eerie movies starring Paul Dano, morning coffee--preferably brewed by someone else, and at least one song by Iggy Azalea.

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