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From tarantulas to temples: travel photography with Joshua Donnelly

Award-winning travel photographer Joshua Donnelly recounts the highlights of his trip to Cambodia

28 December 2015


Award-winning travel photographer Joshua Donnelly recounts the highlights of his trip to Cambodia

Buddhist Monk outside part of the enormous complex that is Angkor Wat; Nikon D4S, 32mm, f/8, 1/160s, ISO 100

I wasn’t too sure if I could handle it. The mere thought of eating a fried tarantula made my stomach turn. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, threw that sucker down and … it wasn’t too bad. Maybe it was better fried, as the frying process had taken off all the hair. In fact, I even felt brave enough to let a live one crawl on me once the girl selling me bananas — who, it appeared, was also a bit of a spider expert — assured me that the fangs had been removed. With growing confidence, I tackled a fried cricket, but I had to draw the line at swallowing a silk worm. 

Flower seller, Phnom Penh; Nikon D4S, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/500s, ISO 100

Eating insects was just one of the many highlights of my six-day Cambodia Heritage trip in February — my prize for winning the Cathay Pacific Travel Photographer of the Year 2014 award. 

The journey began in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. The visa process at the airport was one of those oddly memorable travel experiences. We filled out our forms, pushed our way to one desk, and handed our passports over, and then watched while an impressive line-up of workers passed the passports from one person to another. One was responsible for sticking the visa in the passport, one for writing, and so on. Eventually we gathered around another desk and waited for the next person in the processing chain to hold each passport up and attempt to call the owner’s name. At the front of the queue were the tourists who would then try to interpret what the Cambodian passport officer had said, which resulted in something similar to Chinese (Cambodian?) whispers, which you hoped would result in getting your passport back.

Temple groundskeepers having a break; Nikon D4S, 70mm, f/5.6, 1/100s, ISO 180

Phnom Penh still retains a lot of its colonial charm from the days when the French ruled Cambodia. However, there is plenty of foreign development, seen in the existence of supermalls and apartment buildings, which are better overlooked in favour of the other attractions throughout this beautiful city. 

It is located on the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, and strolling along the waterfront is a great way to get a feel for the city and observe daily city life. You could even make a day of just watching the traffic — it is amazing what the locals can pile onto their vehicles or scooters.

Preah Khan Temple; Nikon D4S, 24mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 400

It is well-known that Cambodia has had a turbulent history. Any trip to this country should include a visit to the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21) in order to try and understand what the Cambodian people went through during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. Beware, however, that it isn’t for the faint-hearted. More than 17,000 people who were held at S-21 were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek and executed. 

All but 43 of the 129 mass graves have been exhumed, and you can still see fragments of human bone in the ground. One place that I found particularly frightening was the tree that babies were beaten against. I found it difficult to comprehend the scale of suffering and sadness that the Cambodian people went through. 

Boy in hammock; Nikon D4S, 70mm, f/4, 1/200s,  ISO 400

But it was Tuol Sleng that really tugged at my heartstrings. Formerly a high school, it became the largest torture and detention centre in the country during the Khmer Rouge regime. An average of 100 people died per day at the prison. It contains wall after wall of disturbing portraits of the prisoners, instruments of torture, and rusted beds where prisoners were shackled and tortured. Only seven people survived Tuol Sleng when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh, and it’s possible to meet two of the survivors and hear their story as you exit the site. It’s a depressing place to visit, but it opens your eyes to the dark side of the human spirit. 

Shopping and eating are two of my favourite activities when travelling, and Phnom Penh offers great shopping opportunities, including the Russian Market, but be prepared to bargain hard, whether it is for souvenirs or for fake electronics, DVDs, and clothes. If shopping makes you hungry, slip into the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for happy hour, followed by a delicious dinner at Romdeng Restaurant, which trains former street children for careers in the hospitality industry. 

Family on scooter, Phnom Penh; Nikon D4S, 52mm, f/2.8, 1/100s, ISO 110

After Phnom Penh, we headed to Siem Reap — the home of the amazing temples of Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is set up well for tourists, with a selection of backpacker pads through to five-star hotels. Tuk-tuks are everywhere, fresh fruit smoothies cost only US$1, and a meal won’t set you back for much more than that. Most importantly, if you have tired, weary feet after a day of temple viewing, you can get a blissful foot massage for US$3.

Inside Preah Khan Temple; Nikon D4S, 24mm, f/5.6, 1/50s, ISO 400

The first temple that we visited was the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, which has been virtually swallowed by the jungle. Stone blocks have been dislodged by tree roots, bas-reliefs are carpeted with lichen, moss and trees, and towers that are centuries old loom overhead. It is an amazing place to visit, and a must for any temple itinerary. 

The Jungle Temple, Ta Prohm; Nikon D4S, 24mm, f/3.5, 1/200s, ISO100

An experience that we enjoyed in-between temple viewing was a ride in a traditional cow cart. We travelled through a tree-lined dirt road with houses and people going about their daily activities — the locals all waved, and the children said hello. This relaxing trip was a great way to see some of the surrounding countryside. 

Angkor Wat is one of those rare places where the first look will blow you away. I was really taken aback by its size and its architecture, which dates back to 1100. You could easily spend an afternoon admiring the 800-metre-long bas-reliefs, climbing the temple, or just finding somewhere cool to contemplate your Cambodian adventure. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is a truly unique feeling, even if there are quite a few people sharing it with you. 
If you need a break from the temples, take a boat trip to Tonle Sap Lake, which is South East Asia’s largest freshwater lake. As the boat takes you along channels to the main body of water, you can see the floating villages and daily life on the lake. It was the dry season when I was there and the water was very low, but in the rainy season the lake can swell to nearly four times the size that I witnessed.

One of the amazing bas reliefs that can be found both outside and inside each temple; Nikon D4S, 62mm, f/5.6, 1/50s, ISO 800

The temple experience of Preah Khan was another one that I enjoyed. It has a maze of corridors, fine carvings and stonework, but make sure to go early in the morning to avoid the crowds — it will be worth it.

Bayon Temple is definitely a must, with its 54 towers decorated with 216 enormous faces depicting one of the great Angkorian kings. It dates back to the 12th century, and a dozen or more of the heads are visible at any one time as you walk around. 

Getting around on Tonle Sap Lake; Nikon D4S, 70mm, f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 200

An intriguing attraction in Siem Reap is Phare, the Cambodian circus. Most Phare performers have come from bad social and economic backgrounds, and the circus gives them a chance to transform their lives through the arts. Eight shows are performed on a rotational basis and encompass real issues that the young people of Cambodia face — hardships as their homeland struggles to develop, an outcast seeking the acceptance of his community, the supernatural. Themes such as these are explored in Phare productions, exclusively by Cambodian artists and set to live music. The passion, enthusiasm, and dedication of the performers is impressive. I was lucky enough to meet some of the artists before the show, and got one of the best seats in the house. It was a great night.

Sadly, by this stage, my taste of Cambodia was nearing its end. Although I have travelled to many places in South East Asia, Cambodia was one of the most enjoyable countries. What made it so great? The countryside was amazing, the food was wonderful, you get fantastic value for money — but the best part was the people. Cambodians are among the kindest and most genuine people that I have ever encountered. 

Silhouette shot — sunrise at Angkor Wat; Nikon D4S, 31mm, f/5.6, 1/40s, ISO 1600

It is important to remember that Cambodia is a poor country, and corruption is widespread. Where possible, try to shop at outlets that provide jobs for disadvantaged people and promote fair trade, eat at restaurants that run social programmes and, if you can, get out into the countryside to experience rural daily life. It will make you appreciate what you have back at home. 

A friendly local from the countryside; Nikon D4S, 70mm, f/3.2, 1/500s,  ISO 100

Our trip was tailor-made for us, so while we were in Cambodia there was time for us to do our own thing when we wanted. Our local guides were fantastic and made the journey truly special. One guide even carried my heavy camera bag on his back, without complaining once. Now, that’s great service.

If you are thinking about visiting Cambodia, here’s my advice: go now, take plenty of memory cards for your photos, and enjoy this South East Asian wonder. 

This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 66. Missing this issue from your collection? Pick up a print copy or a digital copy below: