Photography Travel

My Story of Angkor Wat & The Realities of Travel Photography

We are all filled with wanderlust to travel, adventure the world, and capture stunning photographs. Inspired by the plethora of photos shared on social media, it’s enough to flare up the FOMO on a daily basis. All these epic landscape and travel photos share one key feature –  no humans in sight or if you are on Instagram, that one solitary blonde yoga girl with a nice bum posing on a cliff edge. How did she get there? What is she thinking? Does yoga really make your bum nice? Maybe I should do more yoga. Questions with few answers.

Like every privileged person in the first world, I have a lengthy bucket list. A few years ago, I set out on a world trip to tick at least 15 off of my list. It was ambitiously selfish and so awesome. One of my top items was to see the ancient temples at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Other photographers I knew had come back from their temple adventures telling stories of life altering encounters with wise monks and a feeling of nirvana as they watched the sunrise over the main temple on the banks of a beautiful pond sipping warm tea. Based on the stories I heard, I expected some fireworks in my soul at Angkor Wat.

I headed off in darkness at 4:30am. The air was sticky with heat. I felt wildly excited as the tuk tuk puttered along the road, kicking up a red, dusty trail. I’m not one to place too many expectations on experiences in life, but I was going to be pretty miffed if a monk didn’t whisper the meaning of life into my ear as the sky exploded into hypnotizing colours in a few hours. Is that too much to ask? Nah.

Arriving at 4:45am for a 6am sunrise seemed like overkill, but I wanted to soak in every second of this life changing experience. As we approached the entry gate for Angkor Wat, I saw a long line of non-monked humans with cameras, iPads, and ill fitting crocs. My “obnoxious tourist alert” spidey senses went into overdrive. Ok, so a few other people are here to capture the sunrise. No big deal. There is probably plenty of room for all of us to enjoy this mystical moment.

I took a deep yogic breath of “calm” and “I accept where I’m at” and proceeded to the main attraction. It was still dark, so I was sure there would only be a few other hard core photographers there.

And then I turned the corner and saw this:


All my friends turned up to shoot an Angkor Wat sunrise.


What the…… My expectations flatlined and quickly died as I jockeyed for a position in the swampy mud puddle littered with cigarette butts and plastic coke bottles. Every man, woman, child, and dog (I swear I saw a dog with an iPad) was locked in place, shoulder to shoulder, in the perfect location for a low wide-angle shot of the sun-drenched temple. I set up my tripod a foot into the murky, fly infested waters, the legs slowly sinking into no man’s land. My shoes were sodden and my spirit was as black as the flies chomping through my mesh shirt. I wondered what the monks thought of us clamoring for this unoriginal bucket list shot. They had probably learned to block it out. I hope they had because I felt pretty disrespectful stomping through their sacred pond to get the best angle for this shot.

After about 30 minutes of crouching in the muck, the sun began to rise, and let me tell you, it was the most uninspiring sunrise I have ever seen. It’s like the sky was a manifestation of my feelings at that moment; flat, annoying, grey and hazy. I took snap after snap of this dull lifeless sunrise, feeling the slow rising welts on my arms from bug bites, and the sadness at knowing I would not get this shot I had so craved for so long.


My horrible Angkor Wat sunrise. Can’t even be bothered to edit this shot.

After the sunrise brouhaha died down, I sat down by the muddy pond, head in my hands, defeated and positively shattered. I watched as the huge crowd dispersed, revealing a small Cambodian girl walking to the pond to start her morning routine. She washed her face and her hands, staring up at the temple bathed in light. She smiled at me and I felt warm inside. I waved and she came up to me. She laughed and I made faces. She pointed to things and I tried to understand. She danced around a little and topped up my spirit.


Her joy was infectious and brought context and meaning to this place that I was ignoring. I ended up taking this shot of her with my iPhone. A simple snap, but so meaningful to me in that moment. Something I will never forget.


This was the real shot. Not the unoriginal reflection shot every man, woman, child, and dog could capture. This shot was telling a story. Her story and perhaps mine at that moment. This was the photograph I really wanted to take.

My advice: Don’t have unrealistic expectations when you are traveling. Be flexible. Stay open minded and be one with the force. Luke knew a thing or two about fighting the dark side.


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  • Reply
    Edward Iglesias
    May 23, 2016 at 7:53 AM

    Wonderful post. I often am disappointed by trying to photograph things that are supposed to be photographed. How do you photograph the Empire State Building anyway? Many years ago my wife and I were at Arches National park and I was trying to photograph Delicate Arch

    There were a bunch of kids that were filming a movie of some sort and would not move out of the way for anyone else. The conversation went something like “but the light is just right” to which the 5 of us with cameras would reply “we know”.

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 23, 2016 at 4:09 PM

      Lol. KIDS! I photographed the ESB from another building, thus avoiding the crowds. I’ve actually never been up there, and I lived a few blocks away for a year. There are plenty of techniques to remove people after the fact, but it’s more that it ruins the experience of being there. I’m going further and further away from these landmarks in search of more off the beaten track things to photograph. They may not be as photogenic, but I sure enjoy being there a lot more.

  • Reply
    Norm McClave
    May 23, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    This is a great reality check — thanks for sharing, Lisa! Kudos too on your writing style, which I find both entertaining and engaging. “Mostly Lisa: Come for the photography, stay for the writing!”

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 23, 2016 at 4:05 PM

      Wow, that is quite a compliment. Thank you for your encouragement!

  • Reply
    Michael Goh
    May 23, 2016 at 4:41 PM

    I love the real shots :). Managing expectations also makes you think about originality – with so much photo sharing nowadays, it’s very easy for people to fall into the “I want that shot” – but not what else. I think when it comes to capturing the feeling of the location – your image of the crowd certainly captures it and I wonder if the location would be so popular if that was the main sort of image from that location. I think with expectations though – possibly spending ‘000s or tens of ‘000s to travel, sometimes also gives a false sense of entitlement that at least one cliched shot should be able to be gotten. Very much enjoying you blogging and sharing again Lisa :)

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 25, 2016 at 6:39 PM

      Yes… so many people just collect photographs of famous places as if they were playing cards. I’m really trying to step away from that kind of photography now and just soak in the environment. Thank you for all your comments and likes :)

  • Reply
    May 23, 2016 at 5:06 PM

    The temple has been there for centuries, the people you meet are far more ephemeral. Excellent story Lisa, thanks

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 25, 2016 at 6:35 PM

      yes exactly! thank you for your comment :)

  • Reply
    Derek Briand
    May 23, 2016 at 5:16 PM

    Quite the write up, and the photos take us along the emotional flatline and then pick us up again. It’s as though this place didn’t mind you in it’s little pond and gave you what you wanted after all, speaking to you, out of all those… what did you call those waterfall creatures?… jerks? haha. I wonder how many of them would have told the little girl to get out of their shot?

    That’s a great thing about the Northern Lights as well, a different show every time and sometimes you are the only one to see it, which is great.

    Oh! and your writing style is much more wittier than another travel photographer who will remain unnamed haha.

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 25, 2016 at 6:40 PM

      ha jerks… yes… Voicing my inner monologue. We are all guilty of being jerks from time to time. :P I loved photographing the Northern Lights. No one within miles… Perfection!

  • Reply
    Bremen Derro
    May 23, 2016 at 5:35 PM

    Love your blog, Lisa. Started photoghapy as my hobby 2 years ago using my iPhone. Every photos you post inspire me to travel more and see all the wonderful places. So, please keeps inspiring people like me thru your photograpy. Keep ’em coming! Oh, btw! I just bought my first Canon EOS Rebel T5. Not that fancy but it works well for a first timer like me,😊 Have a lovely week, Lisa! 💕

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 25, 2016 at 3:58 PM

      YAY! Proud :) That was my first camera, a spunky little Rebel. We had years of adventures. I know you will take amazing photos with yours from what I’ve seen. Keep adventuring. I love following along.

  • Reply
    Michael Squire
    May 23, 2016 at 5:38 PM

    Ive been following your work for a while now and i believe you suffer from “good taste” you wouldn’t be as good as you are without being as critical as you are. The image of the girl tells a story that your post highlighted but the image itself stands up. I really enjoy your posts and photography, and as a fellow photographer, thanks for keeping my motivation up!

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 25, 2016 at 3:57 PM

      Thank you so much for following me on this journey for so long. It is my greatest wish that I continue to inspire others.

  • Reply
    Fred DeCock
    May 23, 2016 at 6:41 PM

    A great lesson – “what you came for is not always what you walk away with.” Hmm, I sound semi-monkish. Also quoting Luke gives you even more credibility in my book. MTFBWY.

  • Reply
    May 23, 2016 at 7:12 PM

    I just had the same experience with a light house at Cape Cod. A perfect sunset shining upon the house. But wait there stands a person texting on the phone right in the middle of the shot. Thank goodness just in time they left and the event was digital forever and in my mind. Your story so touching. May God bless your other 14 bucket list events.

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 25, 2016 at 2:34 PM

      Thank you so much :) I’m glad your Cape Cod photo didn’t get ruined. Sounds like a beauty!

  • Reply
    Doug Daulton
    May 23, 2016 at 11:07 PM

    Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Mehul Vora
    May 24, 2016 at 12:41 AM

    Lovely piece Lisa. We get too bogged down into taking perfect shots or capturing the moment for others to see and admire but miss out on enjoying the moment ourselves. It’s when you find the right moment to enjoy or things around you that truly connect with you that you take your best shots. I had this some years ago in Paris when I was dragging my wife and kids to take as many pics I could on a gloomy day. Exhausted after a while, I realised I was taking lot of pics but they had no story to tell.

    Keep writing.

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      May 25, 2016 at 3:55 PM

      I had a very similar experience in Paris. I had a tight itinerary of must-see spots. I came home with a thousand photos of things and places, but none of them meant anything to me. Even though I am passionate about taking photos, I still try to put down my camera and enjoy my experiences. Thanks for your comment :)

  • Reply
    scott tucker
    May 24, 2016 at 3:34 PM

    Great article as usual Lisa. I felt the same way when I was at Arches. People were crawling all over double arch and there was no avoiding them. I outsmarted them by getting other shots in the park right after it rained. Glorious clouds and light after a storm and it really eliminates the crowds ; )

  • Reply
    5 Interesting Reads | Photo Life
    June 10, 2016 at 7:30 AM

    […] Have you ever been let down when your expectations of a travel experience didn’t match up with reality? […]

  • Reply
    June 13, 2016 at 11:55 AM

    This is great Lisa. Here is my blog post about a similar experience:

  • Reply
    Shauna Jackson
    July 18, 2016 at 9:06 AM

    What a relevant, real post. I’m glad to have wandered across this today. Thank you for you for sharing observations from your photo-journey. :)

  • Reply
    Ashley Hoober
    October 29, 2016 at 3:57 PM

    The photography is beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing!
    I don’t think you needed to edit the sunrise photo, it’s pretty amazing on its’ own. I love the advice at the end, I don’t think that’s just travelling, that’s life in general. “Don’t have unrealistic expectations.”
    Thanks again!


  • Reply
    New Year’s Resolutions Every Photographer Should Make in 2017 – Mostly Lisa | Photography tips & travel inspiration
    January 3, 2017 at 5:45 AM

    […] am extremely fortunate that I can travel as much as I do, but my life is not my social media feed. I post images from over 8 years of my adventures, so […]

  • Reply
    January 3, 2017 at 2:16 PM

    What a wonderful post Lisa. I’ve experienced the same feeling so many times—you expect the desolated, exotic place “no one” else has ever photographed before and bam! you are ambushed by tourist hordes. In those moments I take a deep breath and think to myself: “they have the same right to be here experiencing this wonderful place, don’t be selfish and share. The World belongs to all of us.”
    Like you, I tend to stick around after the main sunset/sunrise has passed and enjoy the colors that come after or the interactions with the local people.

    • Reply
      Mostly Lisa
      January 3, 2017 at 4:06 PM

      Ha! I say those exact same words in my head as I take several deep breaths. In the most crowded locations, I now go out at night and shoot long exposures or stars. Even the most diligent tourist isn’t out past midnight ;)

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