Photographer Shannon Zirkle takes us on a tour of the erstwhile Kher Empire
Angkor Wat may be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Cambodia, but -based photographer Shannon Zirkle finds that there is life beyond the temple complex. Last year, she accompanied a group of 14 to 18-year-olds, as part of the US-based high school travel and service organisers, Rustic Pathways’ photography programme. From taking quick rides on the local bamboo train to figuring out how to bathe with just a bucket and a mug, they learnt a lot. But the best lesson was one in hospitality and graciousness. “The people are very open, friendly and accepting. Despite their gory history (the genocide between 1975-1979), they live beside those who killed members of their family, with no ill will,” recalls Zirkle, who visited villages, observed people at work and play, and dined with the locals. Here she shares a few snapshots.
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I took the students for an impromptu visit, to have a chat with the photography editor at the Phnom Penh Post. It was a moment filled with nostalgia and brought back fond memories of my days as a photojournalist. I took this photo as we were taking the stairs down. Sometimes it works in your favour to avoid the elevator!
In Battambang, we travelled by the bamboo train, locally known as the norry. The railway tracks built by the French colonial settlers were largely abandoned after the days of the Khmer Rouge, so locals took them over. With just planks on trolleys powered by motorcycle or tractor engines, they can reach up to 50 kmph. These are a quick and cheap (`333 per person) means of travel from one village to another.
Life on the river can be noisy, especially when you stay on the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake. It is a different world and took some getting used to, especially the bathroom with its bucket and a toilet that empties into the water. The first couple of days we slept with mufflers on because the boats whizzing past had such loud engines.
I had visited a temple near the floating village, where I met a monk with whom I had a pleasant conversation. Later, as I was walking around, I saw him relaxing in a hammock. He was smoking, but as I put up my camera, he immediately put it out. This was just a quick moment I captured.
If you’ve been to Siem Reap, you might recognise this woman who gives blessings to all who pass by. I went there twice and, on both occasions, she held my hand, said a Buddhist blessing and wrapped a string around my wrist.
In Angkor Wat, the monks are used to tourists whipping out their cameras. At the Bayon Temple, I saw this monk walking by, and when I put up my camera, he immediately stopped, lifted his hood and smiled at me.
This is the game that I saw children play the most while I was there. It seems quite simple, but needs a lot of practice, I’m sure. Here, the little girl is trying to catch the string with her toes so that she can pull it down and jump over it.
Every morning, people in boats would motor around the floating village, selling their wares. This lady was selling breakfast, so I called her over. She served me savoury rice noodles in broth with pickled vegetables, much like a khao suey.
Ta Prohm is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to, and one of the most popular temples in Siem Reap. The structure is in ruins, with the jungle taking over. There are trees growing out of walls. This particular one is at the main entrance.
As told to: Surya Praphulla Kumar, Photographs: Shannon Zirkle