Many of us visual artists 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 items off of my ever growing 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 colors 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 hardcore photographers there.
And then I turned the corner and saw this:
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.
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.
Read how Lisa Bettany’s inspiring story about how she used light to overcome the darkness and heartbreak that a severe injury cause.
This article originally appeared on Lisa Bettany’s blog.
Lisa Bettany is a photographer based in Kings, Nova Scotia, Canada. After founding the popular iPhone app Camera+, Lisa returned to Canada to pursue her travel photography career. While learning to fly at a local flight club, Lisa met her husband, an RCAF pilot. Follow Lisa’s adventures on her photo portfolio website, her blog, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.