Cambodia and the curse of the digital camera

Siem Reap, Cambodia. You may think this is the beginning of a new Tintin adventure. Well it has all the makings of one. A voyage to a land of majestic, yet intricate ruins. Where carved stoned faces seem to stare at you from beyond the past and gaze into the future. Everyday the fauna surrounding these silhouettes is being beaten back by the steady flow of tourist’s feet. Somehow the trunks, branches and roots of the trees which embrace the hidden Khmer relics of past seem, to have their mind’s dead-set on entangling themselves to these amazing ruins and not letting go of the past. Perhaps they too wish to shield these stone faces and figures from us, the tourists:- The curse of the selfie stick wielding tourists.

Bit fuzzy but...I think you get the gist?
Leave the camera at the door? Bit fuzzy but…I think you get the gist?
What is a ‘tourist’? After a little under one week in Cambodia I think we come a long way to form our own definition of the modern-day ignorant ‘tourist’.

Tourist (circa 2016) (n.) A person or persons who wield a photo or video taking device (see also: Selfie stick) in a country typically, but not always of different origin to their own. Travelling in groups of more than 2 people, posing in ridiculous contortions to share the output (a photo) with their fans (See: Facebook, Instagram) whilst making other ‘travellers’ experience unbearable and not worth visiting.

My hate-hate relationship with the ‘selfie stick and camera wielding tourist’ began early on our voyage. The moment I can pin point to an exact place, time and experience had to be the Grand Canyon. We, and approximately 200 other tourists all wanted that exclusive photo which was, in reality, impossible to get. Instead of letting go of the illusion of obtaining ‘that’ photo which will with the envy of all Facebook friends, people from around the globe set up tripods, played with light settings on their fancy cameras, protracted aluminium and steel rods and transformed their faces ready for that sound of a ‘snap’.

After the photo had been taken the post-mortem began. Comments like, “It is too dark”, “take another ‘just incase'”, “you cut off our feet”, “you cut off our arms”, “Oh look, you got that guys head/leg/finger in the shot”. We all wanted it to seem like we are the only 2 people visiting this natural wonder of the world.

In Siem Reap, I transformed into someone I didn’t recognise. Mild-tempered, patient and kind in general nature, I transformed into an elbow jabbing, self-absorbed, selectively deaf tourist with camera. The competitiveness required and utter focus on yourself and the photo needs to proceed any courtesy, manners or shame.

Oh yes, I did hear the comments directed at me as I stepped on feet, over blankets as I purposely blocked the view of fellow self-absorbed tourists who didn’t see me coming – but I didn’t care anymore. If I couldn’t beat them, my approach would be to join them and then, beat them. See how annoying I could be …

Laurent was too polite for such a ploy, who after sensing my determination, was only able to respond to my barking orders, 5 rows back, to, “Pass the other camera”. I was going to get THE shot and I knew, that in Siam Reap, at 5am, with the crowds waiting for the first glimpse of the sun to rise over the grand Angkor Wat Temple, it was the fight of the fittest and most strongest willed photographer which would capture it.

Did I get the photo I dreamed of getting?I have absolutely no idea. Did I annoy everyone around me taking the picture I wanted? Absolutely, yes. Did it make me feel any better taking out my frustrations on all the other tourists who were too, after that shot? I have to say ‘yes’ to this one too. Did we all basically take the same picture one million times? Yes, to this also. Would I have been happier to leave my camera at the door and be given a postcard picture of the perfect sunrise with my entrance fee – you betcha!

The introduction of the digital camera/phone to this beautiful site and the many others we have visited around the globe is a crime against fellow tourists and humanity in general. I dreamed of a time of my not so ancient ancestors who used rolls of 24 or 32 film – constrained and limited by the memories they could capture, taking the time to focus, shoot, wait and soak in the view. I envied them. I still do.

I will forever remember the sunrise over Angkor Wat, elbowing myself through rows of people in the pitch dark, fellow tourists shining flashlights in my face and not having enough sense to point them away and being too preoccupied maintaining my ground on the edge of a span of water, ready to fall in – all for the sake of one photo.

Do really live in such an age where we need to remind tourists not to take photos in culturally sensitive locations? This was the case at the S21 Prison Camp in Phnom Penh – a now turned museum which only decades ago was the most notable examples of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. This museum touched us. The photos of the tortured and imprisoned, displays and audio tour we took, will forever remain etched in our minds eye. No camera needed.

So after experiencing the bad and the ugly side of tourists taking their holiday snaps and also turning ourselves to the dark side for a period of time in Cambodia, we try to remember the funny moments.

There were many – Like the group of Chinese women I was competing with for the most ridiculous model’esqu poses at Angkor Wat, or the Staten Island ferry ride where I nearly whacked myself out with our very own selfie stick as I fought the crowds leaning over the boats edge to gaze back over Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. We can’t forget the sight of young women applying makeup at 6am overlooking Machu Picchu after the 3 day trek, getting poised for their selfie.

It’s these pictures we take with our minds that will be forever etched in our minds not the 1000’s of photos on our hard drives.

Some sort of serenity
Some sort of serenity
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