A serene Buddha face framed by a tangle of jungle vines. The golden light of dawn breaking through the trees. A saffron-robed monk meditating before the tranquil scene…
I had the image in my mind before I’d even arrived at Cambodia’s famous Angkor temples. And I had a plan: I’d wake early, before the hordes, find a friendly monk and get my shot in the cool morning light while the coach parties were having breakfast.
Even at dawn Angkor was crammed with tour groups. The famous Buddha faces at the Bayon temple complex where I’d hoped to find my friendly monk were bursting with babbling crowds. Even with the sun barely above the horizon there was no chance of a clean picture of a Buddha face. Nor was there a monk in sight.
“Why would there be?” said the guard patrolling the ruins. “This is a ruined Mahayana Buddhist temple. Not a working shrine.” And in any case, Cambodian monks come from a completely different Buddhist tradition.
So how did I get the shot? Like I always do. I hired a local guide.
With worn trousers, dusty moccasins and a shirt that must have been smart about five years ago, Mr Thin was one of those myriad locals who travellers ignore at the gates – dismissed as an annoying tout. But I could immediately see he was smart: he sussed me out from the hundreds of tourists with a quick glance, sidling up to me.
“You professional photographer, yeah?” he asked, looking at my Canon. “You looking for fresh picture, not photographed before?”
“Maybe….” I said, “You know a monk?”
“Maybe,” said Mr Thin, “You have money?”
“$70. $50 for me, $20 for monk. My niece boyfriend a novice, right now. Easy. Tomorrow morning we do the picture.”
It was a bargain. And the next day, a few hours after midnight, Mr Thin met me at my hostel. We caught a taxi, briefly stopping at a monastery, where the perfect serene monk sat waiting for us on wall next to the main wat.
“You remember?” asked Mr Thin, “$50 me, $20 for monk.”
I held out two crisp notes. And Mr Thin grimaced like an offended vicar.
“No! No like that, monk cannot touch money!” He tutted, took both notes, ushered me aside and put the $50 in his pocket. Then he bowed deeply before the monk and placed the note reverentially in his brass begging bowl.
“Now we go Angkor. But not Bayon.”
Half an hour later and Mr Thin, the monk and I were clambering over jungle vines to the old city gateway to Angkor.
“Same Buddha faces,” said Mr Thin, “but no Chinese tourists!”
I’d failed dismally in local etiquette. But I had my perfect shot.