Having been constructed around 1450 AD, but not rediscovered until 1911, Machu Picchu remained hidden to the invading Spaniards, preserving its authenticity for the modern world.
Still, many questions surrounding the Lost City of the Incas remain unanswered.
In Quechua, the language of the Incas, Machu Picchu means “Old Mountain“. On the contrary, Huayna Picchu (the mountain peak forming the nose of the face looking up to the sky) means “Young Mountain“.
Located at 2430m, Machu Picchu was designated world heritage site of UNESCO in 1983.
The famous way of building the Incas used in the construction of Machu Picchu is called Ashlar. The stones are cut in such a way that they fit perfectly with the other stones without having to stick them with some kind of glue.
Machu Picchu also served as an astronomical observatory. The sacred Intihuatana Stone indicates the two equinoxes and twice a year the sun is perfectly aligned with the stone without creating any shadow.
Professional cameras are not allowed in Machu Picchu. Permissions for professional cameras are sold for more than $300, so it’s best not to bring an SLR camera with a big lens. I only had a Samsung Galaxy S5 cell phone and a GoPro Hero 4.
At Machu Picchu, the rainy season lasts from November to March. For this reason, in order to avoid getting soggy while exploring the Lost City of the Incas, and the cloud cover obstructing the view of the iconic “face looking into the sky” mountain (Huayna Picchu), the best time to visit Machu Picchu is from April to October. Regardless, even if you time your trip for within those months, you could still get rained on. That’s exactly what happened to me.
I visited Machu Picchu exactly on September 24, 2018. So even though I was well within the so called “dry season“, it rained quite a bit on that day and the clouds kept getting in the way of scoring good pictures. Either way, the entire experience of getting to Machu Picchu was disappointing enough to make it clear that there is no way in hell I would be visiting the place ever again, and after shelling out the heavy 152 Soles (about $46 US) for half the day entry to the Inca citadel, that notion was further strongly enforced.
So in my case, even though the weather remained nice and sunny throughout the entire unplanned “Inca Trail” hike, when I got to visit the actual Machu Picchu, the day got cloudy and during a hefty part of it, it also rained. But what do you do if you visit Machu Picchu on a cloudy day? You make the best of it nevertheless. You can’t choose or command the weather.
Unfortunately, even though the entrance to the citadel is mighty steep, you are rather restricted in how you get to enjoy it. In my case, it was cloudy and it rained for the best part of the afternoon, but at around 4:30, or about an hour before the allocated time to see Machu Picchu for which I paid a hefty fee ran out, the rain stopped and the sky started to clear up, but when I started retracing my steps back through the citadel in order to use the remaining hour on snapping a new set of pics of this time nicely illuminated mountain peaks and ancient architecture, I got yelled at by the guards who demanded that I continue on out of the complex, barring me from utilizing the remaining hour of my visit.
Obviously, because while it rained, I wasn’t able to be very active with the camera, so I lost a lot of time for picture taking, and had to keep moving along because for one I was getting rained on, and secondly, the mass of people within the complex was being yelled at to keep moving forward through the alleys of the man made sections of Machu Picchu.
So to reiterate what I have been congruent about throughout moment I started writing about Machu Picchu – no matter how you look at it, if you take into the account the cost as well as the overall headache of visiting the citadel, and put it against what you get if you go through the cost and the headache of getting there, it’s simply not worth it.
There are places that are far more interesting, incomparably less expensive to visit, and which are not deliberately kept inaccessible in order to force the would be visitor to get absolutely screwed on the means to arrive, that would give the visitor more in terms of visual and spiritual experience.
I started questioning the worth of Machu Picchu as soon as I got dropped off at the road block, and wish the whole time I had listened to my got and turned around instead of toiling my way toward the citadel. But as I kept on going, and fooling myself that perhaps in the end it turns out being worth it, each new experience proved that I was wrong and should have absolutely listened to my gut telling me to turn around as soon as we did not arrive at Hidroelectrica with the van.
Even in Peru itself there are far more interesting places than Machu Picchu, and unlike Machu Picchu, they will not burn a hole in your wallet. There’s no other way to put it – Machu Picchu does not live up to the hype and with the involvement of the high cost to see it, I have no option but to recommend the readers to avoid it as not worth your time, effort and money.
I made an attempt to find the ruins of Prasat Tonle Sngout – a temple that’s off the main road, but according to the map, just by the side road that branches off the Grand Circuit at the bend north of Angkor Thom North Gate, across the road from Krol Romeas. I took that road and followed it for a few kilometers but found nothing. Locals in the areas – there were beyond plenty of them – were not only not helpful, but showed undeniable signs of hostility as this road clearly lead to a highly populated area but no foreigners ever go that way so I was seen as an invader of space beyond my limits. I tried never the less, but gave up after a while, returning to the relative safety of the paved road on the Grand Circle. Without wasting any more time getting off the road, I headed straight down south to meet with my coconut friends again.
By that time, both weather and daylight started to change rapidly. Dark clouds rolled in out of nowhere and covered the sky, giving me just enough time to make it to the concession area in front of main temple of Angkor Wat before the first drops of rain started to fall. Since 6pm – the official closing time at Angkor Archaeological Park – was only minutes away, not only were there hardly any tourists still in the temple when I arrived, the looming rainfall also rushed the touts and concession stalls owners to quickly start packing and prepare to leave. I was pretty darn tired after a whole day of riding in the sun and wanted to take a breather before the last leg of my journey so the imminence of rain was of no concern to me. I just wanted say “Hi” to the girls and have my coconut before leaving the area entirely.
Angkor Wat at Night
Being already a loyal and regular customer, the girls still served me my coconut but said their good byes soon after. By the time I was finished with this delicious fruit, not only were they gone, but so was virtually everyone else. Only myself, who couldn’t be distraught by the rain and wanted his minute of rest while recharging with a coconut and other two people stayed to hang around. The other two – a mother and her daughter – took advantage of the fact that rain scared everyone away and dusk fell on Angkor Wat and used it to collect Lotus flowers from the pond in the temple – the one which makes for the most photogenic pictures of Angkor Wat. It is otherwise illegal to pick up the Lotus flowers from the pond, as it is an essential tourist attraction in Angkor Wat, but the APSARA people who have the authority to enforce the rule were not around and I clearly showed that I didn’t care, so the mother went into the pool (it was raining so much, she would be drenched wet anyway) to pluck up the stems of the edible plant, while her daughter crouched at the edge to take what her mother collected. APSARA rips locals off enough as it is – I found it only fair that the locals take some of what is theirs for themselves too. This family needed food to eat and this was their opportunity.
Being so close to the equator, the day changes into the night very quickly in Cambodia. In a manner of minutes, everything went from hot day and bright daylight, into overcast sky and pitch darkness. Still hot as all hell, but now also extra moist due to heavy rainfall. My camera bag is rainproof so the camera was safe. I was feeling content having had a fairly successful day so I didn’t let the rain get the best of me. On the contrary, I thought this was a great opportunity for me to experience what most people who visit Angkor don’t get to experience – see and photograph Angkor Wat at Night. Everybody was gone. The two ladies who were still there were on a mission of their own. I didn’t mess with their business, so they didn’t mess with mine. So as the rain kept pouring down and night engulfed the temple, I had an opportunity to become the king of Angkor Wat. I explored it all over again, enjoying the environment without hassle of touts and obstruction of thousands of tourists. Without planning it, or even considering it in any way, I happen upon an experience which I haven’t even thought of taking on.
There isn’t much to Angkor Wat at night, though the fact that you can stand in the middle of the causeway and take a picture with not a single person on it was remarkable. This is nigh impossible these days as thousands visit Angkor Wat every day. What I found interesting was that none of the vendors locked any of their merchandise up. It would be highly impractical to take all the merchandise with them every evening, only to haul it back every morning so they leave it all there. The stalls are sheltered by thatched roofs and before leaving, the vendors cover them up with large sheets of fabric but somehow the understanding that this stuff is not to be touched when the owner is not around remains deeply embedded in people’s minds and they don’t take it lightly. It could be because unlike with most other temples, these stalls were within the walls of Angkor Wat and Cambodians seem to become different people when they walk on a holy ground (except from the rapists, who use it to their advantage and there are more than too many of them in Cambodia). I noticed that when I first visited the Preah Prom Rath Pagoda in Siem Reap. Tuk Tuk drivers would be harassing me relentlessly no matter where in Siem Reap I was, but as soon as I walked within the pagoda, even though Tuk Tuk drivers were there, they all left me alone. Hypocrisy of the highest caliber as they’re nothing like what they are in a temple, when they are outside, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Photos of Angkor Wat Illuminated at Night
Even though I did stay at Angkor Wat at night, I didn’t get a chance to take any photos of the temple illuminated with external lights. I’ve seen such pictures on the internet, but I don’t understand how and when they were taken. Angkor Wat was not illuminated when I stayed there at night but most of all – I have not seen any light fixture anywhere around it and this area has (purposefully) no electricity. I simply don’t have an answer as to how these pictures could have been taken. Perhaps portable lights and power generators are used on some occasions (New Year?) to illuminate the temple, but at the time of my visit, it didn’t seem like any form of illumination existed. Besides – all visitors are expected to be the hell out of Angkor by 6pm anyway, which is when it starts getting dark – so installation of light fixture would make no sense as there would be no tourists to see the temples illuminated against the nightly skies. And since I never enquired with anyone who might know how and when the pictures of Angkor Wat illuminated at night were taken, I still don’t have an answer to that.
After getting properly drenched with rain (it actually felt better than being drenched with sweat, which was the case of most of the day prior to coming to Angkor Wat) and snapping a few pictures of Angkor Wat at Night, I walked out of the temple, mounted my bike and rode through the rain to Siem Reap. I could not wait to meet with Ha again and tell her all about some kids trying to steal my bike earlier. Needless to say, my decision to stay at Angkor Wat for the night meant that I missed the English language lecture at Preah Prom Rath temple, but that was OK for a day. And what a day it was.
My first visit to Cambodia was in September – in the middle of rainy season. I wasn’t sure what to expect and thought that when it starts raining in the beginning of June, it doesn’t stop until the end of October. Luckily, this was not the case and as it turned out, there was advantage to visiting Angkor in rainy season. I wasn’t able to make that comparison until I made my follow up visit in April and spent a couple of weeks in the country during dry season, but it was pretty obvious.
From strictly photographer’s point of view, the temples of Angkor gain rich hue during rainy season because the stones are frequently bombarded by heavy torrential downpours. This makes the temples look more saturated (richer in density – if you will) than when the stones are parched dry by the intense sun rays of dry season. To put it bluntly – thanks to super high humidity which gives ancient stones richer shades, temples of Angkor look better in rainy season than they do in dry season. Plus all of the trees that grow along the temple walls look greener and livelier too.
Besides, it doesn’t rain nowhere near as much as you would think it does in rainy season. After 3 months spent in Cambodia during rainy season, I noticed that rain patterns are not frequent enough to severely disrupt your plans. It hardly ever rained for more than one day straight. One rainy day is usually followed by four or five sunny days when sky is cloudless and roads are dry. Then you would get some rain, which would typically be restricted to an afternoon downpour, but that would again be followed by a sequence of several rainless days. Make no mistake, though – the afternoon downpours are so heavy, they can fill up all ditches and bury the streets in a foot deep pool of water within a couple of hours.
Sometime it would rain whole night and the following day would be rather gloomy and overcast, but seeing continuous rain for an extended period of time is unusual. As a matter of fact, the number of sunny days you’ll get in rainy season will be about 4 times as high as the number of rainy days. Super high humidity with insanely intense sun will make for a sweaty stay, but the pictures will look awesome. There’s no reason to feel sketchy about visiting Angkor in rainy season. It really doesn’t rain all that much but you will catch the temple at their best. And that in my eyes gives visits to Angkor in rainy season an advantage.
Tuk Tuks represent the primary means of transportation for tourists visiting Cambodia. A Tuk Tuk is supposed to be a three wheeler, but the Cambodian version of it is a semi-enclosed trailer that’s rigged behind a motorcycle – often a moped. Tuk Tuk riding is inexpensive and widely available all over the place. It will likely be the most used, if not solely used means of transportation for vast majority of tourists visiting Cambodia.
I have made a reservation to stay at Two Dragons for a week after arrival to Cambodia and part of the deal was to provide free transport for me from the airport to the guesthouse. Most guesthouses and low to mid range hotels will offer free transport from the airport and this transport is basically always provided by Tuk Tuks. Unless you are staying in a high end hotel with rooms ranging in three digit numbers per night, in which case you will get a ride in a taxi (aka an actual car).
While Tuk Tuks are omnipresent, Taxis are virtually invisible in Cambodia. After a few weeks of living here I have not seen one, but I know they do exist. Upscale establishment offer taxi transportation for their patrons, but as average tourist, you will not see a single one.
My First Ride in Tuk Tuk
After I have gone through Cambodian immigration and got my Visa on Arrival I walked out of the Siem Reap International Airport and straight into the hands of vulture like locals. It was puring cats and dogs outside and it was dark so Tuk Tuk drivers were all over every tourist who stepped outside with offers to take care of their transport. I opened the door and got swarmed by money hungry Cambodians who are on an endless mission to squeeze as much out of every tourist as possible. People of Cambodia are impoverished so there are hardly any hard feelings, but as a savvy traveller who knows the drill, I respectfully ignored every single one of them. I did imagine ranks of unsavvy tourists walking out behind me – all vulnerable and lost in a new country. Many have surely fall victims to the schemes of these Tuk Tuk drivers who know every single trick which works on a tourist and utilize it without remorse.
I knew I had my ride arranged so for me it was only a question of ploughing through the crowds of money hungry locals and watching out for a paerson standing out there somewhere holding a sign with my name. He was all the way in the back and up to the last minute I had people breathing down my neck to get me take a ride with them. Not only would they want to overcharge a tourist for a ride to town, but they’d also want to take the tourist to a guesthouse or a hotel which pays them the highest commission (if you ask a Tuk Tuk driver to get you to the best place, they will only and solely take you to the place that pays them the most in commission fees for each paying customer. Never otherwise).
Riding Tuk Tuk in the Rain
Once I have tracked down the Tuk Tuk driver holding a sign with my name, I told him I was Mark and he ran to get his Tuk Tuk and park it by the side of the road where I was standing as it was still under the roof. Sky was truly pissing that rain down without any shame. My driver put on the helmet and a raincoat, hopped on his moped and pulled over by me. I sat inside the trailer which is not fully enclosed so the seat was partially wet and rain was pounding me from both sides, I sat my main bag on the wetter seat opposite of me and held my camera bag on my lap. We took off and rode through the dark. I was actually a lucky one being within that semi-enclosed trailed. Even though I still got rained on from the sides, I just thought of poor driver who was riding that Tuk Tuk unprotected, facing the rain form the seat of his motorcycle.
The ride from the airport to the guesthouse wasn’t long. About 10 minutes or so, suggesting that the airport is not far from Siem Reap at all. Tuk Tuks don’t ride too fast. It’s a bloody moped that can go at max maybe 40 or 50 km/h plus it has a trailer to haul so I doubt the speed was any higher than that.
By the time we made it to the Two Dragons Guesthouse, it was already past 11pm local time. The guesthouse was quiet, but I was expected. A girl who was waiting for me at the reception took me to my room and turned on the air-conditioning as it was hot. I must have looked tired as hell (and I was) because she said no more. She just looked at me and left to leave me alone so I can get some rest. There was always tomorrow to go through formalities.
Even though pick up from the airport was to be provided for free by Two Dragons guesthouse as I have made a reservation to stay at the establishment for a week, I gave my Tuk Tuk driver a mighty tip of $1. It may sound like a laughable amount to pay to someone for hassle of sitting on a motorcycle in heavy rain to drive my fat ass to a guesthouse, but it is not so in Cambodia. Mighty $1 bill can take care of one local family for a day.
My first Tuk Tuk ride and an initiation to Cambodia with proper down pour of rain was successfully concluded. Let the adventure begin.
I was fully aware of the fact that I’d arriving in Cambodia during rainy season. It didn’t put me off one bit, afterall I each season has something different, something unique to offer that can only be experienced in that particular season. But the main reason I was headed for Cambodia in the rainy season was that it was the right time for me to go. It just so happened that September fell within the rainy season and knowing I would stay for a while would allow me to experience this country during both rainy season and dry season.
While rainy season in Cambodia extends from June to October, I have done my homework prior to leaving Canada and checked out the rainfall (precipitation) stats and damn – historically the month of September gets pounded by more rain than any other month of the year in Cambodia. I’ve traced down some expats who have been living in Cambodia for a few years on the internet and asked them about rainy season and September and sure enough, I had it confirmed by being told that it rains every day. Rains every day? Boy… that’s a whole lotta rain!
It still bothered me not. I have not lived in any country during rainy season so I saw this as an amazing opportunity to experience this natural phenomenon first hand. Afterall, locals have been going through rainy season every years for centuries and they’ve dealt with it fine, so why would I have any issue with a bit of rain, albeit it was gonna be more than just a bit. But when speaking of living in extreme weather conditions – I come from Alberta, Canada where winters last for 8 months each year and temperatures get below -40 Degrees Celsius. If I could live through that for years, rainy season can’t possibly irk me off.
Cambodia is located very close to the equator so temperatures are tropical year round. I was told by one of the expats that the coldest it ever gets here is 20 Degrees Celsius in winter. That’s what summer looks like in Canada. This simply meant that I had to make sure I have decent sandals to take with me as I would not get to wear any actual shoes, it would also mean that I should bring light, summer clothing and take it easy on long sleeve shirts and long pants. Rainy season or not, winter or summer, a visitor to Cambodia will be wearing summer clothes unless they want to walk around drenched in their own sweat.
Causes of Rainy Season in Cambodia
Extended research on rainy season in Cambodia provided answers to why monsoons repeat with such solid timing each year. To cut down on all the technical jargon and sum it up in a few simple sentences, the casues of the rainy season in Cambodia are:
Air pressure over central Asia drops in Summer. This drop in air pressure draws moisture that otherwise gathers above the seas over land. Cambodia is right in the way so the clouds full of moisture settle above the country for good few months – from June to September
As air pressure over central Asia rises with coming of colder months and winter, this pressure then pushes these rain cloud back above the seas and keeps them there. That’s why during the rest of the year Cambodia experienced dry season with very little rainfall
So it’s all in the air pressure. When the air pressure drops (that’s what happens in warmer time of year) it attracts moist clouds from above the seas. When the air pressure rises (happens in colder months of the year), the clouds get pushed away. That’s the whole magic behind clockwork like monsoon cycles Cambodia gets exposed to each year. It is commonly known and referred to as the rainy season.
Arriving in Siem Ream Amidst Rainy Season
I was rather encouraged seeing how sunny and cloudless the weather was in South Korea. Knowing that South Korea is an adjacent part of the same continent on which Cambodia is located, it gave me hopes that perhaps I would find the same sunny weather in Siem Ream when I arrive. I hopped on a plane in Seoul, tired from previous long flight I nodded off and when I woke up shortly before landing, I noticed rain drops landing on that small circular window I had right next to me (yes, I scored the window seat). All my hopes for sunny weather were gone.
As we have landed in Siem Reap, it became even more obvious that it’s not just raining in Cambodia, it’s pouring like there’s no tomorrow. Our scheduled arrival time in Siem Reap was at 10.20pm and we got there on time. It was dark outside and rain was just gushing right down. Siem Reap international airport (REP) does not have those fancy movable walkways that connect directly to the door of the aircraft. We had to walk out of the plane and board the bus that was waiting outside. There were locals with umbrellas waiting to assist us with boarding without getting too wet which was fine and did the job, it simply showed me that I was foolish when I made associations between weather in South Korea and weather in Cambodia. The two are on the same continent, but are 5 hours away by plane from each other and are in different tropical zones. Rainy Season in Cambodia is for real and arrives as expected every year. No exceptions. I have expected it and here I was – I have made it to Cambodia. Woo hoo!