Ah, those jpegs: Fujifilm Part 2

So in a previous blog ( http://ankhphotography.net/blog/2017/1/8/size-matters-fujifilm ) I covered how and why I purchased a whole lot of Fujifilm gear, and in this blog I will share my thoughts on the system, and the good and bad of the gear I have.

Again this is only my opinion, feel free to think differently.

A quick recap of the Fujifilm system I have (my kit has expanded a little since the previous blog!) :

  • Fuji film X-E3 camera
  • Fujifilm X-E2 camera with latest firmware update ( to provide the same functionality of the newer X-E2s
  • Fujinon 18-55mm f2.8-f4 "kit lens"
  • Fujinon 27mm f2.8 "pancake" lens
  • Fujinon 35mm f1.4 lens
  • Fujinon 18mm f2 lens
  • Fujinon 50-230 f4.5-6.7 XC lens
  • Rokinon 12mm f2.8 manual focus
  • K&F adapters for using Nikon lenses on the Fujifilm body
  • Assorted accessories like remote triggers etc

 

Those Jpegs (Note: when I refer to jpegs below I mean those ones straight out of the camera)

So if you have ever done any research on the Fujifilm system, or read any of the comments on social media about Fujifilm cameras, you normally don't need to read very far before someone will say something along the lines of "Wow, the quality of those jpegs".  

This is a slightly odd thing to read in the modern world of photography where anyone inquiring about how to shoot good photos / get the most from their camera is told to "shoot RAW, and post process to get a jpeg".  For most camera systems this is the best way to get good technical quality from your photos, but with the Fujifilm system there are numerous people promoting, and actively doing in a commercial setting, shooting only jpegs.

So is the Fujifilm system all about the jpeg?  No.  So why do people go on about quality of the jpegs out of the camera as if it is the second coming of the Messiah?

As someone who was used to shooting with Nikon DSLR's, and specifically the D800, I was used to shooting RAW files in a way that I knew would give me the best results after I had done a bit (or sometimes a lot) of post processing.  This generally meant underexposing the shot to retain as much highlight detail as possible.  The tradeoff for this style of shooting was that the jpegs that came out of the camera looked dark and flat. And I could see at the time of shooting how the jpegs would look because the image on the back of the camera when reviewing photos was that jpeg.

When I first shot a few test frames with the Fujifilm X100T that I borrowed, over a year ago now, and I looked at the back of the camera I was shocked at how nice the image looked.  So I adjusted my settings to be more in line with how I would shoot my Nikon (underexposed) and still the jpegs looked nice; full of colour and well exposed.  When I looked at the RAW files from those shots they still had all the qualities that I needed in post processing, but I often found myself just processing the RAW files to look like the jpegs did; which is a very weird, and "time inefficient", experience.

So to test out how good the out of camera jpegs were I set about shooting a photo a day on the Fujifilm cameras (starting with the borrowed X100T and then to the X-E2 which I bought).  You can see the 30 photos on this blog post:  http://ankhphotography.net/blog/2016/11/30/a-month-in-the-life. All of these photos were shot as jpegs and transferred to my phone then uploaded from there.

It is fair to say that within a couple of days of shooting with the X100T I was sold on the system, and knowing that the sensors in a lot of the cameras in the X range are the same (see the previous blog in this series), I had no hesitation in splashing out on a second hand X-E2.

And I have recently had the chance to shoot my X-E3 camera ( which I purchased about a month ago ) at a wedding alongside my normal Nikon wedding kit, and as I was processing the photos I was really impressed with how the RAW images looked compared to my Nikon ones; again full of colour and detail, and with good dynamic range.

Likes and dislikes

So before I waffle on endlessly about how amazing the whole Fujifilm system is, I will summarise my likes and dislikes generally of the system, based obviously on the limited experience I have using 3 cameras (X-100T, X-E2 and X-E3) in the range (but I think these thoughts are relevant across the range).

Likes:

  • small size it is nice to be able to throw the camera with a lens attached into a backpack or satchel without needing to take a dedicated camera bag, or sometimes I can even fit it in the pocket of my cargo shorts (if I have the pancake 27mm or the 18mm lens on it)
  • nice looking pictures  Simple really; the pictures on the back of the camera look nice, and when they come on to the computer as jpegs they are often good enough just to send out without further tweaking.
  • the EVF one of the biggest changes when switching from a DLSR to a mirrorless camera system is the change from an optical viewfinder (ie viewing through the lens of the camera using prisms and a mirror) to an electronic view finder (ie viewing what the sensor is recording).  The huge advantage of the EVF is that you can see what the image will look like before you push the shutter; if you dial down the exposure compensation the image in the viewfinder gets dark.  Great for when you want an image to have a certain look (like a silhouette) as you can see what you are going to get.  And if you set the camera up to shoot Black and White jpegs then you can see the B&W image in the viewfinder as you are shooting, but the RAW files still has all the colour information in it.
  • the EVF the Fujifilm is one of the brightest and clearest EVF's around, with virtually no lag (and bear in mind that I have been using a 4 year old version of the EVF; the newer models are even better)
  • reviewing photos in the EVF if you take a shot whilst using the EVF then the review of the photo will come up in the EVF as well, this is really useful to be able to keep the camera to your eye and still be able to see the photos you are taking.  Also all the menus are visible in the EVF as well.
  • dials/rings it is nice to get back to turning dials for the shutter speed and the exposure compensation (on the X-E2 / X-E3 at least, other models have even more dials) and turning a ring on the lens to set the aperture.  And the best part is that you can change the settings without even turning the camera on.  So nice.
  • rear LCD on a DSLR I use the rear LCD screen for reviewing shots and accessing the menus.  Switching the LCD to live view to shoot takes a few seconds (moving the mirror out of the way, fire up the sensor etc), and it also looks different to the view through the viewfinder. So I very rarely use it to frame a shot or to shoot with.  On the Fujifilm cameras the view through the EVF and the LCD are the same (as they are both electronic views from the sensor) so I find myself using it more and more for composing and shooting with.  And it can be set up with the LCD being the default view when you turn the camera on and switching to EVF only when you put your eye to the viewfinder opening, and back to the LCD when you take your eye away.
  • electronic shutter the Filmfilm range generally feature a combination of mechanical and electronic shutters (as most mirrorless cameras do).  On my little X-E2 I can shoot up to 1/4000sec using the mechanical shutter (ie moving pieces of metal / plastic which open and close to let light onto the sensor) but I can shoot up to 1/32000sec using the electronic shutter (basically like taking a freeze frame of the image during the constant 'recording' by the sensor).  This additional shutter speed (whilst there are some technical issues with using it for moving subjects and in some artificial lighting situations) allows a huge range of possibilities when shooting in really bright conditions. i.e. I can shoot in bright daylight with my 35mm lens at f1.4 at 1/32000sec and not overexpose the shot.
  • Lenses Fujifilm make a great range of lenses for the X mount cameras, everything from cheaper plastic XC lenses to pro standard XC lenses.  One thing that all the lenses have in common: they are great pieces of glass.  Some are better than others but none of the Fujifilm lenses are bad.  There are also an increasing number of 3rd party lenses available for the Fujifilm system as well.
  • Fuji users / service there are a lot of passionate Fujifilm users out there, and a lot of information / help available on line.  And having dealt with Fujifilm NZ to get my cameras cleaned / serviced the official support is pretty good too.
  • Kaizen (Japanese for "continual improvement" ) as mentioned in the previous blog post, Fujifilm have a policy of continuing to issue firmware updates for cameras and lenses, even when those products are no longer being sold.

Dislikes:

  • small size so the small size is a good and bad thing.  There is something reassuring and solid feeling about holding a DSLR to your face and feeling the shutter click (or clunk in the case of my D800).  It feels like it would take a lot of momentum to move the camera and I think that helps keep the camera steady.  I found it hard initially to keep the Fujifilm camera steady even when looking through the viewfinder as it moved a lot more easilty than I expected, but I have got used to it now and it feels natural.
  • single cards slots my X-E2 only has a single card slot (as do most of the models in the range), instead of the 2 that is becoming common in all DSLR's. This is an inconvenience for normal shooting but a deal breaker when using the camera for weddings or events where having the images on 2 cards is almost essential in case something goes wrong with one of the cards.
  • offset tripod hole yes, that is right, the tripod socket is not in the middle of the camera (it is about 2/3 of the way across the body) and is right next to the battery / card cover.  So if you have the camera on a tripod you cannot access the battery or card without removing it from the tripod.  Thankfully some of the later models have corrected this design 'feature' (except my brand new X-E3 still has this problem), and in my case when I fitted the hand grip to my X-E2 and X-E3's the tripod socket in the hand grip is then centred.
  • small grip being a smaller camera the hand grip on the camera is also smaller.  I have bought and fitted the Fuji made hand grip / base plate (MHG-XE) which solves this problem with a bigger area to grip the camera with.
  • battery life OMG.  All mirrorless cameras suffer from shorter battery life than DSLR's. This is mainly due to having the sensor 'live' all the time the camera is on, whereas a DSLR only uses the sensor when taking the shot and then turns it off again, but also because the batteries are smaller and lighter .  The battery lasts for maybe 300 shots in real use, and once the indicator goes from 3 bars to 2 ( on the X-E2 ) then you have about 5 shots left before it dies completely.  Lots of batteries need to be bought and carried (I currently carry 3 spare batteries at all times).
  • electronic shutter as mentioned in the likes above the electronic shutter has some quirks when using it with moving subjects, but this is just something to be aware of.

 

That is about all I can think of at the moment to tell you about my Fujifilm experience.  I have not regretted for a second purchasing into the Fujifilm System, and on our recent 6 week trip around South East Asia there were only a couple of times ( mainly when I needed a wider angle lens ) that I wished that I had my Nikon gear with me, but hundreds of times when I thought "there is no way I would have got this shot with my Nikon gear".

So to finish this blog off I will include some of my favourite jpegs from the last year of shooting ( just to be clear, these photos are all straight out of camera, with no adjustments.  Yes, I know that there are dust spots, wonky horizons, and ( what turned out to be ) a U shaped scratch on the sensor of my X-E3 ) .

Fujifilm XC 50-230mm f4.5-6.7 OIS lens: Brief review

This a brief review of the Fujifilm XC 50-230mm lens which arrived on my doorstep yesterday.  In summary this is a little known, under appreciated lens from the 'non-pro' XC range, which will mount on any X mount Fujifilm camera.  For this review I have mounted it on my X-E3.

After briefly trying out this model of lens a few weeks ago I have been looking out for a second hand copy to come up for sale, and last week I found a near-new copy of the lens which I quickly bought for the princely sum of NZ$200 ( it retails new for about NZ$550 ).  As I said before the lens arrived yesterday and I have been using it on my X-E3 ever since.  I have the original version of this lens, there is an OIS II version as well ( the only difference is the image stabilisation I believe ).

The lens is plastic, with a plastic lens mount, except for the zoom ring which is rubber coated.  The lens is lightweight but still feels solid and robust.  The zoom and focus rings are smooth and have good resistance.  The lens does not have an aperture ring ( aperture is controlled from the camera ) but does have OIS stabilisation, but without the ability to turn OIS off on the lens ( again it can be controlled from the camera ).

I will just list the pros and cons of this lens and then show some SOOC images taken with this lens.

PROS

  • the lens is lightweight, relatively small for it's zoom range, and is well built
  • the images are sharp with a nice rendering of out of focus areas ( bokeh )
  • it is cheap for this focal range

CONS

  • the aperture largest is not 'fast' by any means, being f4.5 at 50mm and f6.7 at 230mm
  • the lens will only focus down to 1.1m
  • the focus motor is probably where the money has been saved on this lens, it takes about 1.5 seconds to go from close focus to infinity
  • no OIS override switch
  • no aperture ring 

In conclusion this is a great little walk around lens ( especially if paired with the 18-55mm kit    lens ). It is light, quite small, but produces nice looking images.  Having the OIS is a good feature given that the widest apertures are not that wide.

I tend to rate a lens by how quickly I would replace the lens if it broke; I wouldn't hesitate to grab another copy of this lens.  It is well worth the price to have in the kit bag.

XC 50-230mm lens mounted on my X-E3

XC 50-230mm lens mounted on my X-E3

The 50-230mm next to the 18-55mm kit lens

The 50-230mm next to the 18-55mm kit lens

Sun stars at f22, and a bit of flaring

Sun stars at f22, and a bit of flaring

At the 50mm end of the zoom... 

At the 50mm end of the zoom... 

... and the 230mm end

... and the 230mm end

The bokeh is nice enough

The bokeh is nice enough

I was tracking the cyclist at 230mm at f6.7, and it nailed focus well

I was tracking the cyclist at 230mm at f6.7, and it nailed focus well

Details look nice and sharp, and the background is soft

Details look nice and sharp, and the background is soft

Even at 230mm and f6.7 there is nice separation to be had

Even at 230mm and f6.7 there is nice separation to be had

A quick colour test: 50-230mm @ f4.5, 50mm focal length

A quick colour test: 50-230mm @ f4.5, 50mm focal length

Vs 18-55mm @f4.5, but I needed 55mm focal length to get the same field of view. 

Vs 18-55mm @f4.5, but I needed 55mm focal length to get the same field of view. 

South East Asia 2017 - Days 40 - 42 : Siem Reap to Bangkok to Singapore to Home

 

Again I am combining 3 days worth of travel into one blog post, as for us the "South East Asia Adventure" part of the trip ended on Day 39 in Siem Reap, and we were not planning to do a lot on these 3 days, except attend the Grand Prix practice in Singapore.  So we planned to do very little and not take a lot of photos.

 

Wednesday 13 September, fine, thunderstorm 34°

We had a bit of a sleep in ( compared to the previous 3 mornings ) and got up at 7:30am.  In another first we managed to make use of the breakfast that was included in our room rate at the hotel, and it was nice.  We went up to our room, packed and checked out at 9:30am.

Dom arrived and took us to the airport, via the western suburbs of Siem Reap; there is a lot of new building work going on in Siem Reap and the area between the old town and the airport is no exception.

We arrived at the airport at 10am, and because our check in wasn't open we grabbed a Starbucks drink in their outdoor seating area, then checked in at about 10:15am and through to the waiting lounge.  Siem Reap airport is a single level affair with no airbridges but is new and very cool.  We walked out and got on our AirAsia plane at 11:15am and took off at 11:45am ( early again ).  The flight was a little bumpy but not too bad, and we landed at Don Mueng Airport in Bangkok at 12:45pm.

During the flight their was an announcement that someone had stolen a headrest cover and if it wasn't returned then the security would be called when we landed and everyone would be searched.  So when the headrest was still missing when we landed ( apparently airlines ' lose ' lots of items off planes, including lifejackets, pieces of uniforms, and even the handsets that they use to make cabin announcements! ) the security arrived and we were allowed to leave the plane one row at a time, and had our bags searched on the way out.  We were near the front of the plane so I don't know if they found the thief or not.

Anyway we walked through to immigration and cleared through quite quickly ( compared to our first experience of Thai Immigration 5 weeks ago ), grabbed our bags and then went to arrange a taxi to our hotel ( a private car hire B700 / NZ$28 +we had to pay the driver for the toll road ( B70 )) .  We drew some Thai Baht from the money machine, and due to confusion over the currency conversion rate we managed to draw B20,000 / NZ$800, which was a bit more than we needed.  We grabbed some packaged sandwiches for our lunch, and ate them on the ride to the hotel.

It seemed a bit surreal to be back in land of motorways, tall buildings and noise after the last few days spent in the quiet, green jungle of Cambodia, but it is a necessary change.

Our car screamed down the motorway, battled the traffic, and eventually found the street / alley that our hotel was on, but by this stage our driver was in no mood to fight the traffic anymore, and effectively told us to get out and walk the last 100 metres to our hotel ( Pratunam Pavilion ) which was located near the end of a very narrow ally with market stalls on either side.  We checked in at 2pm and went up to our room.  The hotel and room were nothing flash, we had booked it more for it's location within walking distance of Ratchaparop Station, on the line to the Suvarnabhumi Airport, than for it's quality.  But as usual it had wifi, airconditioning and included breakfast and was only NZ$50.

We went out for a walk through the alleys around the hotel, and sorted out the route to the train station ( the street our hotel was on got narrow near the train line, then appeared to be a corridor through someones house, but popped out on a road next to the train tracks which led directly to the station.

We headed back to the main road ( Phetchaburi Road ) then went into a mall, which was mainly tech shops, but Liz managed to find a pharmacy with a sale on lipsticks, so she was happy while I wandered the 4 floors of camera and computer shops.

As we were thinking about leaving the heavens opened and there was another thunderstorm passing through, so we grabbed a drink and watched the rain out the window.  After about 45 minutes the rain eased off and we walked to the neighbouring mall, then we ventured out onto the street in the rain and walked around the corner, and across the canal to Central World ( we had visited here on our first pass through Bangkok, which felt like a lifetime ago, but was only 5 weeks ).

We walked around the mall, again it felt strange to be in a big western style mall, but it also felt normal.  We left after buying a few bits and pieces at 5pm and walked back to the hotel in the sunshine.  We chilled out in the room, then went downstairs to the hotel restaurant for tea, then back to the room.

 

 

Wednesday 14 September, fine, 32°

We surfaced at 7:30am, after both not having great sleeps.  The hotel seems to be full of people that like to wander the corridors late at night talking, and slamming doors.  This is the first time we have suffered from having a noisy hotel ( another bonus of travelling in the off season I guess ).  We headed up to the top floor for breakfast which again was quite busy, then back down to our room to pack.

We left the hotel at 9:15am, walked through to the train station and caught the airport train.  We arrived at the airport at 10am.  We headed up to the check in hall and checked in with Singapore Airlines, through immigration and customs, and then into the shopping mall that is the departures area.  We grabbed a drink then headed downstairs to our gate, and in another change to the norm our tickets were scanned as we went into the gate lounge, so they didn't need to be scanned as we got onto the plane.

We boarded at 11:45am and took off at 12:30pm for Singapore, again it was a bumpy flight with thunderstorms around and we landed at 3:30pm local time ( Bangkok time + 1hr ), off the plane, did immigration etc then down to the MRT station. We bought a 3 day tourist pass ( S$30 ea (including a S$10 deposit for the card ) / NZ$30 ), jumped on the MRT, changed at Tanah Merah and then got off at Lavendar, and walked the couple of hundred metres to our hotel ( Hotel Boss, a/c, wifi but no breakfast ) at 5pm. Checked in and up to our very modern room with a view out to the north.

We went for a walk around the area, walked through a little outlier of Little India (or Little, Little India as I call it ), passed the Masjid Sultan mosque then down through the little streets with colourful murals, and then headed west to Bugis MRT station.  Caught the train to Bayfront at the Marina Bay Sands, and walked through to Gardens by the Bay and to the Supertrees.  Then we waited for the sunset and for the lights in the trees at 7pm.  We stayed unti about 7:45pm then walked back across the bridge through the MBS and then down to the Casino at 8pm.  We made the usual donation to the tax coffers of Singapore, then headed to the basement of the MBS Shoppes for tea at the foodcourt.  Walked the length of the Shoppes to the MRT and then back to Lavendar to our Hotel at 9pm.

 

 

Friday 15th September, cloudy, rain, fine, 30°

We got up at 7:30am to the sound of thunder rolling around, then went out to a cafe ( Tolidos Espresso Nook ) near our hotel for breakfast. then back to the hotel at 10am.  Grabbed our gear for watching the Grand Prix then walked to the Suntec Centre where there was a ticket collection place for our GP tickets, but when we got there we were told we had to pick them up at the main collection venue at the Raffles Centre.  So we walked through the streets, skirting the GP track and barricades.  As we got near the Raffles Centre the heavens opened and the rain started.  We managed to get inside the building and up to the conference centre to pick up our tickets.

We walked to the Raffles Hotel for a look around ( most of it is closed for renovations ) and then headed downstairs to the foodcourt in the Raffles Centre to grab some lunch.  Back upstairs and out to the GP entry gates ( still raining, and the first time we have actually used our jackets that we have been carrying for 6 weeks ) and into the GP track at 2pm.  We walked through the middle of the track, bought a cap and a programme, and went to our seats in the Esplanade Waterfront Grandstand ( S$128ea ) next to Marina Bay.  We grabbed some drinks and settled in to watch the practice day; Ferrari's, Porshe's then the F1 cars.  Thankfully the rain stopped and the sun came out.

We grabbed some dinner at the nearby tent foodcourt at 6pm ( S$8 for a beer! ), then back to our seats to watch the Ferrari qualifying and the F1 Free Practice 2. Lots of fun to watch.  We left the grandstand at 10pm, walked back through the main part of the infield, watched a bit of One Republic on the Pedang Stage then headed to the City Hall MRT and back to Lavendar Station and our hotel at 11pm.

 

Saturday 16 Sept, cloudy, thunderstorms, fine, 31°

Slept in until 8:30am, walked down to the local McDonalds for breakfast at 9:30am then back to the hotel to pack for the last time.  We checked out at 10:45am and left our bags at the hotel.  We walked to Lavendar station and caught the train to Somerset Station on Orchard Road, went to Starbucks for a drink, then I stayed there to catch up on admin and blogs ( using the free wifi ) and Liz went off shopping.

After a couple of hours we walked up behind Orchard Road, through Emerald Place, with it's 2 storey terraced housing, then back to Somerset Station.  We jumped on the MRT and headed out to Bashan then the circle line to Marina Bay Sands, and then back to the hotel at 4:30pm

We grabbed a coffee in the hotel lobby and then grabbed our bags at 5:45pm, walked to Lavendar and MRT to Changi Airport, arrived at 6:30pm.  We checked in etc then through immigration ( no customs / bag searches until the gate lounge ).  We walked around the departure mall, tea at Burger King then through to our gate at 8:00pm, onto the plane at 8:45pm.  We managed to score seats immediately behind the bulkhead in the middle of the plane, with loads of legroom.  We took off late at 9:55pm and had a slightly bumpy flight back to Auckland, arrived at 10:30am.

Through customs etc and then we grabbed the bus to the domestic terminal, got a drink, got on our plane to Napier at 1:15pm, landed at 2:15pm, and then a taxi home.

So that is it 6 weeks, 6 countries, 6 flights, 8 buses, 3 trains, 2 boats, and many miles walked.
The lasting memory is of the people we met along the way; so happy and helpful.  And overall we were surprised how easy the trip was, given that we had not booked anything between our stays in Bangkok until we landed in Asia. 

Time to start saving to go back again...

South East Asia 2017 - Days 37 - 39: Siem Reap / Angkor

 

This blog post is a little different to the previous ones from our trip; if you want to read about what we did each day that information is at the bottom of this post, but I am combining our 3 days in Siem Reap in one post.

This post is mainly about photos of the stunning Angkor Archaeological Park ( which I refer to as Angkor in this post ), which we spent three days looking around, but only scratched the surface of the things to see.

And remember that these photo are straight of the camera and not processed in any way , so apologies if a few of them are not level, or a little dark or bright.

If you don't want to read the detailed description of what we did in our 3 days at Angkor, it can be summarised as:

up at 4am, tuk tuk to temples for sunrise, walked around temples, tuk tuk to hotel, lunch, rest, tuk tuk to temples for sunset, tuk tuk to hotel, dinner, bed

 

Sunday 10 September, fine, thundeclouds 32°

We were up at 4am and downstairs to meet Dom our tuk tuk driver at 4:30am.  Our breakfast box that we had been promised by the hotel was nowhere to be seen, so we will have to get something later.  Into the tuk tuk and we headed east through the new part of town to the Angkor Archaeological Offices, and into the lobby to buy tickets to access the temples.  We joined the queue for the 3 day pass ( each ticket type ( 1 day, 3 day or 7 day ) has it's own queueing area ).  We had to wait a few minutes for the ticket booths to open at 5am, and then after having our photos taken we got our 3 day passes for US$62 ea (which includes a donation to a childrens charity ).  The 1 day pass was US$37 and the 7 day pass was US$72.  The pass gives access to all the temples in the Archaeological Zone.

Back to the tuk tuk and off to Angkor Wat, via the main road from Siem Reap ( there are 3 roads that get used by the tuk tuk drivers to get out to the temples from Siem Reap, the main / old one ( Charles de Gaulle ) was the prettiest ). We arrived at the entry for Angkor Wat at 5:15am ( after a brief stop at the ticket checkers on the side of the road as we entered the zone ), showed our tickets, and walked across the moat.  The main bridge was being repaired at the moment so we are using a temporary pontoon bridge.

Just to set the scene a little bit for Angkor; every temple, restaurant area, and tourist spot has lots of people asking if you want a guide book for US$1 with information about all the temples ( the one they show you is nicely printed, the copy you get in a plastic wrap is a cheap photocopy ), people asking if you want a guide, people selling trinkets ( normally quite aggressively ) and young children selling postcards, badges etc.  After a while we found ourselves saying 'no' to these people without even listening to what they wanted.  It becomes a reflex action whenever someone says " Excuse me Sir... " or "Where are you from... ".  It does become a bit annoying after the 4th or 5th temple of being harassed, but it made us appreciate the couple of temples that we got to early before the hawkers had got going for the day, and we were greeted with peace and quite as we approached the temples.  And it was a small price to pay for the sights we were able to see.  Generally the guards did a good job of keeping the hawkers out of the temples themselves, but a couple of times the guards would 'helpfully' show us to a hidden spot in the temple ( like a small temple or photo spot ) and then want money for their help, so we started to view them as hawkers as well.

It was also interesting to watch the types of people that got targeted by the hawkers; I noticed that European looking people were asked once or twice if they wanted to buy something, whereas Japanese and Korean looking people were harassed much more aggressively, and often the person being harassed would give in after a few minutes.  Anyway back to the temples.

So into the Angkor Wat complex we went in the dark, with a small stream of people around us.  After crossing the moat we entered through the main doors in the outer wall and into the massive open area with the main temple in the distance.  We walked down the the walkway then I headed right to the South Reflecting Pool (SRP) and Liz when left to the North Reflecting Pool (NRP).  The 2 reflecting pools are about the same size and in the same location either side of the central approach to the temple, but most people looking for the iconic Angkor Wat photo at sunrise head to the NRP as this is the one that always has water in it, whereas the SRP dries up if there hasn't been any rain.  Given that we were in the wet season I new there would be water in both so I was happy to go to the less crowded SRP to shoot the sunrise.  I found my spot and waited and shot as the sun lit up the clouds behind the temple, and then when it was clear that we weren't going to see the sun in a hurry I headed over and found Liz at about 6am.  There were probably about 200 people at Angkor Wat for sunrise this morning, which is quiet compared the busy season of Dec / Jan / Feb apparently. 

We walked into the temple itself and walked around the vast complex of courtyards and corridors, and having decided not to wait in a queue to go to the very top of the temple we left at about 7am and walked over to the area where the shops and cafes were located, next to the NRP.  We had breakfast ( pancakes and coffees ) and then looked through the South Library building, then headed out and back across the moat to our tuk tuk ( Dom was having a snooze in the hammock that they all carry with them ).  We were doing the small loop of temples today so off we headed.

We headed out from the Angkor Wat carpark and north to enter Angkor Thom through the South Gate, and parked up next to the main entrance to Bayon, on it's east side.  This temple is best know for the many large faces carved on the sides of the temple.  Dom agreed to meet us about 500m away at the market / food area which we could see in the distance.

We went into Bayon and wandered through it's maze of corridor and hidden little courtyards and then up to the upper level where most of the faces can be seen.  The temple was quite busy even at 7:30am, and we walked around for a while then headed out through the north gate of the temple.  We followed the recommended route across the road and then along a raised walkway that lead to Baphuon Temple.  On the way we passed a couple of groups of gardeners / sweepers who appeared to be employed by the company that runs the temples ( Apsara ), and it is good to see that they want to keep the area as clean and tidy as possible.  It also seems that the people that they employ are the same people that live in the villages around the temples which is good to see as well.

We walked up and around Baphuan Temple and then walked through a small gate in the wall and through the bush and trees to Pimeanakas Temple ( which we couldn't climb due to repair work ) and then out the east side of the walled complex around Pimeanakas, and onto the Terrace of Elephants.  This terrace / walkway looks out over an open area in the forest in the centre of Angkor Thom, and also looks out to some small temples dotted around the grass area.  Angkor Thom was once a vast city with an enclosing wall and moat, with the Bayon Temple at it's centre and the Royal Palace / Pimeanakas Temple just to the north.  Presumably the whole inside of the enclosing wall of Angkor Thom was once free from the forest and was filled with houses and buildings which, being made of wood, are now long gone.

After exploring the north end of the Terrace of Elephants we grabbed a cold drink from a man in a van with a big chilly bin, and sat in the shade of a tree.  While we were there the 'ice truck' arrived with replacement ice and cooling pads for our man with the chilly bin.

We found Dom again at 9:30am ( although it feels like it should be nearly lunch time after our early start ) and we headed off again, out through the East Gate of Angkor Thom ( we stopped briefly to take some photos ), to a pair of temples about 300m past the gate.  These temples ( Chau Say Tavoda and Thommanon ) mirror each other on either side of the road, although Thommanon, on the north side of the road, is in the better condition of the two. We wandered around these temples avoiding the sun which was now beating down, and also avoiding the selfie takers but helping the people who wanted their photos taken.

Back to the tuk tuk and on to the next stop on our small loop: Ta Keo.  We didn't stop here for long; the temple was under reconstruction and we were also starting to feel the legendary temple fatigue after having visited 6 temples already this morning.  We walked up to the first level and walked around, but didn't climb any further. So back to the tuk tuk and on to a temple that we were both looking forward to: Ta Prohm. 

As soon as we walked in through the gate in the outer wall of Ta Prohm, at 10:30am, we landed in the middle of 2 large tour parties with their guides.  We tried to get ahead of them and walked off down the long roadway to the temple itself, but unfortunately encountered another tour party just entering the temple.  We battled our way around the temple, waiting as required to get photos without other people in them, but ultimately it was not a good experience being in among so many people ( there was even a put of pushing and shoving involved at a few doorways with people trying to keep up with their tour leaders ), so we decided to get through as quick as we could and come back early on Day 3 when we could hopefully get ahead of the crowds.  Despite the crowds Ta Prohm is a very different feeling temple being largely shaded by the trees that have grown inside and on the walls.

We exited the complex, at 11:30am at the opposite end to where we entered, and found Dom in his hammock again.  Off to the next temple on the loop which was Banteay Kdei.  Despite this being temple No 9 for the morning, and it being hot, and this being the last temple to visit on the small loop, it was one of my favourites for the day. After the chaos at Ta Prohm we pretty much had Banteay Kwei to ourselves.  This was another temple ( like Ta Prohm ) which is designed on a long east west walkway running right through the temple, with a small shrine right in the centre.  We walked right through the centre of the temple and then walked around the outside of the temple to get back to the entrance on the east side where we entered.  

We then wandered over the road and had a look at Srah Srang which is a rectangular man made lake or baray.  Back into the tuk tuk and we headed back into Siem Reap at 12:45pm.  We were a bit weary after walking a few kilometres through temples on our 7 hour tour, so we grabbed some lunch at a restaurant in town then went back to the hotel for a swim, and relaxed.

At 4:30pm Dom picked us up again and we headed to Phnom Bakheng, which is a temple located on top of a small hill ( in Cambodia where everything is flat any hill is significant ).  We walked up the track to the top of the hill ( about a 20 minute walk ) and then waited for a bit in the queue at the bottom of the temple steps.  Due to overcrowding at this temple in previous years they now limit the numbers on the temple to 300 at any time.  And as most people were heading up for the sunset, the passes for the temple were in high demand.  After about 15 minutes we got to the front of the queue and got our pass to go up the steps to the top.  We had a walk around on the flat top of the temple then found a spot to watch the sun sink.  There was a lot of cloud around so we weren't expecting much from the sunset, the sun disappeared behind clouds before it hit the horizon and then nothing much happened after that.  We waited as long we were able to before being kicked off the temple ( it was a bit strange that the temple is promoted as a sunset watching location, with sunset normally around 6, and to then close the temple and start kicking people off at 6, just when sunset is happening ).  

We walked off the temple at 6:15pm then back down the hill in the dark, back to Dom and he took us back to the hotel at 6:30pm.  We went for tea to Red Piano and then back to the hotel for bed.

A long but amazing day travelling around some stunning temples.  As one description of the Angkor area said, each of the temples we saw today on their own would be a major tourist attraction, but to have them within a short distance of each made the whole place more special.  And I enjoyed the drive between the temples as much as the temples themselves; beautiful forests with monkeys and oxen on the sides of the roads, glimpses of smaller temples in the forests, and the constant call of birds. 

OK, lets do it again on Day 2.

 

Monday 11 September, cloudy, fine 31°

We had a slight sleep in until 4:30am, then downstairs to meet Dom at 5am.  Again we headed to Angkor Wat to shoot the sunrise.  This time Liz headed to the SRP and I stayed in the middle of the walkway which leads to the temple.  I pretty much had the area to myself until people started to walk up to the temple after sunrise.   We grabbed some breakfast at a cafe by the NRP then headed back to the tuk tuk at 6:50am to start the large loop of temples.

Again we headed through Angkor Thom, but this time we exited by the North Gate to start the large loop of temples.  Our first stop was Prasat Preah Khan.  We had to wait a few minutes for it to open at 7:30am so we were chatting to the other early risers who were also waiting to get in ( and we kept seeing the same people all the way around our loop today ).

Once it opened we walked the short distance from the entrance to the temple ( Preah Khan is another walk through type of temple with everything aligned down the central corridor )  and then we walked through.  Again a stunning series of rooms with amazing detail in the carvings.  And as an added bonus for photography the sun was starting to shine into some of the rooms to add a warm glow to the stonework.  And there were only few people around too.

We walked out the east gate of Preah Khan ( we entered through the west ), and had a look out over the Jayatataka Baray.  This baray is obviously very shallow and has trees growing in it, but most of the trees look dead, so growing may not be the right word.

We jumped back in the tuk tuk and headed to our next temple: Neak Pean.  This water based temple is located on an island in the middle of Jayatataka Baray, and is accessed across a 300m long wooden boardwalk across the lake.  Again we had arrived before the hawkers had set up so it was a very peaceful walk across to the island.  The temple itself was a bit hard to take it as it consists of a series of 4 pools with a central sculpture and we could only access one end of one of the pools so we couldn't see any of the sculptures up close.  We had a brief chat to the guard who was holding onto a baby that belonged to a nearby sweeper / cleaner, and given that they both lived in a village just to the side of the temple the baby was probably her niece anyway.

We walked back to the shore at 8:30am and headed to Ta Som temple.  This temple is located at the east end of the Jayatataka Baray, at the opposite end to Prasat Preah Khan.  We had a wander through this small temple then back to the tuk tuk and onwards to the next one.  We are a bit fussy about where we spend our time and this temple was nothing special ( in comparison to the others we had seen ).

Next up on the large loop is East Mebon, which is located in the middle of what used to be the massive East Baray, but this has now dried up and is a large area used for rice growing.  The temple itself is still in the process of being rebuilt but was notable for the number of statues ( especially of elephants ) that were still intact.  Again after climbing over this temple we headed to the final stop on the loop: Prae Roup

We had been advised by someone we bumped into at East Mebon that the easy way to climb this temple was by the wooden steps on the south face, and not by the large stone staircase inside the entrance on the east side.  So we found the easy steps and climbed up to the large area on the top of the temple.  We had a look around and then headed back down ( we were planning to come back for sunset and sunrise so we would have plenty more time to explore this temple ) and got back in the tuk tuk at 9:40am. 

Again we were pretty weary by this stage so we headed back to the hotel and gave Dom the rest of the morning and afternoon off.  We rested, had a swim, slept a little, had some lunch at Tout les Jous across the road from the hotel, had a walk around town, rested a bit more.  I managed to slip at the bottom of the stairs to the bathroom area in our hotel room and bruised my arms and feet a bit, so I was then confined to the safety of bed for a bit.

Dom arrived for us again at 4:30pm and we headed back to Prae Ruup which, along with Phnom Bakheng, were the only 2 temples open for sunset.  Most others closed at 5pm or 5:30pm in the case of Angkor Wat. We climbed up to the top and waited with about 50 others for sunset, which again wasn't great due to the amount of cloud around the horizon, and then we headed back to the tuk tuk at 6:15pm. 

Dom took us on a detour on the way back to the hotel, down a new road which leads from the eastern part of town to the eastern side of the temples, through the local market ( located out near the Angkor Archaeological offices where we bought our passes ), which was pumping with stalls, food outlets and fairground rides.  The market seemed to be aimed at the locals as all the prices were in Riel and not US$, but there were a few white faces walking around.  We headed back to the hotel through the modern part of town and arrived at 7pm.

We went into town again for some dinner and then back to the hotel at 8pm.

Tomorrow we plan to revisit a couple of temples early to beat the crowds.

 

Tuesday 12 September, fine 32°

We were up again at 4:30am, and down for the tuk tuk at 5am, but Dom slept in and didn't arrive until 5:30am.  This meant we missed the sunrise we were hoping to get at Prae Roup ( we did see it on the drive out to the temples and it was nice ).  Nevermind.

We had a wander around Prae Roup anyway and then jumped back into the tuk tuk and headed to the East / Victory Gate of Angkor Thom for another look.  Dom showed us that you could walk up to the top of the wall that surrounds Angkor Thom, which as a road running along it, and gave a good viewpoint to look at the faces carved above the gate.

We jumped back in the tuk tuk and went to Ta Prohm at 7am. The gates weren't due to open until 7:30am so we grabbed a drink at the only stall that was open this early and ate some of our breakfast from the box that the hotel had provided for us today for the first time.  I also bought a small 3-headed elephant figurine that we had been looking for since Laos.

When the western gates opened at 7:30am we walked in with 5 other people ( a far cry from the hordes we had encountered on our first visit ) and we had a relaxed walk through the forest to the temple itself, and then around the temple.  We discovered some areas that we had missed on our first visit ( in our hurry to get out ), so we had a good look around this stunning temple with it's massive trees.  We walked back out to the eastern gates at 8:30am, and as we were walking along the path to the outer wall of the temple we met 3 tour tour groups heading in, so we were pretty happy with our timing.

We headed back to the hotel at 9am, and spent the rest of the day resting, sleeping etc, and catching up with admin.  We had lunch in town and a walk around some of the smaller streets and alleyways.  We have got used to Siem Reap and ( as long as you avoid the Saturday Night crowd ) it is a good base for the temples, with plenty of good restaurants and cafes.  

For sunset today we decided that we would head to Angkor Wat to catch the setting sun shining on the temple, and see how long we could stay past the 5:30pm closing time.  So back on the tuk tuk at 4:30pm and off to Angkor Wat, headed in and found our spots ( Liz at the NRP and me at the SRP ).  I got chatting to the people next to me who were there for 2 weeks from Belgium, and he was shooting with a Fujifilm camera as well so we chatted about gear and holidays as the sun sank behind us and lit up the temple. We got kicked out at 5:40pm ( at first the guards were polite, but they got more insistent the longer we stayed. We walked along the walkway and out through the gate just as the sun was setting and shining in through the doorway.  We found Dom for the last time on our temple tour ( he was asleep again ) and went back to the hotel at 6:30pm.  

We gave Dom a tip by giving him all the Riel we had collected in change since arriving in Cambodia ( about $US10 worth ) and arranged for him to pick us up to take us to the airport tomorrow ( we were paying through the Hotel for his last 3 days driving and also for the airport trip ) which was US$9

We went out for our last dinner in Cambodia ( Khmer Chicken Green Curry,  Beef Lak Lok and 2 beers, US$11.50 / NZ$14 ) and headed back to the hotel to pack.

 

So in summary we had an amazing, but tiring, 3 days in Angkor, and we were blown away by the scale of the temples and the whole area.  My enduring memory however will be sitting in the tuk tuk on the the long straight roads through the jungle, with the sun shining through the trees.  We will be back Angkor.

 

 

South East Asia 2017 - Day 36: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

 

Saturday 9 September, fine, showers, thunderstorm 32°

We got up at 6:30am and headed down for breakfast, then upstairs to pack again.  We checked out at 8:15am and waited for our minibus to pick us up at 8:30am.  Once on in the minibus we carried on through town picking up a few extra people then got of at the Giant Ibis office next to the night market.  Our main bus arrived and we jumped on board, and left on time at 8:45am.  This bus was a VIP bus and had extra leg room, reclining seats, wifi and USB chargers. Nice.

We headed north past Wat Phnom then crossed over the Tonle Sap River and then north and east for a bit, then the road turned northwest and we headed to Siem Reap.  The entire trip was through flat flood plains with farm paddocks and rice fields.  We stopped for lunch at a restaurant  on the way where they did nice ham and cheese sandwich!

We arrived at 3:15pm in Siem Reap; the first impressions were of a big wide busy road, with 4-5 storey buildings, hotels and banks etc.  We then crossed the Siem Reap River and skirted the old town and stopped at the depot for Giant Ibis, in what used to be a sports ground carpark.  We grabbed our bags from the pile and talked to one of the waiting ' authorised ' tuk tuk drivers, and agreed a price with "Mr Clean" to take us to the Bopha Siem Reap Boutique Hotel.  

We headed off back across the river and into the quieter 'east side' area and found our hotel.  We had booked and paid for 4 nights through Expedia, and had all the normal confirmations, so it was a surprise to find the hotel gates shut and locked.  A quick conversation with the tuk tuk drivers nearby confirmed that the hotel was shut, permanently.  Thankfully the drivers suggested we try at the Terrasse des Elephants hotel, which was owned by the same people and see what was going on.

So Mr Clean took us to the edge of the old town to the Terrasse des Elephants and Liz went in while I stayed with the bags and tuk tuk. It turned out that our booking was in place at this hotel, even though we had not booked it, and no one thought that they should let us know that we weren't at the Bopha Siem Reap Boutiqe Hotel.  Nevermind, the price was the same and we were closer to town so we checked in.  We paid Mr Clean US$10 for his trouble ( but we deflected his requests to book him to take us around the temples over next few days, as we weren't sure what we were doing yet ) and went up to our room.

Wow, what a room.  The room was massive but was themed after the Bayon temple, so the walls were covered 1/2 way up with dark concrete tiles, and we had a replica of some of the Bayon faces in the room with us.  But the weirdest thing was that shower and basin were on 2 separate raised platforms within the main room, and they had a pond underneath them.  Thankfully the toilet had it's own room.  If the photos look a little dark it is because the room was a little dark.

We dropped our bags and went for a walk around the town of Siem Reap.  The main part of town primarily consisted of bars, restaurants, massage shops and trinket sellers, and ( as with Vang Vieng in Laos ) it made me wonder where the real town was.  We had a look around and then walked over the river to one of the markets ( there seems to be 3-4 markets, and they all say they are the night market... ) for a look, then back to Tous les Jours ( a bakery chain in Cambodia ) for a cold drink, and then back to our hotel after grabbing some supplies.  Siem Reap feels very much like a tourist town, but at least we have a choice of restaurants, and we aren't here to enjoy the town.

We organised our tuk tuk for the next 3 days.  We paid US$82 for a driver to pick us up for sunrise, then tour around the temples, bring us back to the hotel in the afternoon and then take us back for sunset, each day.  I think the receptionist at the hotel thought there was something seriously wrong with us because we wanted to do sunrise and sunset for 3 days in a row.

The standard tuk tuk temple tour consists of 2 loops of temples, normally covered over 2 days.  The smaller loop covers the most well known temples ( Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Bayon , Ta Prohm ) as well as a few others, with short distances between them ( in some cases they are across the road from each other ).  The larger loop is more driving with less temples, but they are the lesser know ones, and tend to be less conjested with tourists.  So our initial plan was to cover the small loop on day 1, the larger loop on day 2 and go back to temples we had liked or find new ones off the beaten track on day 3.

Having organised that we headed out for dinner at the Khmer Kitchen ( US$13 tonight, including a $4 jug of beer ) then to the ' official ' night market for a look at the same trinkets we had already seen, although Liz bought a laquerware bowl with a lid for US$4 ( after a haggle and a walk away ).  We headed back to the hotel at 8pm, and prepared for the early start in the morning.