Capturing Cambodia on Camera

Having filmed Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie at Angkor Wat, written dozens of travel guides for Lonely Planet and produced videos for the BBC, National Geographic and Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism, what’s next for Nick Ray, Principal at Phnom Penh-based Hanuman Films?

“I first explored Angkor Wat in 1995 during the long civil war. Pol Pot was alive, the Khmer Rouge was still fighting the government, and there were land mines around remote temples. And yet there were more visitors than today.”

It’s 18 months since Nick Ray spoke those words on a video produced for Lonely Planet. Called Social Distancing at Angkor Wat, Ray showed how deserted South East Asia’s most visited temple ruins had become due to the pandemic.

Ray’s Phnom Penh-based film production company, Hanuman Films, was subsequently commissioned to produce a similar video for the BBC Travel Show in May 2020. It interviewed tour guides, conservation experts and vendors at Cambodia’s iconic attraction, which usually attracts over 2.5 million people per year.

“That was the only piece of live content shot anywhere for the BBC Travel Show worldwide during the first lockdown in the UK,” says Ray.

“The presenters and crew were grounded, so it relied on webcams and repeats, which isn’t very interesting for viewers of a travel show. We got in touch and pitched a piece about Angkor Wat and Siem Reap without tourists. It proved very popular.”

Still today, the silence at Angkor Wat symbolizes Cambodia’s long travel shutdown. Just 6,167 entry tickets were sold in the first nine months of 2021, including 228 in September.

For British-born Ray, the pandemic era is the latest chapter in a 26-year love affair with Cambodia. He first visited in 1995 and has lived in the country for over two decades.

"After university, I took a backpacking trip to South East Asia, and Cambodia played a memorable part,” he says.

Nick Ray, producer, location scout and manager for Hanuman Films. Image: Hanuman Films

“Because of the Khmer Rouge, it was too dangerous to travel overland from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, so you had to go by boat. But instantly, I was wowed by the glory of Angkor, the surrounding landscapes, and by the kindness of the Cambodian people.”

He returned in 1998, as a travel writer. Ray was commissioned to write the Cambodia chapter of the Lonely Planet South East Asia guide. It would be the first of more than 40 travel titles he has contributed to across the region.

“My abiding memory of that trip is the derelict Bokor Hill Station near Kampot. There’s an old French colonial hotel and casino up there, but it had been off-limits because of the war. The army had flushed out the last of the Khmer Rouge, and I got permission to visit.”

Ray hired a dirt bike and rode for two sweaty hours up a winding, overgrown road to reach the spectacular plateau.

“I couldn’t believe I was staring at this abandoned hotel and a church that no one had visited in a long time. It symbolized for me that Cambodia was entering a process of transition.”

The allure of Cambodia proved strong. Ray set up home in the country and established a film and TV production company, Hanuman Films. The formative years saw it undertake a mix of documentary and educational video projects.

And then Hollywood came calling.

Hanuman was hired by the producers of Tomb Raider, the blockbuster silver screen adaptation of the popular computer game.

Tomb Raider "changed everything" for Hanuman Films. Image: Hanuman Films Showreel

“Tomb Raider changed everything,” says Ray. This was our first international movie shoot. We had 150 people fly in from the US and the UK, and up to 500 extras on set during some days. It was a huge production.”

Ray scouted the locations in advance. “Finding the right settings was fairly easy. Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm temples were spectacular backdrops for the movie.”

The global impact extended beyond the cinema.

“Tomb Raider played a big part in promoting tourism to Cambodia in those early days,” says Ray. “It was a successful global hit with a big star, Angelina Jolie. People also forget that Daniel Craig had a small part – so you had Lara Croft and James Bond in the same movie.”

Even now, tour guides at Ta Prohm call it the ’Tomb Raider Temple,’ and they take visitors to the ‘Tomb Raider Tree’ and tell stories about the film shoot.

Tomb Raider also placed Hanuman on the global map. It has since worked on a movie with Mark Wahlberg, TV shows for Netflix and National Geographic and a commercial featuring David Beckham for Pepsi.

In 2019, Ray got to work with Angelina Jolie once more. Hanuman produced a Guerlain ad, which was shot by celebrated cameraman Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki.

“This guy won three Oscars in a row for Gravity, Birdman, Revenant,” says Ray. “Going around the temples out of hours with such a film legend to see how he sets up images was fascinating.”

A local documentary production Hanuman Films worked on, called The Lost Empire of Angkor. Image: Hanuman Films Showreel

Since early 2020, international film and TV production have been badly disrupted, particularly in Asia where many border closures endure.

During this time, Hanuman focused on local productions, including a video campaign for Cambodian mobile telecoms firm Cellcard at the Preah Vihear temple ruins.

Ray has also worked with funding agencies, such as USAID and Agence Française de Développement (ADF), which support development projects in Cambodia.

A recent highlight was producing the Taste Cambodia video series. The new official promotional film for Cambodian tourism was financed by the ADF, as part of an ongoing programme to support Cambodia’s international marketing and promotion.

“It’s called Taste Cambodia, but we wanted to show more than the cuisine. Cambodian food isn’t well-known compared to Thailand or Vietnam, so we focused on the key ingredients as a theme to showcase unique parts of the country,” says Ray.

“We broke it down into regions, so there’s Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor, northeast Cambodia going up the Mekong into Mondulkiri.”

“Finally, there’s the south coast, which is a big food destination. It’s where Kampot pepper is grown, where the salt fields are, and there’s great seafood, such as the famous Kep crab.”

Rice growing on Fish Island, Kampot in Cambodia. Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

Hanuman has also produced atmospheric videos for remote Cambodian temple sites that have - thus far - been beyond the radar of most visitors.

“Everyone knows Angkor Wat, but Cambodia has temples in abundance. The ancient empire spread across the region into what’s now Thailand, Laos, southern Vietnam,” Ray says.

In particular, he pinpoints Preah Vihear, and its famous temple on a the Dangrek Mountain clifftop. “It’s a dramatic natural setting. You walk through different levels, and level 5 is on top of the rock of the cliff face."

Another off-track highlight is Prasat Bakan, one of the largest temples of the Angkor period.

“In terms of remoteness, this really is the jungle temple in the middle of nowhere. Exploring by torchlight is an amazing experience. You get the whole place to yourself,” says Ray.

Cambodia counts the second-highest vaccination rate in South East Asia (behind Singapore), and the government is now working to reopen the country to vaccinated tourists.

“Tourism officially contributes about 16 percent to the economy, but if you add in the value chain it would be at least 20 percent, maybe more,” says Ray.

The Cambodian government is working towards reopening tourism in the country. Photo by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash  

Ray has been involved in the deliberations between the government and travel sector firms.  “Things are in process. There have been a lot of policy recommendations and meetings.”

With borders slated to reopen, more film and TV projects could be heading to Cambodia.

“We are prepping for overseas crews coming again,” says Ray. “The BBC wants to do a natural history show, and a British company is planning a show about how LIDAR technology was used to survey ancient ruin sites, and discover lost cities under the canopies.”

And what about the travel guide writing that brought him to Cambodia all those years ago?

“In 2019, I contributed to the Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam guidebook, updates but I think only the Laos book has been published, says Ray.

"At the moment, I don’t know when I’ll next get commissioned to hit the road, perhaps not until this time next year – but I can’t wait.”

- Asia Media Centre