My photo smiling back at me

So I’m flipping through The Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide, (36th edition: Dec 2010 to Mar 2011), and exactly halfway through the magazine, there’s an ad for MekongBank. Half the ad is an image of one of the many smiling faces from the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom, portraying Buddha or Jayavarman VIIor both.

Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide, 36th edition, open to MekongBank ad on page 76
Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide, 36th edition, open to page 76

Something about the photo in the ad caught my eye. Almost immediately I realized, “That’s my photo”. Not “I took a photo like that” or “I happened to take a photo of that same face”. No, “I took that very photograph”—during my second trip to Cambodia in May 2003. It happens to be one of the few photos of my own that I’ve had printed. It was hanging in our foyer in San Francisco.

I’ll admit I wasn’t 100% sure. It’s hard to fathom how many photos have been taken of the Bayon temple’s smiling faces over the years. I was willing to allow that there was a chance, however slim, that someone had taken a remarkably similar photo.

Later that day, I looked back at my photos from May 2003, compared the ad to the original, and sure enough it was my photo exactly: uncropped, same perspective, same shadows, same sliver of blue sky in the top left corner. A dead match. The shear improbability of it blew me away. Here I was, in Siem Reap, stumbling upon a photo in an ad in a free tourist guide that I had taken during my first visit nearly 8 years ago. Does this sort of thing happen to anyone else?

Close up of a smiling Buddha and/or Jayavarman VII face in the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom
My original photo of a smiling face at Bayon, taken in May 2003

How did it happen? After that trip to Cambodia, I put some of my best photos online, including this one, to share with friends and family. I made the original versions of the photos available for download since they were only 2 megapixel files. I also dedicated my initial photo galleries to the public domain, which helped some of them find their way into Wikipedia and which may have been where this photo was found. Or maybe it was just a swipe from Google Images, without regard for my permissive uncopyright. Who knows?

To make a long story short, we took the guide with us on our return trip to the Bayon and actually managed to find the very same smiling face I’d photographed in 2003. Even that seemed unlikely, given the roughly 150 surviving faces, each a little different. Only a few were visible at eye-level, which made the search easier. As a souvenir, I posed next to it with the magazine.


Justin posing with a smiling face in the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom with the magazine showing the same face from 2003
A smiling Bayon face and the ad that features its likeness