Beyond the temples at Angkor

We’re in Hanoi now at a hotel that has in-room wifi, we’ve already been in Vietnam for over three weeks, and I am determined to finish catching up on Cambodia while we’re in this city! 🙂

Siem Reap – not just Angkor

Roman was bedridden for a few days with a bad cold when we first arrived, the temples of Angkor were so captivating that we ended up tacking on an extra day because of them, and the great Angkor Pearl was a super and comfortable base for working on travel logistics. All this conspired to make for a relatively long stay in Siem Reap.

One benefit of this is that we managed to get beyond Angkor and Pub Street to do and see a bit more while we were there. I already wrote about my yummy cooking class while we were still there. We also visited a couple of non-temple-related tourist sites.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum was a simple but thought-provoking display. Roman had already learned a lot about the awful effects Laos has and continues to face due to the huge number of bombs and mines left over from a war that occurred over thirty years ago – indeed it is the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Cambodia may not be in first place like Laos, but it has more than its fair share of unexploded bombs littering the countryside and the resulting casualties. Visiting the museum is humbling because of the man who has founded it – Aki Ra.

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Recruited as a child soldier by the same forces that allegedly killed his parents, the Khmer Rouge, he grew up with constant war and violence being the only reality he ever knew. That he survived is a miracle in itself. That he went on to dedicate his life to ridding Cambodia of the very mines he himself helped to plant when a soldier is to me simply amazing and inspirational.

Reading the information and the statistics in the museum is frustrating at best. Around 18,000 people killed by mines in Cambodia between 1979 and 2002; around 40,000 injured. The number of countries who have yet to sign the Land Mine Treaty; of course the US is on the list. Urgh…. So, sobering and also aggravating as it makes you want to shake people for being so bloody stupid and senseless, but definitely worth seeing and informing yourself about.

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Just some of the bombs/mines that Aki Ra has cleared across Cambodia

We did something much more lighthearted after that, which was visit Angkor Butterfly Centre (also known as Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre). It’s small and simple but a beautiful sanctuary – a gorgeous, quiet garden under massive netting and filled with floating, fluttering butterflies. We had a sweet, enthusiastic guide who showed us around, pointing out the different species and giving us a close up view of the amazing pupae and wriggly caterpillars and answering all our questions. I’ll post pictures in a separate entry for any bug enthusiasts. 🙂

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Heavy heart, full heart

So far on this trip I think Cambodia is the country that’s made me cry the most since we’ve been on this trip. Maybe this sounds weird but I’m actually grateful for this. Sometimes I’ve had a tough time getting out of my head and opening my heart to a place. I think I must have cried in other countries too, probably because of what ever internal conflict I’d have had going on with myself at the time.

Cambodia brought me to tears just because of Cambodia. Obvious times like while at Tuol Sleng or thinking about Naid, or understandable times like when the disabled musicians at Bakong played so beautifully. Less obvious times like when tears just started streaming down my face while at the ruin Preah Neak Pean. My reaction to Beat Richner’s presentation was very strong and also unexpected.

I’d read about the controversial but significant work Dr. Beat Richner does for Cambodia in Cambodia’s Curse. Roman had heard of him because he is a well-known figure in his homeland, Switzerland. So we were both eager to attend the concert of this doctor who has opened and successfully runs four children’s hospitals in Cambodia (almost entirely through private donations which he works very hard to motivate!) and saved SO many lives.

Dr. Richner is also a cellist, and performs in Siem Reap every weekend to a crowd of tourists at his hospital. The place is amazing – massive, modern, with simple and stylish architecture, arriving at the concert we felt like we’d been transported back to Switzerland.

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The doctor’s performance consists of information, anecdotes and statistics he shares in a sharp, witty, direct way, interspersed with short pieces he plays and followed by a film documenting the history of his project. It’s incredible to see film footage of him as a young man, with crazy curly hair, when he was working as a doctor in Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge were beginning their assault on the country.

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Tough for me though was all the footage of present day mothers and their sick and injured children. The filming is not overtly focused on the graphic, but it is an honest depiction of the cases that come through the hospital each and every day. It made me feel physically ill to see it; the suffering of the children was more than I could wrap my head around, but I could empathize with the helplessness and fear of the mothers, thinking of my beloved sister and nephew and her total devotion to him and having my heart break again with each new sick-bed scene portrayed in the hospital.

Already then I was so glad to be learning about the hospitals and their projects, and of course we were happy to donate, but I was just overwhelmed when we left and couldn’t help sobbing as we walked through the night back to our hotel. Tough, but I was also grateful to be emotionally connecting to Cambodia in this way.

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We passed by the hospital every day that we drove into Angkor. Each and every morning, there were massive lines of families waiting to be admitted. One photo from my walk – patients and their mothers entering and leaving the hospital.

Confused heart, full heart

I had one other experience in Siem Reap that left my heart in a bit of a quandary. One morning I went for a walk on my own. I got out of the central tourist area and really enjoyed walking through a normal neighborhood. I had my camera with me and was taking photos along the way. On the same, quiet, tree-shaded road as me was a trash-picker. Our paths crossed a couple of times as I’d catch up with her or she with me.

She was pushing a bike which carried not only big bags for transporting any of the trash she could find to repurpose, but also her two young children. We smiled at each other and eventually I asked with sign language if I could photograph them. She was so gracious and her young daughter and son so sweet. I came over to show them the photo, to shake the little ones’ hands.

Just up the street was a small shop. I picked up some water for myself, plus a bottle for them and a large bunch of bananas. We could’t communicate verbally and I was just going on instinct; she seemed happy to receive the fruit and we kept waving and smiling at each other each time we met as we both made our way down the rest of the street.

But as soon as I’d walked away from the store, my mind started worrying. Was that the right thing to do? Could I have done more? Who am I to think she needs bananas? What if she and her kids don’t even like bananas?? Probably she could have used something else more. Why didn’t I buy her a bunch more stuff? Is there something else I could have done besides buy her fruit? Or did the whole thing make her uncomfortable? And so on and on and on.

I still wonder occasionally about what I did, what I could have done that might have been better or more correct or more helpful. Roman and I try to be really aware about the questions and issues surrounding the poverty and disadvantage in the countries we are visiting. It’s really hard to find the line between lending a helping hand and dominating and directing a place’s culture, values or pride, between doing what we can to not condone unhealthy or unsustainable situations like child labor or begging while still finding a way to be human and to act on compassion in the moment.

I still haven’t figured out any answers or guidelines as to what is right or wrong. I do know that as confused as I felt after my interaction with the young mother and her children, what I felt more than anything was gratitude for the real, if brief, connection, for their kind and open smiles, for the chance to wonder what their lives might be like. I am sure she doesn’t wonder about me like  I still do about her, but if she does ever remember our meeting, I hope for her, on the balance, the interaction was a positive one.

After all that, here is the photo. It should be clickable so you can take a closer look.

The Angkor photos: Part two

Here’s the second half of the things we saw and experienced at Angkor.

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The amazing birdsong we heard by the entrance to the temple. The size of the thing – moving deeper and deeper into the center of the temple through what felt like endless, successive rooms, cool and dim and full of deep shadows and intricate carvings. The rumble of approaching thunder and the speed with which the massive puddles formed on the stone floors once the storm arrived. The beauty of the sun on the rain on the rocks. The skeleton of a massive tree still interwoven with the stone walls.

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Angkor Wat
The sound of the vendors’ nasal voices drove Roman crazy. 🙂 Luckily it was much more peaceful inside the temple compound. The dramatic walk over the broad stone bridge spanning the moat. The mesmerizing faces of the stone dancers drew us in. Each individual and with such fascinating and warm expressions on their faces. They were my favorite part of Angkor Wat. The sun’s heat reflecting off the stones – this was the only temple we went to that didn’t have the benefit of lots of shady trees. The families there who lit incense and prayed in front of large Buddhas, the father and son who had their heads shaved as part of a ritual – I wonder what it was about. I loved the monastery we wandered through as we left Angkor Wat. Still and peaceful with beautiful trees, funny shrines, and Buddhist flags flapping against a clear blue sky.

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Mystical, magical feeling with all those massive heads serenely smiling into the depths of the surrounding forest. We made a donation, lit sweet-smelling incense to a Buddha and the woman there tied red string around our wrists. The temple is surrounded by some modern outdoor shrines with massive Buddha statues housed on covered platforms among the trees. I loved these as much as Bayon itself, the massive orange candles burning against a backdrop of pristine nature. We came back on the last day so Roman could take photos (his camera had died as we arrived at Angkor Wat) and I sat on the wall and just breathed. Birds, frogs and insects sang, somewhere a monk was pounding a large drum, devotees came to pray at one of the shrines. Sitting in that peace was one of the highlights of Angkor for me.

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Baphoun/Terrace of Elephants
We couldn’t go into/onto the recently completed Baphoun, but the surrounding ancient walls, the pathways and yet more incredible trees made for a spectacular, peaceful atmosphere and I loved the stillness and beauty of this place. No photo I’ve ever taken of a tree has ever done it justice – these were ten times as huge and beautiful in real life. Walking on the Terrace of Elephants, asking “Where are the elephants?” and laughing when we discovered them all over the place. More gorgeous carvings. It really is so much to take in and all so spectacular!

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Ta Prohm
We also went to Ta Prohm but I didn’t take my camera that day. It was also a must see, not just because of its association with Tomb Raider. Incredible, incredible – more trees to fall in love with. Best though was meeting the friendly Mr. Miyagi-type guy working there who got a kick out of the fact that we were so excited by the bird song (a Drongo. We recorded it – you can hear it here: bird2, along with phone-type sounds from the staff’s walkie talkies), he shared yellow fruit with us that he gathered from a tree and rinsed in a puddle, took us for a mini tour around the ruins, shared the heart-beat chamber with me, and helped me when we lost Roman, running around and communicating with me with enthusiasm and sign language. I wish we got a chance to properly say thank you and goodbye but we lost each other during the search for Roman. Also sweet was the young girl who kept me company in the parking lot while Boune, our lovely tuk tuk driver, went to check on the other side of the park for Roman. We quizzed each other on world capitals – incredible how many she’d learned! 🙂

The Angkor photos: Part one

There’s plenty of literature and information about the Angkor temples out there, so I won’t write any more about history of the sites we visited. I’ll include links when there are some in case you want to find out more.

We saw A LOT in the four days we spent at Angkor and I can confidently say that the temples live up to the hype. They simply are amazing.

Ironically, while Angkor Wat was fascinating and beautiful, this most iconic and well-known of the sites at Angkor was actually the place that excited me the least. I totally enjoyed it and think it is beautiful and not to be missed, but it was nearly all the other places we went that felt really magical and that managed to captivate and bewitch me.

I’m listing the places we went in chronological order, with a handful of photos and highlights from each in the hopes that these posts won’t grow to gargantuan sizes. 🙂

Kbal Spean (River of a thousand lingas)
A long, windy, interesting tuk tuk drive away from Siem Reap, it’s a bit of a hike through humid, gorgeous jungle to get to the “River of a thousand lingas”. The forest is amazing, full of fascinating bugs including incredibly loud cicadas that sound like an awful lot like power tools (yes, they were that loud!) and sweet butterflies that kept us company along the path, even hitching rides on our shoulders from time to time. The ancient faces carved into the river rock exuded an exquisite peace. We just loved it. Fun too to see bunches of Cambodian teenagers messing around and cooling off at the waterfall right by all these amazing, historic carvings. What an awesome hang out spot!

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Banteay Srei
Surrounded by majestic, tall trees. Amazing, intricate carvings in warm rock all glowing with the warmth of the sun. The crooked official who wanted to sell us “V.I.P. access” to the restricted part of the temple. The powerful heat of the afternoon sun as we stood taking in the view of the beautiful rice fields behind the temple. The cool, inquisitive, acrobatic bug that kept us company and loved jumping on Roman’s camera while we soaked in the atmosphere on the temple wall. The beautiful rainbow against dark skies that launched itself out of the fields as we drove back to Siem Reap.

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Beng Mealea
A place to feel like Indiana Jones, dwarfed by insanely huge trees, clambering over massive, fallen-down bits of temple, in a place where nature is claiming back the stone. Really atmospheric and incredible, I just loved loved loved the trees. 🙂

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This is a more simple temple, not so much carving to see as other places we’d visited, but I loved it for the active monastery that sits at one edge, and for the disabled musicians who were playing traditional Khmer music for tourists. Till then I’d never really gotten into Cambodian music, but this was just spellbinding and I was transfixed, sitting under the green and blue canopy of tree and sky at the edge of their simple stage and taking it all in. Lovely.

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An intro to Angkor

So of course I’d heard of Angkor Wat, but it took coming to Cambodia and doing a bit of reading for me to realize it’s not just that one particularly large and famous temple or the setting for the Tomb Raider movie (yes, I realize I am ignorant – that’s why we’re traveling 😉 ). For anyone else who might be as uninformed as I was, here some background (courtesy of Wikipedia, UNESCO and Lonely Planet).

A bit of history

Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park covers about 400 square kilometers (UNESCO) and contains hundreds upon hundreds of ancient temples, “ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest single religious monument.” (Wikipedia)

A photo of an ariel map of Angkor, just to give you a feeling of the size. It’s clickable if you want to zoom for a closer look.

In its heyday between the 9th and 15th centuries, Angkor was the buzzing center of the Khmer Empire, a city which archeologists speculate supported up to one million people.

The stone and brick buildings which remain today are nearly exclusively religious monuments: “…the right to dwell in structures of brick or stone was reserved for the gods,” while the palaces, houses and public buildings used by the city’s residents were built of wood which has long since disintegrated. (Lonely Planet)

Angkor encompasses multiple religions, from indigenous to Shaivism (a form of Hinduism focusing on the god Shiva the destroyer), Vaishnavism (a form of Hinduism focusing on the god Vishnu the sustainer), both Mahayana and Theravada forms of Buddhism and even the “cult of personality” in which kings represented themselves as deities. (Wikipedia) Some of the temples started out their lives as Hindu houses of worship and were later repurposed for Buddhist use.

Angkor today

While many of the ruins have been partially excavated, they remain set in an incredibly beautiful, atmospheric natural environment, surrounded by idyllic forests of trees so old and huge and wise that it seems they must have been seeds when the buildings were still freshly constructed.
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Massive trees growing around some wooden steps behind Baphoun

Bird, frogs and insect song adds to the magical atmosphere. While Western access to the park is strictly controlled, many Cambodians live in small villages on the grounds and we’d often see verdant rice fields stretching along the road between sites. The nature is just amazing and as much a part of the incredible atmosphere and experience as the temples themselves.

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Beautiful rice fields outside Banteay Srei

Many of the temple ruins were overtaken by the encroaching jungle over the centuries after Angkor’s fall. The French Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient was heavily involved in the restoration of many of the temples during the 20th century; in 1907 the ruins saw their first arrival of Western tourists (200 of them!). (Lonely Planet) Today, the site receives around 2 million tourists per year.

As incredible as they are, the ruins have not been fully explored or excavated and many are lacking proper infrastructure to ensure they aren’t damaged by all those trampling tourists (us included :-/ ). While the situation isn’t black and white, indications are that Cambodia’s notoriously crooked government is more interested in increasing tourist traffic (and the related cash flow) than preservation.

Entrance to the park is 20 dollars per day, 40 for a three-day pass, 60 for a week’s entrance. We spent nearly four full days and had a really satisfying mix of sites and experiences. I could imagine having gone for the full week pass, only with Roman knocked out with a bad cold at the start of our time, we’d already been kicking around town for a while before we got to see any of Angkor and our visa was running out even as we were feeling like we’d gotten our fill of Cambodia.

I’d heard that most tourists only spend on average three days in all of Cambodia, which means spending even less than three days at Angkor. I can’t even begin to understand how or why someone would do this, although we did see plenty of turbo-tourists zipping in to a temple and leaving again before we’d even finished enjoying the amazing and intricate carvings of a single room. I suppose a little culture is better than no culture at all though. 😉

Siem Reap

The jumping off point for all the temple exploration is the town of Siem Reap. This place has apparently exploded in recent years with the increase of tourism. Roman has a friend who stayed there ten years ago; the street our hotel was on now in 2011 didn’t even exist when he was there apparently.

The bus we took from Battambang pulled into town along a broad road that was bordered by massive, pristine, posh-looking block hotels. The center of town feels more like being at Epcot center or a Caribbean island than Cambodia: a commercialized mish-mash of international and Khmer restaurants, bars, tschotschke shops and boutiques, throbbing with loud music and tipsy tourist crowds at night.

There’s benefits for tourists – high quality food and competitive pricing on hotels (well, some hotels. Lonely Planet lists one whose rates start at USD 750 per night!!) – which we were happy to take advantage of. It’s not all bad, it just didn’t feel like we were in Cambodia any more… It did make me all the more grateful for the time we had in Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang. And to be fair, the vibe feels more normal and there are some nice places around as soon as you get away from the microcosm of “Pub Street”.

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Pub street starts to light up for the night (Thanks for the picture Roman! 🙂 )

Speaking of hotels, we stayed at the Angkor Pearl. At USD 16 per night, this place was excellent value for the money. High quality, spotless rooms, simple but really tasteful and comfortable. Nice, firm mattress – among some of the best beds we’ve experienced this whole trip Breakfast wasn’t included but was cheap at USD 2.50 per person. It was a short walk from the action at Pub Street. Definitely recommendable!

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Cambodian cookery

As I mentioned, we’re currently in Siem Reap. Poor Roman is laid up with a cold and the weather is currently pretty wet, so no temple visits for us… yet! In the mean time though I took a cooking course (if only Roman was well enough to share the result with me – am totally stuffed! I wonder how many calories blogging burns? 😉 ) here in town at Le Tigre de Papier.

I still have to post about our time in Battambang, but I want to write up the recipes before I forget them. 😉

It’s low season in Cambodia, so I had the class all to myself. 🙂 My teacher, Saveoun, was really sweet and easygoing. She took me to the market first to take a look at ingredients (everything for the course was already provided at the restaurant) and treated me to some banana and sweet potato soaked in palm sugar and topped with shredded coconut – as if I needed more food, but it was yummy so I’m not complaining! 😉

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Friendly Saveoun

On the menu: Papaya Salad, the Cambodian staple Amok (traditionally it’s made with fish but I went for chicken this time) and Mango with Sticky Rice. The dessert had nothing on the Mango Sticky Rice I experienced in Thailand, but the other two dishes turned out great. Here’s how we made the salad. The amok recipe will follow in the next post. 🙂

Please note that measurements are approximations only!

Papaya Salad

¼ green papaya
½ a carrot
2 snake beans (substituting with green beans should be possible too)
1 tomato (I made mine without. 🙂 )
small bunch “sweet” (also known as “Thai”) basil
a few stalks of Khmer or normal coriander
two limes
2 tablespoons shrimp paste (I am guessing fish or oyster sauce would also do the trick if you can’t find shrimp paste?)
two cloves garlic
½ tablespoon dried chicken stock
½ tablespoon sugar
½ cup toasted peanuts
1 – 2 tablespoon chilli sauce
ketchup (optional – I left it out and I think it tasted great without)

Finding ingredients at the market

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Snake beans

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Green papaya

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Pictured center – Khmer coriander

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Ingredients already ready to go at the restaurant


  • Start by de-seeding and peeling the papaya and carrot. Shred both into thin strips (we did this with a nifty peeler). Mix together and set aside.

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  • Cut the beans into 1 inch segments, coarsely chop the coriander and remove the basil leaves from the stem, splitting any that are too large. Set aside. (If you are including tomato, dice half the tomato at this point)

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  • If you have a large mortar and pestle, crush the garlic in it (I am guessing/hoping that pressing garlic into a large bowl will produce similar results. 🙂 ). Add the stock powder and sugar and mix with the pestle.

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  • Add the beans and crush them lightly with the pestle. Add the papaya and carrot and crushed peanut. (And tomato if you are including it) Mix with the pestle.

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  • Add the juice of one lime, the shrimp paste and chilli sauce. At this point it’s easier to mix with a fork and spoon. Mix thoroughly, tasting and adding ingredients as needed to get to your preferred level of salty/sweet/sour – or, in my case – peanutty. 🙂

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  • Place on a plate decorated with leaves, garnish with sliced lime and tomato (and extra peanuts if you are me!) and enjoy.

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