Siem Reap – A Diamond In The Rough

One of the biggest perks of working at an international school is the vacation time! We have three weeks off during the winter break and had been planning for months as how to spend it. Seeing Angkor Wat has been on Scott’s bucket list and Cambodia is very easy to get to from Yangon.

When I told some of my co-workers that we would start our 3 week adventure with six nights in Siem Reap, I had some hesitant reactions. People told me that there wasn’t a lot going on there and that we would get “templed out” pretty fast. Naturally, I was concerned.

When we arrived in Siem Reap, I knew that time would in fact be an issue – we weren’t going to have enough of it! The downtown area is covered with restaurants, bars, shops, art galleries and spas. It is the perfect combination of busy local life meets artistic expats meets spiritual tourists. Yes, there were a lot of tourists and yes, there were a lot of hassling tuk tuk drivers, but overall, Siem Reap was peaceful and incredibly charming.

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On our first full day in Siem Reap, we took a cooking class. We made spicy green mango salad, fish amok and glutinous rice balls.

On our first full day in Siem Reap, we took a cooking class. We made spicy green mango salad, fish amok and glutinous rice balls.

Prepping the fish amok, a traditional Khmer dish.

Prepping the fish amok, a traditional Khmer dish.

Prepping the spicy green mango salad.

Prepping the spicy green mango salad.

Final product - Fish Amok

Final product – Fish Amok

There were so many darling boutiques, beautiful spas, jewelry stores and book shops.

There were so many darling boutiques, beautiful spas, jewelry stores and book shops.

Small alleys make up the heart of the downtown area.

Small alleys make up the heart of the downtown area.

This is the back porch of one of the home decor and fashion boutiques we went to. I fell in love with the shadows on the walls, the bright blue tile and the stunning wood table and chairs.

This is the back porch of one of the home decor and fashion boutiques we went to. I fell in love with the shadows on the walls, the bright blue tile and the stunning wood table and chairs.

After exploring Siem Reap by foot, we went on a full day bike tour of the area’s most famous temples. We started at 5:00am when a van picked us up at our hotel and brought us to the gates of Angkor Wat. We couldn’t believe how many  tourists poured into the complex  (there must have been thousands) to catch a glimpse of the sunrise over the largest religious complex in the world.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat on the Winter Solstice, 2014.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat on the Winter Solstice, 2014.

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In Myanmar, Monks wear a deep red robe but here in Cambodia, they wear bright orange and yellow robes. It is a great pop of color amongst the ancient scenery.

In Myanmar, Monks wear a deep red robe but in Cambodia, they wear bright orange and yellow robes. It is a great pop of color amongst the weathered backdrop.

Vishnu statue  at Angkor Wat.

Vishnu statue at Angkor Wat.

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The Southern gallery of Angkor Wat.

The Southern gallery of Angkor Wat.

This is the view from the tallest tower of Angkor Wat looking over the Western side of the complex.

This is the view from the tallest tower of Angkor Wat looking over the Western side of the complex.

After Angkor Wat, we continued on to Angkor Thom. We pulled up on mountain bikes and were ecstatic to see  this intricate entrance.

After Angkor Wat, we continued on to Angkor Thom. We pulled up on mountain bikes and were ecstatic to see this intricate entrance.

The first thing Scott wanted to do when we pulled up was to stick his head in this lineup of  ancient Cambodian statues. We were told he couldn't stand there about three times, but we finally snuck a shot by security!

The first thing Scott wanted to do when we pulled up was to stick his head in this lineup of ancient Cambodian statues. We were told he couldn’t stand there about three times, but we finally snuck a shot by security!

Riding bikes throughout Siem Reap and around Angkor was not my idea of a good time, but it ended up being pretty fun. We rode along the temple wall of Angkor Thom. I admitted to having fun once we were done and I did NOT fall!

Riding bikes throughout Siem Reap and around Angkor was not my idea, but it ended up being pretty fun. We rode along the temple wall of Angkor Thom. I admitted to having fun once we were done and I did NOT fall! Scott on the other hand was experiencing biking bliss.

We biked along the temple walls to another entrance gate which lead us to Bayon.

We biked along the temple walls to another entrance gate which lead us to Bayon.

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One of many doorways that still stands. Photo opp!

One of many doorways that still stands. Photo opp!

Bayon is so different from Angkor Wat. The temple is tall and compact. I felt so small as I explored all the nooks and crannies. I also felt like I was being watched by the ancient faces that looked down.

Bayon is so different from Angkor Wat. The temple is tall and compact. I felt so small as I explored all the nooks and crannies. I also felt like I was being watched by the ancient faces that looked down.

I was just on Instagram and Beyonce just posted this same pic two weeks later. Scott, you trendsetter you!

I was just on Instagram and Beyonce just posted this same pic two weeks later. Scott, you trendsetter you!

How they did this, I do not know!

How they did this, I do not know!

Lots of public sleeping in Cambodia. This man happened to find a convenient vine to catch some zzzzzz.

Lots of public sleeping in Cambodia. This man found a readily available vine to catch some zzzzzz.

This hallway leading to chaos was perfect. The composition, the light, the metaphor - one of my favorite temple moments from this trip.

This hallway led to destruction and chaos and it was perfect. Finding this spot was one of my favorite temple moments from this trip.

No wonder why scouts chose this place to film Tomb Raider. It felt like a movie set, unfathomable that something could be so stunning and so broken at the same time.

No wonder why scouts chose this place to film Tomb Raider. It felt like a movie set, unfathomable that something could be so stunning and so broken at the same time.

The next morning we went on a tour called “Escaping the Crowds” with Beyond Unique Escapes. This next temple was my absolute favorite. I don’t know the name or much of the history. The tour guide said that the Khmer Rouge took over this temple and the more modern monastery (still over 100 years old) located in the foreground during their reign from 1975-1979. They used it as a place to interrogate and torture innocent civilians.

There was an undeniable energy at this location. We meandered through the grounds to the soundtrack of traditional Khmer music being played by local landmine victims. With the sun still rising and very few tourists, it was a special time to visit this spiritual haven. It has been the place of faith, prayer, community, genocide and reconstruction – and I felt every little bit of it.

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These little ones were waiting for their momma to finish work cleaning the temple grounds. I asked if I could take their photo and they instantly went into posing mode. Not their first rodeo.

These little ones were waiting for their momma to finish work cleaning the temple grounds. I asked if I could take their photo and they instantly went into posing mode. Not their first rodeo.

There was an energy to this temple unlike the others. It stands out to me as the most moving and the most beautiful.

There was an energy to this temple unlike the others. It stands out to me as the most moving and the most beautiful.

This is the only place I've seen in SE Asia with elephant sculptures guarding the four corners of the temple.

This is the only place I’ve seen in SE Asia with elephant sculptures guarding the four corners of the temple.

Being forced to leave this temple, we got back on the National Highway (which was more like a long dirt road) and headed towards Beng Mealea. On the way we pulled over on the side of the road to have a traditional Khmer snack – coconut sticky rice with beans. Here is what happens…

This couple is making sticky rice by the dozens. She takes the stuffed bamboo and places it over the coals, rotating through batches. Once a batch is done cooking, he takes each one and shaves the burnt sides so you can peel the bamboo back more easily.

This couple is making sticky rice by the dozens. She takes the stuffed bamboo and places it over the coals, rotating through batches. Once a batch is done cooking, he takes each one and shaves the burnt sides so you can peel the bamboo back more easily.

Each of these is stuffed with straw on one side and sticky rice on the other. It cooks over the coals for about 40 minutes.

Each of these is stuffed with straw on one side and sticky rice on the other. It cooks over the coals for about 40 minutes.

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Scott and I test it. We were shocked at how good it was! Well done roadside stand!

Scott and I tested it. We were shocked at how good it was! Well done roadside stand!

Closeup on the sticky treat.

Closeup on the sticky treat.

Then we arrived at Beng Mealea - straight out of a Legends of the Hidden Temple episode.

Then we arrived at Beng Mealea – straight out of a Legends of the Hidden Temple episode.

Beng Mealea appears to be the most untouched temple in the area.  The power of  nature and the ruthlessness of the jungle seeps through every bit of this site.

Beng Mealea appears to be the most untouched temple in the area. The power of nature and the ruthlessness of the jungle seeps through every bit of this site.

The roots captivate you and lead you through one corridor to the next.

The roots captivate you and lead you through one corridor to the next.

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Next on the itinerary was Banteay Srei,

Banteay Srei is not known for its size but rather the intricate carvings that cover most of the red sandstone walls.

Banteay Srei is not known for its size but rather the intricate carvings that cover most of the red sandstone walls.

Banteay Srei is preserved to a much higher degree than any of the other temples. You can enter the temple gates, but most of the temple is roped off. You can walk around the main structure but you can't get very close  in order to prevent curious hands from touching the details of the carvings.

Banteay Srei is preserved to a much higher degree than any of the other temples. You can enter the temple gates, but most of the temple is roped off. You can walk around the main structure but you can’t get very close in order to prevent curious hands from touching the details of the carvings.

When I say detailed, I mean DETAILED!

When I say detailed, I mean DETAILED!

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Exploring Yangon

Being in a new city and in a new country is thrilling, overwhelming and often hilarious. Here are a few shots and moments from a day on the town.

Scott trying to get a shot of Sule Pagoda as we take a taxi ride through downtown Yangon.

Scott trying to get a shot of Sule Pagoda as we take a taxi ride through downtown Yangon.

The buildings may be old and moldy, but they are stunning to look at. It is fascinating to compare the old buildings against the new foreground of people driving Lexus SUVs and monks holding smartphones.

The buildings may be old and moldy, but they are stunning to look at. It is fascinating to compare the old buildings against the new foreground of people driving Lexus SUVs and monks holding smartphones.

We found a Western bakery to the left of Bogyoke Market. It was the perfect place to enjoy coffee and a croissant while watching life pour into the market.

We found a Western bakery to the left of Bogyoke Market. Bar Boon was the perfect place to enjoy coffee and a croissant while watching life pour into the market.

The view from the cafe.

The view from the cafe.

On our way into the market these two sales women got us when they said "Mango, no wah-tah, no sug-ah."

On our way into the market these two sales women got us when they said “Mango, no water, no sugar.”

Boy, they were good!

Boy, they were good!

This woman was so beautiful, I had to capture her with her stack of rice and noodles.

This woman was so beautiful, I had to capture her with her stack of rice and noodles.

A street market near Shwedagon Pagoda.

A street market near Shwedagon Pagoda.

This is a common scene on the streets of Yangon. People are always eating, drinking tea and sharing stories.

This is a common scene on the streets of Yangon. People are always eating, drinking tea and sharing stories.

Just taking a taxi ride around the city is an adventure itself. We took this picture from a taxi on our way to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Just taking a taxi ride around the city is an adventure itself. We took this picture from a taxi on our way to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Walking down the street following a ground of teenage nuns.

Walking down the street following a group of teenage nuns.

Layers of mold, fish sauce, gasoline and scented soap

In 20 years when we look back on the time that we lived in Myanmar, it will be the smells will bring us back to thrill, the frustration and the excitement of this adventure. The layers of mold, fish sauce, gasoline and scented soap have transformed from striking new stenches to shockingly familiar scents in just one week.

The buildings in Yangon are either very old or very new. They tell the story of these people and this culture. They provide the framework for the luxury, the turmoil and the change this city has gone through. The ubiquity of  vibrant moss and trees growing from the side of six story buildings makes it seem like this city was plopped down in the middle of a jungle. When the city stopped growing, the jungle didn’t. Both the jungle and the people are seeking light through cracks of opportunity.

A vibrant mossy building downtown Yangon.

A vibrant mossy, wet and moldy building, downtown Yangon.

A mossy and moldy building, downtown Yangon.

Inside an old Colonial building. We just happened to walk into this building. There are probably 10 more just like this; old, beautiful, abandoned and in disrepair. The Yangon Heritage Trust is working tirelessly to find gems such as these and restore them to their original beauty.

We wrapped up our first week in Yangon with a day exploring the city. After 3 hours of walking around downtown, we left Bogyoke Aung San Market in a down pour and spent the next 40 minutes in a cab asking ourselves common questions in Myanmar; why do our hands smell like fish sauce? Is the four foot long gas tank behind my head in the trunk totally necessary? Does the cab driver understand where we wanted to be taken? How does every car in this city avoid hitting one another? Where is the closest hospital just in case? Am I going to get sick from all the delicious street food we just ate?

A young woman walking through Bogyoke Aung San Market.

A young woman walking through Bogyoke Aung San Market.

Nuns collect their daily offerings in Bogyoke Aung San Market.

Sule Pagoda.

Sule Pagoda. Yangon is setup around this pagoda. Things will be referred to as “7 mile” or  “6 mile” referring to how far away the destination is from Sule Pagoda.

Street food. They crack a quail egg into a sizzling little hole and then fry it up. 10 for K1000 (about $1.00).

Street food. A quail egg gets cracked into a sizzling little hole and then gets fried up. 10 for K1000 (about $1.00).

Shan Noodle Soup. A traditional dish from the Shan State; vermicelli in a broth with tomatoes, bok choy and meat with varied toppings. Our favorite meal so far!

Shan Noodle Soup. A traditional dish from the Shan State; vermicelli in a broth with tomatoes, bok choy and meat with varied toppings. Our favorite meal so far!

Don't buy the food in the middle of the markets. They are put there so cars can drive down the alley way. Only in Asia!

Don’t buy the food in the middle of the markets. They are put there so cars can drive down the alley way. Only in Asia!

Yangon is so unique. It is exactly what you imagine; old, colonial, moldy, mossy and colorful. It is also so much more than I imagined; there are contemporary and thriving businesses, there is a fast paced beat and it is quickly being built up more and more. There are many new cars on the streets, traffic is abundant, people are holding smart phones everywhere you look and serviced apartments for Westerners are spreading like wildfire. You can go to a licensed Apple retailer in the mall or buy whatever Timberland attire your heart desires.

Yangon has adopted many cranes to complete the skyline.

Yangon has adopted many cranes to complete the skyline.

Rain or shine, light or dark, nothing stops workers from  building.

Rain or shine, light or dark, nothing stops workers from building.

Street life in downtown Yangon.

Street life in downtown Yangon.

A Yangon book store. There was a whole shelf dedicated to Orwell novels.

A Yangon book store. There was a whole shelf dedicated to Orwell novels and a shelf dedicated to Myanmar travel books (outdated ones of course).

A talent show in the middle of Junction Square mall hosted by a skin care line. This mall is fancier than most malls in the States.

A talent show in the middle of Junction Square mall hosted by a skin care line. This mall is fancier than most malls in the States.

It is fascinating to watch this place transform from a society stuck in time to a modern day thriving city. It has a long way to go, but we feel so lucky to be here to watch these people and this country embrace the old, welcome the new and thrive.

We made it!

We left San Francisco at 1 am on Sunday morning, stopped in Hong Kong, then to Singapore and finally landed in Yangon on Monday afternoon. The view from the Hong Kong airport is incredible. The airport sits on a man made island surrounded by brilliant jagged green mountains and beautiful blue water. The Singapore airport is a destination in itself. During our three hour layover, we visited the sunflower garden, the tropical indoor gardens, Koi ponds, movie theater and LAN gaming room. If we had about 30 more minutes, we would have gone for a dip on the rooftop swimming pool. The bathrooms at the Singapore airport were the cleanest we had ever seen. They even have touch screen surveys to “Rate this toilet.”

Indoor garden in the Singapore airport

Indoor garden in the Singapore airport.

Standing over a Koi pond in the middle of the terminal.

Standing over a Koi pond in the middle of the terminal.

The Sunflower Garden on top of the Singapore airport.

The Sunflower Garden on top of the Singapore airport.

Three hours later we were in the air and could spot land from above. There was a moment on the airplane as we got closer to landing that reminded me that the past nine months of planning this move were about to become our reality. As we hovered golden stupas that stood out against the lush green jungle, I had this overwhelming feeling and said to myself, “we made it!”

Flying into Yangon. There is a golden stupa just left of the wing.

Flying into Yangon. There is a golden stupa just left of the wing.

A grand golden entrance on the tarmac.

A grand golden entrance on the tarmac.

The airport was very small and surprisingly efficient. The director of the school picked us and our six enormous duffle bags up at the airport. Driving through Yangon was so much more vibrant than either of us thought. The contrast of golden arched entry ways against the lush green foliage is striking! The arches make you feel like each one is a palace, and the arches are your royal welcome. The streets are filled with vendors, beer stations, busy workers and busy dogs.

When we arrived to our apartment building we were greeted by many friendly ISM faces. It seems like most of the ISM staff live in our building. We were supposed to move into 906 but apparently there was a leak. So then they decided to move us into 704, but that apartment was leaking too. So after a lot of charades and going up and down on the elevator with everything we currently own, we spent the night in 1501 with a picturesque view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Not too shabby!

The view from the front door walking into the apartment.

The view from the front door walking into the apartment.

The master bedroom with Scott getting stuck trying to open the wardrobe.

The master bedroom with Scott getting stuck trying to open the wardrobe.

The guest room.

The guest room.

The next morning, we got picked up by the ISM bus at 6:45 am and brought to orientation with the entire K-12 staff. We have now worked for three days and are really ready for a break and to see more of Yangon.

The road in front of the high school leading to the street market.

The road in front of the high school leading to the street market.

Mohinga for breakfast.

Mohinga for breakfast.

A beautiful Myanmar woman with her beautiful greens.

A beautiful Myanmar woman with her beautiful greens.

Birds.

Walking to the high school from the market.