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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