Off the beaten track in Siem Reap

One of the things Robert and I like best is getting off the beaten track a little bit and seeing how people really live in the places we visit.  We were thrilled then to come across the combo tour offered by Dani of Bees Unlimited.  This tour is billed as a combination of a market tour and a cultural tour, but let’s just say I think it should be called the “all-you-can-eat while seeing the countryside tour.”  We started the tour hungry and finished it feeling absolutely stuffed (in a good way, of course).

Dani picked us up bright and early yesterday morning with his tuk-tuk driver.  He quickly whisked us off to a local bakery.  Honestly, we would have never even known it was a bakery if we had walked by on our own.  But it was, and they had baguettes still warm from the oven. Yum!

After changing some money, it was off to a local market where the eating began in earnest.

We started with some steamed sweet potatoes.  A bit too sweet for me.  And, not my ideal breakfast food.

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Steamed sweet potatoes at the market.  There is a small fire below the potatoes keeping them warm.

Next up, fresh grilled corn on the cob.  Here in Cambodia, you can sometimes choose between sweet corn and starchy corn.  I, of course, picked the sweet variety.  And, Dani taught me a trick — if you spread a lime segment on the corn, it completely changes the flavor profile.  Try it, it was really good!

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Steamed corn at the market — the bright yellow is sweet and the whiter corn is starchy.

Then, we dove into the market with both feet.  We’ve done market tours before, but I have to say this market was one of the more interesting markets we have seen.  The market was chaotic, with scooters driving up and down the aisles.  Parts of the market were kind of disgusting, like the stack of pig heads (which I saw, but didn’t get a picture of).  Or the beheaded and skinned frogs that WERE STILL MOVING!  Sadly, at least from what we saw, there were no snakes for sale yesterday.

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The frogs that were still moving.  Along with some eels and some worms.

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Chickens at the market.  I love that the feet are still on the chicken.

Then, even though I was already feeling full after all that starch, it was time for a real breakfast.

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A Cambodian breakfast — fresh rice noodles with bean sprouts and chives, a rice cake stuffed with chives, and a duck egg.  If memory serves, breakfast for the two of us came to something like $1.25 (I skipped the rice cake and the egg, but still….).

And, we still weren’t done eating!  It was time for sweets.

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Num ambok and num croich — yummy fried pastries — one had banana and coconut and the other had bean curd (and, I think, coconut) and both were excellent.

Then, it was more walking around the market, nibbling on things like steamed peanuts and local fruits and spicy nuts and something like a hush puppy made of jicama.

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Eels at the market.

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Shaving lemongrass at the market.  It smelled so good!

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Curries and chilies — the colors were amazing!

Once we were ready to burst like Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka, it was time to hop back in the tuk-tuk to head out into the country.  But, before we got far, the tuk-tuk was pulling over to the side of the road for no apparent reason.  Turns out, it was time for crushed sugar cane juice with orange juice.  We had tasted sugar cane juice before and weren’t huge fans, but the addition of the orange juice changed the flavor entirely and we loved it.

Once we arrived in the country, Dani and his tuk-tuk driver kept watch to see which of the many families they know were doing something interesting.  If a family was doing something interesting, we stopped.  We got to see things like women making baskets and a man making the most beautiful fish traps.

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A Cambodian fish trap.  The trap is put in the water where there is a current flowing by.  The fish swim in the small hole and then cannot get out.

We saw dog being grilled on the side of the road.  We didn’t stop for that one.  So sad.

We also saw incense sticks being made by hand.  This woman collects the various herbs and barks used to scent the incense and dries them.  She then turns them into a paste.  She then rolls the paste onto sticks she has made herself.  It was amazing to watch.  Each stick was identical to the stick before it.  All that effort, and 30 sticks sell for only 50 cents.

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Incense stick rolling.

We also randomly came across a family making fresh rice paper and fresh spring rolls.  Of course we stopped — who can pass up a fresh spring roll with fish sauce — and of course they were amazing.

We also stopped into the home of a local family where the wife was a practitioner of cupping.  Guess who got cupped on the shoulder he injured in Phuket?  He said it felt really good.

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Robert getting cupped.  And, yes, we bought the black and white scarf.  Three of them as a matter of fact.  Of course we did.

But the tour still wasn’t over.  We hadn’t even finished digesting breakfast when Dani told us it was time for lunch.

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Cambodian version of banh xeo. 

Robert also had his eye on some grilled, stuffed frog being sold on the side of the road, so while I finished up my banh xeo he went off in the tuk-tuk to grab two frogs on a stick.

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Stuffed, grilled frog.  Robert had one and our tuk-tuk driver had one.

And, then Dani said it was time for dessert.

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Grilled sticky rice and banana

The tour was fantastic.  We got to try food we would never had tried otherwise, and we actually got to meet some locals and see how they live.  It was a great off the beaten track kind of day.

 

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Iconic Angkor Wat

I’m guessing that pretty much every tourist who has ever set foot in Siem Reap intends to visit “Angkor Wat.”  What many people don’t know is that Angkor Wat refers to one specific temple.

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The iconic image of Angkor Wat.  The clouds rolled in while we were visiting, but I think that adds to the photo, even if it does dull the reflection.

The Angkor Archeological Park is about 400 square kilometers and contains dozens of temples.  In fact, I read that there are nearly 300 temples in the Angkor complex.  Not all of these, however, are accessible — some are still encased by the jungle and there is still a small threat of landmines if you get off the beaten track (don’t worry moms, we always stay on the paths and are perfectly safe).

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Symmetry, light and prayers in the tower at Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is one of the largest of temples and the most iconic.  It was built in the 12th century and, at least from what we’ve seen, is the best preserved.

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Angkor Wat tower.

We didn’t have Angkor Wat very high on our list of “must see’s.”  I had been there back in the early 2000’s and Robert and I had been there in 2007.

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Standing in front of the tower.  When I first visited, tourists were allowed to climb these stairs.  It is way trickier and steeper and scarier than it looks — especially going down.  Now, they have wooden stairs installed over one set of the steps and no longer allow tourists to climb these stairs.

But, yesterday when the skies cleared, we hopped in a tuk-tuk and got there for a late afternoon visit.

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Robert at Angkor Wat.  See the nice, easy wooden stairs?

Our timing, combined with our tuk-tuk driver’s guidance, was impeccable — we entered from the East Gate and managed to climb the tower before the late afternoon tour bus guests arrived from the West Gate.

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Monks at Angkor Wat.

But the best part?  Now we feel absolutely no obligation to go there for sunrise!

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A cool carving at Angkor Wat.  It is dark and shiny from people touching it, which is (thankfully) no longer allowed.  The carvings at Angkor Wat are truly incredible, but also incredibly hard to photograph.

 

 

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Siem Reap photography tour

Both of us would really like to learn to take better photos.  So, while in Siem Reap, we booked a photography tour with Darren at Cambodia Images.  Darren is a great teacher, he took us to cool places, and his tuk-tuk driver is one of the best.  (Note, if you don’t like the photos in this post, blame us, not Darren.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink….).

We were torn between temples and countryside, and so we did two half day tours.

Day 1 started back at Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Thom.  Darren introduced us to a portion of the terrace we had never seen before with some fantastic carvings.  And, he convinced Robert that sometimes symmetry is better than the rule of thirds!  (I’ve been trying to do that for years…..).

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Symmetry at Terrace of the Leper King.

Our next stop on Day 1 was Preah Khan.  This is a beautiful temple built in the 12th century.  Darren focused quite a bit on seeing light and seeing lines and angles and colors.

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Playing with the light at Preah Khan.

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A close up of Preah Khan showing color.

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Darren showed us how, due to the light, this root looked completely different depending on which side you looked at.

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Headless statues at Preah Khan.  I doubt Darren would like this photo, not the least because it is overexposed, but I do.

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A fun root at Preah Khan.

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I even got blessed at Preah Khan.  I felt like a giant next to this tiny lady.

After that, it was off to another temple and Buddhist monastery about an hour from town.  We were hoping to get some pictures of monks, but it turns out they were somewhere else that day.  We did, however, see a small but fast snake.  And, I ripped my pants wide open trying to kill an ant biting my foot.  So, there aren’t many photos….

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Aren’t these the most adorable monastery cats?  I think this kind of counts as symmetry.

Day 2 took us out into the countryside to visit a floating village on the Tonle Sap Lake.  On the way, we saw water buffaloes, kids harvesting and eating water lily stems, and fishermen.

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Then, it was off to Mechrey, one of the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake.  We took a motorboat out into the lake for about 20 minutes and then arrived at the village.  Our tuk-tuk driver even turned into a boat rower so we could get into a smaller boat and get closer to the people.  There were almost no other tourists there.  Darren tried to teach us about how to make people “pop” against the right background and to separate people from the horizon, but things were moving quickly and the boat was a bit wobbly so our photos do not always reflect his teachings.  That said, we are pretty happy with some of the shots we got.

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Tonle Sap transportation.

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A girl in a bucket.

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Having a smoke.  This lady was so friendly.  I had a tough time deciding whether to post this photo or one where she has the biggest grin on her face.

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Getting around the neighborhood.

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A mom and her kids.

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Kicking back.

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Houses on the Tonle Sap.  The neighborhood moves depending on water levels.

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Rowing.

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Selling her wares.

We were hoping for a good sunset at Mechrey, but the clouds rolled in.  That is twice now we have tried to see sunset here in Siem Reap and been foiled by clouds.  Oh well, that is the price you pay for visiting during rainy season, right?

Our photo tour was amazing, and we would highly recommend it if you want to learn to take better photos.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beng Mealea by scooter

We love to ride scooters.  I’m not sure why.  I don’t drive them, so Robert never gets to do the same amount of sightseeing that I do.  And, he gets annoyed because I’m pretty squirrelly while riding pillion because I just can’t stop looking around.  But, nonetheless, we both love scooter days.  Sadly, riding a scooter in Siem Reap is not as easy as other places — rumor is that (after too many stupid accidents) tourists are not allowed to ride in the Angkor Wat park and, while riding outside of the park apparently is allowed, the back roads are not very clearly marked.  So, we were really excited to learn that we could ride to Beng Mealea via country roads with Khmer Ways.

The tour was advertised as suitable for beginners — they would even teach me to drive and set me loose on my own scooter.  But at 120 km round trip, Robert and I were in agreement that I should stick to my usual role and ride pillion.  Trust me, that was one of the best decisions we have ever made.  While we loved our tour, it certainly wasn’t for beginners.

Our trip started out with a small rain storm just as we left Siem Reap.  Thankfully, after getting pelted for a bit, our guide purchased these lovely rain jackets for us.

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Can you tell Robert loves his rain jacket?

Soon enough, however, the rain stopped and we were enjoying the ride through the back roads.  You can’t tell it from this photo, but the roads were littered with potholes.  We sometimes rode on the right, sometimes on the left, and even sometimes off road to avoid the potholes (many of which were full of red, muddy water).  And, there were dogs everywhere — many of them couldn’t even be bothered to get up as we passed, so we had to dodge them too.

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A country road near Siem Reap.

But the scenery was fantastic.  Brilliant green rice fields, white puffy clouds, skinny white beef cattle, water buffaloes, and happy children waving and yelling “hello” everywhere.

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Us outside of Siem Reap.  (Not fair that Robert got to wear shorts while I still had to rock the pajama pants.)

Shortly into our ride, our scooter started spluttering.  What was wrong?  We ran out of gas!  No worries at all, as our guide was ready.  He had a siphon and an old water bottle, and soon some of his gas was in our tank.  Problem solved!  Plus, if we hadn’t pulled over to fix our gas problem, we would have never gotten this photo.

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These “tractors” are all over the countryside outside of Siem Reap.  Basically, just an engine on wheels with two boards to steer.  But, even better, check out the Chelsea kit!

After fixing our gas problem, we were off to a local market.  Markets are just a tiny bit different here than back home….

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No “pork” signs needed when you put the head out in a place of honor.

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These chickens are waiting to be sold…

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While these chickens are sitting right next to the above table and are really hoping the above chickens don’t sell today….

We picked up some fruit for a snack and, in addition to red dragon fruit, got to try some fruits that were new to us, including longan (kind of like lychee) and something else we don’t know the name of that looked nearly identical to the longan on the outside but was segmented like a citrus fruit on the inside.  It was delicious, so if anyone knows what we are talking about, please let us know!

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Dragon fruit and (I think) the longan.

Then, it was off for more riding.  Pretty soon, we heard “thump, thump, thump.”  Yep, you guessed it, we had a flat tire.  No worries, there are shops everywhere to fix flats and we were on our way again in 15 minutes.

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Robert waiting at the “garage” while our tire gets fixed.

Plus, while we were waiting, we got to see several scooters ride by with wagons full of thatch grass.  Our guide said it would be used to fix roofs and the like.

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A scooter full of thatch grass.

Soon enough, we arrived at Beng Mealea.  After a quick lunch, we were off exploring.  Beng Mealea is largely in ruins, but some walkways have been built to allow access to the interior.  We highly recommend getting here right at mid-day.  The tour buses had all left for lunch and hadn’t yet returned, so there were only a couple of small groups inside the temple with us (including a lovely Cambodian-American family making their first visit back to Cambodia).

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Robert at the gate to Beng Mealea.

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Lisa inside Beng Mealea.  No waiting in line for this photo!

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Beng Mealea ruins.

After our exploration of Beng Mealea, it was time to hop on the scooter and return home.  Once again, we took back country roads.

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Riding the scooter.

Robert and I were both astounded at how much has changed since we were last here in 2007.  Then, the houses were without electricity (they used car batteries) and were mostly made of thatch.  Now, there are electrical wires everywhere, and many of the houses are built of more durable materials.  We even saw some solar panels.

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A house in the Cambodian countryside.

We also stopped at a Buddhist temple on the return trip.  It had quite the mural painted on one side.  I’m not going to post it, but let’s just say it was an image of Hell and there was an image of a poor woman with snakes attached to her breasts.  I hate to think about what she might have done to deserve that treatment!

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A young monk at the temple.  I think he was posing for me.

All in all, it was an absolutely lovely day.  Now, if we can just find another scooter tour!

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Loving the grand circuit

So, one of the most difficult decisions when coming to Siem Reap is deciding which temples to see and in which order.  Everywhere you look, people talk about the small circuit and the grand circuit.  But, they overlap.  And, we had difficulty finding clear maps showing which temples were on which circuit.  Plus, some people recommend doing the small circuit first and other people recommend doing the grand circuit first.  Our recommendation?  Get on the internet, look at photos, look at blogs, and decide what you think looks cool — don’t feel you have to see everything or do it in the order everyone else does it in.  After seeing Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (which we knew we wanted to see based on our past visit), we did exactly that.  And, for our day 2, we came up with the following itinerary:  Banteay Kdei, Pre-Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, and Neak Pean.  These are all on the grand circuit, along with other temples, but most people do them in the opposite order.  We thought our order worked out well — the temples weren’t overly crowded and we were back to our hotel in time for lunch.

First stop was Banteay Kdei.  This is a Buddhist temple built in the mid-12th to early 13th centuries.  This temple was interesting (enough so that we spent a full hour exploring), but nowhere close to one of our favorites.  (Note if you need to buy a pair of elephant pants or fisherman’s pants or a T-shirt, there were quite a few vendors here and they were way cheaper than in town.  Pants started at $2 and tees started at $3).

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Entry gate to Banteay Kdei.

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Standing guard at Banteay Kdei.

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Carvings of dancers at Banteay Kdei.

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The biggest gecko (at least I think it was a gecko….) we’ve ever seen.  And, boy, was it loud!

Next up was Pre-Rup, a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.  From what I can tell, not a whole lot is known about Pre-Rup, but it is suspected that it was used as a crematorium.  We both loved this temple.  At first, it was a bit off-putting, as we got dropped off on the side of the temple and had to climb a ton of very uneven, slippery, stone stairs to get to the top (word to the wise:  there are wooden stairs on the other side of the temple and they are way easier to navigate).  But it was worth the climb.  It was stunning!  And, when we climbed down, the view from the front was quite impressive.

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On top of Pre-Rup.

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The top of Pre-Rup.

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On top of Pre-Rup.

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Standing guard at Pre-Rup.

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Pre-Rup from the front.

 

Then it was off to East Mebon, another temple built in the 10th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.  The large elephants standing in the corners were a real highlight here.

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On the top of East Mebon.

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Wider shot of the top of East Mebon.

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Robert at East Mebon.

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Lisa at East Mebon.  Check out those pants.  They are basically a big rectangle with string ties on both end — you hold one end against either the front or back of your waist and tie it, then grab the other end, pull it between your legs and tie it the opposite way.  Every time the wind blew, I gave everyone a show.  But my knees were covered….

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One of the elephants at East Mebon.

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Maybe, if you are lucky, something like this will pass by when you are East Mebon.

Our next stop was Ta Som, a temple built in the 12th century.  This one is a bit like Ta Prohm — it is largely unrestored and there are cool roots and trees growing around portions of the temple.

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A portion of Ta Som.

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Another portion of Ta Som.

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Cool carvings at Ta Som.

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Cool tree at Ta Som.  Note you have to walk past a gauntlet of vendors and go out the back gate to see this.  We saw several people that missed it because they didn’t walk far enough.

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Back of the entry gate at Ta Som.

Our last stop was Neak Pean.  This is a unique Buddhist temple and you have to cross a lake to get to it.  It was apparently built as some sort of hospital — patients would bathe in the water.

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The walkway across the lake at Neak Pean.

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A cool tree at the lake at Neak Pean.

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The temple at Neak Pean.

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Check out that reflection!

We loved our modified grand circuit tour and would highly recommend it.  (Note many people doing this circuit would also probably want to stop at Preah Khan.  We skipped it because we are doing a special photography tour there next week).

Tomorrow, we are off on a scooter to explore the Cambodian countryside!

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Has Ta Prohm been loved to death?

On our first day of temple hopping, after visiting Angkor Thom, we jumped into our tuk-tuk and headed to Ta Prohm, a temple built back in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  Most people know this temple as the one where Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider.  And, when we visited in 2007, we loved it.  The temple was abandoned in the 15th century, is now largely just ruins, and has been taken over by the jungle.  It is stunningly beautiful.  Sadly, tourism has taken a big bite out of the beauty that was once Ta Prohm.  When we visited yesterday, there were huge tour groups everywhere.  Take a look at this crowd waiting to see into a portion of the temple.

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A horde of tourists at Ta Prohm.  We even overheard a tourist guide say “too many people.”

And, the huge tour groups were very poorly behaved.  They walked right over rope barriers.  They touched everything.  They sat everywhere.  They blocked doorways causing huge traffic jams.  They ignored the posted signs.

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Yep, the sign says “Unsafe Area” but that didn’t stop this couple from getting that Instagram worthy shot….

Indeed, it has gotten so bad that the local authorities have now devised and marked a path that everyone is supposed to follow.  And, there are places where you have to stand in line to take some of the more iconic photos (don’t worry, many of the tourists completely disregard the lines and just barge ahead of everyone else — thankfully the guards told them to get in line).

I know I’m sounding a bit negative here, and I think it is because we were disappointed in what a madhouse Ta Prohm has become.  I suspect if you had never seen Ta Prohm before, you would still love it.  It is still an absolutely beautiful temple to visit.  You can’t visit every temple first thing in the morning before the large tour buses arrive, but this is one you might want to push to the front of the list for one of your days in town.

Anyway, here are some of our favorite photos.

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Side wall of Ta Prohm falling down.

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We loved the big stones and the moss here.

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A largely intact portion of Ta Prohm.

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One of those iconic shots everyone wants.  (Oh, and check out the poorly fitting pajama pants and capris.  Both purchased in Siem Reap and both will likely be left in Siem Reap, but knees must be covered when visiting the temples and it is so hot we both wanted the lightest fabric possible).

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Interesting carving at Ta Prohm.

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Smiling face covered by roots at Ta Prohm.  Thankfully, a guide pointed this out to us or we likely would have missed it, because we had to get off the walkway to see it.

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More interesting carvings at Ta Prohm.

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Doorway encased by roots at Ta Prohm.  This is another one of those shots that you have to stand in line in order to get.

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Tree growing out of Ta Prohm.  Lots of people miss this because they don’t walk all the way to the back of the temple.

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Because I always love the critters….If you are visiting, watch for these guys.  They are everywhere.

Next up, the large circuit.  Sneak peak — we loved it!  The temples are smaller and way less crowded.

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A second visit to Angkor Thom

Siem Reap just might be the death of us.  Getting up at 5:30 in the morning for a tour?  Crazy!  (And, honestly, we started late as many people arrive at the temples in time for sunrise.  So.  Not.  On.  Our.  Agenda.)

Anyway, after an amazing breakfast at our hotel (the pain au chocolat is to die for), our tuk-tuk driver picked us up to take us to Angkor Thom, a walled city built in the 12th century that was once the capital city of the Khmer empire.  Robert and I visited Angkor Thom back in 2007, and it was one of our favorite temples.  And, I can happily report that we still love it.

Rather than write much about it (given that (1) we didn’t have a guide so (2) we don’t know anything that you can’t read all about on the internet), I’m just going to show you some of our favorite photos from the visit.  If you go, get there early — right when the temple opens at 7:30.  The massive tour groups started to arrive shortly after us, and by the time we left they were beyond annoying.

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A really cute monkey devouring a coconut.  What?  You didn’t come to Angkor Thom for monkeys????  These guys were about the most chilled out monkeys I’ve ever seen.  They didn’t even attack the dumb tourist that intentionally hit a baby monkey on the head with a selfie stick, even though an attack would have been entirely justified.

 

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Close up of faces at Bayon.  We love these faces.  If you don’t, scroll down a ways for photos of other things.

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Another close-up of a face at Bayon.

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More Bayon faces, this time with fluffy clouds.  Are you sensing a theme yet???

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Bayon face.

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Bayon faces.

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The last of the Bayon faces we will bore you with.

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A hallway at Bayon.  I have no idea how we managed to get this shot with nobody else in it.

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The most photogenic cat ever (at Bayon).

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Carvings at Bayon.

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Pretty sure this is Baphoun Temple (but don’t quote me on that).  We didn’t walk up the stairs, as we were sweating buckets at this point.

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Pretty sure this is Phimaenakas (but, again, don’t quote me on that).  This one was closed to the public.

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Carvings at the Terrace of the Leper King.

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Terrace of the Elephants.

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Terrace of the Elephants.  Check out that amazing blue sky.  In monsoon season.

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Terrace of the Elephants.

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Carvings on the Terrace of the Elephants.

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Elephant carvings on the Terrace of the Elephants.

Coming up, our photos of Ta Prohm.  But those will have to wait a day or two.

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