Cambodia – More than temples

I thought I would write one final post on our trip to Cambodia. I’m sure you’re all tired of looking at photos of temples though so this last post is more of a commentary. A commentary based on the conversations I was fortunate enough to have had with ordinary Cambodians.

It was obvious from the very first conversation with a local that life was not easy in Cambodia; making enough money to take care of a family was a challenge; and all of it was dependent on your connections and/or who you were able to bribe.

The driver who picked us up from the airport talked about how the government sold out the Cambodian people by allowing foreign interest to develop and run the Siem Reap International Airport and Angkor Archaeological Park.

A conversation with our tuk tuk driver (who has four children to support) indicated that tourism, which is the main employer in Siem Reap, has been slow and there were days that he didn’t have any clients to take around. It was evident he was very grateful to have our business.

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Our happy and hardworking tuk tuk driver

The waitress at the restaurant in our hotel told us about the wonderful French organization that gave her the opportunity to leave her hometown and come to Siem Reap and get trained in tourism and hospitality. She comes from an impoverished family where her parents farm land that belongs to someone else and there is still no power infrastructure in her town.

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This girl grew up without electricity and all the conveniences that come with having power

One of our tour guides spoke about how bribery and corruption is so much a part of Cambodian life that even school children bring bribes for their teachers in the public schools. For this reason, he wanted to send his son to a private school.

During our day trip out to Tonle Sap Lake, we were able to stop at one of the villages on the way. The lake provides the main source of income for the villagers. We stopped to chat with a group of women and girls who were slicing tiny fish about two inches big. They would each earn 2000 riel (50 cents US) for a whole morning of backbreaking work.

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It would take these girls 2 days of squatting on the dirt ground slicing tiny fish off the bone to make the same amount of money that we spend on one cup of coffee at Starbucks

From these conversational snapshots, you might think that the people would be in a state of discontent and lay blame onto others or circumstances. This was not the case. In fact, we found Cambodians to be surprisingly optimistic and self-directed. I was curious as to how this could be given their recent tumultuous and violent history and current state of impoverishment. As far as I could tell, it seems to be linked to their practice of Theravada Buddhism (95% of the country are practitioners); which teaches letting go of frustrations and practicing the right way of behaving and living. Although millions come to see its temple ruins, I think Cambodia’s true treasure is the way the ordinary people of Cambodia think and live.

 

 

Angkor Temples – Beng Melea a.k.a. Jungle Temple

The last temple we visited was Beng Melea. There is very little information about this far removed temple. Apparently, it was built originally as a Hindu temple but there are also Buddhist carvings depicted. And because its architectural style is very similar to Angkor Wat, scholars assume it is built around the same time period but there are no records to support this. Our guide tells us that it was a temple built as a final resting place for the king but that he had the temple destroyed after his death so that others could not use it. Another interesting theory without any supportive record.

Of all the temples we visited, Beng Melea is the only one not yet part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. As such, it is not as well restored and supported. The chance to climb over untouched ruins is the main draw though for most of the visitors that make the 77 km journey from Siem Reap to visit it. It is the real deal as far as temple ruins go.

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Entrance to the temple. No longer accessible.

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Trying to find the way in

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My biggest kid

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At the top of a doorway to one of the temple sanctuary towers.

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Temple ruins make the best playgrounds

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Believed to be the coffin of the king. It was just out in the middle of the courtyard. Without our guide, we wouldn’t have even noticed it.

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Making our own path through the temple

 

The rest of the photos are a reflection of the current state of Beng Melea. How long will it remain in this unrestored state no one knows. For now, it’s a quieter place to explore at your own pace.

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Angkor Temples – Banteay Srei

We decided to concentrate mostly within the small circuit of Angkor but we did make time for a visit to one temple on the grand circuit as we had heard so much about it. Banteay Srei is a tiny Hindu temple dedicated to the god Shiva. It makes up for its diminutive stature with the elaborateness of its carvings, reminiscent of sandalwood carvings. Constructed of red sandstone, it is often thought of as the pink temple. It was simply enchanting.

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Entrance to Banteay Srei. Notice the intricate carving around the doorway.

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Notice the low height of this outer gallery compared to Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm.

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Beautiful carvings of Banteay Srei

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Inner sanctuary with famous monkey statues

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Temple viewed from temple wall

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Traditional Khmer music at the exit of the temple

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Nature walk along the wetlands surrounding Banteay Srei.

 

 

 

Angkor Temples – Ta Prohm

Along with Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm is the other most visited site on the small circuit. But unlike the other Angkor sites, a decision was made not to restore Ta Prohm but rather to leave it as it had been found due to how beautifully the jungle had bonded with the temple. However, much work has gone into stabilizing the structure and clearing it to allow access.

Ta Prohm’s natural state of ruin lent itself well as the location for the film Tomb Raider staring Angelina Jolie; for which its haunting qualities are now famous.

According to records, in its prime, Ta Prohm was apparently home to 12,500 people (including 18 high priests and 615 dancers) with another 800,000 people in the surrounding villages that provided services and supplies to the temple. It apparently also housed considerable gold, jewels and other wealth. It seemed like the high priests were living it up.

Today, a walk through Ta Prohm is a sublime experience.

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West gate to Ta Prohm

 

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Cleared path to Ta Prohm but the jungle is not far

 

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Including one of the jungles’s liveliest residents

 

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Vine hammock

 

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First glimpse of Ta Prohm

 

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Jungle meets temple

 

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The jungle is always moving in

 

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A pile of rubble is a great temple rest spot

 

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Trees straddling the temple wall

 

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In all this temple glory, the boy is most interested in what bugs he can find.

 

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Us:)

 

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The boys

 

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The famous tree doorway

 

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Can you see the temple underneath the tree?

 

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Who’s holding up who?

 

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Outer wall destruction likely caused by elephants at the direction of people. Notice the carvings of Buddha on the wall have all been removed. This was likely done during the struggle between the Buddhist and Hindu groups. There was evidence of this struggle across all the temples.

 

Angkor Temples – Angkor Thom

The second stop on the small circuit at Angkor is Angkor Thom, most famous for the face towers at the Bayon temple. I forgot to mention in my previous post that many visitors to Angkor follow two circuits, the small circuit and the grand circuit when they visit the temples. These circuits were laid out by the French in the 20th century and continue to be followed by visitors today.

Regrettably, we did not get a very good tour of Angkor Thom as the guide we hired for our visit to Angkor was not as diligent as was to be expected. Generally, a tour of the highlights of the small circuit at Angkor should take a full day, visiting Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. Our tour was completed in four hours. In our opinion a good guide can be very helpful and a good value at the cost of $35usd for the day; however, it’s disappointing when the services provided are lacklustre. Thankfully we purchased a three-day temple pass and were able to return on another day by ourselves to visit some of the temples we felt we did not get enough time at such as Bayon and Ta Prohm (the latter will be covered in my next post).

Unlike Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is actually not a temple but rather a city. Literally translated Angkor Thom means “great city” or “large city”. It is the last city of the Khmer empire. Many of its buildings including the palace have long disappeared indicating they were likely constructed of wood. Some of the temples and distinctive features remaining within Angkor Thom are the five entrance gates (of which Victory Gate is the most well known), Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, Phnom Bakheng (temple mountain), and most famously the Bayon temple.

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One of the entrance gates to the city of Angkor Thom. I believe this was the Victory gate where armies returned victorious from battle. Not sure where the army goes if they are not victorious. Photo taken during running race on iphone.

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A section of the 350 metre long Terrace of the Elephants. This was the platform from which King Jayavarman VII viewed his victorious returning army. Photo taken during running race with iphone.

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The Bayon

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Entrance terrace of the Bayon

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Bas relief on the outer wall of the outer gallery depicting scenes from everyday life and historical events. There are 1km of bas reliefs.

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Bas relief on outer wall of inner gallery depicting mythological events

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Collapsed roof of inner gallery

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Columns of the inner gallery placed right next to the wall of the central sanctuary on the left, which possibly indicates that the central sanctuary of the face towers was not part of the original plan for the temple.

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Looking up at a smiling face tower 23 meters in height

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Taking it in

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Famous smiling faces of the Bayon

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Smiling face

 

 

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My boy and I. We went back to visit Angkor Thom after my running race, hence the running outfit and race bib:)

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Time for exploration

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And time for resting

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Combination of super early start+more templing=goofiness

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The magnificent Bayon

 

 

Angkor Temples – Angkor Wat

Angkor was the capital city of the great Khmer Empire, which flourished for 600 years from the 9th-15th centuries. It was the largest pre-industrial city in the world covering an area of 1000 square kilometres. Its closest rival is the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala but it is only about a tenth of the size of Angkor. Angkor is known as a “hydraulic city” due to its sophisticated and complex water management system of holding and dispersing water. However, it really should also be known as the city of temples as there are over 1000 temples located in the Angkor area. Although some may be just piles of rubble in the middle of a rice field, there are those that draw over 2 million visitors per year. We will start with the big daddy of them all – Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and sometimes referred to as the 8th Wonder of the World. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu by Khmer King Suryavarman II, it was later converted to a Buddhist temple when a new king came into power. It is unique from the other temples as it’s a temple that was never completely abandoned and forgotten like many of the other temples. It is also protected from the encroachment of the jungle by the 620 feet wide moat surrounding it. It faces West with a sandstone causeway leading to the entrance. There are libraries on either side of the causeway. The main temple itself is built on a raised terrace with three sequentially higher galleries culminating in a central tower forming a quincunx. Even though Angkor Wat was never abandoned, it was neglected and looted. It has undergone restoration work on and off in the 19th and 20th centuries. The question now is how to protect it from the millions of tourists that walk and climb all over it every year. For now we were fortunate enough to be one of the ones walking and climbing all over it.

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Looking at Angkor Wat across the moat

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We actually visited Angkor Wat twice. Once briefly close to sunset after we purchased our temple pass. If you buy your temple pass at 5pm the day before you plan to visit, you can enter for free for the 30 minutes the temples are still open. The ticket booths selling the next day temple passes open at exactly 5pm. I recommend arriving at 4:45pm to wait in line. This photo was taken during this brief sunset visit. This is the sandstone causeway leading to the West entrance.

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Close to sunset in front of the West Gopura (complex entrance)

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End of the day sun on the West entrance

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Not the best photo but the only one of us at Angkor Wat

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One of the entrances at dusk

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Angkor Wat Temple with its three iconic towers at sunset

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Almost same view as the last one but taken in the morning

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One of the libraries beside the causeway. Unsure who the horse belonged to but it completed the photo.

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The central tower at Angkor Wat. In order to get up here you have to wait in line and make sure you are wearing clothes that cover your shoulders and pants/skirts that go pass your knees. Also, children are not allowed up here so leave them with your guide or take turns with friends or family members.

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View from central tower of the causeway and the outer wall in the distance

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One of the galleries that run between the towers. This one is the outer gallery.

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People still come and make offerings and pray at Angkor Wat.

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One of the secondary towers

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One of the numerous bas reliefs that cover the walls of Angkor Wat

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A devata (minor deity). This is different from the many depictions of apsara dancers on the walls of the temples.

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Monks still walk the halls of Angkor Wat

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Statue of Buddha protected by a snake

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Outer wall of Angkor Wat. Notice the monkey walking along the ridge. There were several climbing all over the tops of the temple and many more along the side of the road being fed by people.

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East entrance to Angkor Wat

 

The Kingdom of Cambodia

I never imagined I would have an opportunity to visit Cambodia. And because it was so far off my radar, I knew very little about it. Perhaps many of you might be just like me so here’s a very brief introduction to its history and culture.

Officially it’s called the Kingdom of Cambodia and was once known as the great Khmer Empire from 802AD until it’s fall to the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya in the 15th century. It was during the Khmer Empire that the temples of Angkor were built as first Hinduism and then Buddhism flourished. Cambodia remains strongly Buddhist with 95% of the population practicing Theravada Buddhism. Quite possibly, the people’s strong faith has kept the morale of the people positive despite its chaotic and violent history. Cambodia has been under the “protection” or governance of a multitude of countries and entities since 1863. The French until 1953. The Khmer Rouge (a coup backed by the US) from 1970-79, during which time an estimated 25% of the population were killed. The Vietnamese backed government from 1979-1991. A UN mission briefly governed from 1992-1993 and withdrew after Cambodia’s “democratic” election. Finally in 1997, a coup took place that resulted in putting complete power in Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cambodian People’s Party who continues to rule the country today with a figurehead king.

Currently, Cambodia faces numerous challenges such as poverty, starvation and pervasive corruption. All of this is evident when you visit Cambodia. It’s also a country with an identity crisis. Its common currency is not its own; the American dollar is preferred, not the native currency of the Cambodian riel. Many of it’s infrastructure has been built by other countries. Examples include the Japanese built highway, the French built Siem Reap International Airport, and the Vietnamese administered Angkor Wat Archaeological Park. The Cambodian people do not benefit from the fees collected from the latter two. However, it seems the country is on the precipice of change as the people have become aware of the government corruption and the young people want to own their Cambodian identity.

We have fallen in love with the Cambodian people (you will not find bigger smiles than those of Cambodians); Cambodian food (I dare you to find another country that makes better curries); and of course the awe-inspiring beauty of Cambodia and its cultural riches. The combination of these will certainly bring us back.

Here are some images that represent our week in Cambodia. I will blog specifically about the temple ruins in my next few posts so stay tuned for those!

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We spent hours by the pool.

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And drank a lot of these

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And ate a lot of this. We just couldn’t get enough of Khmer curry, especially Isabella who ate it daily, sometimes for lunch and dinner!

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Krolan – Cambodian bamboo sticky rice. A mixture of glutinous rice is mixed with black beans and coconut milk then stuffed inside a bamboo tube and plugged with a cork of crumbled banana leaves and cooked over the grill. Once cooked the outer shell is chopped off leaving the softer inner bamboo shell. We found this street food on the highway during our trip to the lake. It didn’t seem to exist in the town. Our guide told us that the people in that region are known for cooking this food. Once cooked Krolan will keep for days. It’s delicious and the container is biodegradable. Excuse the poor picture. Our guide had already removed the banana plug and started peeling the bamboo before I could get a photo in the van. I would have taken a photo of the carts with buckets of these tubes and more on the grills except I had a sleeping child in my lap.

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All Cambodians seem to have these huge smiles. This one belongs to our tuk tuk driver Mr. Sokha. Our hotel provided us with a tuk tuk during our whole stay.

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We visited the Cambodian countryside. Here farmers are harvesting rice by hand.

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And we visited the Siem Reap Old Market – where all manners of things can be found

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The wet part of the old market. Many of the sellers sit on their table along with their goods.

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Young monks offering blessings after the shopkeeper gave them a donation.

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BBQ restaurant on wheels

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We spent an evening at the Cambodian Circus. It really let you in on the Cambodian psyche. It was crazy and full of humour while exploring dark subjects. The show we watched explored the belief in the supernatural.

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A brief walk through a village on stilts. During rainy season this road is under water.

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Local boys at a pier on the lake

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House on stilts on Tonle Sap Lake

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This boy was maybe 5 or 6 years old. Many kids on the lake use these small wooden boats to get around.

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We toured the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity which focusses on wildlife conservation and environmental education in the region. This leopard cat is one of the residents.

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These two rascally residents should be on the other side of the fence but they were on our side as they are still small enough at 11 months old to squeeze through the chainlink. Apparently they bring all kinds of things back into the cages that the centre staff have to constantly clean out. Macaques are almost as common as squirrels or raccoons in Canada. They were one of the first things we saw when we entered Angkor Wat Archeological park, being fed by people.

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A giant millipede. One of our finds during a temple walk.

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A 3 km hike up to a waterfall where there are riverbed carvings.

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Exposed riverbed carvings at Kbal Spean

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We explored many temple ruins

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And rested at many temple ruins

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A rare photo of me. This one taken at the top of Angkor Wat. Children are not allowed on this part and shoulders and legs must be covered.

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Swinging on vines in the temple ruins

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More resting

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A young child left in one of the temple ruins to sell trinkets. Before we arrived in Cambodia, I read many warnings against buying from the hoards of children selling things as this would encourage them to not go to school as the monetary incentive would be too great; however, during our week here we only encountered a handful of them. And this one certainly looked like she wished she was somewhere else doing something else.

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Walking amongst 1000 year old ruins

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Horse on the grounds of Angkor Wat

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Another temple. Another rest.

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It’s true. Monks still wander the temples.

Siem Reap, Cambodia – Angkor Wat International Half-marathon

Greetings from Siem Reap, Cambodia! We’ve been super busy checking out the town, lounging by the pool and of course exploring the Angkor temple ruins. More on all that in later posts.

First I want to share with you the main reason for this trip to Cambodia. The Angkor Wat International Half-marathon which took place earlier today. It is a race with a purpose. It raises awareness and “supports a ban on the manufacture and inhumane use of antipersonnel mines”. It raises funds to support victims of landmines by helping to provide prosthetic limbs, social reintegration programs and other needed programs. And you get to do all that good while running a race through 1000 year old temple ruins. Sign me up!

I did exactly that several months ago not thinking that all of our travelling would impact on my training very much; because after all, one of my favourite things to do in a new city is to go for a run and get a glimpse of local life. But that was not the case during our three weeks of travel through China as it was so hectic and exhausting that I wasn’t able to fit in my training. Making a wise decision (I keep telling myself that so that I won’t be disappointed), I switched to running in the 10K category. I was so thankful for this wise decision at 5km (and not even 7am!) when the temperature was almost 30 celsius. Despite the heat, this race is the most extraordinary and memorable race I have ever run in. I think the half-marathon might still be in my future.

***Excuse the poor quality of the photos. Taken on an iphone and some with poor lighting.

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Getting into place as the sun rises behind Angkor Wat

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Runners heading through a 1000 year old gate

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Passing a flooded forest along the course

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My cheering squad

Oh and I should also mention that there’s a pre-race dinner where every year UNESCO grants permission for a dinner party for several hundred people to be located at one of the temple ruin sites. This year the dinner was set in front of the majestic Angkor Thom. Eating dinner while staring at a 1000 year old temple ruin and entertained by traditional Khmer performances was certainly memorable.

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Lit up temple and tables. Only source of light for several kilometres. Quite the feat considering only 26% of Cambodians have access to electricity.

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Traditional apsara dancers in front of Angkor Thom temple ruins

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The necessary family photo

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I wish I had a better camera and better camera skills to capture this view. I wish I could show you the beautiful starry night that was the backdrop to this magnificent lit up temple ruin that monks honoured their faiths in 1000 years ago.