Monthly Archives: November 2013

Rainy Season In Cambodia

Since mid-September, we have been gathering video footage and photographs of the rainy season here in Cambodia. It rained a lot. Not every day, but perhaps once a week. And when it rained, it poured. Buckets of rain for hours on end. The sky turned gray as the breezes picked up, and the water fell hard. There was never any predicting the rain; sometimes we’d go a week without any, then we’d have a downpour two days in a row.  Streets flooded. Homes flooded. Our school flooded. I’m not kidding.

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The view out our apartment window.

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Kids playing in the street.

The rest of the pictures were taken on Sean’s iPad, so the quality isn’t as great. You can still get a feel for the magnitude of the all. I took all of the iPad video footage we shot, and made a short clip of it all. Check it out here:

Here are more stills we took on the iPad both during our commute to and from school, and even a few from the school itself:

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Imagine driving that moto….

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Even bicyclists struggled through it.

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At this point, it really doesn’t resemble a street at all. The ironic thing is that this is one of the two or three roads in the entire city that you actually have to pay a toll to use!

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The view outside my classroom window. That is not supposed to be an island.

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The Early Learning building completely flooded. We canceled school and had to gut the entire building and relocate the classrooms.

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Yes, those are worms. You really should have to fill out some sort of “Survival Skills Assessment Test” before coming to Cambodia.

It would look something like this:

Assess your ability to endure the following scenarios. Please check all that apply. 

___ Wade barefoot through flooded buildings.

___ Carry tables and chairs through flooded buildings.

___ Eat coagulated blood in your soup.

___ Sustain thirty leech bites in twenty-four hours.

___ Balance on the back of a moto going the wrong way down a crowded boulevard.

___ Play chicken with motos, bicycles, and pedestrians every time you get behind the wheel.

___ Avoid cows, dogs, and pedestrians when driving.

___ Talk your way out of bribes.

___ Bribe your way out of tickets.

___ Hike through 90 degree weather in 70% humidity. 

___ Tolerate strange fried foods: Tarantulas, crickets, frogs, and snakes.

___ Maintain a sense of humor in illogical situations.

Don’t let the above list fool you, we love Cambodia. It’s the best place we’ve lived so far. I wouldn’t trade it for the world! Most of the above list is precisely why we love this country so much. It’s unpredictable. It’s a bit chaotic. It’s fun. It’s the wild west of Southeast Asia.

And in case you were wondering, we are always accepting visitors.

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Beijing Street Food

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. – JRR Tolkien

Aside from the views and outdoor recreation, food is definitely my favorite thing about traveling. When city-traveling, it’s all about the food. In the countryside, food takes a backseat to the activities, but it’s always an adventure planning the next place to eat. I’m not a foodie—I have no desire to taste quail eggs or snake venom—but I want to get a feel for a place through the food.

Our last day in Beijing was a hedonistic journey through the narrow, ancient alleyways of the central part of the city. We were on a mission to eat some street food.

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We took the metro into the old part of the town. When we climbed out from underneath the ground, it was as if I stepped into every movie and every picture I had ever seen about China while growing up. It was so “Chinese”! I felt it in the colors, the smells, the people, the sounds, everything.

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Red lanterns covered the streets. We were clearly in the busy part of town, where the socializing, the eating, and the shopping happens.

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We found what seemed to me like a cross between a gourmet and a traditional grocery store. It was a tiny market with aisles of whole grains, spices, dried herbs, noodles, rices. Rice was pretty much the only thing I could identify. Ice bought two kilos of walnuts; they were cheaper and better quality than what we can find here in Phnom Penh.

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Lining up to purchase meat for supper.

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This is a traditional Beijing sweet. It is caramelized sugar that coats things like grapes, cherries, and oranges.

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Then we came across fresh yogurt. For 3 RMB ( fifty cents), you get a fresh pot of yogurt and a straw that you stick through the paper on top. You stay at the shop until you finish the yogurt, and hand the pot back to the vendor when you are finished. I paid them an extra ¥2  to take the pot with me. It now houses our toothbrushes.
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Then, we got to the Hutong neighborhood. Hutongs are narrow streets or alleys that reach upwards of 400 years old. It was my favorite part of our whole trip. Many of the hutongs had converted store fronts to house cafes, pubs, or accessory shops. It was a walker’s delight!

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Fresh oysters with garlic paste, roasted over the coals for you. I had one to go. It was delicious!
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For the past three days, I had been smelling something foul on the streets of Beijing. It was somewhat sweet smelling, but also smelled, honestly, like feces. I didn’t really believe people were defecating on the street, so I thought it better not to bring it up to Ice. When we were in the hutongs, she pulled me over to a street vendor, and immediately I smelled the fecal smell again. Believe it or not, it was tofu. Ice told me I would like it, and she was right. It’s a form of fermented tofu, or “stinky tofu”. I really can’t do the explanation justice, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia here:

Stinky tofu (   in Chinese, Pinyin: chòudòufu): A soft tofu that has been fermented in a unique vegetable and fish brine.The blocks of tofu smell strongly of certain pungent cheeses, and are described by many as rotten and fecal. Despite its strong odor, the flavor and texture of stinky tofu is appreciated by aficionados, who describe it as delightful. The texture of this tofu is similar to the soft Asian tofu from which it is made. The rind that stinky tofu develops from frying is said to be especially crisp, and is usually served with soy sauce, sweet sauce, and/or hot sauce.”

I can’t wait to go back and get some more stinky tofu!

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A Starbucks in  a converted hutong.

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This was a delicious treat. She’s making a savory omelet, which will then be placed on the crunchy discs on the left.

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It’s then folded up and you munch on this delicious, salty, savory omelet sandwiched between a crisp, oily fried crust.

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Later on, in the bathroom….

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A very popular bakery, which is apparently endorsed by some very famous people.

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We kept eating. I had deep fried vegetables on the left, and Ice had cow stomach, on the right.

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The doorway of a cafe.

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Looking down food street of the hutong.

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Just like China town in the States…

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Cotton candy.

And that was it! At 10:00, we were ready for bed. We had to fly out bright and early the next morning, so we headed back to our hotel.

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In the Hong Kong airport, where we had a layover, I spotted Astronomy magazine! My dad has an advertisement in there for his business, Obsession Telescopes, and a great friend of ours is a columnist in there. All the way in Hong Kong, a memory of home!

In the end, I really loved China, and not just for the food. The people were friendly, there was so much history, and the city felt almost like New York. I’d love to go back, next time with Sean. I never even got to see Tiananmen Square or the Great Wall!

Check back soon for more Cambodian rainforest adventures!

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Beijing In October: Part One

One of the perks of international teaching is the conferences. Our school is an IB school (International Baccalaureate), which means they prescribe to a philosophy and practice that is shared in all IB schools worldwide. Not only is it a great program, but they offer first-class conferences in every corner of the globe.

It’s my first year teaching Language B, which is English as a second language; normally I teach traditional Western “English” class, where you read novels and write essays and such. This year I do both, in grades 8-10. So, I was sent to Beijing to attend an IB conference on teaching Language B.

I couldn’t have been more psyched! China! I have read about it all my life, seen it in films and the media, and certainly obsessed over the Americanized version of their food. (General Tso, I’m talking to you.)

I handed my passport over to my school, who set me up with a Chinese visa. It took about a week or so, and I think the price tag wasn’t cheap. Americans have more detailed paperwork to get into China; as my Chinese friend told me, “Two big countries who each think they’re the most important.” Even when Sean and I had a layover in Guangzhou, the American passports took a lot longer to process for our transit hotel. At least it wasn’t like the Sri Lankan border guard, who told me Americans like to start wars, and we should stop picking fights with so many people. (I told him I agreed, and could I please have my passport stamped, sir?)

But really. China. Beijing, no less. The capital. With only four days to spend, and  a full-time conference to enjoy, I had my hands full with anticipation and possible plans.

I went with another teacher from school, Ice, who is actually from Shanghai. She has lived in Cambodia for the past 20 years, and is married to a Cambodian. She speaks Mandarin (Chinese), Khmer, and English. She also teaches Language B like me, but for Mandarin. We went to the same conference together—I had a great time traveling with her.

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Unfortunately, when we woke up the first morning, the sky was a bit, um, “foggy”. The pollution was bad. I was bummed out—I knew China had pollution, but seeing it out of a ten-story window made it seem all the more real. Luckily, of the four days we were there, this was the worst. The rest of the days had vibrant blue skies, no joke. It was really gorgeous. And, even on this bad day, when we were on the street, we forgot all about the gray-tint of the sky.

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The school where the conference was held had an AMAZING lunch. I mean, look at this! This is their school lunch! I would enroll as a student here just so I could come for lunch every day. I really loved their salads; none of them were with leafy lettuces like we’re used to in America, but instead with seaweeds, diced vegetables, tofu chunks, and amazing savory dressings. They did have a lot of deep fried things, as you can see. Just look at this picture I can count four different deep friend foods: sesame-crusted sweet potato, fried shrimp, fried fish, and fried chicken in a sweet and sour sauce.

After our conference Ice had made plans for us to meet up with her friend who works at Phoenix TV in Beijing. It is one of the few private broadcasters that is allowed to air in mainland China. We went out to a really nice Chinese restaurant, where I never even opened a menu. Ice and her friend ordered everything. And, man, did they order.IMG_8122

The craziest part for me was that everything came at a different time. After the first dish arrived, I thought, “Oh, wow. That’s a lot of food.” Then, the second dish came, and I thought, “Whoa, I shouldn’t have eaten so much of that first dish.” Then the third, fourth, and fifth dishes arrived. And we sat there, for three hours, until we ate all of it. Oh my goodness was it divine. We had mushroom salad (on the plate with the cucumbers on the left), a salad made entirely out of different mushrooms I had never seen before in my life. We had deep-fried tofu (so much better than any I’ve had in the States). We had an entire fish, with the head intact (Ice ate the head so I didn’t have to worry about tackling it myself). We had pepper chicken baked in a clay dish (with whole chunks of marinated ginger and garlic). Also, not pictured, was a giant hot-pot of cabbage and pork soup. There was so much soup in the hot-pot, man, that Ice’s friend sent it back to be warmed up about ninety minutes through the meal. Sometimes, weeks later, I dream about that night.

And if we weren’t stuffed to the seams, I had smiled when we passed the Starbucks earlier in the evening, so they decided it would be great to polish off our meal with a decaf latte.

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See, we don’t have Starbucks in Cambodia, which isn’t a big deal, but the novelty of seeing different Starbucks around the world is always cool to me. We sat for another few hours and talked about American customs versus Chinese customs, and whether or not Starbucks is as popular in America as it is in China. I said, “Maybe, but it certainly isn’t how people traditionally drink their coffee.” Then I explained to them the concept of the diner, and bottomless coffee.

The next morning, we struck out at 7am for the second day of our conference.

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Breakfast on the streets of Beijing. So much meat, so early in the morning! This was the city of food, I tell you.

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Donuts? (Notice the heavy coats; we were there mid-October, and it was chilly! Around the 40’s or 50’s. Look, when you’re coming from the 90’s of Cambodia, that’s cold!)

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It reminded me of New York City.

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More delicious street food.

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I loved all the bicycles everywhere. Every major road had a bike lane, and we saw people on bicycles everywhere.

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It wouldn’t be China if there weren’t the ultra-modern in immediate juxtaposition with the traditional.

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And then we passed a McDonald’s.  (Something we also don’t have in Cambodia!) I have to admit, I did get a McFlurry one night. And in case you were wondering, it looked just the same on the inside as an American McDonald’s does. What was different about it? If you remember, Kuwait had the McArabia, but here China has the “McExpress”. It’s that window on the left side, where you can walk up to the counter and order espresso drinks, ice cream, or apple pies.

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Here was the school where our conference was held. It seemed really large to me—especially in comparison with NISC, which only has 490 students! Our school is teeny tiny next to this giant.

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Here I am outside the gates of the school. It was the “High School Affiliated To Renmin University of China”. I still haven’t figured out how they abbreviate it…

The second night, Ice and I had plans to meet up with a girl I met through the conference who lived in Beijing and worked at the Canadian International School of Beijing. Ice and I took the subway to another part of the city, and walked around for a bit.IMG_8144

We ended up in the fancier, shopping mall area. I loved the balloons you could buy in between stops at H&M and Ray Ban.

We accidentally ended up walking through the embassy district, which was devoid of any street life whatsoever. We were pretty bummed out, and had to meet up with the girl from the conference. Honestly, if Ice wasn’t Chinese, I would have starved that night. She was able to find a minuscule sign hidden behind some trees that said, “Soup House” in Chinese. She pulled me inside, and we warmed our frozen bellies with delicious 75 cent soup. IMG_8145

Ice had hers with beef, and I just had noodles, vegetables, peanuts, and egg. Sounds weird, I know, but I ate it all!
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You eat it with both chopsticks, to pick up the whole bits, and a spoon for the liquid. Honestly, it was simple, it was unexpected, and it was delicious. Finding those out-of-the-way places on accident is what makes good memories. Ice and I had fun  in the back of that noodle shop!

The next day, the final day of the conference, I had to take another photo of my meal…IMG_8149So what? I’m a little obsessed with food. Again, look at the amazing salads. On the left next to the broccoli were gigantic black seaweed pieces that were delicious. I swear, if I tried to cook any of this at home, it would turn out a disgusting mess. But in China, magic happened in the school cafeteria. (Check out the whole shrimp in the top right!)

I do have one more post for you about China, and it was the final night of our stay. We went to the city center, where the hutongs are. The hutongs were narrow, winding streets and alleys over 400 years old. Many of the store fronts now house restaurants, take-away food, cute shops, with live musicians on every corner. Many of the streets are closed off to cars and only allow foot traffic. Men are engraving names on pieces of rice. People are doing magic tricks. You can buy a silk dress at one store, and a t-shirt of Mao Tse Tung at the next. It was a riot, a party every night. I can’t wait to share it with you.

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Phnom Chisor: Our First Pagoda Visit

Part two of our day off.

You thought we only went to Tonle Bati and then turned around? Not when there is a tall hill beckoning to be climbed! (Or, 436 feet to be exact. The area around Phnom Penh is all at sea level.)

After Tonle Bati we drove to Phnom Chisor, which is a contemporary pagoda as well as ancient Angkorian ruins. We climbed the 412 steps to the top, sweating all the way, unaware of the jaw-dropping experience that awaited us.

It was awesome!

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One of the modern pagoda buildings. Buddhist monks live in the pagodas, as well as others who I think of as ‘in-betweeners’, people who are looking for a job in a new place, passing through an area, or at a tough point in their lives. Pagodas are incredibly welcoming and warm places. Check out this great article from The Phnom Penh Post about the life of a boy who came to live in the pagoda.

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We were allowed to crawl into every nook and cranny of these ruins!

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Felt like we were in the movies.
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The modern pagoda is in the background… while I stand under towering ancient temples.
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The inside of one of the ancient buildings is being used for Buddhist worship. After three years in different countries, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grip on when someone is being genuine, or when they’re trying to rip you off. Or, when they’re just being curious. Curious is okay. Friendly is okay. You can spot the ulterior motives pretty easy. So when I peeked into this temple, there were three older Cambodian guys in tank tops and trousers sitting barefoot on the floor burning incense. They stood up, and gestured to me to come in. I shook my head “no”, and smiled. I didn’t want to bother them, and felt like I probably didn’t belong in there anyways. They insisted that I come in, and smiled at me and Sean. I paused, looked at Sean, and took off my shoes. Barefoot, I padded up the ancient steps and ducked through the doorway. Led to the back, I was given a stick of incense to offer to the shrine. I was shown Buddhist prayer flags. I stumbled through saying, “How beautiful!” and “So nice!” in Khmer. (‘Saat nah’ and ‘laaw nah’, in case you’re wondering.)

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They walked me away from the shrine, then offered to tie a red string around my wrist. Again, I had this fuzzy feeling inside, so went for it. The man gently wrapped the strand around my wrist, while chanting in a language that was hauntingly foreign. I don’t know if it was Khmer. I don’t know what he was saying. What I do know, is that full minute that I sat there looking at the string before he cut off the final tie, was one of the most humbling moments in my life. I thanked them, smiling profusely, and stood to leave. I later learned that the red string is Buddhist good luck, and they are popular with anyone who frequents the temple in their neighborhood. My boss, an American married to a Cambodian woman, always has three or four around his wrist. My friend is dating a Cambodian guy, whose mother always brings them back for her when she goes to temple. My students wear them. And I, shyly, and proudly, shared in that community.

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Exploring more of the complex. We were the only people there.

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And then we saw the view.

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And the monkey.

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One of the men said this is the only monkey in the area, and it lives here at the pagoda. I believe it; monkeys have pretty much been hunted out of population in greater Cambodia.

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Another naga. Read my previous post on Tonle Bati to learn about the nagas…

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What a great view! We walked around the rim of the hill to gain a full view of the countryside.

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There was a clear path the whole way around. I felt so happy to be out there in the trees, the green, the peace.

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Only an hour outside of Phnom Penh. Can you believe it?

IMG_8106Rice paddies on the drive home, along with those who tend them.

I am loving Cambodia more and more.

Check back soon, because I still haven’t told you that I went to China…

 

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Phnom Penh Day Trip: Tonle Bati

We had a day off a few weeks ago, a Tuesday, to be exact. Tuesday is an odd day to have off. It’s not attached to a weekend, and falls right after the first day of a work week. Sean and I were resolved to getting out of the city for a little day trip; to clear our minds of the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh. Plus, we are dying to see more of what the rest of Cambodia is about.

Our friends told us about a little place called Tonle Bati—a small lake 30 kilometers South of Phnom Penh. It seemed the perfect distance for an afternoon drive, and would certainly get us out of the city. What an adventure it turned out to be!

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Before we left, I must confess, we stopped at USA Donut. For donuts. I’m not kidding. Come on, what’s a road trip without apple fritters on the dashboard and a steaming mug of coffee in your hand? If you live in Phnom Penh and have never been, you’ve got to go. It will change your life. USA Donut is on the corner of streets 302 and 51. And no matter where you live, you have GOT to read this story, published only two weeks ago about the history of Cambodian refugees and donut shops. Completely blew my mind.

Anyways, so we picked up some strawberry donuts, chocolate-sprinkled donuts, and of course, the holy fritters, and headed down to Tonle Bati.

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One thing you’ve got to understand: Cambodia is temple-heaven. This place has more temples than Wisconsin has dairy farms. (Maybe not… But both are just as legendary.) Tonle Bati is the name of the lake we headed to, but is also the home to Ta Prohm and Yeay Peau.  Both are Angkorian-era temple complexes, built during the same time (12th century) as many of the temples around Angkor Wat.

The 12th century was 800 years ago. If it all seems too ancient to conceptualize, think about this…

12th Century:
– Second and Third Crusades
– Saladin
– Genghis Khan
– Knights Templar
– St. Francis of Assisi
– The windmill was invented

What makes Ta Prohm and Yeay Peau particularly interesting is that the area has been continually occupied since their creation. Yeay Peau is now part of a contemporary monastery.
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I had a friendly shadow all day… but she was not so enthused that I wanted to take so many pictures instead of hang out with her.

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So she decided to sneak into the pictures… fair enough.

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So this is Ta Prohm. Pretty amazing, huh? We visited during the rainy season, when the flowers were in bloom.

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The carvings were left so delicately preserved!

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What is fascinating to us is how these temples are used for contemporary Buddhist worship. The whole complex was sprinkled with people in doorways, people praying, people taking lunch breaks, people making offerings. The smell of incense permeates your journey. Sean liked the above shrine as it is a headless wonder…

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When we explored the grounds, we found some pretty cool wildlife. This picture isn’t too clear, but hopefully you can make out that the snake is indeed eating a frog!

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And this guy is just getting some sun.

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Yeay Peau is the ancient temple that is surrounded by a contemporary monastery. I can’t get over all the temples that are built within and around trees here. It is really beautiful and awe-inspiring… especially for someone like me who absolutely loves trees!

IMG_7983There were also a ton of statues in the monastery. Some more cryptic than others. Sometime we need to go with a Buddhist guide who can explain the meaning of them all to us.


IMG_7985I do know, though, that this is a Naga. The Naga, in addition to being our school’s mascot here in Phnom Penh, is a famous deity in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The Naga is a snake (a king cobra, to be exact), that is believed to have come from the water to protect all of humankind. In Cambodia specifically, legend says that the Cambodian people were “born from the Naga”, due to a wedding between the Naga king’s princess and an Indian Brahmana. Wikipedia actually does a great job breaking down each countries’ beliefs towards the Naga. Check it out here if you’re interested.

IMG_7986 This is the actual temple of Yeay Peau. You can see how they built the contemporary temple around it. An interesting way to both preserve and incorporate!
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The monastery was built next to a man-made lake of water for religious purposes.

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If our interpretation was correct, these were all female statues.

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Can you spot the blue-skinned deity? The temple of Yeay Peau is famous for pregnant mothers, who come for good luck and good blessings for their upcoming birth. If I were to interpret the above picture, I would say that the blue-skinned deity is a Hindu god (Shiva? Lakshmi?) that is carrying a linga, or a phallic object, as a symbol of fertility for the woman in the center. I may be wrong, but what is the purpose of art if not to provoke thought?

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Again, more interesting statues around Yeay Peau. I wonder what the story is behind this one? An elephant, a god-looking form, and a colorless woman kneeling before her, receiving some sort of liquid into her bowl. Religion, like history, is full of so many fascinating stories!

IMG_7998Here is the actual lake of Tonle Bati. You can even see more temples on the opposite side.
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Another animal spotting…

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Tonle Bati is actually more famous for weekend day-trippers looking to lounge along the lake instead of climb around the temples. Sean and I are the odd ones. For a small fee you can rent one of hundreds of wooden floating huts on the shores of the lake. Each hut is owned by a family that will cook for you and set up cushions for you to relax on. Sean and I weren’t in a lounging mood, but we may have to come back on a clear day!

IMG_8018On our walk back to the car, a quick snapshot of the Cambodian countryside.
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This is a modern, beautiful Cambodian home in the countryside. I loved the vivid colors!

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Before we left, Sean jogged back into Ta Prohm to snap a photo of the reclining Buddha he had forgotten about. Historically, temples weren’t a place of worship, but housed the statue of the deity. The taller the temple, the more important it was. All the homes and buildings around it were made of wood, mud, and leaves. The temple is all that remains… What will we leave behind in 800 years?

 

 

 

 

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