Siem Reap, Cambodia: The Temples of Angkor

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The heart and soul of Cambodia, the temples of Angkor did not fail to inspire awe in our own hearts and souls. When the Khmer Empire ruled Southeast Asia from approximately the 9th to the 15th centuries, Angkor was its all-powerful capitol. According to The Lonely Planet, Angkor’s population was a bustling 1 million people around the time that London was a small town of 50,000.  It’s magnificent how many temples are within the city – numbering around 1,000 if all ruins are counted – and it’s even more mesmerizing to imagine what the ancient capitol was like back at its zenith.

Enduring multiple invasions near the end of the empire’s reign, Angkor was inevitably sacked by Ayutthaya invaders in 1431. Nearly all of Angkor was deserted, except for Angkor Wat, which was still used as a Buddhist temple. Today, the famous wat is said to be the largest single religious monument in the world, and the entire ancient city is a World Heritage Site visited by around 2 million people a year.

We visited this incredible place for 2 days. Day one started with a sunrise at Angkor Wat, followed by a grand circuit tour, driven by our amiable tuk tuk driver. The second day comprised of a little later start and the short circuit tour, including a peaceful walk through the forest amongst seemingly deserted temple ruins. It was nothing short of magical.

The majestic Angkor Wat just before sunrise

The majestic Angkor Wat just before sunrise

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Touring the massive temple

Touring the massive temple

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A lone lotis in the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat

A lone lotis in the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat

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Many huge bas-reliefs depict ancient Cambodian mythology and history

Many huge bas-reliefs depict ancient Cambodian mythology and history

The bizarre Bayon Temple with it's multitude of massive stone faces adorning the many towers

The bizarre Bayon Temple with it’s multitude of massive stone faces adorning the many towers

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Terrace of the Leper King

Terrace of the Leper King

The Elephant's Terrace

The Elephant’s Terrace

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Entrance to the city

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7 headed naga

7 headed naga

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom

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Dry season = dust everywhere

Dry season = dust tans

Ta Prohm, where Tomb Raider was filmed, is a beautiful example of nature retaking its territory

Ta Prohm, where Tomb Raider was filmed, is a beautiful example of nature retaking its territory

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Prior to our arrival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, we were precautioned about encountering the country’s disturbing history. Learning about the events that took place in Phnom Penh and across Cambodia from 1975-1979 left us speechless.

In 1968, a Cambodian communist party, the Khmer Rouge, was formed as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army. By 1975, under the leadership of the radical socialist revolutionary, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge seized control of Phnom Penh and became the ruling party in Cambodia.

Pol Pot dreamed of a Cambodia that was totally self-sustaining and reasoned that to achieved this the country needed to undergo an agricultural reform. Urban populations were rapidly evacuated to collective farms for forced labor.

It soon became apparent that educated Cambodians, essentially all of the country’s city dwellers, caused the most friction between Cambodia as it was and Pol Pot’s dream society. In consequence, the educated became the enemy. During the ensuing 4 years, the Khmer Rouge carried out a horrifying “purification of the populace” that wiped out an estimated 2,000,000 people – roughly 1/4 of the country’s population. What’s more, the vast majority of the genocide was generally dismissed by the world’s most powerful countries with the Khmer Rouge still holding a seat in the UN in 1979.

During our time in Phnom Penh, we visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields where nearly 9,000 bodies were discovered in mass graves and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that was converted in to a prison by the Khmer Rouge.

This sobering experience was moving beyond words.

The  Choeung Ek Memorial is filled with victim's skulls.

The Choeung Ek Memorial is filled with victims’ skulls.

Choeung Ek Memorial to the victims of the Cambodian Genocide.

Choeung Ek Memorial to the victims of the Cambodian Genocide.

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Bone fragments still protruding from the ground are evident throughout the Choeung Ek fields.

Bone fragments still protruding from the ground are evident throughout the Choeung Ek fields.

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Victim's bone fragments. are collected by tenants daily.

Victim’s bone fragments are collected by tenants daily.

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Tree upon which the Khmer Rouge mounted speakers playing music to mask the victim's screams at Choeung Ek.

Tree upon which the Khmer Rouge mounted speakers playing music to mask the victim’s screams at Choeung Ek.

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Tuol Sleng Prison.

Tuol Sleng Prison.

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An old classroom converted in to a prison cell.

An old classroom converted in to a prison cell.

Prisoner's shackles.

Prisoner’s shackles.

Prisoners of Tuol Sleng.

Prisoners of Tuol Sleng.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

After our big city conditioning in Bangkok and Hanoi, we found Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s biggest city, highly enjoyable. We had a great stay in District 1 at Bali Boutique Hotel, which was surrounded by ample restaurants, shops and bars.

Through our hotel we coordinated a visit to the Củ Chi Tunnels, an impressive network of underground tunnels that were leveraged by Viet Cong soldiers during the Tet Offensive. During the tour we learned about life in the dark tunnels and had the erie opportunity to crawl through a portion of the underground network and shoot an AK-47, the most common rifle used by the Viet Cong during the war.

The day after, we visited the War Remnants Museum, which hosts an array of moving photos, interesting artifacts and information about the Vietnam War (called “the American War” in Vietnam). It was eye-opening to hear about the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese people.

Hidden entry to the tunnels

Hidden entry to the tunnels

American M41 tank that was destroyed by a delay mine in 1970.

American M41 tank that was destroyed by a delay mine in 1970.

US bombs and shells

US bombs and shells

Viet Cong booby traps

Viet Cong booby traps

American B52 bomb crater above Cu Chi tunnels

American B52 bomb crater above Cu Chi tunnels

Shooting range

Shooting range

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War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

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Eating our last Vietnamese Pho.

Eating our last Vietnamese Pho.

 

Hội An, Vietnam

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Hoi An Ancient City, rightfully referred to as the Venice of the East, is breathtakingly charming. The former trading center is now recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and the seamless blend of foreign and local influence is evident when strolling through the city streets strewn with beautifully maintained ancient buildings and countless family-owned shops tastefully decked out with silk lanterns at every entrance. The incredibly dense markets along the river sell a bountiful and diverse range of food and come equipped with local sales-people offering goods and services ranging from eye-brow threading to handmade children’s toys.

Upon nightfall, the already gorgeous town begins to glow and transform into something from a dream – a city lit by lanterns. As the sky darkened, we were completely enchanted by the many vibrant colors that came to life, springing wispy shadows along buildings and smiling faces. Release a beautiful floating candle in the river amongst the many already meandering downstream in exchange for a wish, shop along the night-market stalls and bask in the soft silk glow, enjoy an amazing meal, have some great clothes tailor-made, bike through the dirt-path rice fields – Hoi An was the perfect midway stop to catch our breath between the bustling cities of North and South Vietnam.

Vietnam's national flower, the lotus

Vietnam’s national flower, the lotus

Observing the scene from above in one of the Ancient Town's preserved houses

Observing the scene from above in one of the Ancient Town’s preserved houses

16th-17th century Japanese Bridge

16th-17th century Japanese Bridge

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Circular incense coils that burn for an entire month

Incense coils burn for an entire month

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Local markets

Local markets

Coconut harvest

Coconut harvest

Cua Dai Beach

Cua Dai Beach

Having clothes made with our friendly tailors at A Dong Silk.

Having clothes made with our friendly tailors at A Dong Silk

Biking along the bumpy dirt paths that run through the rice fields

Biking along the bumpy dirt paths that cut through the rice fields

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Floating candles on the Thu Bon River

Floating candles on the Thu Bon River

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Hanoi & Halong Bay, Vietnam

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There couldn’t be two more different places than Hanoi and Halong Bay.

Hanoi, with its hectic, motorbike honking streets and non-stop lifestyle is a full-on, sensory overload for those getting their first taste of Southeast Asia. Having had our short stint in Bangkok a few weeks prior, we were certainly outfitted with a bit of street smarts and able to handle the craziness a bit better than some other fresh-off-the-plane-wide-eyed Westerners. Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and the unique process of crossing the street as motorbikes and cars whip by, kept us throughly entertained and constantly alert.

After a few days, we headed north for a necessary break from the city noise on a serene 2 day 1 night cruise aboard The V’Spirit, a traditional Vietnamese-style wooden boat. As we sailed amongst impressive limestone formations, we were fortunate to meet some new friends from England and Australia, hike in a colossal cave, and kayak through a natural tunnel in to a lagoon bordered by playful monkeys.

Incense offerings in front of a Chinese Temple

Incense offerings in front of a Chinese Temple

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Turtle Tower in the center of the lake

Turtle Tower in the center of the lake

Vietnamese selling tactic: "heavy heavy" - places on your shoulder despite the "no thank you's" - sells you fruit in return.

Vietnamese selling tactic: “heavy heavy” – places on your shoulder despite the “no thank you’s” – sells you fruit in return.

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum

Street side paper offerings (sometimes including money!) -  a common sight

Street side Joss Paper religious offerings  – a common sight

Nothing better than some steamy Pho and hot tea on a cold, wet day

Nothing better than some steamy Pho and hot tea on a cold, wet day

Our Halong Bay boat, V' Spirit

Our Halong Bay boat, V’ Spirit

"Excuse me! Buy something?"

“Excuse me! Buy something?”

Local fishing-villages

Local fishing-villages

Entrance to Hang Sửng Sốt

Entrance to Hang Sửng Sốt

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Luang Prabang, Laos

A city encapsulated by two converging rivers, Luang Prabang is, as the Lonely Planet so perfectly describes, nothing short of “achingly pretty.” River-side streets are lined with French-inspired cafes and luxurious spas amidst gilded temples and local food kitchens. It’s difficult to not feel a sense of awe at the simple beauties of the town and its countryside, the people and their ancient traditions.

Rising before the sun to participate in the Alms Giving Ceremony amongst morning mist, climbing the stairs of Mount Phousi to visit it’s famous Wat, traveling by tuktuk through gorgeous, garden-like farms to swim in the majestic Kuang Si Waterfall, ducking under colorful tents within the glowing night Handicraft Markets, following young monks across bamboo bridges to find a quiet spot for coffee and reading; Luang Prabang has truly left a lasting mark on us with it’s undeniable authenticity and indescribable beauty.

Alms Giving Ceremony

Alms Giving Ceremony

Steps leading to the top of Mt. Phousi

Steps leading to the top of Mt. Phousi

Lucky finches

Lucky finches ready to be set free

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Haw Pha Bang Temple

Haw Pha Bang Temple

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One of the many European-influenced guesthouses

One of the many European-influenced guesthouses

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Young, local fisherman

Young, local fisherman

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Mekong River

Mekong River

Local children by the Mekong River

Local children by the Mekong River

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Midday coffee and reading

Midday coffee and reading

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Utopia Bar

Utopia Bar

Multi-tiered Kuang Si Waterfalls

Multi-tiered Kuang Si Waterfalls

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Hiking to the top of the falls

Hiking to the top of the falls

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Bamboo bridge that is rebuilt each year due to the river's rising waters

Bamboo bridge that is rebuilt each year due to the river’s rising waters

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What happens when you order a "big rice?" This happens.

What happens when you order a “big rice?” This happens.

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Pai, Thailand

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Pai: a lazy, dreadlock-packed mountain oasis of deliciously cheap health food, psychedelically decorated bars and a zen energy you can feel through a stranger’s smile. A typical day in town begins with the buzzing of locals puttering to and fro on motorbikes with their daily fresh market pick-up, brunching tourists, and wheatgrass sipping hippies.  Come midday, it becomes a ghost town as everyone siestas to escape the heat, only to arise with the moon later in the evening for the nightly markets. A brief walk from the town’s small centre will bring you through local farms with grazing oxen, past countless bungalows filled with fellow backpackers and up to a beautiful White Buddha that watches over the small population below.

To call our time in Pai lackadaisical would be an understatement. Having stayed a full week, we’d like to say we did a bit more sight seeing; however, after over two months of essentially non-stop travel, our bodies and minds were thankful to simply relax and vacation for a bit.

Pai Chan Cottage & Cuisine was our home for 4 nights

Pai Chan Cottage & Cuisine was our home for 4 nights

Our bungalow.

Our bungalow.

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The White Buddha.

The White Buddha.

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Fine Rice Thai Cooking School with the head chef  and owner, Korn.

Fine Rice Thai Cooking School with the head chef and owner, Korn.

Stir fried chicken with cashew nuts.

Stir fried chicken with cashew nuts.

Making fresh green curry paste.

Making fresh green curry paste.

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Nightly markets run through Pai's centre.

Nightly markets on Pai’s walking street.

Bug treats.

Bug treats.

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Overlooking Pai at dusk.

Overlooking Pai at dusk.