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Angkor Wat and Cambodia’s Magnificent Ancient Temples

You may have heard of Angkor Wat, but it’s far from the only temple in Cambodia. Located in Siem Reap, the famous monument shares the city with at least 1000 other ancient temples that also attract curious visitors from all over the world. I had the opportunity to explore four of these incredible feats of architecture on my recent trip to Southeast Asia and each is magnificent in its own way.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm, constructed in the late 12th century, provided the backdrop for a scene in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and it’s easy to see why. Towering trees border a wide dusty path and form a leafy canopy, providing sweet relief from the blistering heat. Once inside the complex, you’re surrounded by flourishing vegetation, piles of stone blocks, and more massive trees, some with roots so mighty they’ve scaled their way on and through the abandoned structures that still stand.

Ta Prohm was once a Buddhist monastery and university. It took 80,000 workers to build it – according to a Sanskrit inscription found in the temple. There are 39 towers and over 500 former residences where 12,500 people lived across the nearly 650,000-ft2 property.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
This was pretty cool to see up close.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
This is one gigantic tree. You could probably set up a person-nest in that trunk!

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is one of the smaller temple compounds, but it’s still quite impressive. It stands out among the other temples due to the pink sandstone used to build it, waaaay back in the mid-10th century.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
At the entrance to the small temple complex, you get a preview of the incredibly detailed carvings and sculptures Banteay Srei is known for.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Guardian monkeys

Angkor Wat

If the temples in Cambodia were a singing ensemble, Angkor Wat would be the Michael Jackson/Beyoncé/Tina Turner/Justin Timberlake/Sting of the group. It truly is stunning.  Angkor Wat (“Temple City”) – which dates back to the mid-12th century – rests atop about 500 acres of land, making it the world’s largest religious structure ever built. As with Banteay Srei, the fine detail of the elaborate carvings and motifs etched into the stone walls of the galleries are awe-inspiring. Imagine how much labor went into constructing such an incredible structure.

Our group visited the temples twice, once in the afternoon, where so much sweat streamed down my face it led one of my tourmates to chuckle and ask: “Did you pour water over your head?” The second time, we got up earlier than anyone should ever have to, so that we could watch the sun rise over the towers. It was all totally worth it.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Angker Wat’s five towers represent the five peaks of Mt. Meru of Hindu lore.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
1200m2 of bas relief carvings adorn the walls of the three galleries in Angkor Wat
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
You had to climb these super steep steps (say that 3 times in a row) to reach the top of the tallest tower and a great view. I hate heights so my heart was definitely doing jumping jacks on the ascent and descent. I wasn’t alone though, some chose to climb up using their hands and knees, and some scooted their way down the narrow stairs.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
These are the old stairs. Even scarier!

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is clearly a popular activity.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
There must have been hundreds of people around the perimeter of the lake.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Such an incredible sight
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Seeing the sunrise over the temples of Angkor Wat was an almost surreal experience.

On the way back to the van, after enjoying a pre-packed breakfast, a monkey accosted me.

Bayon

Bayon holds the title of most “theatrical,” or perhaps, the most “quirky” of the temples I toured. Even the entrance to the complex makes a statement. As you approach the south gate, to the left sit 54 gigantic heads of gods and to the right, a line of 54 demons. Not to be outdone, crowning the towers of the iconic, 75-ft tall, arched entryway are four faces of the bodhisattva, each looking out in all four cardinal directions. Beyond the gates lies the “city” of Angkor Thom (“Big Temple”) – once the capital of King Jayavarman VII’s empire – fortified by a massive 328-ft wide moat which surrounds a 26-ft high laterite wall that protects 360 acres, including Bayon temple. Neighborhood watch on 100.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Face towers at Angkor Thom

Everywhere you turn in the Bayon complex, there are eyes watching. Over 200 faces etched into stone cap the 54 towers at the site. While the identity of the figures decorating the temple is unknown, some speculate they are likenesses of King Jayavarman VII and a reflection of his inflated ego. The mysterious expressions on the stone faces has led some to dub them the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia”.

Beautiful, intricate motifs cover the walls of two galleries that surround Bayon’s main temple. The bas-relief carvings reflect the daily lives of the Khmers in the 12th century, as well as tales based in Hindu mythology.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Two monks review the photos they took on a smartphone.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
It is considered respectful to cover your shoulders and knees while at a temple.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to many majestic ancient temples, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
With my tourmates. Including me there were 3 Americans, 1 Brit, 1 Swiss, and 1 Aussie in our group. Can you guess who’s from where?

More from my Southeast Asia series:

Part I: I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours(ish)
Part II: Phnom Penh, Cambodia: An Emotional Visit to S21 & The Killing Fields
Part III: Tarantula Eating, Silk Spinning & Candy Making: A Road Trip through the Cambodian Countryside

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Tarantula Eating, Silk Spinning & Candy Making: A Road Trip through the Cambodian Countryside

I don’t recall seeing “chow down on deep-fried tarantula” on the tour itinerary, but when our local trip guide reviewed the day’s plan – mouth in a wide grin, eyes dancing at the mention of “eating spiders” – there it was. Given I’m willing to try (almost) anything once, I was game. Besides, I’ve already tried beetle, scorpion, and cricket, so what’s a big ass spider?

During the 6.5 hour drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we made brief stopovers in several small towns in the Cambodian countryside. Towns served by the same unpaved and uneven two-lane road from which vehicles zooming by kick up mini-dust storms so intense, that sometimes those closest to the edge wear face masks for protection. One of those places is Skuon, more colloquially known as “Spiderville” because of its proliferation of tarantulas.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Preparations underway for a multi-day wedding celebration in one countryside village. (The grillmaster signaled to me to wait until he loaded the meat skewers so I could get a better picture.)

Spiderville

Eating spiders may seem weird to some, I know, but during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, catching those sizable, eight-legged, hairy insects could mean the difference between starving and starving a little less. Nowadays, deep-fried tarantulas are considered a delicacy and enjoyed as a snack.

Three cute Cambodian children greeted me as I descended the steps of the passenger van once we’d pulled into the parking lot of an outdoor market. The only boy among them – I guessed he was around 9 – said to me: “Sister, you are beautiful.” The oldest girl, standing to his right, shook her head and added, “Your hair is so pretty.”

What is this? Me? My hair? My looks? Who put these kids up to this? People with my dark skin, kinky hair, and African features aren’t exactly held up as paragons of beauty in the US. I wasn’t accustomed to this type of attention.

I didn’t have much time to consider the kids’ comments before they began trying to charm me into buying from them: plastic bags filled with mango or other fruit, colorful origami birds, and various smaller packages of what vendors were selling in the stalls 15-feet away.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Some of the produce sold at the market. Pictured (from top left clockwise): dried banana chips (so tasty), mangoes, grapefruit, what looks like pink grapefruit in the bottom corner is actually pomelo, which they season with salt, lime and chili powder (to me they taste better than grapefruit because they’re sweet with none of the bitterness.), passion fruit, custard apple, and tamarind.

K_, our Cambodian guide, strongly discouraged us from buying from the kids – much to my dismay. It’s hard to say no to a sweet child with a gap-toothed smile who’s pleading with you to buy fruit “so that I can go to school.” However, as K_ explained, if they’re able to make an income by hawking goods to tourists, sometimes parents will pull their children out of school so they can work instead. I knew the kids I met were in school because they told me so when I complimented their great English. We’d arrived during the students’ two hour lunch break.

Despite my refusals to part with my cash, the kids trailed me – like an entourage – as I walked toward the market and the many platters stacked high with an array of fried insects and fruit for sale.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Fried water beetles
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Fried grasshoppers
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Deep fried tarantulas, known as a-ping, are high in protein.

K_ handed each of us a crispy tarantula leg to try. We giggled and teased each other through the experience. Once I got over the initial disgust at the idea of what I was eating, the tarantula actually tasted decent – not like chicken, more like beetle. The salt, sugar, and oil flavoring no doubt helped. It did take me a while to chew though. Like the hairs from the leg didn’t want to leave my mouth. Ick.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

As we were gearing up to leave, K_ tapped my shoulder, pointed toward an aged woman wearing a deep-pink head scarf and clothed in long, floating layers, and told me: “She said she likes your hair.”

This never happens to me. What is this magical place?

I waved goodbye to my adorable, pint-sized entourage from behind the window as our van eased out of the lot.

From Silkworm to Silk Scarf

Santuk Silk Farm in Kampong Thom marked the second stop on our countryside excursion. Run by a US veteran of the Vietnam War and his Cambodian-Laos partner, the modest farm employs 15 women and one man from the local community. The weavers work hard spinning the silk into beautiful, color-rich scarves. We got the opportunity to learn about the process of turning the byproducts of silkworms into soft threads for weaving – a 6-week cycle – from one of the co-owners.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Silkworms feed on the leaves of Mulberry trees and cocoon themselves in silk on the branches.
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Once the silkworms have spun themselves into a silk cocoon they are laid in the sun to dry. Some of the silkworms are kept alive to use for mating.
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
As the co-owner demonstrated, dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel. Some of the silk strands were rougher than others.
Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
Once the silk is dyed, the weavers smooth and stretch it on the spinning wheel, before transferring it to the loom to be woven into silk fabric.

After getting the lowdown on the world of silk, we sat down to a home-cooked meal for lunch.

Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
I don’t know the names of any of the dishes, so I’ll just call it an assortment of meats, veggies, spices, and scrumptious-deliciousness.

The cat family of the farm joined us for the meal, eagerly anticipating fallen morsels and scraps. A small dog resides on the farm, as well. For lunch, he chose to kill one of the clucking chickens. Thankfully, I did not witness this animal act of gallinicide, but a few of my tourmates did.

Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
Mom, dad, and baby cat – unbothered by humans.

Sugar Palm Candy

Not too far from the silk farm, we made a pit stop at a roadside sugar palm candy stand. Made from the sap of sugar palm trees, the hardened candy is sweet enough to make your eyes pop. You can also cook with it, boil it into a juice, or melt it into your tea or coffee if a shocking jolt of sugar isn’t your bag.

After making our purchases, we piled back into the van and our driver, Mr. S_, pulled out onto the dirt road. The afternoon had barely settled and already we’d done so much; I couldn’t wait to reach the next stop and adventure.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? Would you eat a deep fried tarantula?

Read Part I and Part II from my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: An Emotional Visit to S21 & The Killing Fields

Warning: This post contains images and content of a sensitive nature

I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I decided on Cambodia as a travel destination. A few years ago, a co-worker’s raves of her visit to the fast-developing country in Southeast Asia sparked the idea. After watching several stunningly-shot Cambodia-centered episodes of The Amazing Race, it rocketed up my travel wish list. I envisioned magnificent ancient temples, vast rice paddy fields, picturesque remote fishing villages, and bumpy thoroughfares teeming with tuk-tuks.

Bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east, Cambodia’s culture, traditions, and cuisine are a unique amalgamation of the influence of its neighboring nations, as well as India, and the Khmer – a civilization which dates back to the first century. In the past decade, Cambodia’s made tremendous progress recovering from a tumultuous recent history that includes a civil war, genocide, and tyrannical political rule.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Statue of former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, erected in 2013. Upon his death in 2012, his throne succeeded to his oldest son, Norodom Sihamoni.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”

Phnom Penh – Cambodia’s capital city and the first stop on our Cambodian tour – is considered the Nation’s cultural, commercial, and political center. In fact, residents of less thriving surrounding towns flock to the city seeking educational and job opportunities, in a country where the average citizen earns less than $80/month.

It is also home to a former high school which was turned into a detention and torture center and renamed “S21“, during the vicious reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime – the main goal of which was to rid Cambodia of its intellectuals, the elite, or any sort of hierarchy, and instead carry out a warped vision of a self-sustaining peasant-ville – it’s estimated that over 1.7 million Cambodians (1/4 of the population) died in these years as a result of starvation, disease, or execution by the Khmer Rouge. S21 has since been turned into a genocide museum and renamed Tuol Sleng.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Prison rules and regulations. Prisoners included teachers, doctors, civil servants, military, and anyone else thought to be a traitor or threat to the new regime. Of the over 14,000 people sent to the prison, known then as “S21”, only 7 survived the horrific experience.

Upon arrival at S21, new prisoners – women, men and children – were photographed, given a unique number, stripped of their clothing and possessions, and held captive for several months, before eventually being executed. Several rooms in the museum display victim’s photos. Cambodians made up the majority of victims, though a small number hailed from other countries like Laos, Vietnam, Australia, China, Britain, Thailand, Canada, and the United States.

Throughout the museum, graphic paintings reflect the inhumane conditions under which the prisoners lived. Some of the devices and instruments used during the guards’ Nazi-level torture methods are also exhibited.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
It is estimated that close to 2,000 children died at S21; these kids were the few survivors when the prison was discovered in 1979

Initially, those executed at S21 were buried on the property – until they ran out of space. Later on, prisoners were transferred from S21 to a larger site less than 10 miles away, Choeung Ek – one of several mass burial grounds or “killing fields” throughout the country – where they were sometimes forced to dig their own graves.

Now a memorial site, the grounds at Choeung Ek are well-manicured with an expansive green field dotted by robust shade and palm trees, and interspersed with large dirt pits – remnants of the mass graves – where fragments of bone and clothing poke out from beneath – even more so after a fresh rain washes away the soil.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
In the center of the park stands a Buddhist memorial stupa containing a collection of over 8,000 victims’ skulls.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
You can see the display case with the skulls just inside the door. I felt ill looking at them. It was a lot.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
In a particularly sick example of the depraved depths of humanity, sometimes the children of prisoners were killed to prevent them from growing up and avenging their parents’ deaths. Nowadays, the tree is decorated with friendship bracelets left by visitors to Choeung Ek as a way to honor those murdered.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Bracelets left by visitors in remembrance of the 450 victims buried in this mass grave

We had an additional guide for our visit to the genocide memorials, a lovely young Cambodian woman whose grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Without a trace of  bitterness or anger in her voice, she implored us to share our thoughts and experiences from that day with others so that collectively we can actively work to prevent such atrocities in the future.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Chum Mey is one of the handful of adult survivors from S21. The Khmer Rouge arrested him in 1978 without explanation – taking him to S21 and away from his wife and children. I bought a copy of his memoir and the purchase included a photo with him. I couldn’t find words sufficient enough to express my sympathy for all that he and his family suffered, or the immense amount of awe and respect I felt toward him for having the strength to not only survive, but go on to share his harrowing experiences with others. So, I just smiled and said “thank you.”

In 2014, I toured Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp just outside Berlin, Germany, and I wondered then how humans can be so evil to each other.

It’s the same thought I mulled over in Tanzania while standing on the site where hundreds of years ago people were auctioned off like animals.

Again, I wondered why, as tears streamed down my face at the September 11th museum in New York, listening to the gut-wrenching audio recordings of the terrified who didn’t make it out of the Twin Towers.

It’s a question many have asked and for longer than I’ve been alive. I know there’s no pat answer, nor a quick solution for evil-deflection. What I do know is the importance of acknowledging all of the past, no matter how difficult or upsetting, and doing better! We can be better humans.

There’s a saying in the Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back.’ If you do, it means you are mad, too.

– Chum Mey, in Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide

A Royal Palace and a Riverfront View

With a free afternoon to explore Phnom Penh, after an emotionally taxing morning spent swimming in horror and death, I headed straight for the riverfront, Sisowath Quay. I’d already seen it at night, a lively area along the Tonle Sap River, the promenade populated with groups of teenagers; families lounging on the grass in the park; street vendors peddling drinks, snacks, and whatever else they could offload; scores of motorbikes buzzing about; tourists and locals alike filling the restaurants, shops, pubs and hotels lining the boulevard, all with the Royal Palace – where the Royal Family lives – as a backdrop.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Just hanging out with the King of Cambodia (and glistening with sweat)

Walking back to the hotel from the river, I got lost, despite the city being laid out like a grid – a French influence – and having a map. I spent the late afternoon wandering from street to street, down dusty alleys overflowing with small market stalls and throngs of people, with a different man calling out to me “Tuk tuk, lady? Tuk tuk?” every few feet (‘No thanks, I want to walk.”), attracting many curious stares with my “exotic” appearance, dodging vehicles with no intention of stopping for pedestrians, growing more and more disoriented (and agitated), sweat pouring down my face like rain (and this was the “cool” season), as my hearing overstimulated with the noise of dogs barking, roosters crowing, horns honking, and the general din of many voices speaking at once in a language I didn’t understand.

I consider myself an ambivert, but that afternoon, I never felt more introverted. I just wanted to go hide inside my hotel room and away from people! I think the weight of the morning’s visit to S21 and Choeung Ek had caught up with me. Finally, after almost two hours of wandering, and clueless how to get back to the hotel, I made one lucky tuk tuk driver’s day and asked him for a ride. Thank God one of my tourmates had handed me the hotel’s business card with the address before we split up. I showed it to the driver. “Yes, I know; I will take you!” Hallelujah.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a city in rebirth with gilded royal palaces and thriving local outdoor markets | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
This cool clock outside of Wat Phnom temple was a gift from China

Did you know about the Cambodian Genocide? What are your thoughts on it? Have you ever been to Cambodia? 

Read Part I in my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!

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