Travel highlights: Cambodia

After eight weeks of travel, I'm back in Bangkok and a week into work. The trip went by in a flash, yet it seems ages ago that Stephanie landed and we boarded a plane for Siem Reap a couple of days later. It was actually late February. Though I was only in Cambodia for three days (just touching the surface of the surface), it seduced me so that I got the most emotional when looking back at those pictures. All of the countries I've visited in Southeast Asia have an abundance of elements that lure and delight, but there seem to be a couple such aspects that jump vividly from the moving picture story in my brain of each particular place. When I recall my time in Vietnam, I'll think first of the food and landscape; of Laos, the architecture and romance; but of Cambodia, it will be the people. We met many who lived in near unimaginable situations and yet the smiles on their faces were the widest and their demeanor the warmest. The children had no toys to play with so they were forced to use creativity and nature's gifts such as sticks and rocks - their cleverness continuously impressed me.

Stephanie and I spent our days with our tour guide, Fila, and his father and tuk-tuk driver. This is the only time during my trip that I hired a tour guide, and I definitely recommend it for Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. There's so much to see in that area, it really saves time. Plus, Fila was able to give us some true local experiences we would have missed otherwise.

Fila and his dad picked us up around five our first morning so we could see the sun rise behind stunning Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. The experience was well worth the early start. Don't come here without doing that. (Check out my right hand. You know you've been in Thailand too long when...)

We visited many other marvelous temples in the Angkor complex, but I won't go through all of them - only a couple of highlights. The picture below is of romantic and otherworldly Ta Prohm, "the Tomb Raider temple". The ruins have been left for the jungle to mercilessly devour, and its numerous towers, courtyards and corridors make for the best hind-and-go-seek setting ever.

The Banteay Srei temple, below, was probably my favorite. It's about an hour's drive from Siem Reap (and a white-knuckled one at that thanks to the narrow winding road scarcely big enough for a barreling oversized truck and vulnerable tuk-tuk). Because of approaching rain and the late hour, we had the place almost to ourselves, which made it seem more serene and special.

On the way back, we passed some street-side stands selling candy made from palm juice. We sampled some that was still warm and turns out completely addictive. Below is the palm juice being heated before it eventually thickens and is stored inside the palm leaf.

Two of the children born into the palm candy business in front of the finished product:

After visiting one of the temples, we passed this monk-run school. Fila himself was taught by monks and learned most of his English at a school like this. Here, a girl practices the Khmer classical dance while the boys study.

One day, Stephanie, Fila and I were eating lunch when we heard music from the end of the alley outside. He walked us over to what turned out to be a wedding celebration and asked if we could hang out for a bit and take pictures. Everyone there welcomed us crashers and pushed us toward the room where the bride and groom sat accepting offerings. They were dressed in traditional Khmer garb and guests would approach them one by one with their envelopes of money. This was just part of the larger three-day celebration.

Another highlight was meeting this family that lives on a lotus farm. They sell the lotus pods, whose seeds make a great snack. The children were so open and playful with us, as were all the other children we met. They really seem to trust and enjoy foreigners.

On our last day, we visited a school that teaches wood- and stone-carving techniques to disadvantaged children and young adults. I gained a new respect for the time and tediousness it takes to create the goods that become the focus of bargaining and wind up in Western homes as "a great buy". I should know; I have a bag full of them.

More pictures of Cambodia are here.

Up next: Laos