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Istanbul, Turkey - a real surprise

 

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Istanbul is a modern, interesting, fun city with over 12 million people.  The streets and trams were unbelievably crowded at all times of the day.  Istanbul is second only to Shanghai as being the most populated city in the world.  We were pleasantly surprised at how "European" Istanbul is, along with being cosmopolitan, fashionable, and fairly wealthy. 


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A fun fact about Istanbul - it is the only city that is in two continents, Europe and Asia.  The Bosphorus (also know as the Istanbul straight) runs directly through the city.  

 

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The official language in Istanbul is Turkish, but many people speak English.  They are not part of the EU (European Union) but are trying very hard to become a member.  Their currency is the Turkish Lira.


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Istanbul’s old city has a fascinating history, dating back to 800 BC.  It is a city that began as a Christian society; but today, it is over ninety percent Muslim.   Even though it is mostly Muslim, Turkey prides itself on being tolerant to all religions without discrimination to different cultures.


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In 306 AD, the Emperor Constantine the Great made the city the capital of the entire Roman Empire and named it Constantinople. 

 

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In 1453, Constantinople was attacked and conquered by the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II, who renamed it Istanbul.  It was during this rule that the old world Christian city was gradually transformed into a Muslim society and the cathedrals were converted to mosques.


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Today, over 3000 mosques fill the skyline in Istanbul.  Most mosques have between one and six minarets, which were originally used as a high point to make the call to prayer (adhan). 


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The call to prayer occurs five times each day: dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and night.  Minarets remain a decorative feature of most mosques as the call now occurs via a loudspeaker.  When you first hear the call to prayer you really stop to listen, as it is quite an experience.   After a while, like a church bell, it does not even register.  We enjoy hearing the call.


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We stayed in the older part of the city on the European side, in a beautiful apartment.  It was an interesting neighborhood with local restaurants, shops, and lots of dogs and cats.


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The dogs and cats live on the streets and everyone takes care of them.  The two above were always outside our apartment.  One day they were running down the street, each with the end of a shoe in their mouth.


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This is Domino – he lives in a little boutique.  As seen in this photo, he really talked to you when you said his name!


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Famous Mosques

 

Our first day we headed out to visit the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya as it is known in Turkish, one of the most famous mosques in the world.  It was built in 360.  What is so amazing is it was built in just five years.  

 

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The main dome has a diameter of over 101 feet and a height of 160 feet and the interior is covered with expensive colored marbles and ornamental stone inlays.



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I was originally built as an Orthodox basilica and for many years it was used for Roman Catholic services.  In 1453 it was converted to a Mosque.  During the conversion, they covered up everything related to the Catholic religion.  The plaster is now chipping off and you can see the religious images again (see below).  


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Historians say they will not intentionally uncover the paintings, but if the images show through, they will restore them.  It is interesting to see the Virgin Mary (in the dome below) next to the Muslim script.   


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D captured this beautiful view looking out of the window of the Hagia Sophia.  That is the Blue Mosque in the distance, our next stop.

 

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The Blue Mosque – officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the largest mosque in Istanbul. 


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Sultan Ahmet I commissioned it when he was only 19 years old. Construction began in 1609 and only took seven years to build.  Sadly, he died just a year after the completion of his masterpiece, at the age of 27.  He is buried outside the mosque with his wife and three sons.

 

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It is known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior.

 

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It is still used as an active mosque.


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The first time we tried to tour, it was Friday at noon; not the time to visit a mosque, as Friday is their holiest day.  But we were actually glad we arrived at this time, as we were able to see the men prepare for the service.


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They must wash their feet and hands before entering the mosque for prayer.


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Note this sign for the women.  Maybe Istanbul is not quite as modern as I thought.

 

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One day we were sitting in a restaurant at lunch and watched a mosque across the street during noon prayer.  The Mosque was so small, many of the men spilled out onto the sidewalk.  We captured these photos.


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Because we are not allowed in the Mosque during prayer, we thought it was very special to see them in such an intimate moment.  And how cute is this little one eating his chips, attending prayer, but not yet understanding it.

 

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The Basilica Cistern was built by the Romans and is the biggest of Istanbul’s surviving Byzantine sites.  It was built around 532 AD to provide water for the city. This cistern is an underground chamber of 336 marble columns, supported by columns and arches. 


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We really enjoyed this eerie site, as it was so different from anything we have seen.  It has been described as a flooded palace, which I thought was a good description.


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The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market


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The Grand Bazaar, created in 1461, is one of the largest covered markets in the world with 60 streets and 5,000 shops.


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At the spice market I bought honey and pomegranate juice for salads - both local products.

 

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After visiting the markets in Bangkok and Morocco, we were not that impressed with the two markets.  However, we did enjoy all the streets that surrounded the Bazaar.  


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We learned that the "little prince" outfit this wee one is wearing is used for the celebration of his circumcision.  It usually occurs between the ages of 2 and 14.


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As you can see many of the women cover their heads with scarves, but very few wear the full niqab (face covering).


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Food!


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Get ready - you know how we love photos of our food!  There are many street vendors around the city – mainly selling various forms of the pretzel. 


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D eating a Simit – a crisp, ring-shaped bread with sesame seeds.

 


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Other street items were fresh fruit drinks, nuts, and Misir (grilled corn).

 

 

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This one was great - a cart of cucumbers.   He quickly peeled the cucumber (notice the plastic gloves) and handed it to us in a napkin.  Yummy and a healthy snack!

 

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A dense chocolate cake.  Not very sweet but tasty.


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This was a vegetable we had never seen, called iskin.  We bought a cluster to taste.  It is often eaten raw or can be used for a sorbet.


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It is very similar to rhubarb and has a very sour taste.  We both love rhubarb, but did not really care for the iskin.  But how  handsome is the young man selling it  :  )


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 An older woman selling seeds for the pigeons.

 

 

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We were pleasantly surprised at the freshness, healthiness, and quality of the food.   They use mint in almost every dish.  They do not cook with heavy sauces.  Humm - how did we each gain four pounds then??  Below was at a kebab restaurant.  Yes - only two of us were eating. Maybe this is the answer to how we gained weight!


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We were very amused at the tiny tables and the tiny chairs EVERYWHERE throughout the city.  We had not seen this in any other country.


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Especially funny when there were grown-men crouched in the tiny seats.

 

 

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The breakfasts were probably our favorite meal.  We really enjoyed the menemen made of a scrambled egg-like mixture, onion, tomato and green peppers (paprika), and spices such as ground black pepper, ground red pepper, salt, oregano, and mint.  


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You can also order it with meat products such as sucuk (a spicy sausage).  It is cooked and served in single-serving metal pans.


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And the traditional breakfast plate where the main star was cheese.  Along with cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, a red spicy sauce, cherry jam and honey.


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This was our favorite breakfast restaurant, which we ate at three times.  They were super sweet to us, especially when we came back the 2nd and 3rd time.  On the last day, we told him we were going home and he gave us a bag of rolls for the airport.  If you look closely - you can see the owner giving the peace sign through the window.


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Another breakfast item was Pogaca – a flaky savory breakfast rolls – plain, with cheese, or with meat. 

 


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Turkish black tea is served at breakfast, NOT coffee. The Turkish word for breakfast, kahvaltı, means "before coffee".  One morning we ordered coffee and it was almost the same price as our entire meal.  We learned to order tea.  


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One afternoon we tried the famous Turkish coffee, prepared by boiling finely powdered roast coffee beans in a pot (cezve) and serving it directly into a cup without straining it.  A heavy slush-like mixture settles to the bottom.  You do not drink the bottom.  It is common to do a “reading” from the sediment left in the cups.  

 


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What do you think our cups say?


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I thought the Europeans loved yogurt – but the Turkish do even more!  We have never seen such large tubs sold in the small markets.  They also consume a salty yogurt drink called Aryan with most meals.

 

 

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Two items of the food found most everywhere are Kofta – basically a meatball with spices and doner kebabs usually made of lamb or beef.  This is a huge doner spit.

 

 

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I ate the one below, a chicken doner...

 

 

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and D had this one......which, we did not know until we looked it up, was actually called kokorec and is lamb's intestine wrapped around sweetbreads (thymus gland and or pancreas) on a skewer then grilled horizontally.  I did take a bite and did not like it.  Thank god I did not order it!  Yuck!

 

 

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We ate at a little restaurant were the "mama" was making homemade bread.  A little touristy but still good.  I had mint and cheese in mine - loved that combination.


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D had spinach and meat.


 

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We drank more tea in five days then we have in a year.  One day we had four cups.  Tea drinking is a ritual that you see everywhere in the streets, especially among the men.  Here we are drinking tea at what became our favorite neighborhood cafe.  The tea is always served in little glasses on a saucer.

 

 

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They also had hookahs (smoking pipes) at our cafe.  These boys, smoking the traditional Hookah, were very friendly and shared a sour fruit (see below) with us.


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Right around the corner from our hotel was a very expensive street with many fashion designers ateliers located there.  Because of this, we saw several fashion shoots in the streets.

 

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How skinny is she?  Okay sexy too!

 

 

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After a few too many glasses of wine - we reenacted the fashion shot at the exact location.  Okay - now that you are done laughing.......


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Here are two more REAL models.


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 And me again  :  )  same location as the model - same leg pose and all!

 

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And my fashion shots of D - well - I thought they looked artsy!

 

 

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And this shot I thought was very funny.  A young coupled asked D to take their photo - check out that pose Photographer-D has going along with his Euro boots.


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While D worked (yep, he really does work on occasion), I visited the Modern Art Museum, which was very enjoyable.  I also did the Hop-on Hop-off tour, where a bus takes you around the city for a two-hour tour.  It was good, not great.  And of course, I did a little shopping.


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On our last day we wandered into Balat, a non-tourist neighborhood, full of color.  The teenagers asked us to take their photo, striking poses for the shots.  He was so animated when he approached us, but then became very serious for the photo.  cute!


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Drawers


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This one was so cute, she was posing for me and the other women jumped in the photo - maybe her mom?  The young girl was not happy.


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Then she asked me to please take one of just her.

 

 

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This was sweet, the mother held him up in the window so D could take his photo.  We found all of the people of Istanbul to be genuinely friendly and eager to welcome you to their city.


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Our last night we went to a restaurant with a roof top terrace to watch the sun set, eat dessert, and drink tea.

 

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A strikingly beautiful city.  We loved Istanbul and hope to go back soon!

 



Cambodia - Part 3 - the incredible temples of Angkor Wat

 

 

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The great temples of Angkor Wat are situated in the province of Siem Reap Cambodia. These ancient temple ruins are considered the largest religious complex in the world.  Interestingly, this area was abandoned for nearly 1000 years, hidden by the jungle.  In 1890, a French explorer rediscovered the "lost city".

 

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Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992, Angkor Wat is not just one Wat (temple); it is a large park with over 1,000 temple sites, but most of them are now barely standing.  Today, 200 of the temples have been restored in some way to allow visitors to tour. 
 

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We visited eight temples during our stay.  One day we hired a guide and a driver with a car to show us the major temples.  The next day, we hired a tuk tuk driver to visit a few lesser-known ones.  The Khmer Empire built most of these stunning temples from 879 to 1191 AD while they were at the height of their power.  The whole area is about 250 miles, which also includes the surrounding forests.

 

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Wat Athvea

 

Our first stop was the small temple of Wat Athvea.  The temple's design and the distinctive style of its devata (sacred female images) indicate that King Suryavarman II, who also built Angkor Wat, built it in the early 12th century.

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Wat Athvea and Angkor Wat are the only two temples that face west.  It is thought that the reason was that King Suryavarman intended one of them to serve as his funeral temple.

 
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Below is one of three well-preserved devatas, each decorated with lotus crowns, heavy necklaces and belts, armbands, finger rings and rich sampots (Khmer style waist wrap).  Their likeness is comparable to women found at the highest level of Angkor Wat, implying that this temple was founded for an important reason.


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During Khmer Rouge times the temple was shrouded in jungle and the wat was used as a sanctuary from the Khmer Rouge.  Today, it is still an active Buddhist temple and cemetery.


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It was in the village just across the street from our hotel.  Because of the location, this temple is not on the tourist route.  We visited it three times as it was part of our daily walk and we never saw any other tourists.

 


 Ta Prohm Temple

 


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Ta Prohm, the Jungle Temple, was one of our favorite temples, often described as the most magical place in all of Angkor.  

 

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This temple was built about mid-12th century to early 13th century (1186).  It was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII.

 

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Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, probing walls apart, as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures.  

 

 

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Here is a funny shot of the roots through the doorway.  You tell me what this looks like!


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Ta Prohm has been left untouched except for the clearing of a path for visitors and structural strengthening to stop  further deterioration.   Delicately carved reliefs on the walls sprout lichen, moss and creeping plants giving it a beautiful green glow.

 

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This temple really brings to mind Indiana Jones or Lara Croft (which was filmed here).  Visitors are no longer allowed to climb onto the crumbling stones, due to the potential damage to the temple and the safety of the visitors.

 

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Sadly, Ta Prohm was looted quite heavily in recent years due to its relative isolation and many of its ancient stone shrines have been lost.



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Bayon Wat

 

 


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From a distance, Bayon Wat looks like a pile of blurry stones.  But as you get closer, the magic appears...

 

 

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Faces begin to materialize in the stone......

 


 

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Built by Jayavarman VII the temple has 54 towers and 216 faces.  No one knows exactly whom the faces represent.

 

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The Bayon  also houses very unique bas-reliefs on the exterior walls depicting real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham.

 

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There are also extensive carvings of scenes showing everyday life, including market scenes, cockfighting, chess games and childbirth.  The intricacy and details were amazing.

 

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The Bayon has thousands of female figures carved into the stone.  It primarily features two types of sacred Khmer women: Apsara (celestial goddesses) dancing on lotus flowers, usually located on pillars;

 

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and devatas, who stand gracefully in niches surrounding the structure.

 

 

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I really liked this temple.  It had so many interesting angles to view the faces providing so many photographic opportunities.


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Angkor Wat

 


 

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Angkor Wat, City Temple, is the main temple.  It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, the worlds only flag which features a building.  It was built between 1113 and 1150.  Unfortunately it was under construction so all of our photos have green tarps in them.   


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This 12th century temple was constructed by King Suryavarman II, it was his personal mausoleum (tomb) and as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu.  It was designed as a pyramid representing the structure of the universe: the highest level at the center of the temple represented Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods. The moat around the complex represented the oceans that surround the world.


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What was so interesting to us (and scary) was how you could walk along the edge and there was no railing.  Look down at the people in the photo below to get a good perspective of how high up we were - just hanging off the side!


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A peaceful photo of a young monk relaxing in the sun.


 

 

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The most famous decorations of Angkor Wat are the Apsara.  There are more than 300,  always bare-breasted and usually dancing, representing an ideal of female beauty.  I was intrigued with these figures  with basically the same proportion as Barbie, so I did a little research.  History dismissed the women as  ”wives to entertain the king in heaven” or ornaments “to decorate bare sandstone walls”.  Recent research suggests that these women served much more profound roles than mere decoration. And perhaps these women were the driving force behind the civilization itself.

 


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On the temple steps this women was selling a bucket of beetles, supposedly a favorite snack in Cambodia.  We did not sample them.


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It was an exhausting day seeing all of these temples and hearing so much history.  But we really enjoyed seeing such mythical and spectacular structures.  We were very pleased with our guide and our driver.  

 

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The next morning we decided to rent a tuk tuk instead of a car to take us to some of the lesser know temples.  Above is the view from the inside of a tuk tuk.  Not sure how safe they are......but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride.


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Passing all kinds of other motorized vehicles including a moped with three girls pulling a  fourth girl on a bike.

 

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Banteay Srei

 


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Banteay Srei is 23 miles from the main village and on a tuk tuk  it took about 2 hours to get there.  The name Banteay Srei "citadel of the women" or "citadel of beauty" is referred to as the lady temple, not because of the carvings, but the fact that the reliefs on this temple are so delicate that the hand of a woman could only have carved them. It is built of red sandstone, which can be carved like wood.


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What I was referring to as the monkeys are actually called Dvarapalas (temple guardians).  Their function is to protect the temples.


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Banteay Srei is the only major temple  not constructed by a monarch, but by a courtier.   It is known for its small scale and the extreme refinement of its decorative carvings, including several famous narrative bas-reliefs dealing with scenes from Indian mythology.

 

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The ride on the tuk tuk through the villages was as fun as visiting the temples.  Many women were making and selling sweet sticky rice in bamboo along the roadside.  This first photo shows a woman melting the sugar cane for the rice.
 

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The rice is then placed in a bamboo tube and the end is plugged with a piece of coconut husk wrapped with banana leaf to keep in the steam so the rice will cook  (see basket below).

 

 

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To cook the rice, the bamboo tubes are placed over charcoal. 

 

 

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Our driver showed us how to peel open the bamboo to get to the sweet treat.  The rice was very sweet and had a handful of black beans in it.  

 

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Banteay Kdei

 

 

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Banteay Kdei appears much as it did when early explorers first discovered it.  It was built in the late 12th to early 13th century during the reign of Jayavarman VII.   It was originally erected as a Buddhist monastery. 


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What I loved about this temple were the colors.  We were there in the early evening and the setting sun cast a glow that created beautiful rich purple and green tones.

 

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This temple was built of soft, inferior sandstone and many of the galleries and porches have collapsed.  It is in a state of ruins.   But this ruined appearance doesn’t take away from the temple’s charm and beauty.


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The back entrance has a spectacular tree, which is spreading its roots over the ruins.  For years it was difficult to reach this temple, but recently a road was built to get to the complex.


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We found that we really preferred the more ‘ruined’ temples, as opposed to the neatly preserved ones. 

 

 

Pre Rup

 


Pre Rup was one of those monuments that was more beautiful from afar.  The temple’s name means "turn the body".  Cambodians believed that funerals were conducted at the temple, with the ashes of the body being ritually rotated in different directions as the service progressed, hence the name, Pre Rup.

 

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Our tuk tuk driver was very good about stopping along the way for us to take photos of everyday life.  In the distance we saw several young girls fishing for something in the water.


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They were laughing and having such a good time.  We walked to the marsh edge to talk to them... well our tuk tuk talked to them.  Of course D wanted to take off his shoes and go in the water.  I convinced him that this might not be the most sanitary thing to do - he calls me his "joy smasher" when I tell him not to do things like this. 

 

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This girl was very shy and she never came up to us.


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What were they catching?  Snails.


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Like the children of the village, the girls got a kick out of seeing their own image on D's camera.  Except for the shy one.

 

 

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The late afternoon sun cast a delicate glow on this oxen in the field.  It makes the scene look like a painting.

 

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Beng Mealea

 

 

 


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You would think after visiting so many temples they would all start to look a like, but this was not what we experienced.  Each one was so different, so spectacular and interesting in its own way. 


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Beng Malea was special because it is one of the only temples that has been completely left alone.  It has not been restored in any way, they do not even prune the trees.

 
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The history of the temple is unknown and it can be dated only by its architectural style, similar in style to Angkor Wat, historians think it was built during the reign of king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.  The roots of the trees were taking over their ruins.


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This temple had such an erie feeling to it.  Again, we were amazed at how we were allowed to climb all over the ruins – no railing to stop us from falling of the edge!  


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 I felt more comfortable sitting down when I was near the edge. 

 

 

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There were many beggars, both adults and children wanting to be our guide.  This was the only temple were we experienced this.

 

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We kept saying no to their offers, but one man just started following us around pointing at things - giving one word descriptions and telling us what direction to go in.  He became our unofficial guide. 


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At first we were annoyed but then we embraced him as he would not leave.  At this point, it became humorous.  And in the end, the temple was so complex, he was actually helpful so we gave him a tip.


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An interesting sign at this temple.  We all have heard about land mines, but to see this sign was pretty eye-opening.  And the area we were walking on was cleared just four years ago.


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As usual we took too many photos 4000 in Cambodia.  I  put a few more of my favorite temple shots in a slide show.

 

 

 

And a handful on my art blog ma vie trouvee.


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To end this blog......more crazy moto bike shots.  How is she keeping that shoe from falling off?

 

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Out of curiosity I looked up the law for helmets on moto bikes in Cambodia - as of 2009 it is a law for only the driver to wear one.  


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But what about all that precious cargo!  How cute is he?


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We hope you enjoyed all of our photos of Cambodia.  This is a country we truely fell in love with!