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What? Melissa hasn’t finished posting pictures from the great Asia tour yet? No, not by a longshot. Two countries down, two to go. In Siem Reap, we stayed with friend-of-many-friends Bethany, a fellow teacher/adventure-seeker/yid.

Sunrise from Bethany's deck

Most of our time in Siem Reap was spent at Angkor Wat, and most of our time at Angkor Wat was spent like this:

Mr. Loeun and his tuk-tuk

Our host, Bethany, and Jeanette in the tuk-tuk with our old friend, Lonely Planet. (And apparently not happy with what they're reading.)

Angkor Thom, where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed.

Angkor Thom from a distance.

Large stone faces appear on dozens of towers surrounding the center of the Bayon at Angkor Thom.

Typhoon Ketsana washed out paths and roads throughout the complex. Solution: wooden boards resting on tree trunks. Oh, Cambodia.

Watching The Princess Bride at Bethany's school, outside of Siem Reap.

I didn’t get a chance to tell you about Bethany’s school when I first blogged about Cambodia, and it would be wrong of me to post about Siem Reap without mentioning the Jay Pritzker Academy. Had I known about this school when I was first looking into teaching, I would have applied there. JPA admits high-testing students from low-income families, pays for their schooling and transports them to and from the academy every day. A normal school day in Cambodia doesn’t last past noon, leaving kids out on the streets hawking souvenirs and begging every afternoon. But JPA keeps kids in school for a full day, with teaching standards comparable to, if not exceeding, those in America. Any student who graduates from JPA will have his college tuition and expenses paid for, regardless of where the school is. Bethany was kind enough to invite Jeanette and I into her classroom while we were in Siem Reap. The class had just finished reading The Princess Bride and as a treat, Bethany planned to show the film on a Saturday to anyone who wanted to come in on a weekend and see it. Surprisingly, all of her kids (including two sick ones) showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in their cute little uniforms at 8 a.m. The kids were friendly, talkative and well-behaved. A lot of tourists to Cambodia have a hard time getting past the conditions in which children live. The abbreviated school day, the street begging, the fact that kids walk around barefoot because they just don’t have a pair of shoes–it all wears on you. It’s hard to enjoy a country when you are surrounded by such extreme poverty, when the only kids you meet are the ones chasing you down yelling, “Buy postcard! Very good price!” Visiting JPA and spending time with some of the teachers and students shows me that the world has not yet given up on Cambodia.

Sunset at Angkor Wat on our final day in Siem Reap.

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I knew very little about Cambodia before I decided to include it on my backpacking agenda. As a senior at Maryland, I convinced myself that I was going to move to Cambodia after graduation to work for one of the newspapers here. Then Korea happened and Cambodia became a distant memory.

Through some stroke of luck and Jewish geography, my path crossed with that of Bethany Murphy. I swear, she and I were destined to become friends. We’ve got mutual friends, mutual romantic pasts and mutual Hebrew names. She’s here in Siem Reap teaching for a year, and the first time we ever spoke, back in May, she invited me to stay at her apartment the moment I mentioned I’d eventually be in her neck of the woods.

That was five months ago.

Flash forward to now. After a flight from Vientiane and the world’s lamest layover at the Savahnakket airport (where, by the way, everything is under construction), we landed in Siem Reap and were greeted by Bethany’s tuk tuk driver, Mr. Loaung, who took us straight to the apartment to get settled.

Everything has been perfect since we got here. Mr Loaung takes us wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go there, Bethany showed us downtown Siem Reap and then cooked a delicious dinner, and we got to sleep in a bed without having to worry about bedbugs, lizards or snails.

Determined to make the most of our first day in Siem Reap, we went to bed fairly early last night. We woke up this morning, met Mr. Loaung at the front gate and set off for Angkor Wat. The temple complex is massive, absolutely massive. It took us a couple hours to get through a fraction of what there was to see, and by mid-morning it was too hot to see much else. We headed to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire, and one of the filming sites from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Stop reading now. Navigate away from this blog and onto Expedia. Book a ticket to Cambodia. Now. I know journalists are supposed to be able to convey things through words, but it is here that words absolutely fail me. Angkor Thom was like nothing I’d ever seen. Parts of Bayon, the temple in the complex, rise up over 100 feet. The towers, rooms and statues are beyond impressive–and then you get a closer look. Everything in Bayon is made by stacking blocks of stone on top of each other. Somehow, thousands of small blocks get you the enormous temple, with its stairs, alters and sculptures. Even the gigantic faces are made from the rock, cut to make eyes and noses and lips. I walked away from Angkor Thom amazed at what was has stood the test of time. These ruins, streaked black over centuries, have seen multiple empires, French imperialism, American bombs and the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. It’s incredible to think about what had already existed here for hundreds of years by the time Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas.

We’re headed back to the temples tomorrow, and I’m hoping I can bear the hot weather. I’ve been just schvitzing my way through the past month. It almost–almost–makes me long for a nice New York winter…

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