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Posts from the ‘Religous Site’ Category

Two Weeks in Jerusalem

Those of you who know me well, you are already aware that Jerusalem has been my home base for the last two weeks. In fact, I lodged at a hospice within the old city walls for the first week I was in Jerusalem. I have delayed in posting about this place because I have struggled with how to explain everything I have absorbed during this time; And the fact is that there is simply too much to tell.

I saw countless holy sites for the three major religions. I walked through archeological excavations and museums. In fact, I went back to a few main attractions more than once.

I guess I thought by being in the land of all those historical accounts and biblical stories that I would also feel some spiritual transformation; an extension of my spiritual journey from the Himalayan Mountains. I can’t honestly say that was my experience here.

The first week, I greeted every morning with a lesson plan I had outlined for the day. After the first couple of days, I knew the “lay of the land”. I could get to each section of the old city maze without too much trouble and I had learned when I need to go to each destination to avoid the crowds in order to have a more peaceful experience.

Let’s be real…This place is intense. So much to take in and several times people, locals and tourists alike, are not that friendly and, at times, downright curt. The locals are direct in their language and don’t mince words which can come across as abrupt. This is especially evident to those staying in the city for a bit longer and who are not insulated by a large tour group environment.

It seems that good people often leave their manners at the door. Some even recognize their bad behavior as they act in a way they never would act normally. For example, at one of the holiest sites in Christianity more than one person turned back as they cut with several others in front of me and said bluntly, “I am sorry. I have to stay with my guide.”

Now that is true. I could not imagine being on a tour with only two or three days to “cram in” all of the highlights and, on top of that, lose my group in the mass of people that walk these cobblestone roads everyday; but, that is the old city. It is masses of people, in a small space, living their lives and trying to worship as they “work around” all the tourists which have come in masses; And most of those tourists are rushed around, on a time limit, to see the highlights of the city.

The local residents all own a “piece” of this bit of earth; Whether individually or collectively, they own it and all seem to know where the invisible boundary line is located marking the end of “their” land. Many do not cross even semi-common areas in order to “keep the peace.” I am not talking only about the three major religions here….I am also talking about the sects within each religion.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a perfect example; Here the oldest Christian sects divide the church and it is clearly understood who controls which part. What is most interesting is it is a Muslim family that opens and closes the church each day to assist in keeping the peace. Yes, that may be over simplifying the issue but one has to admit there is some chaos in the overall organization here. I visited this site four times to see all the “holy” places within this one church.

The first two times my own Pacific Northwest culture, of expected personal space, could not handle the crowds pushing and cutting in line; so I left. I just could not see this place Jesus had spent his last hours of human life while being irritated at my neighbor. The third time I had a moving early morning experience at a mass at the crucifixion site of Jesus; however, I had to return a forth time to see the tomb since the sect in charge of that area decided to close for cleaning that morning.

Yes, I saw the sights….ones I knew were here and others I discovered. It was meaningful to learn the history and see the archeological discoveries throughout the area within and just outside of the old walls.

I spent an entire day at the Israeli Museum. I especially loved seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls and new Herod the Great exhibit located at the Israeli Museum. I love walking around the Mount of Olives and seeing New Testament locations. I thoroughly enjoyed the Night by Light show at David’s Tower and walking on top of the southern ramparts of the old city walls. Looking back, another highlight was walking the Via Del La Rosa after the tour groups left and some of the businesses and churches closed.

The Ministry of Tourism had provided a several excellent self guided audio tours of the old city which I downloaded on my iPad. I loved walking through the city at my own pace and when I wanted to stop I could just hit pause on my iPad screen.

After a few days, I found locals who recognized me and were happy to greet me. It made me feel like I belonged. I found that I would make a point to return or pass by their businesses, even if the walk was a little out of my way. The second week, I moved outside the city walls to a hostel that seemed to insulate pilgrims from the outside world. The soccer game was always on the big screen and the foreigners would all find their way to the social area and common kitchen on the first floor to visit about their day. This was a great benefit as I planned the rest of my trip beyond the old city.

In the end, I realize that for me this area holds a lot of historical significance; but as a Christian I know that Jesus is no longer here. He is not at the Mount of Olives, He is not on the cross, He is not at the tomb. He is gone and maybe for me that is the lesson here.

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Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea

An hour south of Jerusalem is an historic flat top rock mountain with cliffs on all sides called Masada. The first fortress built on this mount was completed in 150 BC by Jonathan the Maccabee. The same Maccabee’s that were the force of the Jewish revolt at that time.

Later the Maccabee’s ruled during the Hasmonean Dynasty and are still remembered today during Hanukkah celebrations. Herod the Great decided to rebuild during his reign, just over a hundred years later, in the only way he knew how….with total exuberance.

However, what Masada is most know for is that second revolt. The one that occurred after the second temple was destroyed by the Romans. (Yes, the same second tempe that was incidentally built by Herod the Great.) The group that was left from this revolt fled to Masada. About one thousand men, women and children were able to survive as long as they did with the provisions that Herod had generously left behind. It took three years before the Romans were within reach of the top of the cliff. When they arrived they found their enemy, dead. The massive group suicide left a message….Better to die than live as slaves. To this day Israeli’s vow that Masada shall “never fall again.”

Many hike up to the top but I choose to ride the cable car in both directions to maximize my time on the mountain. I was so glad I did. I purchase the audio guide and walked through the fortress but the two hours I was given was not enough. I was surprised to learn how large the surface area of the top of the mountain was and I was even more surprised how much Herod actually built here.

I continue to be impressed with this man that left so much behind. However, after seeing his reconstructed sarcophagus in the city museum, I am not sure he realized that he would end up like everyone else. In the end, historians, not himself, would describe in their own terms who he was as a man.

After leaving the mountain we visited the nearby peaceful spring in the desert called Ein Gedi. Water bubbled and fell from the death of the desert to bring life. Beside the water was green grass and trees in the middle of nothingness.

This area is mentioned several times in the old testament. In Joshua, Ezekiel, Samuel I, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiasticus. However, the highest falls, named David Falls, is said to be the place mentioned in Samuel I, where King David hid from King Saul.

We walked to the top of the falls and I thought that if I had to hide out for a while, this would not be a bad place. We stayed longer than anticipated but decided that we could have lunch any day but to be in this calm; This was not easily left behind.

Soon after we were in the van headed for the jewel that was “just in view” all day: The Dead Sea. We bobbed like a fishing bobbers in the water and laughed at the feel of it. It was easiest to just lay back in the salt water and rest form the early morning. The water had healing power, or so they say, so what else was there to do….Well, maybe one thing.

One by one we scooped up the mud and cover our bodies in the clay that would be an expensive treatment in any nearby spa. Some of us put more effort than others on applying the thick substance to our skin. We laughed as the waves lapped on our legs and we had to redo our handiwork.

It seemed like forever for the clay to bake into crust in the hot summer sun. When we could not stand it anymore we were back in the Sea or nearby showers. Some hoping for the miracles that they claim. All I noticed was, whether the sea or clay, my skin felt so much softer than it had earlier.

And thus ended my day in an area that was a symbol of martyrdom, reconciliation and hedonism. What a combination!

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Katmandu – Peace Among The Chaos

A friend once told me, “Katmandu…I love it and I hate it.” I did not really know what she meant until I traveled there myself. Katmandu was my “home base” for all my Nepalese adventures. The moment I arrived in Katmandu, all my senses belonged to her. My head moved from side to side trying to take in it all; The smells, the colors, the noise, even the feel of it. Yes, Katmandu had my full attention from the minute I arrived.

I thought several times that this would be sensory heaven for any child with a hyperactivity disorder. However, after two days of Thamel, the tourist neighborhood of the city, all the activity bought sensory overload and the “Katmandu Cough” from the stale and polluted air that lingers in the valley. I searched for a more secluded corner of the city and found the Garden of Dreams, an oasis of greenery in a crazy city and Boudhanath, the largest buddhist stupa in the world.

While in Katmandu, I went to the monkey temple to remember a friend, I took a morning flight over the Great Himalayan Mountain Range but I spent the majority of my days around the stupa at Boudhanath. Here I learned to be a tibetan singing bowl healer, circled the stupa with the prayerful and relaxed at the local coffee shops listening to the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra which quieted the souls of both the devote and the traveler.

This mantra, which means “jewel of the lotus”, focuses on the six perfections of Buddhism; These include generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, renunciation and wisdom. I found that the calming mantra allowed my mind to shift from what was happening about me and lead me to a higher concentration to what was happening in the present moment even though the stupa was a bustling place of people and activity.

There was a wide range of ways to worship at the stupa. People would pray in a way that worked for each; For example, devotes would read from old manuscripts, use prayer beads as they recited mantras, spin prayer wheels and repeat a full body bend, kneel, lay flat and back up motion in their devotions. Everyone spun the wheels or walked in clockwise direction so there was order to the mantra heard over the loud speaker.

In the middle of the crazy city that is Katmandu, I was also transformed by the greeting everyone used to say hello and goodbye. “Namaste” which literally means “I see and honor the God in you.”

In this city, that assaults all senses, I found a deep spiritual peace. It makes me wonder what would happen if we stopped and all recognized the God in each person we encounter, in both the meeting and leaving, and thus have to honor God in that person….What would happen? Even though a person may drive us crazy or with whom we have a deep disagreement, if we always honor the God in that person how would that change our relationship with that individual? I wonder if, around the world, we all honored all people we encounter in such a manner, in all our dealings, how it would change the world?

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Trekking in the Himalaya Mountains – The Assent

“I will catch up in a minute. I want to adjust the straps on the backpack.” My guide said as he gently set down our pack on the short stone wall next to the trail. As I was about to cross the bridge, noticing two paths upon the exit, I turned back and asked, “Which trail do I follow?” “Uppa.” That would be the first time my guide would respond with that one word he would eventually repeat the rest of the day.

Every time there was a fork in the path and I asked the question, “Where should I go?”, “Uppa” was always the response. In fact the more I asked, the more it seemed he gave emphases to the first “p” sound….”Uppp-pa.” After several hours, I wondered why I asked anymore…..I knew the answer would always be the same as he lifted his right hand up, that followed the rise towards the top of the next mountain.

The first day was the hardest. I guess I had pictured myself winding through the forest, flowers everywhere with the snow capped mountains always above me. The reality is that is it was dusty, hot, with donkey crap everywhere and no snow-capped mountains.

Just when I thought I could not go further up any longer, I saw the name of the town where I knew we would be staying overnight painted on a rock next to the stone path. Under the name of the town was written “4,852 STEPS”. I looked up at the stone steps before me and yes, I said something like, “You gotta be kidding me.” I starred up at the path laid before me a minute and then took another step. I found that there were these purple flowers between the cracks of the stones. These were the flowers that kept me going. The further we went up the mountains the more I could also hear the river winding below.

Late in the day we finally arrived to our destination and there was no room in the inn. Well, in several guest houses really, so we continued to walk on. I thought, “This is Good Friday not Christmas”… This is the wrong holiday for this story. Then at some point I sat down on a stone step by another full guest house, ordered purified water and said to my guide, “I’ll sit here on this step until you find a place for the night.”

About twenty minutes later my guide returned and had found a lovely hotel just five minutes further up the path. As I walked up to the patio of the guest house where I saw a short older woman looking down at me. She bowed with her hands folded as I approached, “Namaste.”

“Namaste.” I replied to the woman. After six hours of “uppa” my face must have revealed more then my return greeting. The woman came forward and cupped my face in her hands. “Ohhhh. We give you the best room…..One with the big bed.” I felt immediately at home and that this woman was going to take care of me….And she did.

Oh, I had teased my guide several times that we were not going up anymore and we were going to stay right here the next two weeks. Which made the old woman happy each time I shared my plans. In her slightly broken English she would respond with a smile, “You be part of the family.”

However, the next morning the clouds had cleared and revealed my first glimpse of the mountains. They were beyond words of magnificence and beauty towering before me. I was hooked and ready to to march “uppa” again.

The scenery just got better and better each day we ascended further up to base camp. Every morning the view of the mountains were more stunning than the day before. The green grew closer near the trail. By the fourth day we had walked up into the rain forest.

Moss was everywhere on the limbs of trees, the large boulders and stone trails. The rushing water in the river grew louder and louder as we ascended. The spring run-off from the mountains bottle necked between the narrow rocky shores in the higher elevations. The water crashed on the large boulders in its way, rushing downstream.

The flowers also became more bountiful as we arrived to the rainforest. Rhododendron trees towered above with brilliant red flowers. As we went even higher, the flowering rhododendron trees dominated the landscape in bright pink.

In the higher elevation, I remember waterfalls above me everywhere I looked. Shooting down from the sheer cliff face and in other areas dribbling down a mossy stream towards the larger river below. One morning I look up and a water fall I had seen running in the afternoon sun the day before was solid. The cold of the night had frozen, the now ice sculpture, motionless waiting for the warming sun to unlock her again.

We always started early and tried to end the day before the clouds overtook the sky. By mid afternoon it always snowed or rained. As people gathered we would often see friendly faces in the guest houses. Often you pass people and they pass you as your break schedule and endurance level varies. Therefore, you see the same people over and over again throughout your journey.

There is really no cell phone service or internet connection so even “electronic heads” have to join the conversation. You get to know people. Where they are from, what they are doing and you get to know their aliments too. People who have never climbed to such a height gain knowledge from others coming down the mountain about altitude sickness and the trail ahead. After such a journey, everyone just hopes to make it to their destination without injury. For many of us on this trail the hope was to make it to “ABC”, Annapurna Base Camp.

People are doing this hike for all kinds of reason. A major birthday, another to share an experience they had loved with a teenage son and I met a couple of smokers who were here because they wanted to “test their lungs”. Others were doing the trek as part of a group.

It was clear that not all hikers, like myself, were aware what they had gotten themselves into with their plans. It became clear that the way was not easiest for the most athletic or young but rather the careful and steady. We all were going to the same place. This was not a race but a journey. I found that hikers became amazingly close with others on the same trail who they saw everyday.

You help each other and support each other on their trek….Aspirin, altitude sickness pills, encouragement. No need for the same language to be spoken.

There was a girl from a group from South Korea who sprained ankle on the third day of the trek. She was determined to make it up the hill with her friends. When we saw she had made it we clapped, smiled and shook our heads as if the say, “Yes! You did it.” She smiles widely back and realizes that her accomplishment was recognized.

They were so many times in the first days I was not sure I could do get to the top. I just continued taking one step at a time. It was not until the fourth day that I said out loud to my guide with some confidence, “I think we are going to get to the top.” “Yes.” He replied like he knew that we would all along.

I recognized two friendly faces coming down the mountain on the fifth day of the climb. Two people who I connected with on this journey at different stops. “Hey! You made it!” They shout in union. “Well, in a couple of hours.” “No, no. Machhapuchhre Base Camp is right there.” As they point over their shoulders. “Five minutes away. You did it!.” Tomorrow’s walk will be an easy two hours compared to this.” We talked for a few minutes and they told me what to expect.

“Everybody up there gets a bit of a headache from the altitude. After a night here you will be fine.” As we talked I realized that the people you meet on this journey are so important to your overall experience. You might only know their first name or what country they come from but, even if you come here alone, such people become like your closest friend. You are doing something incredible together and you may never see these people in your life again.

My mind sifts to the other people that have made an imprint on my life this year. There are so many that I have been enriched and blessed to know and I realize that I may never see most of them in my lifetime again. I my eyes glossed over at the thought of such people who have came and quickly left from my life and what a deeply enriching experience this year has been so far. We wished each other safe journeys and continue again on our individual path.

At four-thirty the next morning, we begin our hike to Annapurna Base Camp to witness the sunrise over the mountains. We started off with flashlights to illuminate the snowy trail and the stars were brilliant dots dancing above in the sky. We could see the outline of the mountains beside us as we walked.

When I made it to the top I realized that we were surrounded by the Himalayas. Everywhere we looked another snow capped mountain towered above us. We were so small in the center of them all. Looking up I realized that I had done this great thing; Overcome my own fears of failure, several minor symptoms of altitude sickness, blisters and extreme cold. I had done it and it had been a deeply moving and spiritual experience. One in which I did not know I had signed up for when I had started out.

I will always hold a special place in my heart for these mountains. The photos of these places serve as a reminder of doing something I did not know I could be successful at doing and as a reminder of the internal journey that strengthen my spirit with each step “uppa”.

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Holi in Katmandu

Splashes of color and smiles dominate the holiday of Holi to celebrate the monsoon season to come. In Katmandu, it is a day off work for all even though only the Hindu wear the bright florescent colors which are the trademark of this holiday.

It seemed to me that all boys from about eight to fourteen were heavy into the holiday spirit even if their families were Buddhist……Imagine: A free day from school and the entire point of this day was to throw color at people. A day where it was also okay to throw water balloons and squirt water at anyone in sight. I think this holiday was made for boys of this age. I enjoyed watching the the battle happening downstairs safely from the rooftop view of my patio. Such big smiles on their faces as the color and water war had begun.

At some point the boys downstairs decided that I was “free game” and thought I would like to join in the fun. Every time I left the house I had to “watch” out for my young neighbors to minimize the “attack”. Walking about, I saw non-Holi observers smiling at the the chalk covered adults and young children. In Katmandu, this may be a holiday celebrated by few, but in my opinion, enjoyed by all.

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You Are Going to Love Luang Prabang

“You are going to love it here! Listen to that.” Monquie, a new friend from my Cambodia travels and who arrived a day earlier in Luang Prabang, Laos, stated enthusiastically. “What?” I questioned. “Nothing. No tuk tuk horns, no people asking you to buy anything. Isn’t it great! I feel so relaxed here and I have only been here a day.”

We walked through the night market together and I noticed that she was right. This was the most peaceful it had been outside of my hotel in over two weeks. Walking in front of the vender stalls, the busiest part of town, merchants would only ask if you wanted help if you had stood there awhile.

During my time in Luang Prabang, I spent idle time watching the river and fishermen casting there nets, made trips to see local Buddhist temples, visited local villages, watched the sunset from a wat on the hill (a fun 338 steps to the top) and of course attend another dance/theater performance.

I also visited the small cultural museum and royal palace. The throne room of the royal palace should not be missed, even if “you are not a museum person”. I believe that it rivals any other royal interior I have seen in Southeast Asia. The majority of the throne room is painted red and intricate colored mirrors cover the walls. The mirror images tell the story of the Lao people and their traditions. A grand crystal chandelier hangs from the center of the room. The throne and other furniture about the room are painted in brilliant gold. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed to film the palace but I am sure there are pictures of the palace online if you are interested.

An unexpected surprise in the palace was a gift from President Nixon of the United States to the people of Lao. It was a miniature flag of their country that had went up in Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon. Also in a glass casing on the plaque were moon rocks from that first mission.

We woke up early to give alms to the monks as is common in Luang Prabang. Every morning at six, monks walk silently down the street with their alms basin. Locals and tourist alike give food alms as they pass on their way.

My favorite three days were spent just outside of Luang Prabang. The first was a wonderful day spent hiking and visiting beside water that fell down into countless aqua pools. The water was perfect for a little swim in the afternoon heat. Monquie and I had also signed up for a Lao cooking class. We started at the market learning how to pick the freshest ingredients then we went to a lovely cooking school outside of town where we each had our own cooking station. I now know how to really roast vegetables and stuff a piece of lemongrass. My favorite day was spent in the jungle learning how to be a mahout or elephant trainer.

It seemed that most travelers had a hard time leaving this town. So many activies if you choose to do any at all. Luang Prabang is not to slow, not to fast paced, it was just right.

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Beyond the Temples

Beyond the Temples of Siem Reap are its people.

Hopeful merchants outside every temple parking lot encroaching on weary foreigners. Young children happily visiting until they notice someone entering or leaving a temple. Their eyes turn sad as they count the postcards for sale, “One, two, three…”

Other children in uniforms ride their bicycles to school. We also find locals driving the roads using a variety of mechanical contraptions. Tourist mix in, pedaling or riding tuk-tuk’s to the ancient treasures while others speed by in large tourist buses.

Outside of the main temple circuit, one can see more and more folks farming and going about their daily life away from the main attractions. In the country, families sell goodies they have created by the side of the road such as candy and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Nearby their children play carefree.

This is Siem Reap, beyond the city, between the temples.

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