Angkor Wat- Day 2 “Happy Birthday Rob!”

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Our next day we woke up at 4:30 am to try and catch sunrise over Angkor Wat, the iconic temple that is the 7th Wonder of the World. We got there and it was extremely packed! We had our tuk tuk driver pick us up and wait for us as we anticipated the sunrise. Unfortunately, it’s the middle of rainy season, so all we got was clouds and a light drizzle for our ‘sunrise show’.

Angkor Wat in pre-dawn hours

Angkor Wat in pre-dawn hours

The best "sunset" we could do in rainy season

The best “sunset” we could do in rainy season

Trying to take it all in

Trying to take it all in

Never-the-less, we made the best of it since it was Rob’s 28th birthday! We continued to tour the temple and explore all throughout it. The outside structure is so picture perfect, but the inside wasn’t as beautiful as we thought. It had a lovely engraved wall that ran the length of the one side of the building and told a story about the Khmer people. We also got to see engraving still intact as well!

Part of the 'story' draw across the length of the wall (great detail)

Part of the ‘story’ draw across the length of the wall (great detail)

Side arches

Side arches

So beautiful

So beautiful

View from the back of Angkor Wat

View from the back of Angkor Wat

Good bye Angkor Wat

Good bye Angkor Wat

Since we left so early in the morning, we only had 2 more temples to see before it was pool and nap time. The next temple was my favorite, the Bayon Temple. It is covered with massive stone faces on the many towers that jut out from it’s upper entrance. It looks very mythical and you can still the definition in the faces.

Riding to the next stop!

Riding to the next stop!

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Bayon Temple tower with a different head on each face

Bayon Temple tower with a different head on each face

Bayon Temple with the massive heads

Bayon Temple with the massive heads

Blue Barracudas for the win

Blue Barracudas for the win

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Legends of the Hidden Temple

Legends of the Hidden Temple

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The last temple, I decided to sit out on since I as still recovering from the flu. Rob and Alex tackled the vertical stairs with gusto to gain a great view of the temples below.

Last temple of the day

Last temple of the day

Long climb to the top

Long climb to the top

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Cool view looking down

Cool view looking down

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Later that night, we celebrated Rob’s 28th birthday in style! We got some great dinner, before drinking on Pub Street. Rob & Alex decided to get their ‘foot pedicures’ done at a fish tank on the street (Hey it said free beer with purchase!). You dip your feet in a large aquarium of hungry fish who eat the dead skin off your toes making them smooth. I’m too ticklish (and creeped out) to try but Alex and Rob said it was fun!

Happy 28th Birthday to my awesome husband!

Happy 28th Birthday to my awesome husband!

Fish Pedicure

Fish Pedicure

Last night fun

Last night fun

After dinner and their pedicures we celebrated into the night by watching a World Cup game with our $2 dollar pitchers. Great end to a great weekend!

Angkor Wat- Day 1

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After getting over the flu, we headed to our last port of call in Cambodia, Siem Reap. Here is where the famous Angkor Wat (means Temple City) Archaeological Site sits today. Our dearest friend from home named Alex, who is now based in Singapore for work, came to visit for the weekend to drink lots of beer and go temple hopping with us! It was nice to see a familiar face from home and made our touring a lot more fun!

Our first night, we spend drinking and catching up before heading to visit the temples the following morning. The archaeological complex so big, with so many temples it takes 2 days to do! The complex has over 100 temples and uses more stone than the pyramids. The best place to catch up over some cheap beer is Pub Street. This strip downtown is jam packed with restaurants, shopping, food carts, massage shops ($3 bucks gets you an hour massage!), and of course drinking pubs!

Drinking on Pub Street

Drinking on Pub Street

Just in case we couldn't find it

Just in case we couldn’t find it

Yumm Cambodian food

Yumm Cambodian food

Late night!

Late night!

Our first day visiting the crown jewel of southeast Asia, we rented a rickshaw from Alex’s hotel to drive us around to see the top 6 temples in the area. We were saving the main Angkor Wat for sunrise the following day. The weather is SOO hot and humid here that you need a rickshaw to drive you around. Just walking in the temples caused us to sweat through our t-shirts in the first 20 minutes!

The first stop was the main gate entrance. Here, you can see the beautiful detail in the archways and sculptures that are carved out of the main gate. Entering into the main gate, you will also see warriors holding a cobra (that is suppose to protect Buddha), lining the entrance up to the gate. Very beautiful!

Main entrance into the archeological park

Main entrance into the archeological park

Rob holding onto the cobra tail

Rob holding onto the cobra tail

Beautiful ruins near the entrance (men holding a cobra which protects Buddha)

Beautiful ruins near the entrance (men holding a cobra which protects Buddha)

Our first temple was huge! It was a maze to walk through and it was amazing to see all of the architecture still in place. The Khmer people were the natives who built these temples and lived here. This is the only temple on the premise to use columns (similar to those in Rome). I could just picture it back in its’ glory.

First temple

First temple

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So much history!

So much history!

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Still preserved

Still preserved

The second temple was small, but it was unique in that it was surrounded by water. We had to walk over an eerie moat to see the temple that was then surrounded by more water!

Walking to our second temple (had to walk on a boardwalk through water!)

Walking to our second temple (had to walk on a boardwalk through water!)

Temple surrounded by water

Temple surrounded by water

The water surrounding the temple

The water surrounding the temple

Our third temple was built high. It overlooked the land and this too was used as a religious worship area. The shines were all still intact.

Olmec from Legends of the Hidden Temple?

Olmec from Legends of the Hidden Temple?

The first temple is endless

The first temple is endless

Temple #3 I think?

Temple #3 I think?

Built so tall

Built so tall

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Coconut break! (sooo hot out)

Coconut break! (sooo hot out)

We had some lunch after that and saw 2 more temples before we ended with the Temple called Ta Phrom that was in the film “Tomb Raider”. This massive complex was covered in trees, it’s roots even were wrapped around the pillars and bases. It is amazing how the tree is still alive in all of this rubble.

Tomb Raider!!

Tomb Raider!!

Growing out of the temple

Growing out of the temple

You can see the roots growing into the temples

You can see the roots growing into the temples

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

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Alex is tall but this tree is soo much taller! PS: It's growing around the temple!

Alex is tall but this tree is soo much taller! PS: It’s growing around the temple!

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So much greenery growing around it

So much greenery growing around it

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Just like the model right?

Just like the model right?

The atrocities of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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With the corrupt border crossing behind us, we motored up the Mekong River for a few more hours and came into Phnom Penh which is the capital of Cambodia. Like Vietnam, the city seemed a buzz with new construction – tower cranes construction new high rises, mostly fueled by cheap Chinese loans (in exchange for all of their mineral wealth most likely). What surprised be the most was the streets we wide and fairly cleaned and there was a real atmosphere in the streets and looked very much French colonial. While being an EXTREMELY poor country (second to Nepal), we saw many nice cars like Range Rovers (quite a few), Toyota Land Cruises, and nice new Mercedes. Not sure where this money is coming from, but you can guess with all of the NGOs in Cambodia, the people in charge have some nice digs for themselves…or it’s just the corrupt.

What many people do not know is Cambodia went through an absolutely terrible genocide in the 1970s, led by the Khmer Rouge. While Vietnam was in ruins (and much of Cambodia and Laos for that matter as well), a French educated, communist Cambodia named Pol Pot took control of the country by a military coup and ruled from 1975 to 1975. He changed the name of Cambodia to Kampuchea (some old maps still have this name) and like Hitler, he wanted to create a pure nation that is self sufficient. His goal was to turn the society into a 100% agriculture based economy – pretty much taking Cambodia back to the stone age. Two million people in cities like Phnom Penh were rounded up and forced to work in rice patties up to 16 hours a day with no pay. Those educated like doctors, layers, teachers, diplomats, and even those who had glasses, were rounded up and put into detention centers like S-21 Prison Sleng (more on this later) in Phnom Penh. Hundreds were killed by the day execution style by those Communist leaders in the Khmer Rouge. Modern research has located 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia. Various studies have estimated the death toll between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease. Incredibly sad and there are even Khmer Rouge leaders alive today awaiting trail by the United Nations for war crimes.

We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in downtown Phnom Penh. The museum is at the S-21 Prison where thousands of prisoners were kept and hundreds murdered each day. The “prison” originally started it’s life as a high school but during the Khmer Rouge, it was changed to a prison and detention center. Hundreds of people were kept in tiny rooms all shackled together. Showers consisted of them being sprayed with a hose once or twice a month! Prisoners (men and women) were interrogated in the most gruesome ways! Hung upside down and dunked in pots of human waste, finger nails pulled off, beat with barbed wire whips. All of these people did nothing either – the Communist rulers would punish all those who spoke out against the government and even those who didn’t would be imprisoned for such offences such a singing or painting.

Graves of the last 13 people killed at the prison

Graves of the last 13 people killed at the prison

Very much like a high school

Very much like a high school

A classroom turned interrogation center

A classroom turned interrogation center

Prison rules

Prison rules

A holding cell

A holding cell

Barbed wire so prisoners could not jump

Barbed wire so prisoners could not jump

It was incredibly powerful and moving to walk around this prison-turned-museum. The museum tastefully depicted the atrocities that happened with no propaganda (like Vietnam). What was very haunting is the Khmer Rouge captors kept incredibly detailed records of each prisoner such a names, photographs, and execution date. All of the victims of this prison were on display and it was sad to see men and women (both young and old) and even small children – all of whom where executed here without reason.

Some of the many, many victims

Some of the many, many victims

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Such a young boy...

Such a young boy…

Graphic images

Graphic images

To think something like this happened just 40 years ago is very sad, and it happened just 30 years after the Holocaust. You would think the world would prevent such actions from happening, but war is such a sad reality.

Another sight to visit in Phnom Penh is called the “Killing Fields” located about 20 kilometers outside of the city. Kathleen unfortunately came down with the flu in Phnom Penh, so we spent the next two days resting, but we are sad we missed it. The Killing Fields are where many prisons from S-21 were taken to be killed and dumped in mass graves. Each night, about 10 prisoners were selected and random and told they had a “special assignment” and were put on the back of a truck. Each night, those 10 would never return. To save bullets, the captors wouldn’t shot but just beat them to death with the blunt side of their guns and then dump the body in mass pits with hundreds of bodies. A grave was founded in the area that is estimated to contain 20,000 bodies! Trees around the Killing Fields have bullets still lodged in them where people were tied up and shot at point blank ranged.

Even to this day, people are still finding skulls and bones across the several acre big complex. We are sad we missed this, but seeing these stories really opened my eyes to the Khmer Rouge and the terrible things that happened there only 40 years ago. I highly recommend you read up on the topic further – I certainly did as it got me very much interested!

The Khmer Rouge was not toppled until the Vietnamese Army stormed Phnom Penh in 1979. Although members of the Khmer Rouge party still served in the government until the 1990s as “elected officials”. Cambodia is still a socialist/communist (whatever you want to call it) and instead of justice for those responsible, their actions are swept under the rug. Very amazing to see and learn about this first hand…

Mekong Delta Day 3

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Our last and final day in Vietnam we boarded another boat to visit the floating fish markets. When I say fish farm, it’s a netted area under a local person’s house that is on the Mekong River. The family feeds the fish twice a day pellets of fish food ( we got to try and they went crazy!). Once they are grown a large enough, her ship sucks the fish out from under the families house and take them to be processed to ship out. Our guide said that families who own the fish farms make a pretty penny for Vietnam standards.

A fish farm on the Mekong River

A fish farm on the Mekong River

The house we went to raised tilapia. Just remember that the frozen tilapia fillets at the grocery store come from here in Vietnam! Not exactly how you pictured your “fresh” fish looking! (Sketchy fish food+ confined quarters in netting + filthy river water with trash in it = not appetizing fish).

Just remember this next time your fish says "Product of Vietnam"

Just remember this next time your fish says “Product of Vietnam”

Last stop was another village that did weaving. The families have their houses raised on stilts because the water gets so high ! They find their lifeblood on the river as well.

Rural village

Rural village

Making handicrafts

Making handicrafts

After our tour, Rob and boarded a speed boat to take us to the Cambodian border and then onto Phenom Penh. Visas at the border are only $20 bucks for Americans and the boat crew were charging us $10 bucks extra to do it. We didn’t understand why so we offered to do it ourself. Big mistake.

We got stamped out of Vietnam fine. The boat crew and border crew kept talking about us and we thought they were being shady. They wanted to extra fees to put in their back pocket. When we arrived at the Cambodia border, we got out and gave our money and waited for them to return our passports. Everyone in our group got theirs except Rob and I. The border control said Rob did not have enough pages (we showed them 5) but they still did not listen. They told us to go back to Vietnam. The guy from the boat who tried to “help” us was just looking for us to throw in more money. We asked how much to “fix” the issue and they helped out their hands for $60 bucks. We reluctantly paid (we had no choice at a no name river town on the border). No question that the guy who charges the “fees” on the boat was in on it too. We may have been a target because we were American or we may have just pissed those guys off that day but it just left a bad taste in our mouth about Vietnam and Cambodia.

Cruising up river to Phnom Penh, Camboida

Cruising up river to Phnom Penh, Camboida

Building a new bridge (probably with Chinese money)

Building a new bridge (probably with Chinese money)

It is obvious now why they call Cambodia “Scambodia”. Everyone is looking to get one over on you and squeeze money from you. It could be a rickshaw driver inflating a taxi price or a sneaky street vendor who changes the price of their food after you have already eaten it (happen to us in Vietnam) . It makes you sad that that border guy is getting an extra $20 from every person when we saw poor 6 year olds feverishly trying to sell souvenirs to tourist in Angkor Wat for an extra buck. I would have rather given that extra $20 to someone who needed, obviously not the border guy.

Mekong Delta Day 2

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The next day, our group embarked on a boat to tour the floating markets of the Mekong river. Here many villagers bring their fruits and veggies by boat to this location down river to sell their produce in bulk to the markets in town. It was crowded with hustle and bustle but Rob and I managed to purchase fresh mango from a guy and he chopped it up for us on the spot to eat!

Floating Market

Floating Market

Locals selling to each other at the market

Locals selling to each other at the market

People live and work on their boats

People live and work on their boats

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Pineapples

Pineapples

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Rob loving the fresh mango!

Rob loving the fresh mango!

Many of the people live and work on their boat. They float rice, pineapples, sweet potatoes, mangos, etc… You name it and you will probably find it. The boats “advertise” their goods for sale by hanging it on the flag pole on the ship. No false advertising here!

Look at the top of the poles advertising their produce for sale!

Look at the top of the poles advertising their produce for sale!

Floating Market

Floating Market

So many boats

So many boats

Mekong Highway

Mekong Highway

Our boat stopped off in another riverside village and we got to see how rice noodles are made. It looked similar to how we made the rice paper but they put it through a “shredder” and then let the noodles dry. These famous noodles are in almost all the Vietnamese dishes we had, including pho.

Making rice noodles

Making rice noodles

Hot off the press

Hot off the press

Boat cruising

Boat cruising

Grilled frogs for lunch!

Grilled frogs for lunch!

Rural life

Rural life

Back on the boat we began to head home. Once back in town, a smaller group of us spending a 2 night with the tour continued 4 hours more to the next town which brought us closer to the Cambodian border.

After our four hour minivan drive, we stopped at a bird sanctuary nestled deep in the countryside. Our small group of 6 were the only people there! We took a lazy bought ride through the reeds and saw some birds but were spooked by thy he motor. We stopped and switched to the smaller, wooden boats and managed through this mystic water maze. Deep inside the maze, we saw hundreds of birds and their nests high in the trees with their young. This place is a sanctuary for the birds safe from poachers and prey.

Water lettuce that the locals eat

Water lettuce that the locals eat

Bride into the woods

Bridge into the woods

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Eerie trees that live in the shallow waters

Eerie trees that live in the shallow waters

A tunnel of trees

A tunnel of trees

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Just in time back to our hotel before the rain!

Mekong Delta Day 1

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After leaving Saigon we departed on a 3 day, 2 night excursion through the Mekong Delta to meet the people and understand the communities that lie on the river.

Our first stop was a shrine to Buddha and a monastery. We got to see a great “Asian” interpretation of Buddha with his big belly, smiling happily. We also saw a beautiful gold, laying Buddha at the temples. When then walked into the main monastery where the monks pray and worship and we got to see them praying before their lunch time meal, which was a really neat experience.

Happy Buddha (love the belly!)

Happy Buddha (love the belly!)

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Buddha laying down

Buddha laying down

Monks praying before lunch

Monks praying before lunch

Inside the Buddhist Temple (I like his neon head glow)

Inside the Buddhist Temple (I like his neon head glow)

Courtyard in the monastery

Courtyard in the monastery

Lotus flower floating on the nearby pond

Lotus flower floating on the nearby pond

We continued on our way to ride a boat down the river. We stopped at a small, local fishing community for lunch.

On the Mekong River

On the Mekong River

Boat life on the river

Boat life on the river

Floating houses

Floating houses

After lunch we set on foot to see how they make famous coconut candies in area. It tastes like coconut flavored toffee and we got to eat it warm from the cauldron! It was so delicious.

Lovely and lush

Lovely and lush

Coconut Candy Making

Coconut Candy Making

Assembly line for all the candy making!

Assembly line for all the candy making!

From there a local woman took us up river to another river side community. We all sat in a dug out wooden boat and Rob helped to paddle. It began to pour so we got to wear the traditional Vietnamese hats to protect our faces. The surroundings were absolutely amazing and the jungle and reeds made you feel like you were deep in the countryside.

Our guide down the river!

Our guide down the river!

Rocking awesome Vietnamese hats

Rocking awesome Vietnamese hats

Deep in the jungle

Deep in the jungle

Winding down the river

Winding down the river

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We look like locals?

We look like locals?

Paddling down the Mekong

Paddling down the Mekong

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After our boat cruise we took a rest at another local families home where they played traditional music for us and sang. We got to enjoy tea and fresh tropical fruits like dragon fruit and lychees!

Singing us a lovely local song

Singing us a lovely local song

Back on our bus to overnight in town until we set off the next morning.

The Chu Chi Tunnels

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Continuing the theme of war history, we took a day trip to the nearby Chu Chi Tunnels outside of HCMC. The tunnels are famous as they were a stronghold of the VC during the war and the tunnels stretched hundreds of miles and thousands of people lived in them.

The fearless communist leader

The fearless communist leader

An original tunnel dug deep into the ground connecting various sections

An original tunnel dug deep into the ground connecting various sections

Our guide showing us how they got inside and put the roof on (which was disguised in leaves!)

Our guide showing us how they got inside and put the roof on (which was disguised in leaves!)

Never know it was there!

Never know it was there!

The United States had a large airbase in this are and the VC used these tunnels to carry out guerrilla type warfare. A famous quite about the was is “the VC are everywhere but we cannot see them”.

Rob barely fitting

Rob barely fitting

Surprise attack!

Surprise attack!

Alarmed to be in there

Alarmed to be in there

Lovely part of the tunnels covered with bats (and usually rats inside!).

Lovely part of the tunnels covered with bats (and usually rats inside!).

Nowadays, the Chu Chi Tunnels are a major tourist attraction and there is war artifacts. We saw some cheesy displays such as how the Vietnamese used to find unexplored bombs, take them apart, the use the munition to make land mines against the Americans.

Exhibit showing how the Vietnamese used American bombers to recreate their own.

Exhibit showing how the Vietnamese used American bombers to recreate their own.

There was also a US Army tank on the grounds – this was the exact spot of where to was destroyed by a land mine and the treads fell off. Scary walking through the dense jungle knowing there were hundreds of mines in this area.

Rob sitting on top of the tank that was immobilized during the war

Rob sitting on top of the tank that was immobilized during the war

Some of the trails leading through the woods above ground

Some of the trails leading through the woods above ground

They call this a 'souvenir' trap. When your foot gets stuck and you have to take the trap with you to get untangled !

They call this a ‘souvenir’ trap. When your foot gets stuck and you have to take the trap with you to get untangled !

Our guide showing us the various traps set to hurt the Americans

Our guide showing us the various traps set to hurt the Americans

Example of secret traps they hid for the Americans (based off of hunting traps)

Example of secret traps they hid for the Americans (based off of hunting traps)

To add to the fear of being at the Chu Chi Tunnels is on site was a shooting range where you can fire AK47s or M16s. The sounds were deafening and frightening to hear 20 bullets being fired in a second with no warning as the gun shots echo throughout the jungle. We went up to the firing range and you purchase each bullet. Pretty expensive when a gun can spit off about 20 rounds in a second!

Price for rounds of bullets at the shooting range

Price for rounds of bullets at the shooting range

The last stop was visiting the inside of the tunnels. One section of the tunnels has been greatly expanded for tourists and it was only 20 meters (65 feet long). You didn’t need to crawl but hunch down. You also had the option to continue another 110 meters (350 feet) through the tunnels were you would have to crawl on you hands and knees through some VERY tight spaces. Kathleen and I (along with 90%) of our tour group only did the short route while a few brave souls continued the full distance. As we completed the tunnels, it began to rain heavy, giving you the sensation we were American GIs in Vietnam.

Rob heading into the tunnel

Rob heading into the tunnel

So dark, hot and scary

So dark, hot and scary

Literally scared to death! claustrophobic's nightmare.

Literally scared to death! claustrophobic’s nightmare.

The Chu Chi Tunnels are quite an engineering marvel as there were many levels and rooms such as a storeroom, kitchen, living quarters, and emergency escapes. For ventilation, they would use a hollow bamboo pole as an air pipe then disguise it as a termite mound on the surface. The American military had men who were called “tunnels rats” who’s job was to go into these tunnels and find and kill and Vietnamese soldiers. I would not want that job at all.

Picture of American GI's trying to squeeze down the tunnel

Picture of American GI’s trying to squeeze down the tunnel

Termite mound which was disguised as ventilation

Termite mound which was disguised as ventilation

On the way back we stopped at a gift shop of handicapped people making handicrafts for sale. These people were born with defects from Agent Orange and many of them had severe physical problems. Sad to see this first hand from the pictures we saw the previous day. On a side note, shopping stops are compulsory on tours in this part of the world as the tour company gets a kickback.

Crafters who were effected by Agent Orange

Crafters who were effected by Agent Orange