I’m finally catching up on writing about our travels in Cambodia earlier this year. Things didn’t start well. I’d caught a nasty cold and my head felt like it was going to explode on our evening flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. All I wanted to do was get to our guesthouse and sleep. Morning came early as we’d pre-booked an Angkor Temple bike tour. Drugged up on Tylenol Cold, with kleenex stuffed in every available pocket, I lacklusterly pedalled with our group to the visitor centre to buy tickets. It was mayhem. Chinese New Year holidays coupled with an imminent ticket price increase had the Angkor temple complex exploding with visitors.
Surprisingly, there was efficiency in the chaos, and securing our tickets took much less time than we’d expected. Sambo, our Grasshopper Adventures guide expertly bypassed the crazy queues of cars, taxis, and tuk-tuks and led us along dirt tracks and minor roads. The size of the Angkor temple complex makes it impossible to see everything in a day. Our bike tour took us to “the big three”—Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm—with only a glimpse of the highlights at each. To put it in perspective, the complex’s main temple, Angkor Wat, is four times the size of Vatican City. It is considered the largest religious monument in the world.
First stop: Ta Prohm, or as Sambo called it, the Tomb Raider Temple ( I think he is quite smitten by lead actor Angelina Jolie). This 12th century Buddhist temple, featured in the 2000 film Tomb Raider, is very popular with visitors mostly because of the freakish trees that grow among the ruins (archaeologists call them a nuisance). It’s an atmospheric place, hidden in the jungle, the dappled sunshine casting an eerie glow on the snake-like roots strangling the crumbling ruins. Ta Prohm is a must-visit, but be prepared to share it. In my next post, I’ll have photos of Ta Som, a smaller temple with Ta Prohm-like trees minus the crowds.
My favourite memory of the day came next, as was entered Angkor Thom through its east gate, which is inaccessible to regular cars. At that moment, it was just our group of about a dozen cyclists. The serenity of the forest path leading to the entrance and the decaying grandeur of the gate was how I’d naively imagined an Angkor temple experience.
Angkor Thom is a massive complex of about 9 sq. km and I actually preferred it to Angkor Wat. Perhaps it was the mesmerizing tower faces that crown the Bayon at the centre of the complex. The faces are thought to be likenesses of the ruling Buddhist king of the time (he’d be all over today’s selfies). The bas-reliefs at Bayon, depicting everyday life and historical events are fascinating. It would have been easy to spend several hours just looking at these.
We painstakingly waited for opportunities to take photos that gave the impression that we had the Bayon to ourselves. But at one point, listening in vain to Sambo’s history lesson as dozens of voices in as many languages competed for air time, Mike just said to hell with it and started taking photos of the crowd. It’s comical now looking at the sea of humanity.
We cycled from busy Bayon to our lunch stop at one of the many crowded, unassuming, open-air restaurants near the main entrance of Angkor Wat. I wish I had photos, but I was still feeling lethargic and couldn’t be bothered. That didn’t stop me from digging into a feast that just kept coming—noodles, stir-fries, dumplings, and the best amok (specialty Khmer fish stew) I had on the trip.
Time for the pièce de résistance—Angkor Wat. It’s impossible not to be impressed by this temple originally dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu. And talk about curb appeal. We approached on the long sandstone causeway, which crosses a moat and is adorned by fierce looking seven-headed nagas (serpents).
While the iconic structure with its beautiful towers is impressive, I was most taken by the sheer magnitude of the 800 meters of bass-reliefs stretching around the outside of the central temple. There are so many stories relayed in these intricate carvings but we only had time to hear a few of them. Of course the gruesome ones, at the heaven and hell wall, were the most fascinating (take a close look). In addition to its role as a state temple, it is believed that Angkor Wat also served as a mausoleum.
In contrast, to the horrors of hell, Angkor Wat is also famous for having more than 3000 beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. These ladies are stunning and Mike took more than his fair share of photos.
The day went quickly, and before we knew it we were back at the Grasshopper office in Siem Reap sipping on coconuts and cleaning the dust and sweat off our faces. Our first day at this special place was a mixed bag of mayhem and majesty. Nevertheless, we were excited to have two more days to explore on our own. You can read about our experience beyond the big three temples here.
Note to self: Check on the timing of Chinese New Year.
Things to know about an Angkor Temple bike tour
- Grasshopper Adventures Cycle Angkor Temples day tour is a unique and fun experience. I recommend it if you want something different, need a bit of exercise, and are OK with taking in the general ambiance and top level highlights of the Angkor Temples. I don’t recommend it if you want to spend lots of time at each site or learn more about the stories and in-depth history. The best scenario is including a tour like this with several more days of exploring alone or with a private guide.
- The approx. 30 km of biking is easy—all on flat terrain and there’s even a fair amount of shade on the forested paths.
- Our guide Sambo was friendly and knowledgable, and the bikes and helmets were in good condition.
- You won’t go hungry or thirsty. Grasshopper supplies all the water you’ll need (lots), fresh fruit snacks, and a huge lunch.
- While there is no enforced dress code to enter the temples, visitors should wear modest, respectful clothing with tops that at least cover the shoulders and bottoms that go to knees or longer.