There are many ways to tour the temples of Angkor: by tuk-tuk, by moto, by air-conditioned coach, with a guide or without. During my 2009 trip to Angkor Wat, my Dad and I bought three-day passes and toured by tuk tuk, with my Dad and his encyclopedic memory of the guidebook serving as our guide. This being my second trip to the world-famous temples, I wanted to explore Angkor Wat by bicycle.
I had read ahead of time that bikes can be rented in the old market area for a mere 1-2 dollars a day. Keeping in mind that negotiating/haggling of any kind is one of my greatest weaknesses and least favorite aspects of traveling, I decided to flex some of my bargaining skills when the shop I popped into quoted me $2 per bike.
“How about a group discount. One dollar each for five bikes?”
Not bad for a first try! I could feel those negotiating muscles getting a little sore, so I decided to accept inflated and unfair tourist pricing for the rest of the day without question. Once you reach a price you will have to leave a passport or large cash deposit, as there have been problems with tourists abandoning the bicycles at the temples when they get tired. Seriously? Would you abandon a rental car in Spain even if you got carsick or the radio was playing nothing but Europop for hours on end? Well, maybe that last one was a bad example. But truly, I think you’d have to be a special kind of person to rob a person in a third world country of their only source of income because you became fatigued while voluntarily cycling. Rant over.
The most dangerous part of the day is getting out of town, where you will battle motos, bicycles, cars and pedestrians for space on the road. Once you emerge from the worst bit of traffic in the Old Market area, you have about 8km of biking north on the straight flat road until you reach the temples. You will have to pull off the side en route to purchase your one, three, or seven-day pass. While we attempted to stay on the shoulder of the road, bicycles are considered totally legitimate forms of transportation to take down the middle of a Cambodian highway.
Don’t expect to cover the entire circuit of temples by bike unless you start very early and have much more resilience than this slacker. The ride begins to become something really beautiful at the end of the 8km road from town, when you will turn left to ride along the south and then west stretches of the moat that surround Angkor Wat- the most famous of the Angkor Temples. Along the way we passed children playing in the moat water and monkeys scampering across the streets. Soon we arrived at the entrance to Angkor Wat- the view that launched a thousand postcards.
Angkor Wat is most popular at sunrise, but we are just not sunrise kinds of people. Due to the time of day at the flooding that has been plaguing Cambodia and scaring away tourists, we felt that we kind of had the place to ourselves. Well, compared to the usual mob scene that is any major tourist destination around the world.
After few hours lazily wandering around the grounds of Angkor Wat, we rode North towards Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is the great walled city that is home to Bayon, the other jewel in the Angkor temples crown. The path is flat and wide and flanked by enormous trees that provide much appreciated shading from the hot Cambodian sun. The original gates of Angkor Thom are still standing, and at their very narrow width they can cause quite the traffic jam. I loved the spectacle of it. It’s not every day you are waiting to pass an elephant and a tuk tuk.
One of my favorite parts of my 2009 trip to Angkor happened right inside the South Gate of Angkor Thom, and I was secretly hoping that we might have a similar encounter this time. I was in luck.
Well, not really luck considering the monkeys are fed constantly by tourists who buy bananas and other snacks off roadside vendors. Feeling empowered by my recent bought of physical activity, I decided to give haggling a go again, this time with a seven year old girl selling bananas.
“You want bananas one dolla?”
“Hello young lady. How about 3,000 riel [about 75cents]?
“Okay!” Cheerfully hands over one dollar.
I think I’m getting better at this.
Once I was able to remind myself that this wasn’t a zoo and tear myself away from the monkeys, we headed on to Bayon. Bayon’s most famous feature is the hundreds of faces carved into the stone, staring placidly towards the four cardinal directions.
Rather than exit Angkor Thom through the North Gate and continue on to Preah Khan like a typical tour might do, we cut the route turned and exited through the East Gate towards Ta Keo and Ta Phrom. This part of the ride was stunningly beautiful, bringing us through thick forests with tiny wooden bridges spanning streams and the occasional ancient temple ruins poking through the foliage. We mostly kept silent and listened to the birds, except for the occasional sigh of contentment or chirping chorus of our bike bells.
Ta Keo isn’t one of the big draw temples, but it’s worth stopping by at. It is starkly bare in contrast to other richly decorated temples, leading scholars to speculate that construction was stopped before the decoration phase. It was also the only temple to be constructed totally of sandstone.
We got a pretty late start that day, so we started heading back to town after Ta Keo. But the next major temple is Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie’s hit movie Tomb Raider. After Ta Prohm, you can carry on to Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang before starting the road home. At the time we did the ride, this part of the ride was a bit nerve wracking. Flooding was at critical levels and we often had to take a leap of faith and ride though knee high water flooding the roads. But it was all part of the adventure and the privilege of biking through one of the greatest ancient cities in the world.
Do you want to do the same? Here are a few practicalities:
• Budget $1-2 for the bicycle and bring your passport or $60 for a deposit
• Be sure to ask for a bike lock. Though we noticed we were the only ones actually using them, better safe than sorry.
• Bring a rain coat and plenty of water.
• For lunch, there is a nice air-conditioned restaurant across from Angkor Wat or for a cheaper more local experience there are plenty of food stalls near Sra Srang and the south wall of Angkor Wat. Fruit and water are sold everywhere.
• In town and on major roads, be very alert and careful. I found that when crossing a road, the key was to be bold and just have faith that everyone would get out of my way!
To see all my photos from Angkor, visit Flickr here.