Cycling around the vast temple complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom is one of the highlights of my Indochina tour. Its paved roads and flat sandy surfaces are ideal for commuting on two wheels, not to mention experiencing some of Cambodia’s ancient historical structures and scaling along its corridors and steep stairways that lead to the Khmer-style towers.
First stop, Angkor Wat
After a long stretch of flat roads, I was welcomed by a vast moat which surrounded the temple walls. Seeing the towers on the horizon, I excitedly parked my bike and walked towards the entrance.
I just couldn’t stress out how huge Angkor Wat is! From the entrance of the complex, it will take you about 300 meters to get to the walls of the 900 year old Khmer masterpiece.
I walked along the pathway of the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site and just couldn’t believe how big it was. I kept asking myself: How did the people of the early 12th century build this architectural wonder for only 40 years? (And with only using hand tools at that.)
To put it in perspective, some European cathedrals were being built during that time as well but it took them about 200-300 years to finish!
Just imagine the huge manpower it took for this Hindu Temple to dominate the horizons of the Ancient city of Angkor until today.
Angkor Wat was built under the order of King Suryavarman II during the Khmer empire in the early 12th century and is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built for the god Vishnu and resembles Mt. Meru, the center of all universes where the deities reside according to Hindu cosmology.
Inside the temple
What’s equally impressive are the carvings inside the temple halls. The intricate linear artworks stretches all throughout the walls of Angkor Wat. Several scenes from the Mahabharata were depicted, as well as figures of the 32 hells and 37 heavens in Hinduism.
I couldn’t believe how detailed the inscriptions were in each corners of the temple and how the craftsmen of that time meticulously did these. Imagine how pissed off the king might have been if an artist carved off a body part by mistake. They might have been punished or executed during that time.
There were also headless Buddha statues inside. The temples were pillaged during the Cambodia Civil War by the Khmer Rouge and other groups who sold the heads to the black market. It turned out that some statues had pieces of gold inside.
Most of the temples in Angkor were known for the steep steps going to the top of the tower. Kings ordered to build it that way in order to remind everyone that the heavens are hard to reach.
The weather app said there will be scattered rain showers. Clouds started to envelope the skies by mid morning signaling the dreaded forecast.
I was stranded for a brief moment with dozens of other tourists inside Angkor Wat. I didn’t fret for a second as I realized that it was a unique experience getting stuck inside the largest religious monument in the world. How cool is that?
I have already anticipated the bad weather prior to my trip so I brought a poncho and I also couldn’t wait for too long. I was back on my saddle in no time and headed straight to Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom.
It was quite a long stretch going to Bayon Temple. What I’ve noticed in spite the rain messing up with my visibility was the popular Naga Bridge.
I found myself along the muddy pathway going to Bayon. Weather was not getting any better but it didn’t deter me from seeing King Jayavarman II’s many-faced temple.
It was evident that Bayon Temple stood against the ravages of time. Stones that were once part of the royal edifice are now scattered along the open areas. What’s fascinating are the stone carvings along its walls. The everyday life of the Khmer Empire was well-documented from market vendors, cockfights, recreational activities, hand-to-hand duels, and even warfare.
Bayon Temples’s striking feature is the smiling stone faces all over its walls and pillars. Unlike some of the temples in the city of Angkor, this amazing structure was initially Buddhist-inspired since King Jayavarman VII was a Buddhist himself.
It is still a mystery on who or what these faces represent. Others say that it is the image of the King’s face while others say it is the embodiment of the compassion of Buddha. Whichever holds truth does not deny the fact that these 216 gigantic faces makes Bayon Temple a very interesting piece of architectural wonder.
Around Angkor Thom
The vast complex known as Angkor Thom is a utopia for ancient architecture and cycling enthusiasts. The 9 square kilometer area is riddled with centuries old stones, walls, and smaller temples just begging to be photographed.
It was the ancient capital of the Khmer Kingdom and was one of the expanded projects of King Jaravayman VII during his reign. Among the multitudes of temples and ruins are the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. Such intriguing names which can pass as titles for another Indiana Jones sequel
Ta Keo Temple
The massive mountain-temple of Ta Keo is one of my favorite sites because it is made entirely of sandstone. This temple was supposed to be dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu but construction was not completed during the reign of King Jayavarman V.
I hit the road once again during lunch time and made a sigh of relief when I saw sunlight hit the pavement. The scattered rains and drizzles have finally come to an end.
On the far eastern side of Angkor Thom is another King Jaravayman II masterpiece. The Bayon style Ta Prohm temple is one of the most famous landmarks in all of Angkor because of its gigantic trees crawling out from the temple walls in a slow ecological and architectural stranglehold.
Remember the scene in that Tomb Raider live action film where Angelina Jolie drove her 4×4 off along a foresty trail and then ended up in an ancient temple entwined with gigantic trees? Yes, this is the exact place.
It is like nature’s take on Salvador Dali and it just hits you with bouts of surrealism. Everywhere was just spectacular; but sadly, no matter how beautiful it may seem, the jungles of Siem Reap appears to have a mind of its own, ready to engulf the temples to oblivion as it withers through time.
The merging of nature and ancient architecture is a work of art on the surface. Nature has a way of making its aesthetics work its charms to us. It makes us unaware of the underlying threat it imposes to these temples. In the end, we all know which one will be the victor.
I was on my way back to Angkor Wat at around 5pm when I saw this:
Prasat Kravan is a smaller temple with five small towers. This 10th century monument was said to be built by a Hindu priest. A contrast to the other mountain-temples that were built by Kings.
After a few more minutes, I headed back to the front of the temple complex before the sun went down.
The temples revealed the Khmer Empire’s ingenuity and creativity. What I toured was just a small part of an even larger network of structures. Hundreds of temples and ruins are within the dense forests that spans for 50 miles to the ranges of Mt. Kulen.
Time and nature may claim some parts of it; but these monumental masterpieces will endure to tell us the story of a remarkable civilization that was once lost.
I’m happy to read about your Angkor Wat experience or if you’re planning to see these incredible structures. Please share your stories or plans in the comments section below.
- Hydrate – Going in and out of temples is physically exhausting and It gets very hot especially by midday so take plenty of water.
- Check the weather forecast – Rain may still occur so be ready. You can bring a poncho or an umbrella in case of bad weather.
- Bike locks – Always ask for one. Generally, Angkor Wat is a safe place but it never hurts to be extra cautious. There are several parking areas outside the temple complex where you can lock your bikes.
- Take care of your ticket – I flashed my drenched ticket to one of the guards and he asked me to be extra careful of it. Tickets will not be honored when tampered.
- Don’t buy tickets from unauthorized sellers – Be wary of scalpers and buy one from legit establishments. For full details please click here.
- Get up early – Even the small tour can last for a whole day. You may also get a chance to see the breathtaking Cambodian sunrise.
- Get a multiple day pass – If time and budget permits. Angkor is a very huge place. One whole day is just not enough if you want to see most of the attractions.
- Food – Price is a bit steep when it comes to food within the area. I brought some snacks in case I went farther and there weren’t any shops in sight.
The main ticketing area is 3 kilometers away from the complex. Turn right when you see a children’s hospital and follow the road. It’s hard to miss once you take this direction.
- 1 Day: $37
- 3 Days: $62
- 7 Days: $72
For more details click here.
Tour Guide: $15
- Commuter: $1.50
- Mountain Bike: $4
*Rental fees may vary depending on the shop
Tuktuks have no fixed rate so better sharpen your haggling skills. A full day rental may cost from $15-$20.