Siem Reap is home to arguably the most famous site throughout Cambodia, Angkor Wat. Translated it means Temple City, it is home to 20 – 30 temples on a 12km circular route, although the name Angkor Wat is primarily associated with the most well restored, and rather enormous, temple where hundreds of people go to watch sunrise and sunset every day.
In order to get to Angkor Wat most people elect to take a tuk-tuk ride with a driver who will give you the history of the temples whilst you’re cruising around in the tuk-tuk –don’t be thinking he’s going to get out and traipse round all those temples with you, it’s bloody hot, there’s lots of steps, and your endless quest to get the perfect photograph is only interesting to you.
The tuk-tuk will pull over at the ticket office and then you can buy a ticket for either one or three days entry. Unless you’ve really done your research on the temples and have become something of an expert who desperately wants to see every temple, one day is all you need. Then you bimble along clean roads beside a picturesque moat, enjoying the shade of the tuk-tuk and the breeze in your face, stopping off at whichever temple you desire, and taking food and drink breaks choosing from either roadside vendors, or small cafes. It’s a lovely, pleasant, fascinating day.
You could do it that way. Or, you could do what I did.
I thought to myself, “6k out of town? That’s not that far. Here’s an idea, instead of hiring a tuk-tuk and enjoying the breeze with a knowledgeable drive, and maybe some new friends from your hostel, why not get a bicycle and cycle out there and all around in the blazing hot sun for 7 hours. After all you’ll be thing regular breaks to trek up umpteen flights of steps to the tops of temples so there will be plenty of time to rest.”
Truthfully, I am incredibly glad I did it that way, and I would do it again in a heart beat…. making just two small changes.
1. Hire a bike that does not have a rock hard, unpadded, knife edged sharp saddle. Since it was going to be a long day of cycling I got myself a mountain bike because it would be a smoother ride, which it was, but from about the first half an hour onwards I was in pain. I am sure, although I could not find a big enough mirror to confirm this, that I ended up with severe bruising on my arse.
2. Consult that map with a soupcon more care. I made one wrong turn the entire day and added on an extra 10km to my journey. It wasn’t unpleasant, I two wheeled my way through the countryside where all the local kids came running out to practice their English on the crazy barang (Cambodian version of ‘el gringo’) woman cycling in the heat and clearly in the wrong place. Also when someone tells you it’s only 6 km to Angkor Wat, they are not lying, but they are neglecting to mention that if you want to see any more than the first temple then you’re looking at a 20-30 km round trip….40 km if you take an unexpected detour for an hour or two.
So there I was, pedalling away along the Charles de Gaulle Blvd, the main road into the Temple Complex, feeling mighty proud of myself for managing to navigate Cambodian traffic, even managing a roundabout without having to get off and walk the bike. The sweat poured off me, but the large trees provided shade, and at the temple ticket office the security guards were very sweet and put my bike into the shade for me whilst I got my ticket. I particularly appreciated this consideration since I had unwittingly attempted to cruise past the ticket office, and they’d had to risk life and limb by jumping into the road to flag me down, so that I wouldn’t have the irksome experience of cycling all the way to the temples only to have to come back and get the ticket.
The tickets are hilarious, they tell you to stare at a light but you have no idea when the photo is being taken, and then you’re give a paper ticket with your gormless, sweaty face on it. A fantastic souvenir.
With my ticket safely tucked in my back pocket, I pedalled off to the city of temples. The first thing I came to was the moat, which is not a traditional stone walled moat that you see when you visit castles, but a wide expanse of clean water bordered by long grasses and graceful trees strewn with lily pads. By pure luck I went the opposite direction to most people and ended up finding the back entrance into Angkor Wat. I parked my razor blade saddled steed, and ambled along the water ways through ancient arches leading into the forest and down the paths to the grey stone towers of Angkor Wat.
The temples are an example of how good craftsmanship will stand the test of time. Centuries old, they remain standing, functional buildings. The walls have retained intricately carved stone friezes without crumbling away. The whole thing feels like it will be there for many centuries to come.
They lack the gilding and sparkle of the modern wats, and they are more beautiful for it. It’s the simplicity of grey stone weathered and softened from daily thunderstorms that wraps the temples in a blanket of tranquillity. More stunning than the temples though, is the landscape in which they are situated. Lush green forests filled with gnarled trees and undulating ground provide the backdrop for stone sites. It is the type of land which you dream about running through as a kid, getting lost for hours at a time.
The roads through the temple complex form two routes, the little route and the big route. The smaller one takes in nearly all the temples, whilst the larger one adds a few extra km onto the journey and takes in every single monument there. Some of the temples you can just stroll in, but most have guards that will ask you for your ticket. At one temple I pulled out my crumpled, now flaking, ticket and the guard cheerfully commented, “Oh this is getting a little wet.” I nodded in agreement, and chose not inform him it was saturated with my own perspiration. Occasionally, very occasionally, I know when to keep my mouth shut.
The densest area of temples are clustered in a square area taking the name of once of its temples, Angkor Thom. You enter the Angkor Thom complex through narrow gates with giant benevolent faces carved into them, and then merrily navigate your way through all the carvings, walls, archways, staircases, towers and more faces gathering various things along the way: awe; enlightenment; mosquito bites; bags of pineapple; sunburn; bits of artwork; inspiration; photographs; peace; exhaustion ….it varies from person to person.
At around 3:30pm, as I was starting to explore the Bayon temple, which was the one I had most wanted to see, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped, and the dark purple clouds fell on our heads. A mixed group of tourists, security guards and police huddled together under a small shelter for forty minutes waiting for the storm to pass. It was a good opportunity for some unashamed people watching up close. I found myself fascinated by the policeman who obviously took great pride being in uniform as he balanced precariously on top of a rickety chair to avoid the heavy rain splashing up from the floor soaking his shoes and trousers. It occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen someone feeling a sense of honour to be in their chosen profession. Perhaps this particular gentleman was as fastidious with all his belongings, but it did come across as genuine respect for the uniform.
After the storm I had a choice, continue to explore Bayon, or cycle back into town. The impending sunset made the decision for me. As pleased as I was with myself for navigating the traffic of Siem Reap, I didn’t think I was quite invincible enough to do it at night, without lights on my bike.

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