Today I’m reminiscing over one of the most incredible places in the world and sharing some travel tales of temples, monkeys and beautiful sights.
Angkor Wat is one of those must-sees on many-a-travelling list. It’s Cambodia’s most famous tourism destination and as such, receives well over a million visits a year. It therefore seems a far cry from the backpackers’s dream of discovering somewhere undiscovered, and experiencing something different from the millions of tourists. But it can be done.
As soon as you arrive in Siem Reap and throughout your time wandering through the town people will be shouting ‘Tuk tuk. Angkor Wat. I take you’ And sure, a Tuk tuk is a pretty good way to do it. But, it’s not the best. There is only one that will leave you feeling like you may have just accidentally stumbled upon an undiscovered secret.
Despite its fame it is still possible to find yourself alone looking at a tree, breaking through the ruins of an incredible temple, its roots and its history intertwined with the building, and only a curious monkey for company. All you need to do is take a mountain bike and head off road.
Now pre-Asia I wasn’t what you’d call ‘a bike person’. My biking experience involved doing figures of 8 up to the age of 10, an unfortunate incident with a pole in Scotland at 14, and an even more unfortunate incident with a bush and a canal at 29 in London. Bikes played a little hard to get with me but I wore them down. Once I’d accepted the fact that I may end up in a ditch or get all snuggly with a tree sometimes we were all hunky dory.
According to most of the people we’d met in Vietnam who’d already been to Angkor Wat and got the T-Shirt (or at least the oh-so-popular Angkor What?! T-Shirt) one day walking around in the sweltering heat was quite enough to see the main sites and I imagine, with a tuk tuk driver getting you there and around, it would be. But a friend back in London disagreed and recommended the best way to do it was by bike.
So, after spending some of the best time we’d had in Vietnam on bikes, we decided biking was absolutely the only way we’d be doing it and we were going to take three days. One day is really not enough.
A one day pass to the archeological park costs $20, while a three days pass costs $40 so, as we figured we wanted to do two days there at least, we bought option two.
Bearing in mind we’d been travelling for four months already and were quite wowed out by temples and scenery, Angkor Wat still turned out to be a massive highlight. We spent three days exploring what has to be one of the most incredible places in the world on two wheels.
Day One: The offroad Angkor Bicycle tour
So we’d established we wanted to go by bike but had no idea how to go about it and what to see and how to even get to Angkor from Siem Reap. So, we did a little research and found a tour called The offroad Angkor bicycle tour run by an NGO supporting schooling and training of Khmer children which sounded perfect.
Our guide met us and the three of us rode to the archaeological park. After entering through the gates and riding along the main road with the tuk tuks we suddenly took a turn and were riding through forest, arriving on a path alongside an ancient wall where it was just us. For most of the day we were pretty much alone until we passed by one of the villages that still exist in Angkor park today.
On day one we didn’t even see Angkor Wat itself, but instead got a feel for the park, learnt some history and Khmer culture from our guide and got to see some some lesser seen temples.
At the end of the first day we’d ridden 40km. An ice cold beer in Siem Reap followed by a Khmer massage were very welcome.
Day two: Anchor Wat and bike-eating monkeys
After getting our bearings and seeing some of the more hidden temples the day before we were ready to face the big ones and make the journey ourselves. Heading out onto the main roads we weaved through tuk tuks and taxis to make the journey away from Siem Reap and towards Anchor Park. This time we started with the crown jewel. Angkor Wat itself was an impressive beast and while crowded in parts, we still managed to find a quiet spot to have a bit of a rest and eat a sandwich.
Next we explored and found more secret spots plus veered onto the main roads where the bulk of people were. It was here that I saw the buses with crowds of people getting in and out and, taking a bunch of pictures and getting in the bus and driving to the next one. I felt sad that they would go back probably saying that Angkor Wat was “alright, nice temples and that but once you’ve seen a couple you’ve seen them all”. I know because I’ve felt the same when I’ve done tours in other parts of Asia and now know that the discovery and journey is all part of the experience. Anyone who doesn’t want to ride a bike, get a tuk tuk, just don’t get a big tourist bus. The temples are great but it’s the park, the ride through an ancient city which is truly magical.
On the way back we met some more monkeys sitting by the lake. Stopping by the side of the road to take some pics, a baby monkey took quite a liking to my bike. That was pretty cute, until he decided to start eating my bike.
Day three: Angkor Wat sunrise and that tomb raider one
After two days of exploring we decided day three we’d do the popular things which were Anchor Wat sunrise, and that ‘Tomb Raider’ temple so I could get my best Angelina on. One thing about the sunrise though is there’s rather a long journey from Siem Reap to Angkor and it’s pitch black. It’s probably the one thing I wouldn’t recommend doing by bike.
It was worth it just to see but to be honest, it was nothing special. If you were alone and the sun was rising and monkeys were climbing all over Angkor Wat as you watched the sun rise and the temple make its reflection in the reflective lake, it would be spectacular. But there are a lot of people there and we ended up walking with the crowds of people walking towards the temple asking ourselves: is this it?
Sunset is also a popular option but there would have been a similar thing. The Lara Croft temple is pretty awesome but the less visited ones are just as special. Still, I got my pose on, as you do and we were done.
Racking up probably close to 100km of riding on those three days (40km on the first, probably similar on the second and half on the last) was quite a feat. But I would take the aching bum and the exhaustion any time for the experience of Angkor. There’s so much more than many people realise and more being discovered all the time.
Cambodia is incredible and has so much incredible history still being uncovered. I would very much like to go back and explore more, but for now I have Angkor. For anyone as fascinated as I was take a look at this amazing video about the Hidden City Mahendraparvata.
All photos on the blog are by me and Jonathan Fantham