During my research about Siemreap and Angkor Wat prior to the trip, I came across several posts and articles about renting bicycles to ride around the temples. I ran the idea by our group, and everyone (except Julio) agreed that it sounded like fun. Since our guided tour scheduled for the next day didn’t include viewing Angkor Wat at sunrise, we decided to leave at 5am the next morning to see what the fuss was all about.
Allison spoke to the front desk at Khmer Mansion Hotel, who provided us with 5 bikes for the day for $3 each. They were basic beach cruisers, with baskets and a lock for each one. The staff generously packed breakfast for each of us and informed us that taking one road directly out of town would take us straight to the entrance to the temples, where we could buy our passes for the day. It ended up being slightly more complicated than that…
Only Julio and Joe’s bikes had a small headlight attached to the front wheel, so after yelling after them as they sped off ahead of us in the dark, Joe ended up taking the lead and Julio followed behind Stacy and I so we could semi-see where we were going. After biking about 2 miles through town, we started riding through a more forested area with no street lights. It became even more difficult to see where we were going, and there were many vans and tuk tuks zipping by us taking other tourists to the temples. Suddenly, a large cinder block appeared out of the darkness on the road in front of Joe, who barely had time to swerve and avoid hitting it head on, and instead grazed it and crashed into the road, spilling his breakfast and camera out of his basket. Luckily, there weren’t any other vehicles coming in either direction and he wasn’t badly hurt. Stacy and I had to do some quick maneuvering to avoid crashing into him as well! He got his things back together and we rode on, soon reaching the checkpoint for the temples.
There were a few people checking everyone’s tickets as well pulled up to the checkpoint. We pulled out our money, preparing to purchase our tickets, when the woman informed us she wasn’t selling the tickets. There was a specific building to buy them at, which was a little over a mile back in the other direction! You have to have your photo taken for your ticket as well, so we couldn’t just send one or two people back to buy them. We all had to go. Disappointed, we turned around to bike back into town. Joe stopped to ask directions twice, which was good because the ticket booth ended up being on a different road that ran parallel to the one we were on, and we never would have found it on our own. There wasn’t anyone in line, so we hurriedly each bought a 3 day pass. They sell passes for 1, 3 and 7 days in the temples for $20, $40, and $60 respectively. We didn’t want to have to come back and stand in line again so we settled on the 3 day pass. A short ride after that we arrived at Angkor Wat, just in time for sunrise.
We found a spot on the grass inside the temple walls and settled down to eat and wait for the sun to rise over Angkor Wat. Twice a year, the sun rises directly over the center spire, in the end of March and September. Since it was the beginning of March, our timing was pretty close, and we were rewarded to a beautiful ball of fire rising between the center and right spires. We walked inside the main temple, and started exploring its inner rooms. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and was constructed at the beginning of the twelfth century by King Suryavarman II. It is the best preserved temple in the complex and Cambodia’s top tourist attraction. There are several levels to the temples, with common people and slaves only being allowed on the bottom level, and upper most devoted to a shrine to the god Vishnu. Visitors are allowed to tour the second highest level, but as we walked around the inner wall, Stacy and I noticed the line to get to the top was about 40 minutes long, so we decided to save that for the next day.
We met Allison and Joe back near the entrance, and got our bikes to make our way to the next temple. We all bought large water bottles from a Cambodian salesman walking around, because temperatures had been over 100 degrees the past few days and we wanted to stay hydrated. Cambodia takes the US dollar as well as Cambodian Riel, but they are such a poor country that if you don’t have small bills, they probably won’t even have change for a twenty. Bringing plenty of ones and fives is your best bet. We rode towards Bayon, the temple with many faces, passing first through the gates of Angkor Thom. The gate is very narrow, so you often encounter a bit of a traffic jam as you wait in line behind and elephant and a tuk tuk to pass through.
We arrived at Bayon, which quickly became my favorite temple in the complex. There used to be 54 towers with over 200 faces carved into each side, but during Pol Pot’s rule in them late 1970’s many were torn down and damaged, so only 37 remain. The detail and facial expressions are stunningly beautiful, and the height of the towers above you is so impressive. Bayon is smaller than Angkor, and you are in much closer quarters to the other tourists, but there are hidden areas and so many carvings that you shouldn’t have a problem getting an uninterrupted photo. We came out on the opposite side of the temple and were able to get a great view of the remaining towers in the morning sun. Bayon truly is an amazing example of late 12th century architecture.
It was about 9am when we left Bayon, and Julio was very uncomfortable on his bike. The rest of us were doing fine, but he’s so tall and has such long legs, plus the seat couldn’t be raised, so his body was hurting. We decided that Ta Prohm would be our final stop for the day, and that would complete a big square that would take us back towards the entrance to the complex. Unfortunately, Ta Prohm was over two miles away, which didn’t help Julio much. The entire ride was shaded once the sun had come up, which was a relief, but he still had a difficult time. We arrived at Ta Prohm around 10:30 and realized we had not been as far ahead of the mass Chinese tours as we thought. We had been looking forward to seeing the temple where Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider was filmed, but because of the heat and the tendency of the tour groups to stop in small, confined hallways of the temple to explain a statue or bas-relief, we ended up hurrying through and cutting our visit short. Julio at this point was feeling awful, and ended up getting sick later in the day, so he hailed a tuk tuk that would carry he and his bike back to Siemreap while Stacy, Joe, Allison and I biked the 8 miles to our hotel.
Overall we had an amazing time, and renting bicycles certainly gives you a unique experience visiting the Angkor complex. The only one from our group who didn’t enjoy it was Julio, who later said he probably would have had he had a bike that fit him. It was worth getting up early to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, and despite the ticket confusion, it was pretty easy to get to the temples from town. The entire ride was flat and shaded until the trip back to the hotel, when the sun was directly overhead. Seeing the temples in the morning was a smart idea, because by the time we arrived back at noon, it was 101 degrees. If you can stand the heat, bicycling Angkor Wat is definitely an excellent way to create your own tour on your own time frame.