“…now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.”
-Leo Tolstoy “War and Peace”
His smile quickly evaporated.
“Are you sure? You won’t see much by bike.”
“It’s OK, we’ll just see as much as we can.”
“Sirs, we’ll bring you to five temples. Only fifteen dollars.”
“We believe you, we just feel like biking.”
The exchange went on, until finally the disappointed driver walked back to his tuk-tuk and gave his brother (another driver) a defeated shake of his head.
I felt like an ass, but it had to be done. A bike rental for the entire day was only $1. That’s a $13 dollar savings between the two of us, or in terms we cared about, 26 delicious fifty-cent beers, crucial for our survival under the draining heat of the Cambodian sun.
Our hostel was only about a 20 minute bike ride from the entrance to the sprawling Angkor complex, where thousands of temples ranging in size from Angkor Wat, the largest and most famous, to piles of rubble that might have been nothing more than debris from one of the many worksites throughout the complex, where they seem to be furiously rebuilding and repairing the temples.
Our first stop was Angkor Wat, supposedly the world’s largest religious monument. And of course, it was predictably impressive. The massive temple in the middle was surrounded by imposing stone walls and a wide moat, and could only be accessed by crossing a lengthy stone bridge. (note: since this is a religious site, wear appropriate clothes if you want to be allowed access to certain areas)
The walls inside of the temple were inscribed with intricate carvings depicting battles and tales of the Khmer Empire which lasted from about 800 AD to the 15th Century. Walking around the surrounding walls, escaping the overwhelming crowds, I could actually imagine life in the 12th century when this temple was built. That’s a lie, I couldn’t imagine at all what it would’ve been like, but the quiet outbuildings and vine covered walls were a great place to sit and look across the water in relative peace and quiet.
From there we biked along the well-maintained roads passing the many food and gift stalls that periodically lined the roads and stopped at random piles of rubble here and there until we reached the next massive temple: Bayon, our personal favorite.
The spires here are covered in massive faces, and the labyrinthine paths, alleys and tunnels within make you feel like Indiana Jones, or at least his little Asian sidekick Short Round.
Here is another video, this time of Bayon
After Bayon, we biked to about five other major temples, including the “Tomb Raider” temple that Angelina Jolie made famous by filming there. You know, that temple with the cool roots and vines growing everywhere.
Anyway, I guess I’m getting anxious to get to the point. Skip the tuk-tuk, rent a bike. We had plenty of time to spend at each temple we visited, and had the freedom to choose to stop whenever and wherever we liked.
Angkor was refreshing because you were given the freedom to go pretty much anywhere you were brave enough to venture to. Climbing on the walls, over rubble and through claustrophobically tight spaces made it a unique experience unlike other, overly-regulated tourist spots. If this isn’t on your list of things to do and see in your life, add it. It lives up to the hype, and if crowds aren’t your thing, there were very few people beyond the first couple temples.