Cycling at the Temples of Angkor, Cambodia: the Mayhem and the Majesty

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Gate entrance to Angkor Thom and Bayon—C.Helbig

I’m finally catching up on writing about our travels in Cambodia earlier this year. Things didn’t start well. I’d caught a nasty cold and my head felt like it was going to explode on our evening flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. All I wanted to do was get to our guesthouse and sleep. Morning came early as we’d pre-booked an Angkor Temple bike tour. Drugged up on Tylenol Cold, with kleenex stuffed in every available pocket, I lacklusterly  pedalled with our group to the visitor centre to buy tickets. It was mayhem. Chinese New Year holidays coupled with an imminent ticket price increase had the Angkor temple complex exploding with visitors. 

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Busy  south gate entrance to Angkor Thom—C.Helbig

Surprisingly, there was efficiency in the chaos, and securing our tickets took much less time than we’d expected. Sambo, our Grasshopper Adventures guide expertly bypassed the crazy queues of cars, taxis, and tuk-tuks and led us along dirt tracks and minor roads. The size of the Angkor temple complex makes it impossible to see everything in a day. Our bike tour took us to “the big three”—Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm—with only a glimpse of the highlights at each. To put it in perspective, the complex’s main temple, Angkor Wat, is four times the size of Vatican City. It is considered the largest religious monument in the world.

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Distinctive “strangler” trees at Ta Prohm—C.Helbig

First stop: Ta Prohm, or as Sambo called it, the Tomb Raider Temple ( I think he is quite smitten by lead actor Angelina Jolie). This 12th century Buddhist temple, featured in the 2000 film Tomb Raider, is very popular with visitors mostly because of the freakish  trees that grow among the ruins (archaeologists call them a nuisance). It’s an atmospheric place, hidden in the jungle, the dappled sunshine casting an eerie glow on the snake-like roots strangling the crumbling ruins. Ta Prohm is a must-visit, but be prepared to share it. In my next post, I’ll have photos of Ta Som, a smaller temple with Ta Prohm-like trees minus the crowds.

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Savouring the serenity of Bayon’s east gate

My favourite memory of the day came next, as was entered Angkor Thom through its east gate, which is inaccessible to regular cars. At that moment, it was just our group of about a dozen cyclists. The serenity of the forest path leading to the entrance and the decaying grandeur of the gate was how I’d naively imagined an Angkor temple experience.

Angkor Thom is a massive complex of about 9 sq. km and I actually preferred it to Angkor Wat. Perhaps it was the mesmerizing tower faces that crown the Bayon at the centre of the complex. The faces are thought to be likenesses of the ruling Buddhist king of the time (he’d be all over today’s selfies). The bas-reliefs at Bayon, depicting everyday life and historical events are fascinating. It would have been easy to spend several hours just looking at these.

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Distinctive feature of the Bayon—C.Helbig

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The Bayon in the Angkor Thom complex—C.Helbig

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Bas-relief at Bayon of Khmer army going to battle—C.Helbig

We painstakingly waited for opportunities to take photos that gave the impression that we had the Bayon to ourselves. But at one point, listening in vain to Sambo’s history lesson as dozens of voices in as many languages competed for air time, Mike just said to hell with it and started taking photos of the crowd. It’s comical now looking at the sea of humanity.

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We cycled from busy Bayon to our lunch stop at one of the many crowded, unassuming, open-air restaurants near the main entrance of Angkor Wat. I wish I had photos, but I was still feeling lethargic and couldn’t be bothered. That didn’t stop me from digging into a feast that just kept coming—noodles, stir-fries, dumplings, and the best amok (specialty Khmer fish stew) I had on the trip.

Time for the pièce de résistance—Angkor Wat. It’s impossible not to be impressed by this temple originally dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu. And talk about curb appeal. We approached on the long sandstone causeway, which crosses a moat and is adorned by fierce looking seven-headed nagas (serpents).

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Iconic Angkor Wat, Cambodia—C. Helbig

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One of the many seven-headed nagas at Angkor Wat—C.Helbig

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The majestic towers of Angkor Wat—C.Helbig

While the iconic structure with its beautiful towers is impressive, I was most taken by the sheer magnitude of the 800 meters of  bass-reliefs stretching around the outside of the central temple. There are so many stories relayed in these intricate carvings but we only had time to hear a few of them. Of course the gruesome ones, at the heaven and hell wall, were the most fascinating (take a close look). In addition to its role as a state temple, it is believed that Angkor Wat also served as a mausoleum.

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In contrast, to the horrors of hell, Angkor Wat is also famous for having more than 3000 beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. These ladies are stunning and Mike took more than his fair share of photos.

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The day went quickly, and before we knew it we were back at the Grasshopper office in Siem Reap sipping on coconuts and cleaning the dust and sweat off our faces. Our first day at this special place was a mixed bag of mayhem and majesty. Nevertheless, we were excited to have two more days to explore on our own. I’ll be doing a post about our experience beyond the big three temples.

Note to self: Check on the timing of Chinese New Year.

Things to know about an Angkor Temple bike tour

  • Grasshopper Adventures Cycle Angkor Temples day tour is a unique and fun experience. I recommend it if you want something different, need a bit of exercise, and are OK with taking in the general ambiance and top level highlights of the Angkor Temples. I don’t recommend it if you want to spend lots of time at each site or learn more about the stories and in-depth history. The best scenario is including a tour like this with several more days of exploring alone or with a private guide.
  • The approx. 30 km of biking is easy—all on flat terrain and there’s even a fair amount of shade on the forested paths.
  • Our guide Sambo was friendly and knowledgable, and the bikes and helmets were in good condition.
  • You won’t go hungry or thirsty. Grasshopper supplies all the water you’ll need (lots), fresh fruit snacks, and a huge lunch.
  • While there is no enforced dress code to enter the temples, visitors should wear modest, respectful clothing with tops that at least cover the shoulders and bottoms that go to knees or longer.

 

 

Categories: Cambodia, Places | Tags: , , , , , , | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on “Cycling at the Temples of Angkor, Cambodia: the Mayhem and the Majesty

  1. Beautiful photos Caroline and I especially loved all the pics of the exquisite carvings nor did your description of the food go to waste. I’m planning (my first foreign) solo trip for 2018 which will be about 6 weeks and includes about 10 days at the end in Siem Reap where I’m meeting friends. To say I’m super excited would be an understatement and I’ll be avidly reading your future posts! Anita

    Liked by 1 person

    • How exciting Anita! You are going to have a great time. It is a beautiful part of the world with super friendly people. You are going to see MANY exquisite carving in Angkor. Where else are you going? I’m way behind in my posts. I managed to finish off all the places we visited in Laos but still have much to post about in Cambodia. In addition to Siem Reap, we also visited Battambang, Phnon Penh, and Kampot. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.Cheers, Caroline

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      • I’ll fly in and out of HoChi Minh City and am planning on using both Hoi An, Vietnam and Siem Reap as bases for a couple of weeks each at the beginning and end of the trip. A 10-day, small group cycling trip through southern Vietnam and then into Cambodia to Siem Reap is the middle leg. Reading your post just upped my excitement level even more and I’m looking forward to more of your adventures! What questions you don’t answer, I’ll be sure to ask! Anita

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Looks like an awesome day despite the cold, it stinks you were feeling crummy. I’m glad you had a slice of serenity cycling into Angkor Thom, but how true that visiting these amazing places involves waiting for your turn to take pictures to give the impression of no crowds. I laughed at that.

    I look forward to your upcoming post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a pretty amazing place and I’m glad we got to see it despite the crowds. It’s busy for good reason. I’m glad we stayed for several more days and explored a bit further…amazing how the crowds drop off. Hopefully I’ll get that post out soonish, but am really busy right now. Cheers, Caroline

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  3. Reminds me of my trip there. Angkor Wat is an amazing place.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a glorious post and photos Caroline and thank you for the memories. We loved our experience at Angkor. We were living in Viet Nam at the time and so we selected the time of year that was least crowded. Looking at your photos and reading about the crowds in your post, makes me very grateful that we did this. Wow, it is quite quite different with such throngs to contend with!! We spent most of our time at the smaller temples and only a fragment at the large more populated ones. A once in a life time experience for most!!!
    Peta

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    • I’m glad it brought back good memories Peta. Despite the crowds, it was an amazing experience. My next post will be about the two days we explored on our own, visiting some of the smaller and more out of the way temples that were less busy. If we have the good fortune of returning, I’d like to go during rainy season. What’s a little rain when you live in Vancouver! Cheers,Caroline

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  5. Wonderful post Caroline. It took me right back there. We had a few days and explored on our own. I wish we’d taken the bike tour – even though it wasn’t in depth it seems like a lovely way to spend the day there.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alison. It really was a fun way of seeing the temples on our first day…and a nice change from being in a tuk-tuk, bus, or car. We did several bike tours while in SE Asia (which I still have to write about) and they were all a great experience. Cheers, Caroline

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  6. This has been on my travel wish list for longer than any other place I haven’t been! I am dying to get there, and your post reinforces that for me. Your lethargy that day reminds me of how I felt on my recent hike in Slovakia, but somehow we manage to rally at these times that might not be able to be repeated, right? Your brain seems to have been working just fine as your descriptions and feelings come across beautifully!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aww thanks! I usually take lots of notes when I travel so that helps with the posts. Yes, I remember your post and was impressed that you managed to do that difficult hike while feeling crappy. It is amazing how we can rally, and I’m so glad that I dragged myself through that day–it helped that the biking was easy and I actually felt much better by the end of the day
      The Angkor temples are a must-see, but consider going in the off-season (or at least not during Chinese New Year). My sis went in the rainy season a few years ago (I think July or August) and she did not experience the crowds that we did, plus everything is green and lush. Depends on your tolerance for rain, but apparently it’s mostly short downpours rather than constant gloom (like here in Vancouver right now). Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mike Hohmann

    Angkor Wat – a place I’ve always wanted to visit, perhaps I will one day yet!

    I studied Asian/SE Asian architecture many decades ago; mainly Japanese, Chinese and SE Asian, and Indian architecture -all of which tended to be heavily influenced by the dominant religions of the areas. I found it all fascinating. I always considered Angkor Wat to be the most ‘organic’ architecture I’d ever seen; ‘organic’ being a popular terminology in schools of architecture at the time (mid-70s). BTW-great photographs as usual, Caroline (and Mike).

    I used the term ‘Chinese New Year’ for a long time (and still do to some extent due to my Chinese in-laws), then the Hmong-refugee population grew in the Twin Cities (three generations now) and it became the Hmong New Year for many. I’ve largely reverted to using the more ‘inclusive’ terminology – the ‘Asian Lunar New Year’ now, except when celebrating ‘Chinese New Year’ over a big holiday dinner with my in-laws. I guess some things never change! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Mike, I really hope you get to go to Angkor Wat! With your interest and knowledge in SE Asian architecture it would have such significance for you. I would love to go back…it is impossible to digest such an enormous and interesting place in three days. And, I now know much more (though still quite minimal in the grand scheme) making it all the more fascinating.
      Thank you for the interesting terminology lesson. You got my curiosity up, and I’m going to google to find out more about the Hmong in Minnesota.
      A big holiday dinner over “Chinese New Year” must be quite the feast. My son is dating a Chinese girl and he is getting exposed to lots of different food. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

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