So, technically the cycling finished in Siem Reap, but of course we’re not ones to just stop riding our bikes!
We book a three day ticket for Angkor Wat ($80), and take a tuk-tuk on the first day to see some truly incredible sites on the longer ‘grand tour’ route (over 50km), including Preah Khan.
On day two though, we decide to take the bikes. Rachel and I are accompanied by our friends George and Alex, who were riding cranky old hire bikes and aren’t quite as confident on the Cambodian roads as we now are, but nevertheless they embrace the challenge with enthusiasm, especially given the heat.
The smaller ‘inner tour’ is definitely do-able by bike, but it’s still over 30km round trip (depending on the exact route you take) and, given the heat of the day and the extra energy you use clambering around the ruins, it’s a pretty demanding ride overall.
We don’t get going until about 9am, which is a bit too late because it’s already so hot by this time. Ideally, you’d want to be on the road by 6.30 or 7am so you have a bit of relative cool and shade on the ride out to your first temple, which will be at least 12km away, depending on which one you choose. An early start will also mean you get more interesting light and shade at the temples than if you’re there with the sun directly overhead.
Our first stop is Ta Prohm, also known as the Jungle Temple or ‘the one with all the trees growing out of it’. It truly is an amazing sight, as huge Silk Cotton trees do battle with the ancient ruins. There’s also a lot of restoration work going on during our visit, which raises some interesting questions in the debate around preservation and restoration Versus letting nature take its course. Currently, there’s a bit of both going on here!
After this, we cycle past Ta Keo and into the Angkor Thom citadel, heading to Bayon. There really is something thrilling about cycling around Angkor, under the ancient archways, over moats, and through the jungle, monkeys casually hanging around right by you as you ride. You also start to appreciate the sheer scale of the place, as the distances are much larger than you notice while being driven around by a tuk-tuk or minivan.
There are other advantages to having a bike at Angkor. For one, you can quickly cycle away from the funny vendors as they yell ‘hello, ladeee, buy something!’ at you from 100 yards away.
Cycling around Bayon is a fantastic experience. It’s surrounded by a big ‘ring road’ (effectively making it a traffic island!) so you can do a full 360 degree ride around it, just for the hell of it. Can there be a more unusual, spectacular or awe-inspiring little ride?!?
After a long lunch during the heat of the day, we leave the bikes and explore a bit of the Elephant Terrace and Leper King Terrace on foot, including a close-up inspection of some intricate, really well preserved stone carvings, before riding back into town at a snail’s pace – it really is hot – as local school kids overtake us! Well, it’s not like it’s a race.
After this, the only option to cool down is a dip in the pool at Alex and George’s hotel, and a can of Angkar beer, obviously.
So, overall, if you have a three day ticket for Angkor, definitely do at least one day by bike. You’ll appreciate its majesty even more, and feel a little bit smug that you can go where you want, when you want.
We were a little worried about leaving our bikes outside the temples while we explored. Would there be a safe place to lock them? Would they attract attention? The reality is that this place is patrolled and policed perhaps more than anywhere in Cambodia, and your bike will be safe as houses (or should that be temples?) here.
Our time in Siem Reap is really enjoyable; it’s the most touristy place we’ve visited since Bangkok, but this does mean there are plenty of good food, drink and shopping options, and we pretty much exhaust them during our 6 night stay. We stay at the friendly, family-run Angkor Wonder guesthouse, which is in a great location near Pub Street and offers comfortable $8 private rooms.
One of the highlights, away from Angkar Wat, is doing a Backstreet Academy half day course in bag making. By the end we’re the proud owners of tote bags made of recycled rice and cement sacks, and we also enjoy the interaction with our expert tutor and translator.
Siem Reap is obviously not without its problems – the hidden underage sex trade is said to thrive here, fuelled by the demands of Western tourists – but, on the surface at least, it is very tourist friendly.
We get out of the country by a Nattakan pre-booked coach ($28 each), which takes you direct from Siem Reap to Bangkok on the same vehicle, removing the hassle of having to swap buses at the border, or having to pay for the bikes twice. They cost an extra $10 each, and we have to take the front wheels off, but getting them onto the coach is no hassle, and the journey is pretty straightforward.
We cover the 100km or so back past Sisophon, that took us a day to ride, in about 90 minutes. It’s pretty fun spotting the places we stopped for lunch and iced sugar cane juice drinks as we whiz by in air-conditioned luxury, and we arrive in traffic-choked Bangkok around 4pm. As usual, the bus station we’re deposited at is about 8km from the city centre (standard Asia), so it’s time to get back on the bikes again…