When you’re crossing an iconic historical site like Angkor Wat off your travel bucket list, it can sometimes feel like you’re taking the road exhausted by millions of tourists that have come before you. This is particularly the case when you’re visiting the largest religious site in the world. So, when we planned our trip to Siem Reap and the ancient kingdom, we chose to experience Angkor Wat by bicycle instead.
Waking up at 4.30am isn’t often that appealing. But when you’re going to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat, it quickly becomes the most exciting time of day. For us, it was also made much easier when our tour guide collected us from the front door of our hotel to deliver us directly to the gates.
Samchhay from Grasshopper Adventures was leading us on our sunrise ride around Angkor. He seemed as excited as we were when he was giving us the rundown (that’s not something you always get from tour guides. We loved his enthusiasm). Samchhay gave us the option to choose our own adventure; from a shorter, road-based ride up to a longer off-road ride between each temple. We wanted a good adventure and a bit of a workout so opted for a 22km ride through the bush (the longest option). If you’re not super fit, you’ll probably still be comfortable doing a 10km ride. The route is safe and pretty flat, so you’re not doing the Tour de Angkor, don’t worry.
We arrived at the ticket office just as the sun was coming up and lined up with the rest of the early morning crowds. Tickets are $US20 per day (or $US40 for 3 days). If you aren’t keen to line up, I highly recommend buying your tickets the night before. They go on sale between 5-5.30pm and you can even go and catch the sunset while you’re around.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Walking up to the walled moat surrounding Angkor, we joined the other early risers to claim a spot to watch the sun climb. It was one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen and one of those moments that reminds me why I love to travel so much. Despite the crowd, it was completely quiet (except for flashes and shutter snaps) as the group just sat, absorbed by the moment.
Samchhay led us across the bridge to enter the World Heritage listed Angkor Archaeological Park. It’s most famous temple, Angkor Wat has just been named the best landmark in the world. Walking around the grounds, we see why it has had such an impact on visitors for so many years. Remembering that construction on the temple began in the 12th Century, the sheer size of the structure and its significance as both a religious and historical site hits as we climb through the towering stone doorways. Stepping out the other side, we follow the crowd across the grass to the famous temple. 8,000 tourists walk the path to Angkor Wat each day in peak season. Off-season still draws about 4,000 per day.
Hawkers sell breakfast, guide books and paintings near the entrance to the temple (if you are going to grab a guide-book expect to pay about $US10 or for a painting anywhere from $US50. Paying any more than that could be paying too much, but that’s entirely up to you. Even if you don’t take a tour, I absolutely recommend getting a guide. There is so much ground to cover, both physically and historically and we found Samchhay’s knowledge (as well as his command of english) impressive.
We scaled the steep stairs to the temple doors and weaved our way through the ancient corridors scarred by hand carved pictures carrying on Angkor’s mythological history. Faded remnants of the paint that once coloured the walls clings to a few columns and corners. Generally though, the temple is a palate of greys brushed by weather and age. Sadly, some columns have had their ankles eaten away; a devastating result of failed experimental cleaning with acid. Considering the age and the tourist traffic the site gets it is in pretty good condition; a testament to the work and sacrifice it took to complete it (between the 12th to 16th centuries).
The best vantage point from the temple is from the top-level. You will need to be fully covered to climb to the top though (a scarf won’t do). Men and women are required to wear at least a t-shirt and long pants. Both are cheap to purchase at the markets in Siem Reap if you haven’t packed appropriately.
The stairs to the top-level open at about 7.30am and only 100 visitors are allowed up at a time, so get to the stairs early and line up. You won’t want to be waiting in that sun for too long. The stairs are incredibly steep too so some may find the ascent difficult. The view is rewarding though, with a clear line back down over the grounds towards the city walls.
Breakfast was our next stop so we could fuel up for our ride. Samchhay was equipped with fresh croissants during our Wat walk too, so you won’t be starving. We ate from a small buffet of eggs, cereal, fresh fruit and coffee and then pushed off on the first leg of the ride.
The bikes provided were fantastic. We’ve ridden on some very dodgy bikes around Asia so far and these were the best we’ve had; new, obviously well maintained, our seats were already adjusted for our height, we were given good helmets and a bike bag for our bits and pieces (camera, water, sunscreen and sunglasses).
Bike Riding the Hidden Angkor Thom Trails
A short ride through cool tree-lined trails we popped out to follow Angkor Thom’s (Thom means The Great City) moat line. The silence is what you notice instantly on the ride. Away from crowds of noisy tourists, we were completely alone. It was bliss. We pulled out on to the main road very briefly to ride across the bridge carrying you over the moat at the south gate and pedaled back off-road again climbing to ride on top of the Angkor Thom wall.
Riding on top of the wall was a surreal experience to say the least. Eight metres high and about 4 metres wide, it has the feel of a normal bush track, until you look off the edge at the drop to the water. We pulled up at the first corner (each section of the wall is 3 kilometres long) where a small temple was waiting. We snapped some photos of the gorgeous green moat where a group of buffalo were having a dip and rode north, passing a group of local Cambodian kids out for a ride. They were the only other people we saw on the wall section of the ride. It was magical. The northern gate was our next stop. An amazing stone structure with a face carving watching from the top of its arch.
The Stone Faces of Bayon Temple
A quick one kilometre spin down the road and we came to Bayon Temple, rejoining the crush of tourists. Thankfully, it was still early so there weren’t too many around just yet. Bayon Temple is a Buddhist temple, built in the 12th century. It was constructed with 54 towers (9 is a lucky number in Khmer culture), only about half that number remain today. Its smiling stone faces make it a truly unique landmark.
After climbing through the temple we had a break and snacked on some fresh-cut fruit next to the neighbouring monastery. I watched as saffron robed monks moved around the modest wooden building welcoming worshippers seeking counsel. One local woman came for a blessing. Changing into a Khmer sampot (similar to a sarong) she knelt on the balcony, her hands to her heart as the monk prayed and poured water over her for several minutes.
Samchhay explained that the Cambodian people are typically very religious and superstitious. It is common for Buddhists to seek advice on life’s big decisions from monks in this way, whether it be on matters of business or love. Many Cambodians also prefer to see a local medicine man rather than seeking out a hospital. Conventional doctors are very expensive for most Cambodians, so that plays a part too. Most also carry a lucky charm of some description and you won’t find Cambodians put their bags on the ground as having them below their bottoms is considered bad luck.
The Powerful Ta Prohm Temple
Pedalling off again we rode to Ta Prohm, a temple enveloped by jungle vines and tree trunks. Also built in the 12th century it appears nature took ownership of the stone structure when the Khmers left. Climbing through the narrow hallways of the temple is an otherworldly experience and at times quite eery. We came upon sections where tree branches squeezed the temple tight. Pockets of light peaked through holes in the wall while other parts have completely collapsed under the weight of time and tree roots.
Winding our way back along the hidden trails, we made a quick stop at another small temple on our way to lunch. The last 8 or 10 kilometre stretch we just enjoyed the ride. The ride itself wasn’t difficult but it reminded me of biking adventures I used to go on in the country as a child in Australia. I just loved it. We came across a few locals, rode with some local kids for a stretch, but generally just took in the gorgeous greenery that opened up before us.
We had definitely worked up an appetite for lunch when we came to the end of our ride and sat down to a traditional Khmer meal of Fish Amok (fish with turmeric and spices in banana leaf), stir fried chicken with fresh ginger and sweet and sour fish soup. It was a delicious way to finish off an incredibly memorable day.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Grasshopper Adventures for this tour. As always, the opinions, images and words are authentically our own.
Grasshopper Adventures operates tours across Asia.
Tours range from half-day to short break rides (anywhere from a few days to weeks)
Skye is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fit Traveller. She is a journalist, writer, photographer, intrepid traveller and a former personal trainer with a passion for helping others reach optimal health. As a TV journalist and producer, Skye has worked for household names such as 60 Minutes, Sunrise, TODAY and Nine News. She has also written for Women’s Health, Fodor’s Travel and Yahoo7 Travel, among many others.
Skye created The Fit Traveller as a beautiful online space and community where people feel inspired to escape the desk to move and explore more.
Equally comfortable in a 5-star resort or hiking a far-off mountain, Skye loves the unexpected and enriching life experiences that each trip brings and can often be found in a backstreet chatting to locals with her camera in hand.
Skye is based in Sydney, working to master the balance between motherhood and her insatiable appetite for adventure.