I’ve been a bit all over the place lately, I know: I’m in Vietnam, I’m in New Zealand, I’m back in Vietnam, I’m promising to tell you about Cambodia one of these days. The truth is, I’ve got so many posts to catch up on that I’ve just been going down the list and writing about whatever topic I feel most motivated to cover that day. And today, from rainy, windy, officially-winter Wellington, I feel like writing about the last place I was unbearably hot and impossibly tan: Siem Reap, Cambodia.
On a break from my solo-travel streak, I’d bussed into Cambodia from Saigon to meet up with my good friend Eli and her amazing mom, who were headed there on holiday with a family friend. (We’d all met up in Phnom Penh before getting to Siem Reap. I’ll get to that another time. Like I said: I know.) As comforting as it was to see a familiar face from New York, to get first-hand reports on all my friends back home and have a proper catch-up gossip session, I must admit it felt a bit odd to be traveling with other people again. Decisions I’d gotten used to making on my own — what my absolute maximum offer would be for a tuk-tuk ride, where and when to eat lunch, whether to sight-see in an organized fashion or have a day of lost and aimless wandering — were suddenly subject to group discussion. Compromises had to be made, ideas proposed and shot down, wake-up times hotly debated.
But there was at least one thing our whole motley crew agreed on almost immediately upon arriving in Siem Reap: We wanted to bicycle around the temples of Angkor Wat. The ruins were just a few kilometers from town, bicycles were only $1 a day to rent, and we were all reasonably fit people willing to disregard Southeast Asia’s extreme heat in favor of a little whimsy.
Now seems like a good time to point out something I didn’t realize about Angkor Wat before getting there, because — well, honestly, because I hadn’t bothered to do any research: it’s not just one temple. Well, technically Angkor Wat is one temple. But it’s located within a literal city-full of other spectacular, crumbling temples and forest covering hundreds of square kilometers. I’d naively imagined Angkor Wat to be a half-day, in-and-out sight-seeing mission; it wasn’t until we entered the surrounding archaeological park that I realized this would be a multi-day affair with plenty of transportation needed.
Unsurprisingly, the bikes proved both a blessing and a hindrance for an endeavor of this magnitude. Bicycling (which, for the record, I’m still amazed I’m able to do now without injuring myself or anyone else) is a lovely way to get from one temple to the next. In fact, I’d say it’s the best way to actually feel in touch with what you’re seeing at Angkor. Instead of putting along in the back of a tuk-tuk or sitting in the back seat of a climate-controlled car, weaving around other vehicles, you’re actually out there on the road on your own, in the heat, hearing the gravel crunch under your tires. The complex is so vast and forested, it becomes easy to forget at times that you’re inside a UNESCO World Heritage site: as you get further along the Grand Circuit path and the tourist throngs thin out, it’s just you and your two wheels on a leisurely spin through the countryside.
You pedal down wide, dusty paths while trying to high-five local school kids passing on the side of the road, relishing the cool-ish breeze in your face even as you sweat through all of your clothing. You pass playful monkeys and children riding bikes so adorably oversized that they look like Cabbage Patch Kids on Harleys. You pull your cycle off on the side of the road at the first sign of a temple that looks interesting, or beautiful, or (thank you, low season) semi-deserted. When you’re done exploring a set of ruins, you just hop back on your bike and move on to the next one that strikes your fancy, like a hipster Indiana Jones.
The downside of bicycling Angkor Wat, unfortunately, is that it forces you to make a lot of tough decisions. Let me explain: The roads ringing the archaeological park are flat, and largely ideal for fixed-gear beach cruisers, but they’re also long. And the temples, though scattered at very reasonable intervals along the Grand Circuit, are endless. It’s easy to get caught up exploring a single temple for hours, running your fingers over its wall carvings, picking out your favorite expressions from among dozens of towering stone faces, ducking through sagging doorways and discovering rooms and courtyards and vistas you hadn’t noticed yet. And by the time you’re finally ready to leave a temple — by which I mean “By the time you can no longer bear standing in the direct, oppressive sunlight” — you still have to get back on a mode of transportation powered solely by your own, lagging energy. The goal of making it anywhere in a timely fashion — let alone to each of the approximately 19,323 temples you’ve noted as important on your map — is quickly recognized as folly.
After a few hours and several temples, our little group had to wise up and make a few adjustments to its itinerary. We’d spend less time at some temples and completely skip others, trying to stop at only the most noteworthy before we ran out of stamina and daylight. A few, we were sad to miss. A couple, we said we’d hit up the next day (a convenient euphemism for “never”). Others, we sped by like they were engulfed in flames.
“We just passed a sign for (insert important-sounding temple name here)!” Eli, at the head of our pack, would holler over her shoulder.
“No time!” I’d yell back, accelerating my pedaling. “The sun’s setting soon! We’ll stop at the next one instead!”
Looking back, I’d absolutely recommend exploring Angkor by bicycle. But I’d also recommend buying a multi-day pass to the park and accepting the fact that you might choose to be driven around in a tuk-tuk — with a motor and a driver and a heat-mitigating canopy — by the time you set off at 4:00 a.m. to see the sunrise the next morning.
Oh, and about that sunrise? I’ll get to it.
I know, I know.