The multitude of temples at Angkor represent a true challenge to even a dedicated temple fanatic. Hundreds of temples lie in wait, some buried in growing jungle, while others sit conveniently right off the main road. With so much to see, a seven-day pass is clearly the best choice, buying ample adventure for US$60. While a million various routes exist, we took ones that balance chronology with grandiosity, postponing the giants until the third day of the tour. After all, once you’ve seen Angkor Wat and Bayon, it’s a little harder to appreciate sites like Bakong and Pre Rup.
All of the traditional Grand Circuit is covered, albeit over several days with a bit of overlap, as well as plenty of places much less touristed. One day is done by van, to see some temples that sit beyond cycling range, but everything else is covered in rides no greater than 47km. The popular sunset locations are included in Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng, as is the far less visited Phnom Bok, and the one brave sunrise is on the non-cycling day — it’s a bit daunting to ride for 30 minutes in the dark with tuk-tuks and vans zooming by. Between the heat of the day and darkness lie the prime operating hours of this guide, as experiencing Siem Reap’s nightlife is arguably preferable to its early mornings. This tour could certainly be completed in much less time, but the idea is that a slower pace means increased appreciation.
Recommended Temple Order: Lolei, Preah Ko, Bakong
Located 13km east of Siem Reap, the Rulous Group represents the origins of religious stone construction in the Angkor area, so these temples are the early models for the later greatness of Angkor. The road is smooth and well-paved, with plenty of regular traffic, so looping back along the rural dirt roads makes for a less stressful return. Overall an easy day of cycling and good preparation for the humid dense jungle riding where the main temples sit.
Recommended Temple Order: Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, Pre Rup, Banteay Samre, Phnom Bok
This day concludes with a long ride home in the darkness, well worth it after a relaxing sunset at the hilltop temple on Phnom Bok. Along the way plenty of worthwhile stops are available once branching off from the main Angkor road. The side of Angkor Wat’s massive moat gives way to a few kilometres of jungle before Prasat Kravan emerges from the high walls of green. Smaller enclosures hold a few remaining brick carvings, a contrast to the massive crumbling sprawl of Banteay Kdei. The baray of Srah Srang holds some prized moments of peace, away from the hordes of sellers around most temples. Before turning east into the countryside, the massive towers of Pre Rup hold an excellent view over the terrain. Banteay Samre lies past a crossroads, but then hundreds of stairs await before the final destination. Phnom Bok is not home to an unobstructed sunset, but the light reflecting onto its ruins, with trees emerging from a pair of buildings, is a wonderful setting for a private Angkorian moment before a relaxing, but dark, return back to Siem Reap. Don’t forget your headlamp, relying on approaching headlights might be a tad dangerous.
Recommended Temple Order: Angkor Wat
A simple day in that there’s only a single destination, but the views and hallways, the spires and shadows, and the galleries and carvings of Angkor Wat can all consume quite a lot of time. Plus the crowds can be thick, meaning patience is required to take some pictures, and most of the temple isn’t exactly quiet. But as the sun drops down, the backside of the temple finally clears out, and the stone and sky both start to change colors. Trailing at the end of the Angkor Wat horde can result in some fantastic, though rushed, photographs. The short ride home, albeit alongside plenty of other vehicles, flies quickly by with your mind still soaking up all that it’s seen.
Recommended Temple Order: Ta Prohm, Baksei Chamkrong, South Gate of Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon, Terrace of Elephants, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Leper King, Preah Palilay, North Gate of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan
After a few quick stops at some minor temples, the magnificence of Bayon truly begins the day, more than 200 faces stare forever outwards silent and strong (there were originally 216, a significant number in Hindu mythology). Plenty of carvings abound on the lower level as well, so be prepared to spend a lot of time in awe of King Jayavarman VII’s efforts. Angkor Thom includes plenty of other wondrous sights, most notably the Terrace of Elephants, Preah Palilay, its entry gates, and Baphuon, whose restoration was completed in 2012. The day’s finale is found in Preah Khan, a large complex of convoluted paths, many collapsing despite ongoing repairs. There’s a rather unique two-story building towards the back, which supposedly once housed the king’s sword, and plenty of strangler fig and silk cotton trees blending with and disrupting the temple’s stone.
Recommended Temple Order: Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Spean Thmor, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, Victory Gate of Angkor Thom
Another renowned temple, Ta Prohm, gets virtually its own day, as the set of Tomb Raider is packed with astounding trees and equally astounded tourists. For better of worse, wooden walkways guarantee that nothing will be missed, and while popular photos may show increasingly large crowds, the jaw-dropping scenery more than makes up for it. Honestly the interaction of nature with stone is more impressive than the temple alone, as Ta Phrom is rightfully famed for its serpentine roots and branches. As daytime comes to an end, plenty of temples line the road towards the Angkor Thom’s Victory Gate, including Ta Keo, Thommanon, and Chau Say Tevoda.
Recommended Temple Order: Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, Beng Mealea, Phnom Bakheng
This is a long day by van starting at 5am, when the sunrise is cool and peaceful at Angkor Wat, with silence somewhat prevailing despite the crowd. Banteay Srei is next, a smaller temple that has some of Angkor’s best carvings. Then Kbal Spean, the river of 1000 lingas, rewards a 1.5km uphill walk with some impressive images of the gods carved into the riverbed. After a long ride, the isolated and overgrown Beng Mealea lies in wait. Perhaps its trees are not as dramatic as Ta Prohm’s, but the temple holds some fantastic secrets for those willing to crawl around its collapsing walls. Phnom Bakheng, back near central Angkor, is an overly-popular sunset location, but the herds of tourists and elephants at least create a miniature carnival as the sun goes down.
Recommended Temple Order: Western Baray or …
The final day is really up to your discretion. Assuming temple burnout has been avoided, the whole Western Baray, a vast man-made reservoir, awaits, though the temple per kilometer ratio isn’t the best. Otherwise the main three temples, Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Phrom, are all worthy of another exploratory visit. A sunset at Phnom Krom, south of Siem Reap, is possible, or a journey out to the somewhat isolated Chau Srei Vibol could be equally rewarding. Or you can just relax at your hotel, relishing the fact that you’ve already seen many of the finest religious sites in the world…
Fifty-cent Anchor drafts are available throughout the entire day at many bar/restaurants on Pub Street, as is a multitude of international cuisine: French, Italian, Mexican, and other Western and Eastern fare. Cheap Khmer food is available from plenty of street-side stands once the heat of the day has passed. You may burn a lot of calories cycling and walking, but you can more than easily regain them back in town. Thankfully, there are a few clubs, all a cheap tuk-tuk ride away from Pub Street, where you can dance those beer calories right back off!
If you like the idea of “happy” food, make sure to check out Happy Special Pizza. They have a vast selection of pizzas, and when they make them “extra happy” it is actually effective. They will also prepare “happy shakes” for $2, which are quick, delicious, and mind-altering. If the “happy” isn’t kicking in quickly, try smoking some, available from behind the counter from $10/bag (varying quality, sometimes too many stems). You can go to similar places, recommended by the guidebooks, but their “happy” rationing is vastly inferior, and they don’t hook it up from behind the counter.
Good shopping is available at Siem Reap’s several markets, for anything from shirts to silk, statues to snake-whiskey, and paintings to patches, although much of what is being sold is also available from the multitude of vendors around the main temples. If you have the time, Psas Chas, the Noon To Night Market, and the Angkor Night Market are all worth a wander. The pedicure/massage shop within the Angkor Night Market is definitely above average, and provides a nice respite from haggling. There are also many shops that support Cambodia’s less fortunate, in particular Rajana’s intriguing jewelry made from bullets is very special.
Bus transit to and from Siem Reap is the cheapest way to go, however the boat ride, particularly to Battambang, is an excellent way to see Cambodia’s backwater way-of-life. All along the swollen river people fish from small boats or wash their laundry, while children frolic in the water with their friends. Plus, the top deck of the boat is an excellent way to get a suntan or sunburn, depending on your skin-type.
By Anderson Muth
Last updated on 21st May, 2015.