If you’ve ever enjoyed the Tomb Raider games and movies, if you’re yearning for an adventure akin to that of Indiana Jones, and (last but definitely not the least) if you enjoy biking—then Cambodia should be part of your bucket list.
Cambodia’s ancient sites are beyond awesome. I’ve seen pictures of Cambodia’s temple ruins before. But to see these massive towers, pyramids, monuments, monasteries and stairways to heaven up close and personal is something else. For someone who enjoys snacking on Natgeo and the History Channel, this place is like one gigantic buffet.
It’s not that expensive either. Catch one of the cheap flights from the budget carriers and you’re good to go. Day to day expenses are comparable to living in Manila, sometimes even cheaper. If you can book a trip to Boracay, you can book a trip to Cambodia’s ancient sites. And the best part is that all of these ancient sites can be explored by bike.
I even think that the temples are best visited via bike. There’s a Zen element in going on a journey, moving on your own pace, reaching a sacred place, and moving on.
Siem Reap, not Phnom Penh
First, let’s be clear about this: Siem Reap is where you want to bike in, not Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh, which is the capital of Cambodia, has its charms. But its most visited attractions are the S21 genocide museum and the Killing Fields memorial. These sites are worth visiting to remind people of just how bad human beings can become.
The S21 museum, where the communist Khmer Rouge tortured thousands of Cambodians was especially sad, and thoroughly creepy. These maniacs were so warped by their ideology that they slaughtered even children. These sites can make you question your faith in our species.
Siem Reap meanwhile will restore your faith in humanity. A quick visit to Angkor Wat will show you what incredible things human beings can achieve when they put their minds to it.
Bike or Tuktuk?
Siem Reap has a bewildering number of temple ruins. A week’s vacation isn’t enough to see all of them. If you have only a limited time in Cambodia, the areas I recommend you visit are Beng Melea, which is 77 kilometers away from the city proper, the Angkor Thom complex, and of course Angkor Wat.
Beng Melea can be reached by bike, but we opted to just rent a tuktuk to get there since I didn’t want to subject Kara to an epic ride (almost 140kms total) in a foreign country in very hot and humid conditions (33-36 degrees Celsius!) on our first day in Cambodia. If you decide to bike there, bring a big hydration bag because the heat can suck the life out of you.
Beng Melea is a Hindu temple built 900 years ago. Most of it now lies in ruins, as the jungle reclaimed its stones. You may say it’s quite karmic: what comes from nature goes back to nature
If you plan to bike here, bring headlights and signal lights as you could be biking well into the night. You should also prepare to get covered in a layer of dust because the road is the dustiest I’ve ever seen.
Biking to Angkor Thom
Our first real bike tour began on our third day in Cambodia. We rented two mountain bikes from a shop near our guesthouse, got our maps, loaded up our cameras, and pedaled all the way to Angkor Thom, a much larger temple complex just beyond Angkor Wat.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the amount of meticulous work that went into these architectural marvels. The bridge had stone carvings like nothing I’d seen before. And the gigantic faces adoring the gate to Angkor Thom were sights to behold.
The main temple in Angkor Thom is called Bayon. The builders of this place were anything but minimalists. It seemed like every block of stone, every pillar and corridor told a story in carvings. The gigantic Buddha faces topping the temple can leave you awestruck. You could spend a whole day in Bayon’s ruins and feel like you’ve seen only one percent of it.
It’s also a very popular destination so prepare to get lots of photobombing tourists in your shots.
Some Trails, Finally!
After having lunch at the row of food stalls about a kilometer away from Bayon, we noticed footpaths leading to more temple ruins. Since we were biking on mostly paved roads the whole time, it was nice to finally get our tires on some trails.
An early Western visitor once described Angkor Thom as being “as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato.” Can’t argue with that. While sampling some of the trails that weave through the less visited temples of Angkor Thom we felt like we stumbled into some warp in the fabric of space and time.
The Tomb Raider Temple
Our next stop was the temple ruins of Ta Prohm, where Angelina Jolie shot Tomb Raider. According to our map, it was just a few kilometers away. But just when we were getting near, a construction crew told us that we had to turn back because they were repairing a bridge there. We had to double back and go the long way round to get to Ta Prohm. By the time we got there the sun was starting to set.
Ta Prohm just boggles the mind. You see these enormous blocks of stone with religious carvings from Hindu and Buddhist mythology and these huge trees whose roots look like they’ve been poured over the stones.
It was already getting dark when we decided to head back to our guest house. It was time to sample some of Cambodia’s culinary delights and slake our thirst with the country’s beers.
Not bad for a day on a bike.
Tips for Biking in Siem Reap, Cambodia
- Siem Reap accepts US dollars, don’t bother exchanging your dollars for Cambodian riel.
- Accommodations range from $6 an night (250 pesos a day) and up depending on what kind of room you want to rent. Twin beds with aircon, private bath, with free wifi and breakfast can be had for as low as $12 a night (700 pesos).
- Take a tuktuk ride around the city and to Angkor Wat. This will help you get your bearings later.
- Get a guide map from your guesthouse, these maps and guidebooks usually come free.
- Mountain bikes can be rented in a lot o shops for $5-6 Uper day. City bikes for $2 a day. The shops usually ask you to leave your passport and the address of your guest house.
- Wear comfortable clothes; it can get quite hot and humid there.
- Bring lots of water. If you can refill your water bottles at your guesthouse, do it. This will save you lots of cash for more important stuff like beer.
- Siem Reap is very bike friendly. You can park and lock your bike almost anywhere.
- You can get a one-day ($20), three-day ($40), or seven-day pass to the temples. Get the the 3-day pass because it’s an enormous bargain, and you really can’t see and appreciate all the temples in just one day.
But we had barely scratched the surface, and the following days would again be spent pedaling through Cambodia’s other temples. Please watch out for the next post on Biking in Cambodia :)