I’m covered in sweat. Sweat is pouring down my back under my t-shirt, and my hair is soaked. I don’t mind the sweat, because I’m looking at my favorite temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park so far: Ta Phrom. Unfortunately there are about a million other people looking at it with me. At least that what it feels like.
I had heard that Angkor Wat and the other temples get crowded, but I had not realized exactly how crowded they would be. My visions of mysterious jungle temples turned out to be more like Oxford Street in London two hours before shops close on Christmas Eve. The good thing about being on a bicycle, however, was that I could escape the crowds and return later when Ta Phrom was quieter. Most people on tuk-tuk or bus tours seemed to follow the same itinerary, and everyone ended up in the same places at the same time.
The Angkor Archeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia, covers over 400 square kilometers (154 sq miles). Its temples were built by the Khmer Empire that ruled from the 9th to the 15th century and was the most powerful empire in southeast Asia at the time. Some of the temples are massive (such as Angkor Wat), some are small but no less beautiful. You could spend weeks exploring them, but most people get a 3-day or a 7-day Angkor Pass.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to see some of the most famous temples in the world.
- You like independent sightseeing.
- Good for: cyclists, anyone who likes temples, architecture and art.
Why I Cycled to Angkor Wat
I like to do my sightseeing on my own, so it was obvious I was going to hire a bike in Siem Reap. I didn’t plan my sightseeing as well as I probably should have; I simply rented a bicycle and stopped at the entrance to the archaeological park to buy my 7-day Angkor Pass. Then I just kept cycling.
My bicycle cost $1 a day (the rent included a photocopied map and a free bottle of water) and clearly it was not the best bike in the world. Every time I had to brake, it screeched so loudly that everyone turned to look, even when I was in the middle of noisy traffic. Fortunately the main roads were in good condition, although some of the smaller roads were a bit bumpy.
I cycled through forests, along rice fields and around large water reservoirs. The Khmer Empire was an advanced civilization and built a highly developed water management system that covered 1200 square kilometers (460 square miles) and connected reservoirs, irrigation canals and waterways to the Tonle Sap lake.
Planning Your Day at the Temples
There are many, many temples, and you need to choose the ones you want to visit. The most common mistake is to try to see too much in one day, which will only lead to exhaustion from cycling in the heat and from walking around the large temple complexes. It is a good idea to have a map.
The traditional routes, the “big circle” and the “small circle” are both possible on a bicycle, but the big circle takes a whole day and a lot of cycling. You could also forget about both circles and just go wherever you feel like. Most visitors want to see at least Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom and the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The leafy Angkor Thom complex was especially nice to cycle around. Sometimes the best parts of my independent cycling tour involved stopping at a small randomly chosen temples simply because I thought it might be fun to take a look.
By around 11 am it always got far too hot for cycling, and I had to retire to one of the restaurants by the main temples. If you are going to be out all day, it makes sense to have a long lunch and relax for a while in one of the temple restaurants (many have hammocks), instead of cycling back to Siem Reap for lunch. I carried a water bottle and snacks for emergencies.
Cycling Safely in Siem Reap
It took me about 20 minutes to cycle from central Siem Reap to Angkor Wat. The road cuts through a nice shady forest. Solo women travelers often worry about cycling to the temples in the early morning, but hundreds of people go to Angkor Wat every day for sunrise so there are always others around. The archaeological park is also home to people who have lived here for centuries and who make their living from agriculture (and now also from tourism). I was never completely alone on the roads and I always felt safe.
The Angkor Passes do not have to be used on consecutive days anymore. The 3-day pass is valid for a week and the 7-day pass is valid for a month, so you can take rest days between your cycling days. Some temples are too far to cycle to anyway, at least on a one dollar bicycle.
Practicalities for Touring the Angkor Archeological Park on a Bicycle
- Bicycles are available for hire everywhere in Siem Reap. Many bicycle rental shops open early, around 4.30-5 am, so you can cycle to the temples for sunrise.
- Start early. By 11 am it gets really hot. Take a long lunch break and continue cycling in the afternoon.
- Wear high SPF sun protection, and wear a hat or a scarf (the traditional Cambodian krama scarf is perfect for protecting the head and the neck from sunburn).
- You need to have at least a basic level of fitness. You can easily end up cycling 20 km (12.5 miles) or more, even if you don’t plan a huge tour. Daytime temperatures can rise up to 40 C in March and April, the hottest months.
- Carry water and snacks. (Most bicycles have a handy basket for your supplies.) There are restaurants outside the main temples. Drink lots of water, and green coconuts, to avoid dehydration.
- When cycling back from the temples after sunset, remember that not everyone has lights on their bicycles or even on some motorbikes.