There are a number of ways to explore the Angkor temples just outside Siem Reap. You can take a Tuk-Tuk and be chauffeured around from temple to temple. But the drivers usually don’t tell you anything about the temples and you feel like you are missing something. Walking isn’t really an option as the distances between temples are great. The best way to explore the Angkor temple complex, in my opinion, is by bicycle. Join a guided tour, and return the next day to explore the temples at your own pace.
Picking a tour
There is no shortage of companies offering bicycle tours of the Angkor temples. I highly recommend Grasshopper Adventures. The group is small, lots of extras are included and the tour guide is very knowledgeable. I learned a lot about the temples and Cambodian culture.
What a typical biking day looks like
Depending on which tour company you select, your day will vary but you can expect to see more or less the same itinerary. There is only so much you can cover in one day!
The day starts early, at 7 am. A driver picked me up from my hostel and transported me to the Grasshopper offices where the tour started. We were a small group of 7 people joined by a tour guide named Som and a bicycle mechanic who accompanied us the whole day.
The first part of our tour was a little bit scary as we were driving through the busy streets of Siem Reap. I didn’t feel unsafe for a second, though. The tour took us through a local village and through the forest.
The first stop of the day is at the ticket office to purchase a pass for the Angkor temples. You can purchase a temple pass for one day ($20), three days ($40) or seven days ($60).
We started to explore the temple complex at the South Gate. Here our guide explained to us the difference between quantity and quality temples. In quantity temples, the bricks used are not the same size. In quality temples, the stones and bricks are the same sizes and attention to details is everything.
This is my personal favourite! Tomb Raider put aside, this is truly a magical temple with the trees and roots growing in and through the ruins. Ta Prohm is a quantity temple and you’ll notice that the stones are not the same sizes. Read more about the temple here.
After Ta Prohm, we stopped for snacks opposite Ta Keo temple. We ate freshly cut pineapple and mango pieces dipped into a local spicy mix (a chili, garlic and salt mixture). Yum!
Angkor Thom is a huge walled city full of ruins. We explored the Bayon temple on our own. The Bayon temple is again a quantity temple. The locals had a superstition about uneven numbers. Uneven numbers were believed to be lucky, particularly the number 9. The Bayon temple had 54 towers at one stage, each with 4 faces on them. The math: 54 x 4 = 216 and 2 + 1 + 6 = 9!
From the Bayon temple, we cycled to lunch at one of the many local stalls that you’ll find on the temple grounds. Lunch was delicious local cuisine. The vegetarian option included noodles, assorted veggies, eggs and cashew nuts.
After lunch, we browsed through the stalls.
Tip: Contrary to what you might expect, the merchandise sold inside the temple complex are actually cheap as the shop owners do not have to pay rent. Shop away!
There are numerous bathrooms throughout the complex that is fairly clean and free to use for visitors. So ladies, you don’t have to stress about bathroom breaks.
Angkor Wat is the most famous temple of the Angkor complex. And with good reason. It’s a quality temple and great care was taken in the construction of this temple.
Let me just say that Angkor Wat is huge! The size of the temple surprised me.
There are three levels:
The Lower level has carvings on the wall. The carvings mostly depict battle and war scenes involving kings, soldiers, and animals. It gives a great insight into past civilizations.
The second level of the temple is marked by pillars, colours and Buddha statues. You’ll note that most of the heads of the statues are missing. Why? The heads have been removed and smuggled into Thailand.
The third level used to be the residence of the king. From the top, you have a spectacular view of the area around the temple.
Tip: If you want to climb to the very top of the temple, make sure you are wearing the proper attire. Your must cover your shoulders and knees. They are very strict with admission and simply covering your bare shoulders with a scarf won’t do. Be sure to take a light jacket or jersey with you.
After exploring Angkor Wat for a couple of hours, we cycled back to Siem Reap. Awaiting us back at the office were cold towels and fresh juice straight from a coconut!
Now that you have an overview of the temple complex, it’s easy to return the next day and explore some of the smaller and lesser known temples by yourself.
Why this is the best way to see the temples
- You get to see things you wouldn’t see while driving in a Tuk-Tuk or car. For example, the forest or a local village.
- There is an element of the culture you get to experience for yourself when you are riding a bicycle!
- It’s great to have a guide who can explain the history of the temples and create the context for you. Without the knowledge, you are simply staring at pretty piles of rocks!
- This distance is approximately 30 km, so you’ll get in plenty exercise in as you behold the beautiful sights. You’ll definitely feel it in your thighs and butt!
Still not sure that biking is for you? Maybe you need more information? Check out this article for a great overview of bike touring.