Cycling Angkor, and why this is really the only way to do it

The great temples of Angkor really need no introduction, as undoubtedly every traveler that plans on visiting Cambodia  has  both heard of and intends to visit them. Next to its infamous main temple Angkor Wat, the Bayon temple (temple of the heads) and the ‘tomb-raider temple’ Ta Prohm attract a daily massive crowd, nevertheless few doubt their beauty when they are standing face-to-face with them, crowds or not. As a Dutchy I am obviously biased towards cycling, since we’re basically born upon one. In this article however I am not only going to explain to you how to visit the temples by bicycle, I am also going to convince you that it is really the only way to go at it. 

So what are your options? Because of Angkor’s massive pull to tourism, there are plenty. You can book a guided tour with a group ‘temple-hopping’ by bus, opt for a private guided tour by bus, minivan, car, remork-moto (the Cambodian play on the Thai ‘tuk tuk’), moto (scooterbike) and yes probably also by bicycle (though I have not seen those tours around yet). There is even an option to go over the area with an hot-air balloon (Nov-March), which sounds awesome but is probably not the most fitted way to actually see the temples up close as your route heavily depends on the directions the wind is blowing from, and amidst most of the temples there is no place to land, making it impossible to actually drift over them. Next to that you can take all the above ways of transportation (and add a helicopter ride) but venture out on your own.

Angkor Wat (within the outer walls)
View from the inner temple in Angkor Wat (all within the outer walls)

So if there are so many options, why am I so dead set on cycling? First of all lets eliminate some of the options. A bus-tour can be convenient if you are short on time but will guarantee a lot of waiting, crowded visits and you will only see the main temples. Explanations by the guide will not tell you anything a written guide couldn’t also do and you will miss out on half of it due to the size of your group and the  murmur of its people. Going by car, or remork-moto (with or without a guide) will bring you to your desired places, but on your way towards them you will not see anything more than your window frame allows or than what you can see from underneath the canvas-roof of your remork. More importantly, you will miss out on all the temples you did not intend to visit but just happen to stumble upon (Angkor is a huge area, and a lot of great temples and sights are not even mapped and rarely visited). Going by your own moto can be rewarding however the loud roar of the engine and sweaty helmet can be quite the bug, and you can go without them if… indeed, if you go by bike.

Cycling in Angkor is extremely doable: there are hardly any hills and most roads are reasonably well maintained. The area is quite vast which makes simply hiking not the best option, but considering you can buy 3-day or even week-passes a bicycle is the perfect fit. You can rent one at most hostels/hotels for about 1 or 2 USD a day and the ride from the center of Siem Reap to the entrance of the temple-complex is only about 20 minutes.

Lisan next to one of the old gates (restored heads on the guards)
Cycling between temples on the plains in Angkor (Lisan is the small cycling dot)
the main paved roads in Angkor

Being inside the park the mobility of your own wheels allows you to go anywhere you want and stay there as long as you want. But the best thing really is that all the while you are moving from temple to temple you will pass by rarely-visited smaller temples. Some of them are not even mapped but are larger and more beautiful than many well-known temples elsewhere in South-East Asia. Beyond Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom the crowds quickly get really thin. Combine this with cycling between huge Jurassic trees in lush jungle and you will feel like a proper explorer venturing out into the wilderness, looking for lost temples accompanied by nothing but the sound of birds chirping and probably a slight squeak from your bike every now and then. It is this childish joy of exploration, combined with the freedom of moving around on your own terms, while still learning about culture (bring a guidebook) that delivers that  exhilarating ‘travelers-high’ that everybody craves for when out on the road, but only rarely truly experiences. I can honestly say that by cycling Angkor, even though the sights themselves are one of the best that are out there, it is the feeling and experience that I remember best.

Random temple which we would have never found/visited if we did not go out on bikes
Bayon temple
Jungle view in Bayon temple
Ta Phrom after a fresh rain-shower

Just some common-sense tips that I feel obliged to make: bring plenty of water (think 2x 1.5L a person) as the combination of cycling and jungle-heat can really bring you to the brink of dehydration (water is sold around the main temples for quadrupled prices). Also bring some food, around the bigger temples you will find some hawkers that sell fried rice (and packs of cookies/crisps) but further than that bring your own. Also do not go out cycling solo unless you carry a repair-set to fix a flat tire. Bring sunscreen, bug-lotion, a (plastic 1 dollar) poncho to fight the occasional tropical shower, a guide-book and download an offline map of the area on your mobile so you can GPS your way back to town if you get lost. Everything more is fine but really just a luxury, cycling is best done as light as possible so think twice on bringing anything else. The main temples plus one or two extra will take you a full day, so dividing it up into 2 or 3 morning/early-afternoon rides combined with poolside relaxing in the afternoon seems to be a good idea.

So right know, whether you are scrolling on your cellphone in a hostel somewhere or at home behind your laptop dreaming of your next trip, it is time to write down ‘cycling Angkor’ on your must-do-list. You will not regret it, I guarantee it.