BY THE NUMBERS
3 – temples visited
7 – price paid in USD for two rickety bikes and two expired helmets
9 – hours we spent at Angkor in the searing heat
10 – litres of water we drank over the course of the day
32 – kilometres cycled
40 – price of admission in USD for two one-day passes to Angkor
44 – real feel temperature in degrees Celsius
411 – pictures taken
Last Friday Eric and I braved the scorching Cambodian heat to cycle from one temple to the other at Angkor, near Siem Reap, Cambodia. What possessed us to do this in April, the hottest month of the year, when the mercury regularly rises into the 40°C range? In my case, it was the romanticism of it all. In Eric’s, it was the chance to combine physical activity with a tourist activity. After all, given the success of our Margaret River DIY Sip ‘n Cycle, why wouldn’t we do the same at Angkor? I can now think of many reasons. The heat being just one.
But we did it. And it was a great day!
With the alarm rousing us from sleep at 4:00 a.m., it was also a very early day. But we dragged ourselves out of bed and packed our bag. Our survival pack included: 3 cameras (dSLR, point-and-shoot, iPhone), iPad with e-guidebook, sunscreen, DEET bug spray, and 3 litres of water.
30 minutes later, torches strapped to our heads, we were on our way. Having bought our tickets and picked up our bikes the night before, we didn’t have to stop on the way in and so made the eight kilometre journey in just over half an hour. The weather was hot, but lacked the oppressive feeling that sets in as the day progresses. Thank goodness for small mercies!
Arriving at Angkor Wat, we parked our bikes at the west entrance and made our way in. We already knew that due to the time of year the small pond in front of the temple was more a shallow brown swamp than a reflecting pool, so we watched from the other side (also usually a pond), where two horses were grazing in the green grass.
Although the sunrise was not nearly as colourful as some of the pictures on the internet (and ours) suggest it could have been, we thoroughly enjoyed it. And even though there were many people there, we still felt the tranquility and sense of wonder that so often accompanies early morning sunrises at religious sites.
As is the case with many popular tourist destinations, the Angkor Wat temple has a reputation that precedes it. We arrived there having let our imaginations run wild. In situations like this, I find that I am often somewhat underwhelmed when I see the real thing. That was the case for both Eric and me on Friday.
What made the temple special for us was being able to explore parts of it the evening before, when there were only two or three other people inside while the sun was setting. We crept around, avoiding the guard that was walking around with his whistle to get the last stragglers out. Having the place to ourselves was cool. There’s no other way to describe what it’s like to have a world heritage site, a place that receives over 2 million foreign visitors a year (that doesn’t include the Cambodians, who get in for free), all to yourself.
After touring the temple, we set off for Bayon and Angkor Thom, two temples located within close proximity of each other. Entering from the south, we were able to appreciate the 108 stone figures (54 guardian gods and 54 demon gods) depicting the myth of the Churning of the Ocean. After a couple of funny selfies, we hopped back on our bikes and made our way through the stone gate.
Bayon was, by far, the highlight of my day. The temple, with 216 carved stone faces, left me in awe. Both at their beauty and at the effort it must have taken to create these works of art. Snapping away like crazy, I tried desperately to capture the essence of this marvellous temple. I think I managed a few good ones
By 11 a.m. Eric and I were ravenous. Having been up for almost seven hours already, it was time for lunch. A bit of bargaining at one of the many stalls, and we paid quite a reasonable price for our meal considering we were next to a hugely popular tourist attraction.
Full and tired, it was time to push on. I won’t lie, the five kilometre ride from Angkor Thom to Ta Prohm was brutal. By that time, the heat was in full force. We had gone through our first three litres of water before lunch and made quick work of another one and a half during that ride.
Ta Prohm was made even more famous in 2001 by the hollywood film Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. While neither Eric nor I have seen the film (watching it is now on our list of things to do when we return home), we were still able to imagine what it would have been like to film some of the temple scenes. There is a great deal of reinforcement put in place to preserve the temple and keep parts of it standing that would have had to be avoided during shooting.
We were both very impressed by the sheer magnitude and beauty of the trees at Ta Prohm, the roots of which have managed to wind their way in and around the stones, making them one with the temple.
While Angkor Wat was not packed when we visited early in the morning, both Bayon and Ta Prohm were teeming with tourists posing, taking selfies, and admiring the Khmer architecture. With a solid nine hours at the Angkor historical site under our belts, we decided to call it a day. To be quite honest, there was no way we could have withstood anymore sun exposure, even if we had wanted to.
What I didn’t realize, however, was that we had another 13 kilometres to go before arriving in town. With several stops along the way (all because of me), we made it back to Siem Reap. Caked in a sweat/dirt mixture that had accumulated during the day, we rewarded ourselves with an iced coffee shake reminiscent of a Tim Horton’s iced cap. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. The day or the coffee 😉
Note: While I couldn’t have handled another day of temple-visiting in this heat, I will be sure to come back again one day, just after the end of the rainy season. I can only imagine that the sight of these temples amongst intense greenery would be quite enchanting. Not to mention that, with the temples of Angkor covering 400 square kilometres, there are a few more I’d like to take in.