A Malaysian girl learns the best way to see crowded Angkor temples: on two wheels

A Malaysian girl learns the best way to see crowded Angkor temples: on two wheels

From Battambang town in western Cambodia, it was another two full days of cycling to reach Siem Reap, the main town next to the famous temples of Angkor. Since the terrain is mostly similar to what I had experienced already when cycling from Phnom Penh, I decided to take a four-hour bus ride with my bicycle stuffed in the luggage compartment.

I arrived in Siem Reap in the late afternoon, and was hit with the full force of commercialisation that was vastly different from the rest of Cambodia - hotels, restaurants, massage parlours, shops etc. I quickly found a good hostel, deposited my luggage and made my way to the Angkor Archaeological Park to claim my free sunset.

The trick is that if you purchase your ticket at 5pm, you are allowed into the park to view the sunset from one of the famous viewpoints. Alas, by the time I reached the gates, the counters were closed for the day. But I enjoyed a very animated chat with the two security guards working the graveyard shift, and also met an Argentinian couple doing a six month backpacking tour of Asia.

I am not typically an early riser, but for the sake of my once-in-a-lifetime visit to a World Heritage Site, I woke up at 4:30am the next morning to catch the iconic sunrise over Angkor Wat.

My first entry of the Angkor Complex was in darkness, together with a huge crowd of buses, tuk-tuks and rental bicycles all bearing hordes of sunrise-chasing tourists. However, it was a mostly cloudy morning and the sunrise was less than spectacular.

Angkor Park itself is a beautiful park with lush forests which is perfect for cycling. This is the best way to get away from the tourist crowds, in search of little pockets of tranquillity off the beaten track. Within the park, there are plenty of food and drinks stalls.

I bought a three-day pass that was actually valid for seven days. Armed with my bicycle and a guidebook, I found that this gave me the most freedom to explore at minimal cost.

I spent two full days inside the park from sunrise to sundown, taking my time in the temples, poking into quiet trails, taking naps whenever I felt bouts of temple-itis overload looming. Angkor, with its complex history, detailed architecture and grand vistas, truly befits its reputation as one of the Wonders of the World.

On my third day, I spent a full day resting in Siem Reap and indulging in the huge variety of cuisines available in town, before hitting the road again.

I headed up north towards the Thai border, past two more Angkor sites: Banteay Srei (known for its most intricate carvings) and Kbal Spean (which involves a hike up to a waterfall where one can find a series of sandstone carvings in the river beds). Both are unique sites which, though located far away from the main park, amply reward those who make the extra effort to visit them.

The road up north was a huge contrast to the rough Highway 5 from Phnom Penh to Battambang (which I had done a few days earlier); the road was very well paved and traffic was minimal. The landscape was also different - much more arid low bushland and rolling hills. Two days of hot, sunny riding brought me to the town of Anlong Veng, also known as the last bastion of the Khmer Rouge and the final resting place of Pol Pot.

One of his most trusted generals, Ta Mok, ordered a lake to be built right outside his house; it has now become a swamp teeming with bird life. It also served as a rather idyllic setting to watch my final sunset in Cambodia.

I was glad to have known Cambodia beyond the shadow of Angkor; the people are friendly and curious and the landscape is vast but beautiful. Thailand was just 10 kilometres north across the Dangrek Mountain Range. That was to be the second leg of my cycle-touring adventure.

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