Cambodia is home to Angkor Archaeological Park, one of the most important historical sites in Southeast Asia. The site, which encompasses dozens of temple ruins, including Bayon, Ta Prohm and the legendary Angkor Wat, has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Partly because the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) was filmed here, this historic temple complex has been been on my motorcycle bucket list for years.
I always envisioned exploring off-the-beaten-track temples and visiting ancient ruins shown in the movie by motorcycle. But apparently, it’s forbidden for tourists to rent motorcycles in Siem Reap unless they opt for (expensive) guided motorbike tours. Most people get around aboard tuk-tuks, the iconic motorcycles with carriages attached to the backs, vans, tour buses or even elephants. Outside Slacker and I preferred to go around on our own, so we opted instead for his preferred mode of transport. We rented a couple of bikes to go around.
READ: Biking Guide: Cambodia
After visiting Beng Melea, a beautiful jungle temple some 63 km away from SIem Reap by tuk-tuk, we went straight to the Angkor Archaeological Park to buy entrance tickets for our DIY biking tour. It’s possible to get a one-day ($20), three-day ($40), or seven-day ($60) pass. We opted for the 3-day pass so that we could take our time and appreciate the temples at a leisurely pace.
After buying tickets, our tuk-tuk driver told us that we could enter for that day without our tickets being punched, so we visited Angkor Wat to watch the sunset.
Angkor Wat is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level. It’s surrounded by a moat and exterior wall. The main facade was undergoing some reconstruction, with lots of scaffolding during our visit, but seeing the temple firsthand was still awe-inspiring.
Dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, Angkor Wat is the best-preserved temple showcasing the classical style of Khmer architecture. This iconic temple is the symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.
The temple interiors were surprisingly huge with large hallways and open areas. The walls of the temple inside and out were covered with amazing bas reliefs and carvings.
According to our copy of the Siem Reap Angkor Visitor’s Guide, the best time to visit Angkor Wat is after 2:00 pm for the best lighting conditions. However, the most iconic and postcard-worthy shot of Angkor Wat is the dramatic silhouette of the temples and its reflection on the northern reflecting pool during sunrise. Since we didn’t want to wake up at the crack of dawn and jostle our way through hordes of tourists all eager to get the same photo (Check out No. 6 in this list), we skipped the sunrise shoot and decided to bike to other destinations instead. The next day, we spent most of the morning at Angkor Thom and Bayon.
Angkor Thom is a walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. There are five entrances or gates to the city, one for each cardinal point, and the victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is lined with statues holding multi-headed serpents built on small bridge like-roads over a water channel and is topped with an impressive turreted structure with four giant stone faces.
Share the road
At the center of Angkor Thom is Bayon, a beautiful temple with carvings of huge faces. These giant stone faces have become the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. The whole complex is just amazing. Most guides recommend that if you only have time to visit two temples, Angkor Wat and Bayon should be at the top of your list.
Seeing Bayon, you can see why the Angkor Park has been put in the same class as the Pyramids, Machu Pichu and Taj Mahal. Standing beneath the gigantic stone faces covering almost every tower can strike awe and wonder in the most jaded traveler. This temple is just magnificent beyond belief. It makes you wonder how spectacular it must have looked centuries ago when it was first constructed. This temple is easily one of the most photogenic in Angkor Park.
There was just so much to see and marvel at in Bayon that we spent most of the morning there. Pretty soon, it was lunch time so we headed to a row of food stalls nearby for lunch, fruit shakes and a cold beer to re-energize.
After lunch, we resumed biking and stumbled upon Prasat Prei, several small temple ruins scattered around a forest setting. The great thing about biking is that you can easily access less crowded temples like these away from the crowds.
We also came across the Preah Pithu Group, five small temples set in a quiet area opposite the Terrace of the Leper King. The ruins here weren’t as well-preserved as some of the other temples, but there were interesting carved lintels scattered around the grounds. I really liked this particular set of ruins because it involved some trail biking in the jungle and felt very peaceful. While it was difficult to get clean shots without any other people in Angkor Wat and Bayon, we had these temple ruins all to ourselves, making it easier to imagine ourselves as intrepid explorers in search for treasure in uncharted territory.
We biked past the Victory Gate, leading from Angkor Thom to Ta Keo and found Spean Thma (Stone Bridge) right beside the road. This ruin overrun by trees is a remnant of an ancient bridge that sits on the side of the Siem Reap River. The doorways under the tree bridge looked like portals to another world. Surreal!
The bridge here was under construction during the time of our visit so we had to double back, pass the North Gate and circle around the long way passing other temples before we reached Ta Prohm, which I was most excited to visit.
Most people are familiar with the ruins of Ta Prohm from the Tomb Raider movie. This sprawling monastic complex is characterized by huge trees seemingly poured over the ruins and thick jungle overgrowth. Intentionally left partially unrestored, the massive trees just tower over the doorways and corridors, their roots engulfing the roofs of the temple ruins.
After a day of looking at nothing but temples, you’d think we’d be all templed out already, but seeing Ta Prohm firsthand was just staggering. The last rays of the sun shone through the trees, bathing the ruins in an eerie and mystical glow. The dark corridors were littered with fallen stones and massive pillars, obstructing paths that looked like they could lead to underground chambers filled with treasure.
The intricate carvings on the doorways and lintels looked like puzzles you have to solve to enter into a secret dungeon. Maybe with the right key or artifact placed in an empty spot on the wall, a concealed door would be revealed or a wall would slide open. Maybe I could squeeze through the doorway under the massive roots…
Of all of the temples in Angkor, Ta Prohm provides the best jungle atmosphere that really captures that old “explorer spirit.” As a fan of the Indiana Jones movies and video games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted, Ta Prohm is the closest I felt to being an explorer in virtual adventures. But this was for real this time. Visiting this spectacular jungle temple was just icing on the cake of a great day of biking among the ancient temples of Angkor.
CONTINUED: Tomb Riding in Cambodia (Part 2)