On our first day of biking around Siem Reap, we rented a couple of mountain bikes to explore Angkor’s ancient temples. On our second and third day, we decided to take it slow and just rent city bikes instead. As hardcore as the mountain bikes look, we found out that most of the terrain was pretty flat. We also found ourselves spending more time on foot, channeling our favorite archaeologist-adventurers as we ventured into ancient temples and ruins. Who knows what hidden treasure we might stumble upon?
For trips like these, I think having a top performing bike doesn’t really make much of a difference. The vintage commuter bikes were good enough to get from temple to temple. It also helps that they had large baskets where we could stash the heavy SLR and our supplies of drinking water instead of carrying it as we did the previous day.
Having visited the most popular temples including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm the day before, we decided to see what the rest of the park
had to offer. But due to a miscommunication, we had to move out of the guesthouse we were staying in and transfer to another inn, so we got a late start. We started biking after lunch and only had half the day to go around.
Our first stop was Phimeanakas, a three-tiered pyramid located inside the ancient Royal Palace Compound. Compared to some of the other temples, it looked more worn out and neglected with crumbled stones and boulders littering the surroundings. Animal statues in various stages of ruin guarded the steep stairways found on all four sides of the structure.
The wooden staircase built over the stone stairs at the West side is the easiest to climb. Surrounding the edge of the top platform are galleries and hallways where we encountered a couple of child monks. Some sections are in pretty bad shape, with wooden scaffolding reinforcing the structure and paths completely blocked off.
At the very top of the pyramid was a small tower with a guard watching over an altar. He asked us if we wanted to light incense and offered to take our photo together, so we left a small donation.
Our next stop was Baphuon, a large three-tiered temple mountain located in Angkor Thom with an impressively large reclining Buddha on the West Side. Getting here required us to park our bikes at a far entrance since you have to cross a long elevated walkway leading inside.
Once we got to the entrance, we found out that this was one of the temples that doesn’t allow visitors in sleeveless shirts and shorts to enter, so I had to double back to get my jacket which I left in the bike basket because the weather was stifling hot that day. For those who aren’t dressed properly, there are shops near the food stalls that sell souvenir shirts, loose pants and scarves for cover ups.
Getting to the top of Baphuon requires a lot of climbing, which can easily leave visitors sweaty and out of breath. I highly recommend you bring bottled water if you plan to head here. There are about three set of steep almost ladder-like staircases leading to the top, which offers a great wide view of the temple complex.
Baphuon has some long scenic corridors with wide windows and turrets surrounding the outer edges of the top level, that made us feel like we were in a game of Temple Run.
At the very center of Baphuon was another set of stairs on a stepped pyramid leading up to doorways that used to enshrine a representation of Shiva. However, the whole section was cordoned off so we couldn’t climb further. Baphuon has already undergone massive restoration efforts, but very little of the original structure remains. There was something intriguing about that stairway and door leading to nowhere.
If getting up Baphuon was tricky, getting down was equally challenging. The descent can be slow if there are a lot of tourists, because the narrow and steep stairs can only take one person at a time to be safe. Thankfully, railings have been put up to help visitors navigate it easier.
All that climbing was pretty hot, so we took a break and settled on the grassy lawn in the shade facing the Terrace of the Elephants. The 350m-long Terrace is named for the carvings and bas reliefs of elephants on its eastern face. The terrace was said to be used as a giant reviewing stand for public ceremonies and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall. After a couple of fruit shakes and cold beers at a nearby stall, we were good to go.
Our last stop was Preah Khan, an interesting monastic complex northeast of Angkor with long hallways, doorways and impressive stone carvings with a pinkish hue that provide some of the best photo opportunities in Angkor.
The temple is just relatively flat and linear, but it seemed to be an endless maze of corridors and doorways leading to another. We couldn’t help but venture deeper and deeper into the shadows. The mysterious carvings really looked like they hid some mechanism that would cause a hidden door to open somewhere. If ever there’s a secret underground dungeon in Angkor, I’d imagine it would be hidden here.
Another great thing about Preah Khan is that it doesn’t get as crowded as the main temples. While exploring, we saw some of the best and most well-preserved carved lintels and etchings hidden among the dim corridors. Unfortunately, some of the images and statues in the deeper corridors have been vandalized.
At the west end of the main temple, we came across a two-story structure with distinctive cylindrical columns which resembled Grecian pillars. The purpose of this two-storied building with round columns is still unknown, but it’s a very distinctive feature. Preah Khan is the only temple that contains round columns, and it’s a wonder that they still stand.
Similar to Ta Prohm, Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored within a dense jungle setting. The climate felt cooler here and trees and other vegetation just wove naturally through the ruins. We encountered an impressively large tree on the wall of the East Gate, the sheer size of which was just astounding. Even with a wide lens, we couldn’t capture the whole thing,
For some reason, the lines of the poem Ozymandias kept popping in my head as we walked through the ancient ruins. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” It makes you wonder how glorious the place was centuries ago. Just some random thoughts while exploring the Kingdom of Wonder.
TO BE CONCLUDED: Tomb Raiding in Cambodia (Part 3)