Off-Road Biking Through Angkor Wat
A very beautiful, young German girl named Jara is my tour guide through the ruins that stood for over a century. She is an unlikely tour guide to find in this part of the world, but also a welcome one. The mountain bikes skip and slide as we speed down the single-track path that heads through the thick forest that fill in the space between each archaeological site. The sun lifts itself from behind the horizon and the soft glow of morning covers us as we head into small straw thatched-roof villages. Seventy-two families still live within the ruins, living simple electricity free lives as tourists with iPads take pictures of the ruins not far away. Jara and I follow a man on a small beaten up motorbike as he urges his herd of water buffalo to their feeding ground. A small smooth dirt trail leads out of the village. Long green stalks of rice stretch out on either side of the path while two water buffalo speak to each other across the divide. A young boy carries a fishing both three times his size as he slowly walks down the road.
The village path returns to the main road that is completely jammed with tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and cars trying to cram themselves into one of the four entrances to Angkor Tom. Stalls filled with souvenirs and playful monkeys sit before the bridge, but it is the large smiling face of Buddha that marks the entrance. One of the young monkeys tries to grab my bike as I take a picture, and then decides to jump up onto Jara’s shoulder and play with her hair. Apparently, they know each other pretty well.
Even on top of the walls of Angkor Tom, the path zig-zags, dips into mud, and had points that you have to pick the bike up to get through. I thought today would be a leisurely ride through the ruins, but instead it was a poor-man’s cycle-cross through historical scenery. As we arrive at each of the ruins, Jara watches the bikes as I walk through and try to capture something that could never be captured by a camera. The stones are shaved down and so seamless that not even a pin could fit between the bricks, stunning bas-reliefs of dancing Apsara women fit together like puzzle pieces on every wall, large tree trunks grow over the sides of walls trying to return the land the ruins were built on to nature. History sits in this place and creeps into your bones like the moss and lichens growing upon each of the stones.
The forest path gives way to a small dam with a wobbly bamboo bridge that we carefully walk are bikes across. The path on the other side is littered with leaves and bright green algae that covers the marsh creating the appearance of a surface you could walk on. Small brown frogs and millipedes make their way across the path as we try our best to maneuver around them. In the next clearing is a old stone gate. On one side of the gate are two bas-relief carvings of the Buddhist snakelike-deity with nine heads, the “Naga.” On the opposing side are two bas-reliefs of the Hindu hawk-deity, the “Garuda.” Two religions merged as one for the good of the country. A highly revered Cambodian king merged Hinduism and Buddhism in the country to avoid the conflict of religions, and a Naga next to a Garuda is considered the sign of religious peace and cooperation. If only more Nagas and Garudas in other places could come together… I follow a Japanese tour group into the next set of ruins and stand just far enough away that I can pick up pieces of information without anyone realizing that I’m eavesdropping. The temple is part of a fertility ritual where women come to drink rain water out of vaginal-shaped wells to increase their chances of having healthy, strong children. Each temple and ruin in the Angkor Wat Archaeological site has something intricate and unique.
Our day ends with a sunset tour through the Angkor Wat palace. An idealized entrance to heaven built for a king who died one year before his dream was realized. Tourists freckle the landscape covering much of the greenery around the palace. Inside, over fifty Chinese photographers throw money and shout at two adolescent monks in orange robes, posing them in different positions. First they walk back and forth quietly in front of the massive charcoal-colored stones of the temple. Next, they sit in meditation position on an carved stone overhang jutting out from the floor above. Finally, they sit under towering columns and look pensively at the setting sun as the sounds of camera shutters and beeps echo around the large open chamber. A Mynah bird perches nearby as we continue to walk through the ruins and begins to chirp different sounds. It’s deep black feathers offset by the yellow crescent covering its eyes and crowning its head. As we exit Angkor Wat, the sun dips away and the last colors of orange fizzle out like the last embers of a once-raging bonfire. The bike ride back to Siem Reap is done in the ink of night until a car or motorcycle passes, stretching and wrapping our shadows around us as they pass.
Stay: Mad Monkey Guesthouse $6/nt (dorm), $12/nt (private)
Eat: Le Moreaux, Mad Monkey, Visal Angkor Restaurant (All $4-$8). Street Food Carts ($1-$3)
Do: Take a tour with KKO off-road tours to the ruins (They are an NGO that helps Khmer business grow), get a blind massage from one of the many landline victims to relax while contributing to those on hard times, head to Pub Street for drinks at Temple Bar, Angkor What?, or X Bar.
Note: If you liked what you read and want a visual, check out my Angkor Wat Video!