"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Angkor Thom and Bayon Temple by bike, Cambodia, February 2018
Kokila and I love temples, and as the Angkor area is totally flat, hiring bikes seemed like the best way to explore this world-famous temple complex. Our first outing was set to be around 20-25 miles spread across an afternoon with hikes around a couple of temples along the way. We headed out after lunch on the rental bikes - mine a green Merida that felt great to ride and was surprisingly well maintained and Kokila on a Giant that we chose because it had the lowest crossbar of all the bikes in the shop. We were paying 5 bucks a day.
From Siem Reap we went north through the chaotic traffic of the Charles De Gaulle / Ankor Wat road and were very relieved when we had turned off on the left fork towards Angkor Thom. Everyone makes their own rules at a junction - there's a lot of making eye contact with the people coming the other way on bikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks or whatever, and trying to work out who is going to give way to whom. Somehow it just works out.
The road led us through shady forest towards the west side of the "square" road around the moat of Angkor Wat which we'd visited a day earlier. Passing the busy east side of Angkor Wat we approached Angkor Thom and after forty-odd minutes got a sight of the South Gate. No photo does justice to this view, which comes up as you ride up the road towards the bridge with it's Naga statues and the thousand year old archway with it's faces of Lord Vishnu looking out in the four directions. A truly awesome sight, it was a powerful feeling just to be on that road, looking up at that divine face that had gazed out on visitors for so many centuries, including the heyday of the Khmers when this was their capital.
Once through the gate it was all spacious forest - the city buildings are long since gone, dissolved into the jungle, leaving only the mighty temples of stone that were once lost to jungle too but have been cleared over the last century and a half. We saw monkeys at the roadside and pigs wallowing in a mud hole before the first temple of the day came into view - the Bayon. Before going in we visited the Buddhist shrine opposite to light incense and meditate for a few short minutes then we approached the towers of the Bayon itself.
Again I can't describe this place adequately - you have to go there. What I can say though is that despite it being overrun with big tour groups and thoroughly crowded, it still felt peaceful and divine. The work of those who built and carved these 216 images of Vishnu has stood the test of time. We wondered around for ages finding new and beautiful views, or intricate carvings, seemingly around every corner. We tried to photograph it all but it was hard to capture. Some temples I visit seem to be just ruins that have lost their spiritual vibration but somehow Bayon has endured and retained its power. I wondered if everyone else visiting was feeling it too? Hard to tell as everyone scrambles to take selfies and pose for photos by the carvings - they all seemed to be enjoying themselves though.
Dragging ourselves away from the Bayon we rode east towards the Victory Gate, the road shaded by tall trees all the way. The Victory Gate was similary to the South Gate though it's bridge over the moat is not so dramatic. Soon we were at Ta Prohm but after a quick look we decided not to go in - it was just too crowded and we were done with crowds. Both of us were flagging in the heat so we refuelled at the stalls by Ta Prohm - bananas and fresh coconut were just what we needed and I grabbed us a coke for good measure. To get some seclusion I chose a route down to the back entrance of Banteay Kdai and then we left the road behind to follow the ancient laterite walls of the temple through the forest. This was my favourite part of the day - deep in the trees and hearing all the forest sounds, with the mighty faces of Vishnu and Garuda at the temple gates looking down. With not a soul around it was incredibly atmospheric. This was my favourite spot of the whole ride and that's saying something after the feeling I had when I first saw the gates of Angor Thom or came through the archway into the inner enclosure of Bayon.
Having gazed, entranced, at the temples and lapped up many miles of sun-baked road, the long haul back to town was still ahead so I mapped out a route on google that would take us down the riverside trails to the Peace Cafe. This was a tough ride on a sapping surface but we got to see modern Cambodia, the homes at the trailside a contrast with the mighty stonework of the Khmer ancestors. We were glad to see the end of the trail and get back on to smooth road and even more glad to rock up at the Peace Cafe just before the light failed. With so much left to do, we knew we would probably only have one more ride before we had to head home so we resolved to check out Ta Prohm on our next outing and revisit Banteay Kdai.
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