"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Banteay Kdai and Ta Prohm by bike, Cambodia, February 2018

The plan for this ride was for Kokila and I to head out on the MTBs at 1pm from our hotel in Siem Reap and finish the unfinished business of our previous ride - visiting Ta Prohm and then returning the same way (on the highway this time, no energy-sapping trails) via Banteay Kdai. Our start was delayed by the disappearance of our hired bikes - we went down into the hotel garage to get them only to find they weren't there. I was beginning to count the possible cost of two stolen bikes when the hotel staff got on the phone and confirmed the bike shop had mistakenly picked them up the previous night - well, nice of them to tell us! It was a genuine mistake and they happily sent a tuk-tuk out to us with the same 2 bikes on a trailer, but that did mean we didn't get started until 2. Oh well, it gave me a chance to finish my chanting of 600 mantras which I otherwise would have had to cram in before turning in for the night (and that can leave you too energised to sleep) and we also told ourselves we would be riding in a cooler part of the day so it wasn't all bad. What as potentially bad though was the possible loss of daylight later on, so I took the two head torches in case we ran out of time and found ourselves returing after dark.

It was a good workout slogging up the highway and over the river to Banteay Kdai - you cover the miles quickly on the main road and it does have a cycle lane, but it lacks a bit of charm. Once at Banteay Kdai we decided to try and return via Angkor Thom, effectively reversing our ride of 2 days before but visiting different temples on the route. That also meant we'd have another look at Bayon and Angkor Thom's south gate. On our last ride we'd followed an enchanting route around the walls of Banteay Kdai but not had time to go in, so this time we locked up the bikes and headed through the mighty stone gateway.

Wondering around Banteay Kdai was wonderful - a temple still merged with the jungle, it had a powerful atmosphere that was spiritual and primordial at the same time. As a next door neighbour to Ta Prohm it gets only a fraction of the visitors the more famous temple gets, so there's time and space to wander and enjoy the peace. We bumped into Dhiraja, caught a glimpse of Prabakhar and then ran into Hemabha and Albena on the way out. Even with 30 or so temples in the Angkor complex, there was little chance of going anywhere without running into fellow disciples as there were getting on for 300 of us in the area, all with the afternoons free to explore. There was a small buddhist shrine near the main Gopura at the temple entrance so we went there for a blessing from a charmingly smiling lady (not in robes, so I guess a lay buddhist) and a quick meditation before making our circuit of the outer enclosure and the sanctuary.

Next it was back on the bikes and off to Ta Prohm where we knew we'd encounter big crowds so we resolved to stop at the stalls outside for coffee first. It was weak, muddy coffee so we followed it up with some coke and ate some snacks to get fortified before we tackled the tour parties. Fortunately Ta Prohm was worth it - another Jungle Temple, it's an awesome place, mighty tree roots merged with the ancient stone. Even here we were able to find quiet spaces and even chanced upon a tiny shrine that all the tour parties were bypassing (they follow prescribed routes past all the best photo ops) so we were able to meditate there and sing one of Sri Chinmoy's songs dedicated to the Buddha. One thing about the Christmas Trip we go on each year is that we spend so much time meditating we can just click back into it in a moment - especially if we find ourselves in a temple in Cambodia, a shrine in Bali or a Basilica in the Balkans. This set me thinking about what draws us to these places. I remember reading in Herman Hesse's Journey to the East how the hero of the book would go in and meditate whenever he passed a church, temple, mosque, synagogue...that passage really resonated with me and I realised that's how you can actually feel a deep oneness with the soul of a place, whether it's a natural site like a mountain or a waterfall or a shrine , temple or place of pilgrimage. Not easy to put something like this into words or frame it in logic - ultimately there's an inner magnetism these places that draws the soul forward in us and I was feeling that force strongly in Ankgor.

Again we ran into friends from across the world here, but we couldn't stay too long as the daylight doesn't last forever and our evening meditation, the main event as far as we were concerned, was at 8pm. After Ta Prohm we opted to take the long route back to have another look at the Bayon which had made such a deep impression on us two days before. Time was tight and I checked with one of the park officials that the gates of Angkor Thom would still be open when we got there. He said they close the gates in the great arches in the city walls at around seven so that seemed safe enough.

Once out of Ta Prohm and onto the circuit road we found it quiet and tranquil - by now everyone was heading home or to Pre Rup or one of the other sunset venues that all the tour parties make for. This meant we had a lovely ride over the wooden bridge and into Ankor Thom through the Victory Gate. Kokila was well warmed up now and riding at a good pace so we covered ground quickly, pausing only briefly at Bayon and then heading south for home (well, Siem Reap, our temporary home).

We had  quick stop at the South Gate to soak up views of the sun reflected in the waters of the moat before moving swiftly past the crowds at Phnom Bakeng who were getting ready for the nightly sunset party. One final look at Angkor Wat and then we were on the forest road back to Siem Reap. It was time to return our hired bikes which we had grown very attached to so that meant a couple of miles through the manic city streets as dusk was approaching. Kokila got cut up by a bus and jostled by a moped rider at the lights but it was all fairly good natured - just a bit of a culture shock after the peace of the temple circuit. We found the bike shop just before it got dark. That was it for Cambodia on bikes - next challenge for me would the trail race at seven the next morning.

Sacred Steps Home