Every now and then there’s something truly bewildering about a ride. It’s hard to pin a label on the sensation, but it makes you grin inside, yet it also humbles with reverence and strikes awe through your core at the same time.
That may be the best way to describe the sensation of riding through the trails of Angkor Wat.
Justly confirmed and measured up as the world’s largest religious complex, Angkor is a place of unparalleled allure and a deeply complex history. Gazing around at the sheer physical marvel and scale of the place leaves you with way too many unanswered questions. As for just what it took to construct such a place before the advent of mechanical construction aids, well it defies feasibility and logic.
There can be few people who have not heard of the wonders of Angkor, and of its great decay and subsequent destruction, and indeed of Cambodia itself during the Khmer Rouge era. All of this conspires to make any visit here something of a levelling experience.
This was my second visit to Angkor, a decade earlier it was fleeting as I rode around some virtually untouched parts of the complex. That outing had had me itching to return for more. This time around on a gravel/touring bike with the intent on escaping the tourist hordes and to discover the solace that can still be found in abundance in parts of this 400-acre jungle-clad landscape.
Crowd numbers and access restrictions had increased massively since my last visit, and yet all it took to dodge the procession was a single left turn on the edge of the main complex.
Taking a narrow waterside singletrack (just off the main mapped circuit) and I was all alone and twisting alongside the deserted and decaying outer walls of old Angkor. I really had not expected it to be so easy to simply hop off the main route, but it was.
The region is pan-flat, apart from a few mounds here and there is quite well forested on the outskirts, meaning there were no issues in rattling around at speed on wide but slick road tyres without any obstructions. In all three broken days were spent discovering these holy dirt roads and singletracks, carving a route by nose and logic.
Cambodia has, of course, suffered from on-going UXO (unexploded ordinance) issues, but as long as you stick to the temple area and surrounds, and stay on obviously worn trails, you’re good to go.
Discovering Angkor by bike is not exactly new, but thankfully it’s generally done on city bikes, and tourists do almost always stick to the main circuits, which I also added to my ride plan. I was able to clock up a few hours at a time on these rides while stopping off at prime spots along the route.
The sensation of riding through these remote and completely tourist-free areas was much more appealing than scrambling over selfies sticks at the prime temples, with the fast and loose riding rating highly for thrills.
Most of the main strictures have attendants standing watch, but riding close by and parking up to explore on foot is not an issue. Keep in mind that this is one of the most iconic and holiest sites in the world, and thus it’s essential to be respectful and considerate in where and how you ride (and to also carry a sarong or longs if you want to enter temples).
The complex is less than 30-minutes ride time from downtown Siem Reap, and there are a couple of ways to get there, with the quiet back road option preferable.
The main mapped circuits are a perfect starting point and are essential routes for seeing the many prime temples.
From the main circuits, you will see some obvious trails leading into the wild. In avoiding the masses you can pin together some great rides.
There’s also good riding in the forested areas as you approach the main complex. With the flat terrain, it’s hard to go wrong if you keep a clear sense of direction, but still activate the GPS mapping apps on a mobile phone as a backup.
You will need to get your temple pass either on entry (at the main gates complex on route 67) or between 5-5.30pm on the evening before, which also allows you entry that evening, which is perfect for a bonus sunset ride (passes are frequently checked).
Temperatures can be extremely hot, so a dawn start is a good move – but the roads can also be very busy, so have at least a rear light. Most tourists visit for the Angkor Wat sunrise, which is a memorable, but extremely crowded time.
There are numerous places to stock up on food and drink dotted around the main circuits, but still carry plenty of water - just in case the heat and humidity take its toll.
WHEN TO RIDE
Prime tourist season runs between November and early April when the area is at it’s driest and least humid, but it is still very hot. From March – May it becomes even hotter, and with that comes dust, smog and haze.
June-September is the rainy season which can be heavy at times, but it is also the least trafficked tourist time and the most vibrant in colour. The end of the rainy season is a good time to visit, with its clean air and colour, but factor in potential days lost to rain.