We set off at 8 by way of The Boulangery for caffeine then past the somewhat inappropriately named Charming City and on to the outer perimeters of the Apsara zoned Angkor Park.
The Siem Reap most tourists see is the swimming pool in the center of their hotel, maybe the Royal Gardens next to Raffles and Psa Char – the Old Market then the road to the temples. The real Siem Reap is a few hundred meters away from these tourist routes. In the rainy season it’s bisected by a network of dirt tracks with small frogs jumping in and out of the muddy pools . Pre 21st century dwellings, usually little more than shacks are allowed by Apsara, the super ministry responsible for the Angkor Park.
This is where my guide and partner Manus’s family live, so with a pass I bought the evening before, we sped through this temple hinterland and emerged by the Angkor Observation Balloon that rises and falls on its fixed rope according to the number of tourists who want to go up and down. An irrigation channel runs between brilliant green rice paddy fields soaked by the monsoon straight to the Angkor Thom moat. Every where there’s a picture to be taken; small boys fishing with a bamboo cane, an ambling buffalo blocking our way, young men up to their waist in water casting nets or a view of the sugar palm framed countryside.
Cycling through Angkor is an amazing experience, amazing because you’re riding over one of the most intriguing wonders of the world by yourself or in this case with Manus and no one is stopping you. It seems too good to last. The first view of Angkor Thom evokes this feeling as you look along the moat to the mythical stone creatures adorning the South Entrance of the ancient city. The entrance itself is a scrum as cars and buses impatiently wait for the other to pass so they can get through the single lane gate. Tuk tuks and motodops weave in between and the occasional bong thom in his Lexus or Range Rover will jam on his horn to signal for everyone else to get out of his way.
Inside Angkor Thom we carried the bikes to the top of the wall that squares the perimeter of the city inside the moat and the leafy path that runs its distance. It seems incredible that it’s not blocked by tourists but apart from a couple of courting young Khmers we had the way to ourselves with just birdsong as an accompaniment. Oh and mosquitoes whenever we slowed sufficient for them to strike, the little ones that are harder to splat but itch just as much. We had to carry the bikes down the wall to cross the West and North entrances. Along the North side the wall had crumbled into a pile of stones numbered in a conservation effort to put them back together again. Lapping at the stones the moat had flooded and inundated the forest so we clambered back up only to find the front tire of my bicycle was flat. The advantage of working for a Siem Reap tour company is that they know their way round the temples so a call to the Khmer Mr Fix-it in the office had Vantha the tuk tuk driver coming to our rescue at the Western Victory Gate entrance.
In the shadow of The Terrace of Elephants under a lone shade tree was a harassed tire repair man surrounded by a cluster of motorbikes, tuk tuks and restaurant touts, lady’s calling out to passing tourists to eat in the place that paid them. We followed one past the tourist tat of t shirts and unnecessary souvenirs to an unappealing canteen of tables for an expensive and unpleasant lunch. My bicycle inner tube was smoking gently squeezed by a clamp heated by a flickering oil flame when we returned to the lone shade tree after lunch (Indochine Exploration Angkor Park Cycle ride includes a packed picnic on the banks of the King’s Pool).
The plan was to circle the Angkor Park avoiding roads and sticking to paths and tracks not marked on the map so we headed back towards the Victory Gate. I remembered from my early explorations of Angkor by bike when I first came to Siem Reap, finding a path that ran to the Siem Reap River from a small temple called Ta Nei reached through the forest. We crossed the river carrying our bikes over the gates of a weir where Khmers were fishing in the current and came to the temple shaded by towering trees protected by Apsara. Ta Nei is a charming tumble of ruins and vegetation made all the more special by its seclusion in the forest.
The ride turned from a tour into an exploration when we left the track and headed down a small path, which I hoped would lead via the East Baray to Sra Srang or the Kings Pool. Ominously the path was blocked by a ‘do not enter’ barrier, we carried on anyway and came to a pile of stones that must have once been a temple. The reason for the barrier became apparent as although the East as opposed to West Baray is dry throughout most of the year with the recent rain the forest was now flooded past the pile of stones. This was where our little jaunt, which by now had taken 5 hours got interesting, as we cycled through half a meter of water trying to keep a momentum that would carry us through. The countryside felt like a corner of Eden, protected woodland surrounding paddy fields between the mythical temples that populate the hundred or so square kilometers that comprise the Angkor Park.
The ground became firmer as our path rose out of the water to flank a stonewall, which in turn lead to a dirt road and the North entrance to Ta Prohm Temple. We’d hit the park inner ring road a little sooner than I’d hoped but it only meant a few hundred meters along tarmac until we came to Sra Srang or the King’s bathing pool. The Baray, which is about half a kilometer long by two hundred meters wide and full of water the year round sets a photogenic backdrop to Sra Srang Village. Men fished, kids screeched and buffalo wallowed, there was something for everyone.
Manus and I knew of an Angkorian highway that runs from Prasat (or temple) Batchum to Chau Srei Vibol, another temple about 15 kilometers to the North, it’s a walk we promote for our guests. Prasat Batchum isn’t far from Sra Srang so we left the village and headed across the amazingly green and flooded paddy fields to try and find it. Success it was where we expected! The rest of the route is a fast cycle on graded dirt roads through the Khmer countryside back to Siem Reap, Spean Neak Bridge and my house.
A seven hour cycle ride through one of the wonders of the world and with the exception of the detour to repair the tire we saw pleasingly few of the two million visitors who are supposed to visit Angkor each year.