Hauling ass around Angkor Wat on a 30 year-old bicycle made for a much more petite person is exhausting. I was so sweaty that my jeans were bleeding all over my handkerchief, and the crumpled, damp mess of George Washingtons in my pocket was close to disintegrating.
But there were temples left to see, and I intended to explore them just as the ancient Khmer did a thousand years ago—by bicycle.
Life after Phnom Bok turned out to be a dizzy scramble for temple notches on the way out of the park, all the while mindful that Angkor Wat is difficult to navigate without headlights after dark.
Banteay Samre was first on the list, marking where most people turned around before heading way off the grid like we had.
Besides the gentle breeze of traditional music wafting down the temple’s main entryway (of course with a donation box at the ready), Banteay Samre was almost devoid of people. Perhaps because everyone was already lining up the perfect sunset shots at Angkor Wat, maybe.
The temple is in relatively decent shape, so you won’t see cranes and restricted access signs as much as you will at some other sites. Banteay Samre features some impressive and well-preserved stone carvings, but otherwise there isn’t a wow-factor like some of the more famous temples.
But that’s just fine by me, and maybe you don’t give a shit either.
Actually, I lied. Banteay Samre’s defining feature is its bounty of dogs at the entrance.
You’ve got swimming dogs, running dogs, friendly dogs, suspicious dogs, even dogs of questionable intelligence playing with giant insects like rawhide toys.
On to the next one: Eastern Mebon temple.
There are 2 Mebons—one in the east, and the other (as you may have guessed) out west of Angkor Wat. Western Mebon sits on a small island in the middle of the partially filled West Baray, the remains of an ancient reservoir. During the dry season you can even walk there.
Eastern Mebon also lies in a baray—the East Baray—but its waters have long since dried up. In fact, if you look at a map of Angkor Wat and wonder why some of the temples seem to sit around the edge of a big rectangle, that’s why. Today the East Baray is just fields and forests.
All in all East Mebon is impressive. Portions are falling apart and supported by wooden beams, but that’s to be expected. I guess I’m weird, but I like seeing the broken bits.
Ancient temples being held up by beams younger than I am is a testament to human ingenuity or some poetic shit.
Well, the fact that you can buy the latter from Home Depot makes it slightly less interesting. I don’t think the Khmer Empire sourced their stone from Jav’s Bulk Bargain Quarry. But still.
Anyway, Pre Rup was up next on the road back to Angkor Wat.
Know why I like the rainy season? Because stuff is alive. Take a look at these flowers growing in Pre Rup’s iconic cistern…
Plants were a recurring theme throughout the temples. I’ve seen pictures taken during the dry season, and the complex looks completely different. But right now, the jungle is trying it’s hardest to reclaim Angkor Wat. Maybe that’s why hundreds of workers swarm the roadsides every day with machetes, savaging the tiniest blades of grass to keep all that god damn nature out of here.
At this point you might be wondering why I haven’t shown many pictures of the temples.
My answer is…you’ll probably get bored. Truth be told, too much of anything is a bad thing, even if that thing is one of the most jaw-dropping feats of engineering and architecture in human history.
That doesn’t mean I only took 10 pictures and called it a day. I have almost a thousand from 3 days at the temples, nearly 200 just from Angkor Wat. In fact, I’ll post most of them separately in case you need something to do during your next meeting or while you’re pretending to watch your kid’s school play.
But let’s show some restraint for now. Think of the children.
Banteay Kdei was temple number 6 on our first day, and the last one we squeezed in before the gates closed.
And shit is it ever big.
Not big in the same sense as Angkor Wat, but big because it just seems to go on and on forever and you don’t know where it all ends.
Banteay Kdei is also a great blend of the natural and man-made. It’s not overrun with vegetation like some other temples, but it’s not clogged with chain link fences either.
Banteay Kdei is also where I met who looked like the most stereotypical hippie on the planet, with waist-length dreadlocks and a hemp jacket (I lied about the second part).
This guy has been coming to Angkor Wat since the mid-90s and still isn’t tired of it—the hot sun, the hordes of beggars, the swarms of venomous, cat-sized scorpions released when archaeologists accidentally unearthed the cursed tomb of Angkor’s last king—he still comes back for more.
I wondered if, when he first visited back in 1996, he was clean-shaven like me. Is this my future, 20 years from now? Drunkenly and blissfully treading the crumbling stone passageways until I reach enlightenment?
Oh yes, he’d been drinking since 6 am.
But then it was his turn to ask the tough questions.
“You guys road bikes here? Are you on drugs?”
I didn’t have time to give a proper answer—daylight was burning away, and we had miles of riding to get back to modern civilization.
Bikes stop being fun when your phone is dead and you’re trying to navigate by moonlight without getting run off the road by a minibus. You’re a small fish in a big pond now, my friend.
I can’t express my relief when the waters of Angkor Wat’s moat came into view after what seemed like an eternity heading in the wrong direction.
It’s not that I was scared of being lost; but holy shit did I not want to find out we’d ridden 45 minutes further away from our hotel. I had dinner to eat—somewhere, somehow.
But the spirits of Angkor Wat had other plans. Remember when I mentioned that city bikes were A-OK for riding?
Turns out they aren’t, especially when you take a nosedive into a pothole on the shoulder. I wasn’t hurt, but my bicycle chain was making a run for it. As I cursed the gods for delaying my dinner again, fumbling with my useless, greasy hands in darkness, my Buddha in shining armor arrived on his noble steed called Yamaha.
A monk decked out in his saffron robes pulled up on his friend’s motorcycle, and without saying a word wound the chain back into place using his headlight for guidance. With a quick sampeah, they were off again into the night.
I guess we’ll never know if that was King Jayavarman VII’s ghost or not, but I’m guessing it was.