Established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor, the ancient capital city of the Khmer Kingdom, is a sprawling expanse of about 400 square kilometers (154 mi2), just north of Siem Reap and southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, Tonlé Sap. The site encompasses dozens of Khmer ruins, dating back to between the 9th and 15th centuries, tucked in amongst forests and farmland. Although constructed over the course of several centuries, many aspects of the Khmer architecture and religious themes remained constant. The most common building materials using to create the enduring religious shrines included brick, sandstone, and laterite. Brick was the earliest material used and, interestingly, the Khmer used a vegetable compound instead of mortar, creating incredibly strong and seamless joins. Laterite, a durable yet porous material, was used largely on foundations, as its tendency to pit and show wear made it unsuitable for finishing work; for these finer details, such as the elaborate carvings, sandstone was brought in. The temples built by the Khmer fell largely into three categories – flat temples (raised only slightly off the ground), island temples (fully enclosed by an artificial pond), and temple mountains, the grandest of all the religious monuments. The Khmer designed these temple mountains with strong Hindu symbolism. Typically, a moat – representing the ocean – encircled an internal city. The pyramidal shape of the temple mountain, with concentric galleries at each level, symbolized the mountains that neighbored Mount Meru. Finally, the apex of the temple, a central prasat, or sanctuary tower, symbolized the peak of Meru, the home of the gods and center of the universe. Some of the finer detail work included extravagant entrance gopuras, sandstone balusters sculpted to mimic wood, intricate lintels above the entryways, and breathtakingly meticulous bas-reliefs. Khmer artists and architects also painstakingly carved inscriptions called steles into many of the door jambs or foundations, describing the temple, its inventory, and sometimes the date of dedication. These writings serve as the only Khmer archive, and many have been moved to museums to ensure their preservation.
We knew that Angkor covered an enormous area, and initially we weren’t sure of the best way to try and explore the complex. At the suggestion of one of our fellow volunteers in Thailand, we purchased a three-day pass for visiting the temples (one-, three-, and seven-day passes are available). Two main routes negotiate the temples at Angkor – one circumnavigates the outermost temples (30 km), while a slightly-shorter track (25 km) winds around the inner monuments. On our first day, our guesthouse arranged for a tuk-tuk to guide us around the longer route. While we enjoyed the shaded ride, and the fact that we were able to move quicker from temple to temple, we ultimately decided to cycle the shorter route on our second day. We thought it would give us a little more flexibility with how we divided our time, and that it would be a nice, peaceful ride through the forested ruins. Thus, we spent the next two days cycling around Angkor.
We completely adored our Angkor bike rides! On our first day with the bikes, we awoke at 4 a.m. for an early morning ride through the pitch darkness to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The rest of that day and the following, we spent roving around on the cycles from temple to temple to temple. By the time we had finished our self-guided Angkor tour, we’d put 45 miles1 on our wheels and feet. We were drenched with sweat from the intense heat, but still had such a blast; we even took some time out to goof off and practice our skills along Angkor Wat’s West Gate.
And finally, I have to say, I never knew a little handlebar bell could bring a person so much joy! Much like in Luang Prabang, I had a ridiculous amount of fun ringing the bell as we pedaled up and down the streets. I’d ring it at little kids, at groups of cute Cambodian guys, at ladies with fruit stands… anyone. I even rang it inadvertently at a group of police officers as we cruised around a corner near Angkor Thom. Heck, I rang the stupid bell when no one was around. The resonating baaa-rinnnng brought an instant smile to my face… and even more so when I pretended I was Kermit & Piggy from The Great Muppet Caper, simultaneously ringing and singing ‘Couldn’t we ride.’ I am now convinced that the world would be a happier place if we all had a bicycle bell to ring. “Pretty day… sunny sky… lovely pictures dance in your eye…”
PRE RUP – mid 10th century (961)
EAST MEBON – mid 10th century (953)
Similar in appearance to the state temple of Pre Rup, East Mebon was once surrounded by a large baray (artificial reservoir). Because it was bounded by water, East Mebon lacked a protective moat, a characteristic of many of the Khmer temples. East Baray, fed by the Siem Reap River, was the second largest artificial reservoir at Angkor (West Baray, constructed later in the 11th century is the largest), spanning 7.5 km by 1.8 km and boasting a capacity of about 55 million cubic meters.
TA SOM – late 12th to early 13th century
NEAK PEAN – late 12th century
One of only a few island temples within the city of Angkor, Neak Pean was constructed on a raised, circular island within a central, square-shaped pond, with four smaller ponds flanking each side.
PREAH KHAN – late 12th century (1191)
With an area of about 56 hectares (138 acres), the expansive temple complex of Preah Khan included a large city and Buddhist university in addition to the central temple. Preah Khan was constructed under the direction of King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century to pay homage to his father, and the large temple was originally designed to house more than 400 deities.
TA PROHM – late 12th to early 13th century
At the end of the 12th century, King Jayavarman VII also oversaw the construction of the temple/monastery of Ta Prohm. This time, the king honored his mother by having one of the central devatas carved in her likeness. Another large site, encompassing roughly 60 hectares (148 acres), the city housed some 12,600 people. Today, the ruins have become enveloped by towering strangler figs and even more massive silk cotton trees, whose robust root systems hang like stylish drapes over the crumbling masonry. Left largely unrestored, the more naturally-aged appearance of the ancient stones amidst the secluded forest created an ethereal atmosphere. Ta Prohm was easily one of our favorite sites at Angkor.
TA KEO – late 10th to early 11th century
The extraordinarily steep temple mountain of Ta Keo was a former state temple constructed entirely of sandstone. State temples were built by the king for royal ceremonies, and typically hosted dignitaries and high-ranking officials as opposed to being a place for public worship (9 temples at some point served as a state temple). Ta Keo’s five towers represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe and residence of the gods. Interestingly, the temple was never completed, as evidenced by the lack of any decoration or ornate carvings.
THOMMANON – early 12th century
CHAO SAY TEVODA – mid 12th century
Two minor temples, Thommanon & Chao Say Tevoda were built during the twelfth century. Because the two temples flank the Victory Gate entrance to Angkor Thom, and because the two are stylistically similar, they are often considered to be a pair, although Chao Say Tevoda was actually constructed many years after the incomplete site of Thommanon.
PHNOM BAKHENG – late 9th century
Once the principal temple of ancient Angkor, Phnom Bakheng was erected at the end of the 9th century, more than two hundred years before the construction of Angkor Wat. While the majority of the landscape around Angkor is quite flat, Phnom Bakheng sits atop a small hill, northwest of Angkor Wat and just south of Angkor Thom. Perhaps more impressive than the ruins themselves is the view looking down on Angkor Wat, it’s frilled sanctuary towers rising dramatically above the forested countryside. Further south, the rambling red rooftops of Siem Reap interrupt the green surroundings.
ANGKOR THOM – late 12th century (and later)
Covering an area of nearly 9 square kilometers (3.5 mi2), Angkor Thom was one of the largest Khmer cities and likely served as the capital of the Khmer empire until around the 17th century. The sprawling, moat-enclosed city was also protected by a massive outer wall with five entrance gates (North, West, South, East, and Victory) positioned roughly equidistant around the perimeter. Given the sheer size of Angkor Thom, you could probably spend a couple days exploring just this one site alone. Thus, we focused on touring only a few of Angkor Thom’s central features. The Elephant Terrace, constructed in the late 12th to early 13th century, is a 300-meter long stone terrace once used for royal gatherings. The relief work on the stones depicts, appropriately, a number of elephants; likewise, elephant trios tug lotus flowers from the ground along each side of the staircases. Set in the forest just beyond the Elephant Terrace, the great temple mountain of Bapuon looms in the distance. Built in the mid-11th century (1060), the early state temple climbs five tiers, and the summit offers sweeping views of the lengthy causeway that leads out to the pavilion and entrance gopura.
The most impressive structure at Angkor Thom, however, is the Bayon. The grand temple was constructed in the late 12th to early 13th century, and is a mass of hefty stone towers, bas-reliefs, and intricate carvings. Some 37 of the 49 (presumed) original towers are still standing, many of which are adorned with giant faces. Walking around the stunning site was somewhat overwhelming, and it was easy to lose your way in the labyrinth of towers, galleries, chambers, and terraces. We were blown away by Bayon’s scale and complexity, and the meticulous artwork was just amazing.
Of course, we were just as taken with the wildlife around Angkor Thom as we were with the ancient ruins. As we pedaled around on our single speeds, we spotted a large group of long-tailed macaques romping around the forest’s edge, just off the small road. We pulled over, hopped off our bikes, and watched with amusement as a handful of juveniles chased each other around the ground and up small trees – tumbling, leaping, biting, and hollering as they darted about. Several looked to be very young, and we couldn’t help but chuckle at their adorably awkward appearances – each had a distinct, black mohawk running down the center of his (her) nearly-bald head, and one little guy even had a tiny alfalfa-esque cowlick sprouting from his fine hairs. Between the monkeys and the magnificent Bayon, we were very fond of Angkor Thom.
1Angkor cycling/walking tours:
Distance – 28.3 miles
Elevation gain – 337 feet
Temperature – 103°F
Distance – 16.5 miles
Elevation gain – 389 feet
Temperature – 108°F