We heard the squealing pig long before we saw it. Having forgotten to pack the head torches, we were cycling blind in the pre-dawn darkness along a Cambodian road without streetlights. The pig strapped upside down on the back of the motorbike was finally illuminated in the headlights of a passing tuk-tuk with just seconds to spare.
We should have remembered the torches, but who could predict a collision with an upside-down, motorcycle pig? More than a little shaken, we parked our rented bikes in front of Angkor Wat in time to watch a crimson ball of sun climb the sky behind a veil of dry season haze.
The grandest of all Khmer monuments, Angkor Wat stands at the centre of the world’s largest gathering of temples: the ruins of a massive, World Heritage-listed empire that once ruled most of modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and southern China.
Constructed by hand and without mortar, these truly remarkable structures are one of the greatest architectural feats of human history, having defied the ravages of time, war and the elements for 12 centuries. They are undoubtedly impressive to see, but as the backdrop for an incredible biking adventure, the temples are unmissible.
Cycling the maze of rough dirt trails around Angkor’s ancient city is one of the best ways to burn off energy, avoid the tuk tuk traffic and crowded tour buses, and travel at your own pace. Some travel bloggers will tell you to avoid this leisurely cycle like the plague, but for travellers who wake early (ah…me!) and need to occupy a child with mega amounts of energy (….me again), then cycling is an awesome way to go.
Hire shops around Siem Reap rent a huge range of bikes priced from US$7-12 a day, including helmets: mountain bikes with child carriers, plus tandem and family bikes that are ideal for older kids who want to join in the fun, but might fatigue on the return trip, and even electric bikes. Sort out your ride the night before and set out early to cover the 8km to Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. After that you can relax, enjoy a picnic breakfast and enjoy the flat, easy paths around the temple site.
Angkor Wat’s massive complex of intricately engraved towers is a favourite spot to watch the sun rise, built in the 12th century as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II. Inspired and magnificent, its central tower rises 55m, but be warned: accessing the wat’s quiet upper recesses and awesome viewpoints means scaling some pretty precarious stone staircases that might prove too much for little legs and protective parents.
You can stay grounded at nearby Angkor Thom, a fortified city that harbours the remarkable, now roofless Mahayana Buddhist Bayon Temple surrounded by 173 enigmatic, oversized Buddha faces that stare serenely out from its stone walls. If you miss sunrise at Angkor Wat, head here early to explore before the crowds, then cycle on to overgrown Ta Prohm (of Lara Croft fame), the photographers’ pick of all Angkor’s monuments, left exactly as French archaeologists found it a century ago. Ravaged by the jungle, enormous trees protrude from its temple alcoves, fat roots twisting through crumbling stone walls to create some of Cambodia’s most outstanding photo opportunities.
Between and beyond these three favourites lie around 1000 other ruins that could inspire a week’s worth of adventures out of Siem Reap, perhaps by tuk tuk on successive days. Motivated travellers on tight budgets can see quite a lot in a day (US$20 pp), touring the 40-km circuit around the main temples before heading back to enjoy some creature comforts at Siem Reap. Three day (US$40) or week-long (US$80) tickets allow you to venture much farther afield to less visited sites.
In Siem Reap, guesthouses and hotels clustered along the Stung Siem River cater to every budget, and cafes serve excellent Cambodian cuisine around the clock. Sample whole baked fish from nearby Tonle Sap, one of the world’s richest sources of freshwater fish, washed down with cheap Angkor beer.
Buses from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap take about 6.5 hours (from USD$12pp). Siem Reap has ATMs for cash withdrawals and Angkor entrance tickets cost US$20 (1 day), $40 (3 days), $60 (7 days). Apply for a 30-day evisa online (evisa.gov.kh), valid for entry by plane and at three land border crossings (Cham Yeam and Poi Pet in Thailand, and Bavet in Vietnam) for US$37.