The majestic temples of Angkor are victim of their own success: with 4 million visitors a year mostly during the dry season focusing mainly on three temples, the atmosphere can be lost. Still, it is possible to experience the Angkor temple complex off the beaten path for a fantastic and authentic discovery, unravelling the splendour of the great Khmer civilisation.
I skilfully steer my mountain bike along a few pointy rocks on a narrow single track through the jungle of Cambodia. In front of me appears a desolated ruin, half swallowed by tree roots of strangler fig trees. Birds sing, butterflies flutter around reflecting the strong sun rays peeping through the dense vegetation on their brightly-coloured wings, and a cat yawns while stretching its front paws on the step of the almost-millennium old Khmer temple of Preah Khan in the temple complex of Angkor.
We have set off early by mountain bike, but not as early as the dozens of tuk-tuks we cross path with, filled with tourists that are already heading back to Siem Reap after the popular sunrise tour at Angkor Wat. We are getting closer to the temple grounds, and our guide Sarith leads us on the back trails to the north-east corner of the impressive 200-metre wide and 6-kilometre long moat surrounding Angkor Wat, the most famous temple of the gigantic Angkor complex and the largest religious monument in the world. Far from the crowds, we sit down on the ancient stones of the moat when Sarith starts to explain passionately: “Let me give you some codes to decipher the many Khmer temples we will see. Angkor Wat was the state temple built by King Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century to the Hindu deity Vishnu. It is a great example of Khmer temple architecture representing a microcosm of the Hindu universe: the five central towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru, home to the Hindu gods, surrounded by other mountain ranges and the cosmic ocean embodied by the laterite walls and the moat. To cross the moat, a bridge which railings are naga’s (a sacred multi-headed mythological snake) links the world of humans to the world of gods. Then, you enter via the gopura’s or gateways. Anyway, after the death of the king, the site is occupied by the Cham people, the traditional enemies of the Khmers coming from today’s Vietnam. Shortly after, the new king, Jayavarman VII, reconquered the grounds and expanded the Khmer Empire. A Buddhist, he was compassionate and much loved, and he introduced Buddhism to Angkor that ultimately became the state religion. He is the initiator of his new capital, Angkor Thom, where he built Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and his state temple Bayon, just a few kilometres north. Let’s check them out!” Sarith suggests enthusiastically.
We hop on our bikes and reach the South Gate, one of the five gates that delimitate Angkor Thom. Stone sculptures just slightly larger than human beings carry the naga above the 100-metre wide moat of Angkor Thom: 54 demons on one side of the bridge and 54 gods on the other. We have a hard time keeping our balance on the bikes as hundreds of tourists wander by this popular gate. “This gate was used for ordinary people: nothing has changed much!” Sarith jokes. Just past the gate, we take a narrow dirt trail, circumnavigating above the 13-kilometre long moat towards the West Gate that was used by slaves. From the 8-metre high circular road on top of the fortified wall, we observe local women in canoes collecting bright pink lotus flowers in the moat, oxes bathing and kids swimming that we will happily join later. These scenes seem unchanged since the medieval Angkor. Pushing hard on our pedals, we leave the moat behind us as we enter the grounds of Angkor Thom. Back then, the causeway would have been busy with ox-carts, elephants carrying stones for constructions, hundreds of workers walking to the building sites, and a few dignitaries carried on portable hammocks by their vassals. After a straight 1.5 kilometres, we distinguish some gigantic smiling stone faces towering the Bayon Temple. Today, 37 towers out of the 54 originally built (including the towers located at the five gates to total the 54 provinces of the Khmer Empire at that time) remain, sculpted with an estimated 216 serene faces. Is it Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion or the king Jayavarman VII himself that is represented? It remains a mystery, but these 2.5-metre high faces overlooking the site in all four cardinal directions are definitely imposing and omnipresent. Fascinated, we explore the famous temple and are amazed by its well preserved bas-relief on the galleries showcasing 11,000 carved figures depicting historical events and scenes of 12th-century daily lives of the Khmers, taking us back to the splendour of the Khmer Empire.
From the close-by 300-metre long Terrace of the Elephants, the king would listen to his subjects’ complaints and overlook the parade grounds. Royal parades would be the most impressive ones, with elephants and horses covered in gold evolving amongst palaces decorated with flowers. On major religious events, fireworks would reflect in the temple towers that were clad in gold. Sarith startles me and takes me back to the present: “This was the largest conurbation in the world prior to the industrial revolution! There were about 750,000 inhabitants (more than London back then!) in an area that was as large as today’s New York City. So there were strict rules for the gates. The North Gate was only used by the king. And there are two gates on the east side: the king and his soldiers entered through Victory Gate after winning a battle, and the Ghost Gate was used after losing and to carry the dead bodies of the soldiers back into town.” Today, as we bike underneath the Ghost Gate to exit Angkor Thom, it feels like it is the most atmospheric one, deserted and with the majestic sculpted heads half swallowed by the dense jungle.
Narrow tracks through the forest and cultivated rice fields lead us through rural villages where a few families live and no tourists come, just a stone’s throw away from the temples that attract millions of visitors a year. The stilt houses are made of bamboo, palm wood, and palm leafs for the roof and walls. Women stay at home, farm and sell goods on local markets. Men work as tuk-tuk drivers or in restaurants and hotels in Siem Reap. Kids seem to practice their language skills with tourists selling postcards by the main temples rather than sitting through classes. A bit further, a woman is washing clothes in the baray (retention pond that was part of the extensive hydraulic network that allowed the Khmers to not depend on seasons for their agriculture) and a man is fishing. The medieval Angkor was pretty similar to the rural scenes we observe today, with a much higher density of wooden houses in order to support the hundreds of thousands of workers. Not being used to mountain bikers, some dogs chase us on our way to Ta Prohm, and as I speed up, the local women laugh, amused.
If Ta Prohm was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s mother, today the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks dedicate it to Lara Croft, as it was used as a filming location for the Hollywood blockbuster Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie. We prefer Ta Som, a smaller monastic complex deep in the jungle that is in good conditions with many fine carvings of apsaras, the alluring celestial dancers who served as messengers between humans and gods, delicate libraries and some reliefs half covered in lichens. Its West gopura (gate) merges with the roots of a majestic strangler fig tree. The peacefulness resonates.
After a few challenging single tracks, crossing rivers and jumping over roots in the forest, the fortified walls of Preah Khan appear. Jayavarman VII built Preah Khan on the battle site where he finally defeated the Chams, and dedicated it to his father, housing the university and Buddhist monastery to spread his religion. Symbolically, the king wanted to show unity of Hinduism, represented by garuda, the powerful bird that is the reincarnation of Vishnu, and Buddhism, represented by the snake that protects the Buddha. By the South Gate of Preah Khan, the garuda stands on the snake: both religions are brought together. The galleries and doorways of Preah Khan seem to form a labyrinth while the ever-present jungle and banyan trees swallow some of the stone structures.
While we bike back towards Angkor Wat, Sarith explains the building techniques. The sandstones were brought in from the Kulen Mountains, about 50 kilometres north of Siem Reap. They were transported on bamboo rafts on the many canals that were used for both transportation and water supply. Using elephants, stones were brought to the temple grounds and cut into the right shape by friction. A millennium old temple, the unfinished Ta Keo (968) shows us that stones were positioned, and then carved, without the use of any mortar.
We take in the majesty of Angkor Wat when it is quieter. I am trying to imagine the lotus-shaped towers covered in gold and contrasting with the white-plastered walls. By the galleries, we could spend hours looking at the details of the bas-reliefs that are covering the walls from floor to ceiling. With no mortar, the sandstones fit perfectly together and they were finely carved by hundreds of skilled artists, telling the stories of the Khmers on the longest continuous bas-relief in the world. Displaying expressive faces and a great sense of perspective, this masterpiece retraces the battle of Kurukshetra in all its details, the royal procession of Suryavarman II where traces of gold on his depiction hints at the past splendour of the galleries, the battle of gods and demons, and the Indian epic of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The later describes how devas (gods) and asuras (demons) churned the ocean under the command of Vishnu, to produce the divine elixir of immortality.
It is only after biking extensively through it that we get a glimpse of the spread of the Angkor temple complex. The Khmer civilisation dominated mainland South East Asia for almost 600 years (9th-15th century). Nothing seems to explain the collapse of such a powerful empire. Invaders? A shift to marine trade? A religious change? The most probable hypothesis is that what made the greatness of Angkor triggered its loss. Angkor could guarantee a steady water supply thanks to a sophisticatedly engineered system of canals from the Kulen Mountains, dams and retention ponds. The whole landscape was engineered with overflow channels during the monsoon and irrigation channels in the dry season. This ensured that rice harvests could support a population of several hundreds of thousands of builders year round. A failure of the waterworks made Angkor vulnerable to extreme weather. With the dramatic droughts of the late 14th century to the early 15th century, the conurbation could not feed every one, leading to social unrest. Stuck between the Chams to the east and the kingdom of Ayutthaya to the west, it is eventually the Siams who took over the weakened great city in 1431.
Marcella & Claire
- If you want to live this adventure and discover the Angkor temple complex off the beaten path by mountain bike, please refer to KKO (the river crossings and more challenging parts of the ride are not part of the KKO tour that is suitable for all level bikers).
- The green GPS track (downloadable for free) shown on this interactive map as Mountain biking Angkor is our suggestion and is more adventurous with single tracks and easy but wet river crossings, and can be split over several days (overall: 64km) to discover the area while visiting the temples. A temple pass is required.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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