Through the Gates of Heaven ... on a bike
We reach the temple just as the first rays of sun begin to glimmer between the trees. The roads are empty. A few birds shriek tentatively from the treetops. A monkey jumps down from a branch, oogling us suspiciously, then climbs back up again. The only intruders are we, ourselves, pedaling on, while our bikes clatter the last bit down a sandy path, over rocks and roots, until we enter the magic - The Bayon.
We have it completely to ourselves. The 216 faces, conjured out of what from a distance looks like a mount of granite, look down upon us with smiles that would make Mona Lisa blush. Serene, all-knowing, meditative. Divine. Though they bear an uncanny resemblance to sculptures of Jayavarman VII, the God-King who built this shrine at the turn of the 12th century.
The temple is a maze of pillars, walls, lingams, openings, reliefs and faces, faces, faces. In the morning light, the shadows make the lower levels of the ancient stone shrine feel heavy over your head, whereas the upper levels seem to lead you up to the heavens.
And this is precisely how you are supposed feel. Angkor, this once splendid and enormous temple city, enlarged and added to by one ruler after the other searching to impress his Hindu Gods, was seen as a model of heaven on earth. The most famous temple, Angkor Wat (represented on the nationflag of Cambodia) was built by Suryavarman II, the predecessor of Jayavarman VII. Its enormous moats represent the cosmic oceans, its outer walls stand for the mountains that enclose our world, and Angkor Wat itself, with its high central tower, is Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the Hindu Gods.
Surely, it came as a surprise when Jayavarman suddenly decided to convert to Mahayana Buddhism, which caused his whole kingdom to change state religion.
After almost two hours at Bayon, we pedal away as the first (but certainly not last) buses with Korean tourists have started to clog up the parking space. The sun is now scorching hot and sweat trickles in constant streams down our temples, backs and legs as we pass the magnificently carved Elephant Terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King. When we turn right to leave this part of the complex, we are rewarded with one of the most beautiful sights at Angkor— the Gateway of Angkor Thom. A sculptured causeway illustrating the popular motif and Hindu creation myth ”The Churning of the Ocean Milk” with rows of divine spirits holding on to two nagas, a type of snake-demon, in a celestial tug-of-war.
The area is rather vast, around 400 km2 according to UNESCO. Even though we spend seven days at the temples, we won’t be able even to see the majority of them, but try to balance the ”must sees” with days of slow biking, without fixed plans, on the flat roads between the temples.
Not before long, any kind of movement in the humid heat gets the sweat running, and a hat and light cotton clothes (covering sholders and knees if you want to enter the temples) prove to be much needed attire.
Ta Prohm, the mythical temple with trunks and roots of immense bunyantrees pouring out over its walls, receives a lot of visitors at any time of the day. The tender but lethal embrace of the wilderness is beautiful, but hordes of tourists all fighting for the same selfie can spoil the experience, and chances are good you will get the same (or better) pictures in considerably more peaceful environment at the south-eastern Banteay Kdei, or, if your budget allows you to rent a car with driver for the day, the enticing Koh Ker, about 110 (bad) kilometers north-east of Siem Reap.
There are both bars and restaurants spread out across the Angkor temple site. Opposite Angkor Wat, you will find the largest conglomeration of tourists. By most temples, there are vendours selling water, coconuts, fruit, shakes and merchandise (the phrase ”Cole Watah Ladeeeeee” will soon ring like an echo in your head until sundown and seems to include for both ladies and gentlemen). There is more, always more to see, but taking stops is important, or the sun will get the best of you. Have another coconut when you see one.