For all the weight of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap is light. The heavy layer of dust in the air doesn’t matter; I’m finding it easier to breathe here… the streets are wider and the touch of the city is gentle, kind, slow — not frantic or chaotic. I am trying to decide if I’m turning into someone who does better in smaller cities, or if this is a Cambodia-specific response… maybe it’s a combination of both.
On our first full day in Siem Reap, the alarm clock goes off at 4:30am. Since I haven’t used an alarm clock for several months, the designated tune blaring out of my phone is a horrifying shock — less for the tune itself, Tina Turner’s “You Better Be Good to Me” (why not?) and more for the very concept of waking up by choice when it’s still dark outside.
We turn on the lights, and Athena showers first (bless her). I contemplate getting back into bed for a minute, but that could be a disaster…. sleep would easily pull me in. Instead I finish organizing my bag for the coming day of adventure. Sunscreen, two phones (two cameras), a charger, sunglasses…. I don’t have a hat even though I should, and carrying my parasol today isn’t technically possible. Oh, well, maybe the helmet will offer a bit of shade.
When Athena suggested we take a bike tour of Angkor Wat, I imagined us, for no legitimate reason, tooling around on granny-type bikes and lovely paved roads. No matter that I’d seen the website and read all the reviews… I pictured beach cruisers in Cambodia.
When we board our van, we meet our cohorts for the day: a family of three originally from Sweden and who now live in Bangkok, and a woman from Florida. Our guides are lovely and quite soft spoken, which is a welcome volume at this time of morning. The lead immediately starts explaining the itinerary for the day. We will begin by watching the sunrise over the iconic temples of the largest religious monument in the world.
We park the van far from our viewing spot, and wonderfully, instead of following the hoards of tourists into the complex of temples, we stay away and watch from afar. There are just a handful of other people around, and I strike up a conversation with a family I overhear speaking Italian.
As soon as the sun starts to show herself, I begin taking thousands of pictures. The light is changing so dramatically, so quickly… from subtle grays to warm browns to luminous pinks with varying shades of champagne. It’s so peaceful and wondrous that for a moment I have to put my phone down just to watch. This is not a reaction that comes naturally to me. I usually have a lens in front of my eyes at all times of interest. But here the beauty requires my full attention.
With the sun well up now, we wander through the misty morning light to explore several of the ancient temples on our way to breakfast in a small hut, again far removed from the crowds. We pass the astounding temples built for the Khmer Empire in the 12th century that in large part — considering their age — have refused to yield to time, the environment, or war. We see throngs of tourists, many of whom are dressed appropriately, and dozens of young monks — I’m almost as entranced by them as I am by the site itself.
During breakfast, while we’re eating made-to-order omelettes, one of the guides starts lining up the mountain bikes (not granny cycles or beach cruisers) so we can be on our way soon. Imagining myself getting on one of those mountain bikes, I suddenly become nervous. It’s been about fifteen years since I’ve ridden one, and until that last ride I cycled religiously, almost obsessively.
I stopped riding when a friend crashed on a 50-miler we were doing in Mexico, and she had to be rushed from Ensenada to San Diego with a broken breast bone and chipped hip. It was a simple accident — hitting a barely noticeable little hole in the pavement when going downhill. It threw her and traumatized me. After that I put my bike in storage and never rode again. Until now.
Staring at the mountain bikes before us, I’m actually worried that I’ve forgotten how to ride. What if I can’t balance or I’m too weak to pedal? Thankfully, once we’re off, my muscle memory kicks in, and I can feel why I’d loved cycling so much — I’m generating my own power.
The pace starts off and will remain slow throughout the day. We will ride along stunning and absolutely still, reflective bodies of water dressed with the perfect arrangement of lily pads. We will journey through smaller temple complexes and under iconic gateways. We will venture to the more popular areas and fight our way to just the right photo op. Athena and I will laugh and sweat our way through it all.
It rained last night so the ground is not only soft (and unpaved), but the mud and sand are hard to move through. I find myself almost getting stuck in the earth several times. The guides and the Swedes don’t have any trouble, and we want to keep up with them. But that’s where Florida gets in the way.
The woman from the Sunshine State tends to stop pedaling when we’re going uphill. Mid-incline, she puts her feet down and then starts again; it’s befuddling and throws off my rhythm. The cyclist in me wants just to rush past, but I keep reminding myself to breathe and not be bothered by it. There is no rush, no competition, and we’re surrounded by such beauty that I may never get to see again. Also, the path is too narrow to pass.
My favorite parts of the ride are when we go through a few small villages that surround Angkor Wat. They are not on any tourist map as far as I know, and the children here are so full of joy when they see us. The cynic in me is worried that they’ll ask for money, but they don’t. They seem much more interested in smiles, high fives, and saying “hello!” on repeat.
I’m realizing the real beauty in this tour is that the guide can take us places other tourists can’t go, so our experience is peaceful and not overwhelmed by crowds, at least not until Ta Prohm, the “Tomb Raider temple.”
Here things get interesting as masses of people fight over the best exact spot to stand for a photo with the epic, formidable trees growing in and around the buildings. It’s intense, especially after having such a peaceful day so far. At one point, Athena has to tell off a couple of Russians who deliberately push us from where we’re standing so they can get a picture in what is clearly a great spot. The international photo wars of Angkor Wat are on.
Our guide is incredibly patient through all of this; I guess he’s used to it. What I love about him is not just his calm demeanor and how he talks about the history of Angkor Wat — going so far as to draw maps of the complex in sand — but he also shares some of his own story about life under the Khmer Rouge and how his family found refuge at the Thai border.
I’m not sure how it came up, but it’s a question I find myself wanting to ask every Cambodian I meet… how did you survive? He says that his family lost many loved ones and in the years since the Pol Pot regime, they’ve had to rebuild their lives from the ashes. We don’t press for details though; in every way, it’s time to move on.
As the day winds down, I’m thinking about resilience. What makes us stronger. For me, today, it was about what I saw and heard in this unbelievably stunning place, but equally about what I felt and will take away.
Biking around Angkor Wat has reminded me to always seek moments to pause, just breathe, and appreciate where I am. That I can generate my own power and keep my balance — hell, that I can even ride a mountain bike again. That getting from A to B can be bumpy and seemingly impossible (especially when Florida slows us down or Russians try to get in the way), but such discomfort will never make us stop.
Ultimately what this day reminds me is that we don’t have to take the same route as everyone else; in fact, more often than not, in the pursuit of our happiness, we absolutely shouldn’t.
I highly recommend Grasshopper Adventures. They not only do tours like this one in Angkor Wat, but others throughout Asia as well. They’re wonderful, and now that they’ve got me back on a bike, I look forward to planning another ride with them. Cheers!