Are you noticing a trend here? Bikes and beer have become a common thing...
For our first full day in Cambodia we took the advice from some travelers we met in Bali and booked a sunrise and bike tour of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples with Grasshopper Tours (highly recommend them). I'm a morning person, so the 5am pickup was no issue, but I've got to hand it to Katie for getting up AND functioning without coffee for 4-5 hours.
We were picked up at our hotel by a van that had our guide, our bikes, and three other travelers - a Brit, and two Americans. It sure is a small world - one of the Americans, Bridget, has a background in environmental science and works for Conservation International; the other American recently retired from the World Bank where he worked as a forester, and is a Duke (Nic School back before it was the Nic School) alum. We haven't seen many Americans on our trip, and I definitely didn't expect to run into two people who have similar backgrounds to mine.
That aside, we arrived at the temples and our guide set us up with a view over the 190 meter wide moat separating us from the towers of Angkor Wat. We sat, we ate croissants, and we waited for the sun - it seemed to take forever and we thought it was too overcast. Then suddenly, just above the highest tower of Angkor Wat, there was a fluorescent orange-red glow.
Once some of the crowds had cleared from sunrise, we walked across the roadway that traverses the moat and entered Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument. Our guide was unbelievably knowledgeable and told us the meanings of all the etchings in the stone, as well as the history of the temple. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer king, Suryavarman II and was built in the early 12th century. The temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and later became a Buddhist temple. What differentiates Angkor Wat from other temples in the area is that is has been in almost constant use since it was built, and therefore was not overcome by nature. (I highly suggest researching more on both the history of Angkor Wat and of the Khmer empire - I plan to, as it has been extremely interesting to learn about).
Once we were all appropriately covered (shoulders and knees), we climbed up the 70 degree angle wooden stairs to the highest tower of Angkor Wat. It was nice to have the wooden stairs, as the originals were at an 85 degree angle and each stair would fit a 5 year old's foot. The view from up here was amazing - we could see every corner of Angkor Wat and the surrounding moat, as well as other temples in the area. The intricacies of the etchings and the shrines were simply stunning. After 20 minutes (the limit) we climbed down the treacherous stairs, managing to not fall and cause a domino effect, and made our way out the backside of the temple where we were whisked away to breakfast.
Our van pulled up in a wooded area where there was a breakfast picnic set up on the Siem Reap River. After a delicious meal, we grabbed our bikes (which were much better than any of the bikes we've had previously on this trip with working brakes and all!) and started on the trail.
One thing that was so great about tis tour is the mountain biking - we were going through small trails in the forest, over roots and ducking under tree branches. After a bit of this we turned to bike along the Angkor Wat moat where patches of sand would make you really work to keep your bike steady and moving. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the next stop - Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom, also known as the Great City, is just that. Angkor Thom was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, when Angkor Wat was attacked, and was the last capital of the Khmer empire. It covers 9 square kilometers, and is surrounded by stone walls and a large moat. The entrance to Angkor Thom is simply breathtaking - a causeway with 54 demons and 54 gods representing the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, and a massive gate with faces staring out in every direction.
For this portion of the tour, we biked through the gates and up a forested path to travel along the walls of the city, with the moat to our left and the ruins to our right. We stopped at one of the guard stands on a corner of the wall to learn more about the city and the Khmer empire.
A short bike ride along roads in the city then brought us to Prasat Bayon, a stunning temple that I actually preferred over Angkor Wat. Bayon was the state temple for King Jayavarman VII. It is in more of a state of ruin than Angkor Wat, but the faces (216 of them!) glaring down on you from all 54 towers, and the stories depicting everyday life carved in the stone walls are impeccable. These 11,000 figures included those of war, fishing, feasts, king processions, and markets.
Just outside of Bayon we sat for water and fresh fruit. Our picnic table was situated directly next to a monastery where monks were praying, washing, and blessing those who had come with ailments or bad luck. Refreshments inhaled, we hopped back on our bikes for more biking in the Cambodian forests. These forest trails took us directly to our next stop - Ta Prohm, or the Lara Croft Temple. This Buddhist temple was built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII. Compared to the previous temples we saw, the uniqueness here lied in the power of nature to adapt and overtake what was man-made. The Cambodian forest has literally started to take over the temple, with moss on walls, doorways blocked, and trees growing out of and around the temple.
A quick bike ride from here, past several Cambodian weddings, and we were at our late lunch of traditional Khmer dishes - chicken amok, beef amok, fried noodles, fish, and a vegetarian stir fry. It was all delicious, especially with a cold Cambodian beer!
A quick post-ride shower to remove the layer of sweat and red dust, and a relaxing, pool-side margarita gave us the energy to grab a tuk-tuk to Pub Street. We walked around, went to the Night Market where we made several bargains, and got a quick foot massage to work up our appetites. Side note: I do not know how I will survive without $6 massages.
Lucky for us, just around the corner from the massage place was a sidewalk restaurant, and as we walked by and smelled the food be cooked right there we knew where we'd have dinner. Two beers each, fried morning glory, two pieces of amazing grilled chicken, and two BBQ skewers later, we paid a whopping $7.50 total and headed to the street for the dessert that we weren't looking forward to: bugs.
Just outside this "restaurant", was a street cart selling fried delicacies such as crickets, spiders, and water beetles. We both decided the only thing we could do would be the crickets, as the other options looked slimy, and the spiders apparently "pop" in your mouth...no thank you. One dollar for a 2-cup sized scoop of crickets - we opted to give her $1 for 4 crickets, and as quickly as possible popped one in our mouths. Surprisingly, not bad - the spices she had used to fry them were delicious and they were crunchy with no "popping" or gooeyness. We both actually chose to eat our second one, though I think two cups would've been pushing it.
A couple of beers to wash down the crickets at the aptly named bar, Angkor What?, and we were ready to call it a (15+ hour) day.