Saturday, 13 October 2012

Extreme dedication to the temple cause

We'd heard that cycling around the temples of Angkor was the best way to see them, and as we both enjoy riding bikes this seemed like a great way to experience the culture and history for which we'd come to Siem Reap.

Garden Village rented out bicycles and even though they were a bit on the rickety side, they were cheap and convenient, and we were itching to get going. 

The Roluos Temples, about 13km out from Siem Reap, are among the earlier temples built by the Khmers in the area and it's recommended that if you have a few days to explore this is a good place to start, as they give you an idea of the development of the architecture.

It was a long ride but as Cambodia is so flat it wasn't a difficult one, and it gave us the opportunity to see some of the countryside and life along the road, like buffalo-pulled carts and kids walking to school jostling for the chance to wave at us and shout 'hello!'

We arrived at our first temple, hot and thirsty, and after a quick rest in the shade and the guzzling of lots of cold water, made our way to the entrance. A man asked for our tickets and as we hadn't bought them yet we enquired where they could be purchased. At the ticket office near Angkor Wat, was the answer. Angkor Wat, the signs for which we'd cycled past on our way here, about 10km ago. The only place you can buy the tickets to see any of the temples. Right.

Back on our bikes we got, even though the morning was getting on and the sun was climbing higher in the sky. After we'd cycled back the way we had come a little way, we spotted a signpost pointing to Angkor Wat and decided to follow it away from the main road to try and find the ticket office. There was less traffic down this road and it was still very flat, we passed a few lodgings with more smiling shouting children, and a few tuk-tuks passed us, each one receiving increasingly envious looks from me as they disappeared into the distance and we ate up the kilometers a pedal at a time.

The road went on and on. And the day got hotter and hotter. And the lack of suspension or padding on our bikes became more and more noticeable. And the road went on. And on. The signposts seemed to run out and the signs of life did too. It eventually reached that point where we had come too far to turn back, even though we both knew we'd made a mistake turning off of the main drag and coming down this road that was some kind of mockery, like the never-ending path that Jennifer Connelly is on in the film Labyrinth that just keeps stretching ahead of her into the distance, no matter how fast or how far she runs. 

Dave cycles five days a week in London and is generally fitter than I am, but my legs were failing, I was saddlesore, and I was having to stop pretty regularly. Plus, concerned about my Irish so-white-I'm-nearly-blue complexion, I had put on the denim shirt I'd packed for modesty in the temples and borrowed Dave's hat to save myself from burning to a crisp, whilst sweltering under the extra clothes. 

We had probably been cycling for a couple of hours by this point and it must have been around midday. Finally we came to a turn off that was flanked by a couple of restaurants and we stopped for cold drinks and a break from the razorblade saddles and relentless pedalling. Checking the map, we could see that we weren't far from Angkor Wat but would be coming in on the wrong side of it for the ticket office. By this point all I wanted was a shower and to lie motionless on a soft bed, so we decided to cut our losses and head back. Once we'd gotten back on the bikes - an action that took every ounce of will I had; if I'd seen an available tuk-tuk at that point I'd have ditched the bike and taken the consequences upon returning to the guesthouse - it didn't take too long before we started seeing signs for Siem Reap. With a lot of stops and fighting back tears from me (this was not my idea of a holiday) and a lot of encouraging words from Dave (heroic once again) we eventually got back to our room, where I hobbled into the shower.

When I came out and eased myself onto the bed, Dave was looking at Google Maps on the laptop. "Would you like to know how far we rode today?" he asked, a look somewhere between triumph and wonder on his face. I nodded. "Fifty five kilometers," he told me, "On the world's most uncomfortable bikes, in the Cambodian midday sun". And I, genuinely kind of proud of myself that I hadn't DIED, fell back onto the pillows, the most relieved I've ever been to not be on a bike.

The next day we resumed our temple mission, this time in a tuk-tuk, and with far more success...

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