I'd not intended to visit Angkor Thom the day I did - the Western Baray and its temples were sufficient, I thought, to keep me occupied, but those plans had been scrapped once I'd seen the track. Instead, I found myself bouncing over laterite paving that had been pitted and etched by centuries of water; looking more like termite-eaten wood than rock.
The west gate of Angkor Thom was a fine introduction to the complex. It's not, perhaps, as spectacular a first sight as the southern bridge, with its statues "Churning the Ocean of Milk", and the huge stretch of wall visible over the moat. Unlike the southern approach, however, there were no sales pitches from hawkers, no buses and moto-remorques, not the electric cars and horse rides, and not the same sense of tidied-up-ness in the architecture and landscape either. The overhanging trees were lichen-splotched, and there was no sign of civilisation apart from a couple of locals on cycles. It looked and felt ancient. Once through the gate things changed - mown grass verges, leaf litter swept away, etc, but the outside was magic.
Angkor Thom has navigable earthen ramparts with trees growing in them. Only on the exterior stone face is there a drop; on the inner side of the ramparts the ground slopes, and this is covered in bush and brush. You have to descend at the gates; porting your bike - if you have one - down laterite and grass. Elsewhere, it's a bumpy ride over stones, roots, and the occasional fallen branch.
The surfaced road out of eastern Angkor Thom
leads through its northeastern "Victory" gate. The rarely-visited east
gate lies down a deserted dirt track east of the Bayon. Once out of the
gate, the track quickly becomes overgrown; I stopped following it after
riding into one spiderweb too many.
Ta Nei, not so easy to find, was off
several weatherbeaten tracks. It was supposed to only be reachable
over the "French Dam" but I didn't cross anything remotely damlike,
just sand and puddles. To get there required turning off the main
road, reading a faded sign on a gate past a toilet block, and using a
little guesswork in picking one's turns. Fortunately, the final turn was signposted (though the post was rather temporary). A little
stablisation had been performed using braces and buttresses, and couple
of seismic/meteorological instruments had been placed, but otherwise it
was rather unrepaired, with masses of moss-covered stones let pile
haphazardly where they'd tumbled.
Phnom Bok is too far from Siem
Reap to be comfortably cycled - I hired a motorcycle to see it and
other outlying temples. A couple of howitzers are stationed at the
bottom of the hill. A smaller piece of Soviet-made weaponry stands on
the hilltop. To get from howitzer to field gun, you must follow
red-earth track, and then climb a dauntingly long and steep set of
concrete steps. Two of the temples have frangipani trees growing on top
The road that leads south from Angkor Thom to Siem Reap runs past Phnom Bakeng. Tourists tend to visit this temple-mountain in the evening to see the setting sun, and perhaps ride an elephant up it instead of scaling its crumbling slopes -- and where there are tourists, come stalls and raucous hawkers. The main ways up are on the eastern side: the serpentine elephant track; the gentle old road around the hill which pedestrians are meant to follow but few do; and, flanked by two stone lions on plinths, what's left of the stairs. With such a mass of visitors, the eastern side is hardly pleasant.
Fortunately, there are other starting points. Between Phnom Bakeng and Angkor Thom's moat lies the orange-brick temple of Baksei Chomkrong, and north of this is a lonely dirt track. Follow this, and then a southern track leading off it, and you wind around the hill, emerging at the southeast on the main road to Angkor Thom.
On the northern side of the hill, thirty metres of mown grass meets the track, and beyond this a far more tranquil version of the eastern stairs awaits: twin lions, and (from a distance) what appears to be stairs. It's only when you start to climb that you realise how much of these stairs are illusory - a series of horizontal stone remnants covered in moss and laterite pebbles that must be ascended with care. On the western side, where only one leonine sentinel remains intact, a track winds upwards through slender trees. The way appears to be all slope - any stairs have been buried. If there ever was a way up the southern side, it has been lost in the undergrowth.
At the top of the hill, a three-tiered pyramid squats on the flat. Like many Angkorian temples, its stairs require not only feet but hands. I climbed it to join the hundreds waiting for sunset. To the west, the sun was still above the horizontal. The orange waters of the Western Baray sprawled below, but bathed in the late afternoon sunlight between my vantage point and there were a wall of tourists. After about ten minutes I stepped down, pushed my way through them, and clambered down the stairs: I'd seen the view, I've seen sunsets, and I didn't really need to see another one in a place this crowded.
It was a slow clamber; a few others had decided to depart ahead of me. I wondered if they'd felt the way I did until an Australian climbing down behind me responded to an unheard question: "Sure I'm scared. I don't feel like climbing down in pitch blackness". I glanced back. A trickle of tourists had started to make their way down the stairs. I stepped down onto the plateau, and headed around to the southern side. Here, a stream of people descended. To the eastern side, then, and a torrent of people poured themselves down the steps. I stood watching them. If this goes on there'll be noone left up there... and there's really no danger since there'll be some moon.
Back to the east side then for a climb back up. Only about twenty viewers remained. Much better. Even in a couple of minutes things had changed. The sun was now buried behind cloud, and a column of birds wheeled and coiled in unseen thermals. The sun dipped, and the police ushered those remaining - mostly camera-wielding Japanese and Koreans - down.
A German with hefty camera in hand commented that he thought the people who'd left because the sun was going down were crazy - the best light was right after. He was right. On the eastern side of the plateau, the pyramid was in near-silhouette, its features blurred in the gloom. Behind it, pink and grey clouds showed brightly against the electric blue sky.
I picked my way down the main eastern slope. Remnants of the stairs that had once been there were difficult to locate in what was left of the light, but it was less treacherous than the northern or western slopes would have been, and more direct than the winding old road or elephant track. The last of the stragglers descended. I rode back to Seam Reap.