How To Travel Around Angkor Wat By Bicycle (And Wring Extra Days Out Of Your Pass)
Touring the super-famous Khmer ruins by bike isn’t for the weak, but those who pedal themselves there (and back, and there, and back) can reward themselves with extra visits.
For budget travelers, Angkor Wat can be a wallet-killer. The temple complex is a “must-see,” and most agree that a one-day pass isn’t enough (nor, for that matter, is a three-day pass, or even a seven-day — the level of detail on all of the temples could take you a lifetime to appreciate).
But even if you only have one day, as of 2017 a one-day pass costs $37. A three-day pass is $62, and a seven-day pass is $72. In a country of $2 noodle dishes and $4 dorm beds, those are high prices.
That’s before you factor in that Cambodia is hot, the complex is enormous, and most of the history is tough to parse on your own if you’re not already familiar with Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII.
Meaning: You’re probably going to shell out for a tuc-tuc to drive you around, food and/or drink while you’re at the park, and perhaps a tour guide.
Or maybe you won’t do all of those things. Maybe you’ll just rent a bike and ride to the sites, gleaning what you can from Wikipedia or cheap guide books. Here’s a quick primer on how to do that, with the bonus that doing so can actually get you more days in the park than you paid for.
Renting a bicycle
Almost any hotel, hostel, restaurant, travel agency, or shack by the side of the road in nearby Siem Reap will have the means to get you a bike.
A basic beach cruiser-type bike will typically run you $2 for the day. But I would recommend investing in your wheels.
I visited a shop on the corner of BBU Road and Sivantha Boulevard (both of these streets appear to have different names depending on where you look at them on Google, but here’s a link to a map showing directions from Onederz Hostel, which is in the center of town). This place had mountain bikes for $4, $6, and $8.
On my first day, I had a $2 cruiser, and the going was tough. The next day, on a $6 Giant, I felt like I had been transported into Usain Bolt’s body. My pedal revolutions turned from gimpy steps into long strides, and I was able to blow past traffic jams and idling tuc-tucs with ease (typically by riding in the opposite lane until an oncoming bus forced me back into the right-of-way).
A good bike is also super helpful on some of the back roads between temples at Angkor. While the main loops are paved and smooth, you can take less-traveled-though-rough-and-dusty roads through the forest to break things up and make for a little adventure. A cruiser on those paths — which at times are hemmed in by jungle — is not recommended.
Either way, before you hit the road, make sure you’re stocked up on water and a hat and sunscreen. It’s bound to be a scorcher most days.
Do I actually need a three-day pass?
Once you’ve got your bike, only you can answer the question of whether you want to visit Angkor Wat for more than one day.
If you tend towards appreciating natural beauty more than human-made wonders, you’d probably be fine getting a one-day pass and sticking to the highlights of the park.
The one-day pass is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who go for just one day feel they need to make the most of their single trip. They jump from Angkor Wat to Angkor Thom to the smaller temples to the lakes, rushing through everything, and by the end of the day are suffering from temple fatigue and feel fine about not going back the next day.
A three-day pass, even if you’re not a temple nut, makes it possible to enjoy things at your own pace, without feeling like you’re leaving temples on the table.
And if you play your cards right, a multi-day pass makes it much easier to parlay your ticket into a four-, five-, six-entrance trip (assuming you bought three, as I did).
So how do I get more days than I bought?
Everybody knows about the “last-hour” hack at Angkor Wat: If you enter the park after 5pm, Ticket Control doesn’t mark your ticket, so you can see the park at sunset and twilight without burning a day. That means you get an hour or so of touring in the day before your pass officially starts, free.
But I’m not talking about that.
A brief word on how tickets at Angkor Wat work:
You buy your tickets from an office outside the park. When you enter the park through the main roads south of Angkor Wat itself, you pass Ticket Control. There, a guard will hole-punch your ticket.
Then, at nearly every individual temple entrance, another guard will ask to see your ticket. That’s it. There is no special hole-punch or marking for a certain day. The assumption is that the number of hole punches you have correlates to the number of days you’ve entered the park.
My second day at Angkor was the day I took my Giant, and I wanted to take an alternate rote to the park. Rather than traveling straight up Charles De Gaulle Road, the artery that connects Siem Reap to the Angkor Wat entrance, I explored some roads just to the east, taking in a slice of rural Cambodia. I passed farms, streams, and fruit sellers, all on toasty brown dirt roads.
I wound my way back and forth through these country roads and emerged in the eastern flank of the park, near Prasat Kravan. I spent the next few hours exploring some east side highlights before heading home around sundown.
It wasn’t until the next morning, when I rode up Charles De Gaulle for my “third” and “last” day at the park, when I was stopped by Ticket Control and given just my second hole punch, that I realized what I’d done.
“Second day,” the man said, handing back my ticket.
“Okay, thanks,” I said. I’m not in the business of telling people that they’re wrong.
In this way, I was able to enter the park four times, when I’d only “paid” for three. If I had coupled that with the “late-afternoon” hack and perhaps another back roads route, I could have stretched my three-day ticket into a six-entrance affair.
That would have been especially helpful if I’d wanted to visit some of the further temples that many of the tourists don’t get to.
Based on the map, there seem to be plenty of ways to get into the park that don’t involve passing the Ticket Control sites south of Angkor Wat, particularly from the east. The west looks like a bit of a mess — I would avoid.
NOTE: In order for this to work, you need to enter the park at least once through Ticket Control and get a hole punch. If you show up at a temple without one, you’ll probably be flagged. I don’t know what that would mean for you. Death penalty? Probably not. But better to not find out.
ANOTHER NOTE: I don’t see how this would work any other way than by bicycle. To walk would take you hours just to get to the park and back, and going with a tuc-tuc or guide almost guarantees that they’ll take you via a main road and past Ticket Control. (If you’re wondering about a motorbike option: Technically, foreigners aren’t allowed to rent motorbikes in Siem Reap.)
[UPDATE: OKAY, FINAL NOTE]: Based on what I’ve heard from one-day pass getters, this method won’t work if you have a single day pass, since the date is stamped on it and it will show that you either skipped Ticket Control or are trying to enter the park on multiple days. So, gotta go big to go bigger, here.
So, you’re suggesting we sneak in — that we steal?
Yes, I guess I am saying that.
I did it accidentally, myself. I didn’t mean to bypass Ticket Control — it just kind of happened.
But the system is flawed. There’s nothing that tells you not to come the way I did, and going the back way makes for an infinitely more interesting (and less hectic) ride to the temples.
And you know what? I’m not going to feel bad about shorting the Cambodian government, which profits immensely off visits from the park and is considered one of the world’s most corrupt governments.
According to the BBC, here’s how your ticket proceeds are broken down:
The state now receives almost all the money, with some paid into a conservation fund. Two dollars from each ticket will also go to the Swiss-run Kantha Bopha Foundation, which offers free medical treatment for poor Cambodian children.
(If I had to guess, “some paid” into a conservation fund is a paltry sum, and even the $2 to the Foundation likely gets siphoned off a bit. The number one complaint I’ve heard from people in Cambodia is the corruption, which permeates almost every aspect of their lives in the form of bribes and bureaucracy.)
But if you feel bad about skimping, allow me to suggest a way to alleviate your guilt: Pay for a guide. Buy food — some lok lak, a coconut, fresh mango — from one of the sellers inside the park. Maybe hire a tuc-tuc to take you to one of the far-flung temple sites.
Basically: Spread that money around. Become a Robin Hood of sorts — stealing from the government, giving to the people.
Or don’t. Save the money you would have spent on a seven-day pass, or a three-day pass, and blow it on beer, or a room with air conditioning. Don’t let me tell you what to do.
One final thought:
Angkor Wat, particularly in high tourist season, is ridiculously, hilariously, stupidly crowded. You will be surrounded by people at all times. Even when I got to the park before 6 a.m. for sunrise, the place was slammed.
Getting extra days out of your pass allows you to do two things: Visit the park at your own pace, taking little bites off at a time and leaving when you’ve had it with other people; and take trips out to the further sites where fewer tourists venture at all, such as Phnom Krom, which is in the complete opposite direction of all the other temples.
This is assuming you want extra time in the park at all, or have that kind of time. Maybe you’ll be good with two or three days. If so, take the back way anyway, at least once. It’s super cool.
Let me know how this goes for you, or if you find any cool alternate routes into the park.