3 days in Angkor Wat, day 3: through the countryside roads to the oldest temples

PLANNING THE ROUTE

The third and the last day was supposed to be the most relaxing since we had in the itinerary only so called Rolous Group, a cluster of three pre-Angkorian temples located 15 km to the east of Siem Reap.

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At the top of Bakong, the largest temple of the Rolous group

Just like twice before, we opted for a bicycle despite being warned against it. Knowing those temples wouldn’t take much time to see, we left at 7 am. It was a pretty bad idea as we were exposed to the sun for the entire day which wasn’t particularly pleasant. If you have a choice, I’d recommend going there on a cloudy day or leave very early.

We had a few options regarding the route. Rather than taking the country road number 6 which certainly would be the fastest but also the busiest and more dangerous, we took parallel roads through the town and the countryside. Studying Google maps, we assumed there would be a continuous road (parallel to the motorway) leading almost to the Rolous group. Thus reassured, we set of with google maps at hand.

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Our final route from Siem Reap to Lolei temple

THE RIDE TO ROLOUS

On the positive side, the roads were half or at times even completely empty and we discovered on our way a real market, unspoiled by tourists. We bought lots of lovely snacks and sweets for real Cambodian prices, usually half or even less of what we were paying for in Siem Reap. We also stocked with 50 cents 1.5  litre bottles of water. The road was bumpy but enjoyable until we reached the market.

Google’s suggestion was then to turn left to the national road. We didn’t like the idea and decided to continue straight on. We soon understood why Google didn’t consider it a viable option. A bumpy tarmac turned into a dirt road. Completely and utterly empty dirt road, I should add. Personally, I preferred cycling along the fields and grazing buffaloes, even if it meant proceeding considerably slower and with more effort.

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That day we cycled mostly through the dirt roads

Eventually, we got tired to wade through the dust and turned to the national road for the remaining 1-2 km. It wasn’t too bad as there was an emergency lane we could use most of the time (apart from the moments something was parked on it or the vehicles were coming from the opposite direction). Still, we were relieved to notice the board of Apsara authority, a sure sign the ruins were somewhere nearby.

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Lovely Lolei village with wooden, stilted houses

Following google maps again, we turned left from the main road and turned into a very narrow, yet lovely dirt road through the fields and Lolei village. It took us a while to find the ruins: google marked only a Buddhist temple which was actually right next to the ancient Lolei temple. I must admit that the experience of getting there was far better than the temple itself.

A COFFEE-SELLER STORY AT LOLEI

The Lolei temple was not only small but also completely covered with scaffolding. We were the first ones to arrive at the site, followed by a van of Chinese tourists. After having a quick glance at the ruins, Sayak decided to have a coffee at one of the stalls facing the temple. It was delicious, traditional Khmer style coffee, well worth $1.

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A detail from Lolei temple

We started chatting with the lady running the stall, first about her 10 dogs and then about life in general. She spoke communicative English which she learned by herself, from the tourists (her parents sent to school only her brother). She showed us a photo of her house (a very simple hut) and -strangely enough -photos of the funeral of one of her parents. Her story was rather incoherent and contradictory but what we clearly got from it was that she used to work in Thailand in karaoke bars where she was forced to wear skimpy clothes which made her very uncomfortable. A few weeks of work in Thailand could earn a Khmer girls good money so many were willing to work as dancers or bar-hostess despite the stigma involved. The lucky ones could even marry a barang, a foreigner.

At some point, the woman burst into tears which made us feel pretty awkward, considering we didn’t really know how to console her. Sayak, conscious about similar situations in India, got a bit suspicious about her intentions. He pointed out inconsistencies in her story (one moment she presented herself as a single mother, the other she was complaining her husband wouldn’t let her go to work to Thailand) and started wandering whether it wasn’t just an attempt to get money from us. I’m not sure till now whether it was genuinely spontaneous need to spell out all the worries or a sophisticated and dignified way of begging.

Either way, it was a sobering experience and it made us reflect on the fact that indeed tourism could be pretty much the only option to make a living in a decent way in Cambodia. We waved the lady goodbye and crossed the national road to the nearby Preah Ko temple.

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A much more recent temple right next to the ancient Lolei

ROLOUS GROUP

Preah Ko turned out to be far more interesting than Lolei. It was a Siva temple, with bull statues facing it. There were some nice wall carvings and just like with other early temples, it was made of brick rather than stone.

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A bull figure facing Preah Ko

The last of the important temples of the Rolous group, Bakong, was also the most imposing one of the lot. It was one of the first examples of a mountain-temple.

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Bakong- the most grand of the Rolous group temples

We did not get disappointed with the panoramic views from the top. The temple was surrounded with a moat where local kids were swimming and fishing.

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The moat surrounding Bakong temple

The map we had with us showed one more temple nearby: Preah Monti. It took us a good deal of wandering through dirt roads, (some of them very sandy) until we found very underwhelming set of ruins amid fields. This day clearly wasn’t so much about the destination as about the path!

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Preah Monti wasn’t really worth searching

A LONG RIDE BACK

It was barely 12 pm when we finished and started our torturously hot way back. Sticking to the original plan, we took a road starting near southern end of Bakong temple, leading parallel to the national road and eventually reaching southern suburbs of Siem Reap.

The first part of the journey was very idyllic: we rode bikes along children coming out of schools, passing by villages consisting entirely of wooden, stilted buildings. For most of the time, we were alone on – generally speaking- an even and well kept dirt road.

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Sayak cycling among the kids coming out from school

Somewhere mid-way, the dirt road joined a larger, yet still empty tarmac road. That was when it became unbearably hot and cycling without a break for 15 km didn’t feel like that much fun anymore.

Locals were wiser than us: they were all in their hammocks, sleeping and hiding in the shadow. We stopped to buy some fruit for the original prices before reaching the river. Riding picturesque east bank of the river through empty dirt roads took us straight back to the town. We were home on time for lunch but totally knackered, unable to move until the evening.
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Straight but long way back from Rolous

It’d probably be quite affordable to take a Pass App tuk-tuk to the ruins if you’d like to avoid cycling on the main roads. But keep in mind it would deprive you of the real Cambodia experience.

PRACTICALITIES

Prices [in USD as of June 2018]

$62 for a 3-day Angkor Pass
$2 bicycle hire for a day
$1 fresh coconut from the stalls inside Angkor Park
$1 Khmer coffee from the stalls inside Angkor Park
$1 bamboo stuffed with sticky rice (sold in front of Angkor Wat)

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