The jungle-fingered ruins of Angkor – a northwestern Cambodia region housing hundreds of centuries-old temples, including the legendary Angkor Wat complex – are high on my to-do list. Unfortunately, I'm not the only one: at least one million visitors roll into the area every year.
But with a little strategizing, you can explore this historic Khmer Empire region without continually elbowing through massed, camera-swinging tour groups. You might even find some life-affirming solitude along the way.
"The absolute minimum for a visit should be three days – but it's better to extend to four or five days so you can explore more remote and less-crowded sights like Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea and also enjoy some downtime," says Nick Ray, co-author of the latest Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook.
The best way to start your visit is to bite the bullet, rise early and nail Angkor Wat. "Like everyone else, visit for the sunrise – it's iconic. But enter through the back door East Gate for some peace, then stick around after sunrise from 7 a.m. for a relatively crowd-free couple of hours." As for the walled Angkor Thom complex – a main Tomb Raider movie location – he eschews the South Gate in favour of the lesser-used East Gate or Gate of the Dead.
Once these unmissable big boys are covered off, it's time to delve deeper. David Raezer is co-author – along with wife Jennifer – of The Temples of Angkor, a comprehensive, recently updated digital guidebook (available via approachguides.com/angkor) that's a handy primer for a ruins-focused visit. He has lots of advice for waving goodbye to the crowds.
"Angkor Wat, Bayon [inside Angkor Thom] and Banteay Srei are the most impressive temples. After that, conventional guides tell you to visit Ta Prohm but we recommend Preah Kahn: with similar decoration and layout, it has significantly less tourists," says Raezer, adding that while bikes work well for reaching sites near Siem Reap, the area's affordable tuk-tuks are easier for exploring further afield.
"Our top off-the-beaten-path tip is the small yet stunning Banteay Srei. But we also recommend the temples in Roluos, 30 minutes from the centre of Angkor – plus Prasat Kravan for its excellent reliefs."
And if you're desperate to shoot breathtaking photos devoid of visitors wearing "I Heart Angkor" T-shirts? "Large crowds gather every day on Phnom Bakheng for sunset, but we suggest Ta Keo as a great alternative. It offers a similarly high perspective on the area – although the stairs to the summit are narrow and rather steep."
Raezer also notes that since many visitors follow a set path through each temple, you can avoid the camera-jockeying by taking an opposing route. "It's best to visit when other tourists are likely to be at hotels or in restaurants: sunrise, sunset or lunchtime. For the absolute best experience, go to lesser-known temples at these off-hours and you'll likely be the only one there."
Lonely Planet's Ray notes that most visitors base themselves in the city of Siem Reap – 5 1/2 kilometres from Angkor Wat. His sleepover recommendations range from the budget 15-room Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse (shadowofangkor.com) to the boutique HanumanAlaya (hanumanalaya.com) and the luxury La Residence d'Angkor (laresidencedangkor.com).
For meals, he suggests the city's Haven, Marum and Cuisine Wat Damnak, while the Yellow Sub and Laundry Bar are great for drinks after a hard day's temple-hunting. Which reminds me: Does he recommend a guide for exploring the region's multifarious temples?
"Some people just pick up local drivers to act as guides. Some of these have useful insights into the temples, but they're more suited to backpackers and independent travellers. For a more in-depth experience, try a tour operator," says Ray, suggesting Hanuman (hanuman.travel), Beyond Unique Escapes (beyonduniqueescapes.com) and Grasshopper Adventures (grasshopperadventures.com), which specializes in cycle tours.
OUR READERS WRITE
- Stay on after sunrise when most tour buses return to town for breakfast. Timing is crucial! Also, for the rest of Angkor (as opposed to Angkor Wat) there are many smaller little-visited temples you can enjoy to yourself. @WithoutCrowds
- Mountain bike. You can get to areas the drivers won't go and the regular bikes can’t. Maybe $3 more each day. @leitchsd
- Get a private guide and do the “tour” in reverse. We got to each spot just as the crowds were leaving and had them to ourselves. @jburslem
- Hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day and let him suggest a route for the temples on your list. He wants to avoid the crowds too! That’s assuming you’re looking to see multiple temples and not just Angkor Wat. @casualbaker
- I visited in the off-season in August, 2012, and experienced very little crowding. It was magical. @fraueibl
- It’s a big place. Just keep walking and eventually you’ll be blissfully alone. @carolynali
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