How To Angkor Wat Without The Crowds
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm evoke romantic images of the discovery of the ancient temples of lost civilizations; however, the reality both exceeds (the sites are damn impressive) and disappoints (the looting, heat, and crowds are crushing).
hot take: The Angkor complex, including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, is a bucket list worth destination, but expect to suffer the elements (heat and crowds) for your photographic reward. (4.0 stars)
pro tip: Explore early to avoid the worst of the heat and the tour bus crowds…also visit the Angkor National Museum before you go for some much-needed context and history (in the comfort of AC)
Cambodia is an amazing place with much to offer an international traveler in the way of history, culture, and hospitality. However, Cambodia cements itself in most travelers’ minds for the superlative-defying Angkor complex with its highlights of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. We didn’t know what to expect out of Cambodia and Siem Reap (which is the modern city closest to the Angkor complex), so we made the mistake of only spending 4 nights here (which would be fine for a ‘just the highlights’ visit but left both of us wanting more). But we don’t want to give you just the glossy version of Angkor that you read everywhere else…below you will find our honest feelings (warts and all) about the visit with some tips to make your trip even better.
First, a bit of perfunctory background on the Angkor site. A series of adjacent but non-related temples and palaces constructed from 9th to 14th century (each seemingly built to celebrate the power of the current king as much as for any religious reason), Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire and the largest pre-industrial city in the world (today it is still the largest religious complex in the world). In fact, scientist estimate that 1 of every 1,000 people alive on the planet from 1010 to 1220 lived in Angkor. Over 1,000 total temples litter the Angkor area, scaling from nondescript piles of sandstone rubble scattered through rice fields to the Angkor Wat, the world's largest single religious monument. If it seems like we’re saying “the world’s largest” something a lot…it is because we are, and you can feel that magnitude when you explore the place. (note: we have been to some of the top archaeological ruins in Mexico, Peru, Greece, Turkey, and Italy…Angkor might not be the best, but it is certainly deserving of a place in the conversation)
We took a fairly standard tourist approach to seeing the highlights in one day including sunrise over Angkor Wat. Frankly, unless you are REALLY into temples (and sweating), this is enough. There are many ways to see Angkor, from wandering by yourself (not recommended as it is too hot and too big so you won’t see much), to private tuk tuk guides (very hit or miss re: quality and English…and no AC) to big tour operators (not recommended as you will feel like cattle) to private vans (pricey, but unquestionably the best). We chose a small group tour with Journey Cambodia which got us an English-speaking guide (3.5 of 5 rating) and an AC bus to transit from site to site in for a group of ~12 of us ($26 each…plus the temples entrance fee of $36 each). If we have to do a tour (and Matt balked at the high price of a private guide), then we like tours of this size because it still feels intimate and it is always a great way to meet other travelers (we made some new Colombian friends on the trip despite Matt tying to argue with them about changing the rules of Futbol). While we would have loved to spend more time at each temple and the English/history could have been clearer, we would recommend this approach to anyone on a budget. One thing we would have done differently would have been to visit the Angkor National Museum ($12 each + $5 for audio tour) for a few hours to get some much-needed context and history (in the comfort of AC) before we toured the Angkor complex (because it is hard to listen/understand the history of place in less than precise English with sweat pouring off you …regardless of how good your guide is, there is a lot of information to take in). The Angkor complex has also been repeatedly ransacked and looted throughout the centuries (the movie Tomb Raider is semi-ironically set at one of its temples), so you really need to see the exhibits in the museum to appreciate the ruins (otherwise they just start to look like rubble).
Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in the complex for good reason. While not the largest building at Angkor, Angkor Wat is relatively well preserved and has a unique (for Hindu temples) West-facing orientation that overlooks a moat and reflecting ponds (thus good for sunrise pictures). Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat’s defining feature is its quincunx of towers (5 main spires that disappear to only 3 when viewed head on…this head on view has become a symbol of Cambodia and appears on its national flag). Constructed in the early 12th century as the king’s state temple and eventual mausoleum, Angkor Wat was designed to represent Mount Meru (from Hindu mythology) with a moat and outer wall protecting three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. Despite extensive looting over the centuries, Angkor Wat still boasts extensive bas-reliefs and other sandstone carvings.
One of the most exiting parts of visiting Angkor Wat is climbing up to the main tower and seeing across the very flat landscape. Perspective, distance, and time all become hard to judge when inside the temple, which makes for an intense experience (only slightly dampened by the throngs of visitors…especially those of the Chinese variety that refuse to queue). However, while the tower view delighted us, we were disappointed by the sunrise view. Despite our 4a tour start time, a grey blanket of low lying clouds (frequent in this part of the world) prevented a spectacular sunrise picture. Despite this, we would still recommend the sunrise tour as the temperatures are more moderate as are the crowds (note: as we left at about 8a, massive busloads of tourists were pouring into the site). As you well know, the secret about Angkor Wat is out (would you believe there was only 7,650 visitors to the site in 1993…today there are many millions).
Angkor Wat also stands out in our minds for the unintended teaching moments about the culture. The myriad entry gates reinforced a caste system that subjugated a huge portion of the population of the earth at the time. The repeated looting of the temple by fellow Asians then Europeans teaches a difficult past. Then there are the bullet holes on the front gates from Cambodia’s more modern history of the genocidal purges of the Khmer Rouge that make you imagine the terror of being besieged in the ancient ruins. While Angkor Wat was not our favorite Angkor site (mostly due to the crowds), no visit to SE Asia would be truly complete without a visit. We’ll tell our children and grandchildren about it (and so will you).
Matt’s favorite site on the tour, Angkor Thom was the last and largest capital city of the Khmer empire. Established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII (a relatively compassionate king with Buddhist beliefs), it is highlighted by the Bayon temple site (a seriously impressive temple that has Buddhist and Hindu iconography blended together). Compared with the more protected sites we are used to seeing in more developed nations, we had mixed feelings about the seemingly ‘anything goes’ atmosphere where people are touching and climbing all over the ruins (note: this was not unique to Angkor Thom). However, there were also quiet places in the Bayon where we could be alone and try to image a life so foreign from our own. Angkor Thom represents the Khmer empire at the height of its power and the happy round faces of the Buddha at the Bayon will stay etched in our memory. To our great regret, we did not come back to this site at sunset (it was lightly raining by then) but we would have loved to be at the site when there were fewer tourists (again, if we sound like a broken record, we are).
Used as the setting for the Tomb Raider movie, Ta Prohm was Kelly’s favorite temple and was certainly the best experience of the bunch. Aided by a passing rain storm (which lowered temperatures and thinned the crowds) as we drove to the site, Ta Prohm is even more amazing than whatever picture you have in your head of a jungle temple. After the defoliated and relatively restored remains of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (remember that the whole Angkor complex was virtually abandoned for hundreds of years), the jungle trees of Ta Prohm made for impossible to believe images as they grew in, around, and through the sandstone temple.
Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries (also by Jayavarman VII), Ta Prohm is not particularly large but the foliage overgrowth had made it the most visually appealing temple we saw that day. The photogenic and atmospheric combination demanded our attention and we (with our new Colombian friends) were literally left behind by our tour as we sought to explore every nook and cranny. Luckily the tour waited in the bus (which had AC…did we mention that we had now been sweating in the jungle on and off for almost 8 hours?!?) As we headed back to our hotel, we were exhausted but happy with the wondrous sites we had beheld. Were we glad we spent the time and money to go? YES. Would we ever go back? Matt - NO, Kelly - Maybe.