How to avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat

In an archaeological park covering 160sq km it can seem mind-boggling that you’re going to meet another soul, let alone need advice on how to avoid the crowds. In fact, an aerial laser survey cutting through the jungle in 2016 revealed that once upon a time, the ancient Khmer capital was an urban metropolis the size of Los Angeles. But consider that much of Angkor is not so much lost, but overgrown, and that the majority of the 2.6million visitors to this vast site come expecting just one iconic temple – Angkor Wat – and you’ll see why the Angkor Archaeological Park can more often resemble Hollywood Boulevard than the lost world it’s tipped to be.

But the coach tours, which pack hordes of people into Angkor, are like sheep – and predictable in their en-masse movements. With a bit of expert knowledge it’s still possible to enjoy one of the new Seven Wonders of the World without a world of vacation frustration, and in a way that helps to ease the strain on a world heritage site that is, quite literally, crumbling under the pressure.

Time it right

Timing, timing, timing. Having enough time at your disposal will make the world of difference to your Angkor visit. You’re never going to have sunrise at Angkor Wat to yourself, even if you paid through the nose for it, so you have to be prepared for crowds if you want that experience. But there are other temples where you can simply visit at different times to the majority of other tourists. Watching the sunset over the Angkor complex from the top of Phnom Bakheng is phenomenal, but so crowded the authorities have imposed a restriction of 300 people per evening to limit the damage being done to the fragile stonework. And if you’re not there first you’ll have to join the queue. Consider sunrise instead, which is no less atmospheric but a fraction as busy.
Lesley Schofield at our Southeast Asia specialists, All Points East, recommends spending at least four days in the Archaeological Park to make the most of your trip: “If you want to spend the whole day in the Angkor complex you’ll end up very hot, frustrated by other tourists and temple ‘fatigue’ will set in. Four days gives you the time to see the highlights and appreciate the differences between temples from different periods. You’ll have time to enjoy walking around the temples in the morning, with time to go back to your hotel in Siem Reap in the heat of the day, chill, eat lunch or have a beer, then go out again to Angkor once it’s cooler and less busy.”

Consider alternatives

Ever since Angelina Jolie’s big screen adventures catapulted crumbling Ta Prohm to movie immortality in Tomb Raider, its tree root-entwined temple doorway has become one of Angkor’s most photographed sites. Expect to queue for that iconic, Angelina-was-here, Instagram image. Or head instead to Preah Khan, where ancient stonework, equally intertwined with tree roots and vines, can be explored on a much quieter, much more intimate scale.
The more remote temples offer tempting alternatives too. And with so much of the Angkor Archaeological site still hidden in deep jungle, there are more and more temples being excavated and opened up for public access. The temples set around Angkor’s more remote villages also bring you into more contact with local Cambodian communities. As Lesley Schofield from our Southeast Asia specialists All Points East says:
“Connecting with local people is hard in the Angkor complex – it is so much about tourists now. Until recently Siem Reap was just a tiny town, so there weren’t many local people there to start with. As it has grown, many of the people working in tourism there have come in from Thailand, Vietnam or other neighbouring countries. The stalls in the night markets, for example, are not purely authentic places full of local people selling their wares. Some is imported.”
“If you want to meet local Cambodians then you need to allow yourself time to get out of the major tourist centers and into the villages that surround some of the more remote temples. There you’ll find a few villages with local people selling postcards or traditional crafts etc.”

Go round the back

Lesley Schofield from our South East Asia specialists, All Points East:
“There are still many lesser-known temples – and ways to see the better-known temples that take you away from the crowds. There are ways of approaching them that are quieter – you can go in the side gate or back gate instead for example, avoiding the main gate that the coach trips use – that’s the benefit of a local guide, they know how to get you to the quietest spots even in the busiest places.”

And with temple steps becoming slippery from the footfalls of thousands of tourists, and intricately-carved stone friezes being rubbed away by the touch of a million fingers – alternative routes around the more popular temples can help spread the, not inconsiderable, tourist load. A local guide – and a tour operator with the expert knowledge to put your Angkor trip together – is invaluable in this case.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Angkor Wat or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Don’t dismiss the rainy season

Unless you’re dead set on cycling (when muddy roads can put paid to pedalling adventures), consider visiting the Angkor complex during the rainy season. The majority of visitors descend on Angkor from November to March, and while April is usually too hot, the May to October rainy season can be an excellent time to explore. It’ll be hotter than the more popular months, yes, but you’re very unlikely to have flat-out rain for four days straight. Instead you can expect the odd tropical downpour – which cool you down or can be easily avoided in one of the little cafes that dot the complex – coupled with dramatic skies perfect for photography enthusiasts.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: ND Strupler] [Sunrise: Rob Young] [Preah Khan: Karl Baron] [Rainy season: Davidlohr Bueso]