Angkor Wat Is Famously Crowded — Here's How to Get a ‘Jungle Temple’ All to Yourself
All tourists are told to visit the three biggest temples in a specific order. It's the worst advice. Here's how to see the 'eighth wonder of the world' without being surrounded by tourist hordes
Angkor Wat can be hard work. In the heat and humidity of Cambodia, many a visitor has confidently planned a full-day tour of the 9th-15th century ancient cities and temples only to escape back to their hotel by midday.
However, it's not the 95°F heat that can be difficult to manage when touring Angkor Wat, but the hordes of visitors. Coaches packed with tourists roll up by the minute in front of most of the bigger temples, causing queues to take awkwardly-posed selfies.
If you want to come to Angkor Wat to find your own jungle infested ancient ruin, first understand that it’s a vast complex of dozens of big and small temples that tour operators cherry-pick from. Now ignore their itineraries and go slightly off the beaten track. Instagram will thank you.
Skip Angkor Wat at Sunrise
Everyone goes at the break of dawn, and it makes no sense. There is not a single tour group itinerary that does not visit Angkor Wat — the biggest of all the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park — for sunrise. It means getting up at 4:00 a.m. to stand beside a small lake to watch the sun coming up behind the building's five towers. As well as having to jostle with thousands of other tourists for the same photograph, a relatively uninspiring silhouette shot, the pond it’s reflected in is very often in an unphotogenic state. If you want to photograph the warm, orangey sunlight on Angkor Wat itself, you actually need to stand on the eastern side, where almost no-one goes.
However, the real problem with this mass-gathering at sunrise is its knock-on effect. After sun-up, every single tourist heads to the second most visited temple at Angkor, Ta Prohm, also known as "The 'Tomb Raider' temple." This late 12th- and early 13th-century temple is exquisite, and most famous for being used in Angelina Jolie's 2001 movie. The wild-looking creeper vines and trees growing out of it give it an iconic look. Cue a huge line-up for a selfie with the best-looking, most dramatic tree.
The solution? Tear-up the itinerary and do it differently because if it’s tree-infested temples you want, there are alternatives.
Where to Actually Go for Sunrise
The simplest way of avoiding the sunrise crush at Angkor Wat is to forgo the cliche photo that you probably won't be happy with and head somewhere else. Tell your tuk-tuk driver (who charge about $15 for a full day tour from nearby Siem Reap) to take you to the obvious candidate, Ta Prohm, and they will tell you that it opens at 7:30 a.m. That's true, and actually the perfect time to photograph it. Not only is it at its quietest, but it's also when the early morning sun is beginning to light it up delicately.
If you want a solitary sunrise, visit nearby Banteay Kdei next to the peaceful Srah Srang lake. It has a smiling, serene face on its outer gates as iconic as anything at Angkor. It also faces the sunrise. Then head to Ta Prohm for its opening.
Where to Find Deserted Jungle Temples
Some people will tell you to go to Beng Mealea, an early 12th-century temple about 25 miles east of the main group of temples at Angkor, to get the real "undiscovered" experience. However, that takes time you probably won't have, and costs an extra $5 on top of the $62 it costs to tour the central temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park for three days.
Instead, head to two 12th-century temples left alone by tourists, Ta Nei and Ta Som. Ta Nei is accessed via a narrow track through dense jungle about a mile past the bigger Ta Keo, though it can be navigated easily in a tuk-tuk. Why Ta Nei? It's small, it's ruined, and it's quiet. It looks rough, with trees growing through it. It's what you always thought Angkor Wat was like.
The bigger Ta Som is not far away, and though it's part of a five temple-strong "grand tour" that’s a popular "day two" itinerary, it's also relatively quiet.
Where to Go for Sunset
You've got two choices: Preah Khan or Bayon. If you've already visited Ta Nei and Ta Som, you will have driven straight past Preah Khan. It’s a rather shambolic, labyrinthine ruin that’s also on the "grand tour" route, and it has a genuine feel of an abandoned city. There's even a building at Preah Khan that uses Roman-esque columns unlike anything else at Angkor. It's a fine place for sunset.
But so is Bayon, a short drive from Preah Khan. It’s perhaps the most iconic place in the Angkor Archaeological Park, and the most important temple within the incredible Angkor Thom complex. Bayon places third on tour operators' must-see list after Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, but really, it should be top of that list. Bayon’s upper level is home to dozens of serene faces where you can get eyes-on. In the last 90 minutes or so of sunlight, these faces appear golden. Don't expect to be all on your own, though it's not particularly busy, largely because the tour companies seem to take their guests to watch the sunset from a hilltop temple nearby called Phnom Bakheng
Go to the main Angkor Wat temple, of course. Its size is awesome, and so are its huge bas-reliefs. Just don't bother in the early morning, which is too precious a time to waste on a relatively uninspiring location teeming with tourists. Skip the cliche sunrise photo and instead prioritize memorable moments and relative solitude at Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Ta Nei, Ta Som and Preah Khan.