Exploring Angkor without the crowds
Timing is everything
I wasn’t sure if it was possible, but I dared to dream. Could I really expect to be in Siem Reap at the highest point of the high season and experience the marvels of Angkor (pretty much) on my lonesome? There are few places more jaw-dropping than the World Heritage-listed temples of Angkor, but I was starting to feel that their atmosphere and mysticism were being lost in the cacophony of tourist voices, the drone of tour bus engines, and the painfully slow progress to be made when having to stop every minute or so for someone to take a selfie next to a stone-carved deity. So, on my third day, I decided to try a different tactic.
Early the next morning, just as the sky was starting to lighten, I rode into the park behind the sleepy masses on their way to the morning riot at Angkor Wat and carried on east to Pre Rup, a popular sunset spot – but I hoped, pretty much empty at sunrise. I was right. There are just a few temples in the complex open before dawn – Angkor Wat, of course, along with Phnom Bakeng and Pre Rup. I arrived to a mercifully empty scene, just one sleepy guard, and another traveler like myself. We clocked each other – a small nod not without a tinge of smugness I’ll admit. Pre Rup is a stunner – a vast pyramid temple mountain design typical of Angkor, with five lotus towers looming from its top three tiers. I clambered to the top, up giant stone steps and watched the sun rise over the surrounding forest in all its misty, orange-hued glory. It was utterly silent apart from the sound of my labored breathing and the intense chirping of insects and songbirds, themselves rising with the sun. Pre Rup is thought to be a very early royal crematorium. Its name means ‘Turning the Body,’ which refers to how a corpse’s outline would be traced into the ashes after cremation. I tried to picture it back in its heyday; the smell of the burning bodies and all that ceremonial ritual. Without the din of the crowd around me, I felt transported back to those ancient times, just for a second.
Next up was Ta Som, a near complete ruin but an incredibly peaceful spot. Giving Ta Prohm a run for its money, much of its walls have been cracked and broken by the jungle – a strangler fig tree grips and twists its way across a doorway as I enter. I am completely alone at this one, with just a guard for company. Lichen-covered Hindu deities are carved into almost every wall still standing, and the fallen stones litter the dusty floor. The temple was built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII in honor of his father and is a shrine to his memory. I thought how marvelous it is that it’s still here, surviving all the destructive elements of wars and weather.
I did a quick turnaround and headed on to Ta Keo, still early enough – I hoped – to avoid the crowds. I arrived to just a few other travelers and yet another spectacular temple. Grand and simply designed, this Hindu temple was the first to be built entirely of sandstone and was once surrounded by a huge moat, now disappeared. Like many other temples in the complex, its pyramid shape is a symbolic depiction of Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hinduism considered to be the center of the universe. I climbed to the top and admired the stunning views.
I finished the day just outside Siem Reap at Phnom Krom; a hilltop temple reached via what seem like endless stairs and a steep climb. A few other locals were making the same pilgrimage and passed me waving and carrying six-packs of beer. A Hindu shrine greeted me as I reached the top, then the temple revealed itself, crumbling, ancient, and facing out towards nearby Tonle Sap lake. So I found myself at yet another remarkable place, free of crowds watching the sunset over Cambodia for another day. The merits of escaping the tour bus crowds and experiencing Angkor’s temples in the peace and serenity they deserve can’t be overstated. Time it right and take the path less traveled – you won’t regret it.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Siem Reap is easily reached by air and on land by bus from all over Asia. It’s around a six-hour drive from the capital Phnom Penh. Hire a scooter or a local tuk-tuk driver for the day to see all the temples.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Stay – Accommodation
Eat – Restaurants
Fish amok is a famous local dish of fish baked in banana leaves served with spiced coconut sauce. You can buy pretty much any cuisine you like at Siem Reap, but local Cambodian fare will always be the best tasting of the lot.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
High season from December to April sees dry, hot days and nights. The low season from April onwards is wetter and less humid, with fewer crowds and lower prices.
Safety – Possible risks
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Cambodia is great value, with food and alcohol costing just a few dollars and accommodation costs ranging from a few dollars a night to $50 and up. It really depends on where you stay and how you want to travel and eat while you’re in town. The biggest cost will be the pass to Angkor, which starts at $37 for one day.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Dress conservatively when visiting temples – they are religious sites, and although tourists do tend to turn up in pretty revealing clothing, you don’t want to be one of them. Try not to point when asking for directions and never point towards another person. A slight bow with your hands in a prayer position is the standard greeting in Cambodia. And always with a smile of course! There are a handful of people offering elephant rides at Angkor Thom. Although the owners are just trying to make a living, the practice is inherently cruel and abusive and shouldn’t be encouraged.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Angkor and Siem Reap are both fantastic destinations that you’ll want to explore endlessly all day, but be mindful of the effects of high temperatures on your energy levels and stamina. Drink plenty of water and seek shade, especially in the afternoon. Toilet flushes are often of the pail and water flush variety when away from hotels and major tourist areas. A small bottle of hand sanitizer is useful when hand soap isn’t available, which it often isn’t.
JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
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