Angkor Wat is perhaps the most famous, popular destination in Southeast Asia. Before my RTW trip, it was one of the only sites in Southeast Asia I had already heard of! While there’s certainly something to be said for going into a place with few expectations, as I did in Vietnam, and discovering gems you didn’t know to look for, like Halong Bay, I think we’d all be lying if we pretended bucket list sights like Angkor Wat weren’t a major reason we travel. I’m a big believer in managing your expectations well when it comes to bucket list sights. It’s unrealistic to expect to have popular destinations all to yourself, but with a little insider knowledge (perhaps in the form of a guide), savvy planning, and willingness to roll with the punches, you can avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat and enjoy the moments of solitude and wonder you imagined in this sacred ancient city.
Start at Ta Prohm
Technically Angkor Wat refers to just one temple in the much larger complex of the Temples of Angkor. Best known for appearing in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movies, the temple of Ta Prohm and its iconic tangling silk-cotton and strangler fig tree roots is one of the most popular destinations within Angkor. The site gets busiest around 1pm, so while you might be tempted to start with the even more famed triple peak of Angkor Wat itself, it’s actually best to start your day here. No matter what time you visit, be prepared to still wait in long lines for the most well-known photo ops. Or, give Instagram the finger and focus on Ta Phrom’s other unique features, like the fascinating echo chamber at the heart of the complex. When you stand inside and beat the left side of your chest, you’ll hear and feel your heartbeat reverberating around you. It’s an experience that will put you squarely back in the moment.
Avoid the Crowds at Angkor Wat
There are two key steps to getting around the crowds at Angkor Wat itself. First, time your visit for midday. Most visitors go to Angkor Wat first and visit other temples later. Getting here around noon means most of your fellow tourists will have moved on to lunch. Second, enter through the temple’s back and end at the iconic three peak view. The midday light is admittedly not the best for capturing Angkor Wat’s famous reflection, but you won’t have to compete with anyone else for a vantage point. As I wandered through halls of ancient bas relief carvings, I couldn’t believe I and my tour group had many of them completely to ourselves!
Things like this are why I will never apologize for booking group tours once in a while. There are of course a lot of wonderful things about purely independent travel, but for a site this vast and filled with complex history, having a guide was completely invaluable – particularly since I only had one day in Angkor Wat. Had I hired a guide privately in Siem Reap, I never would have thought to ask to visit Angkor Wat at midday. Plus, my guide Kim was a former monk and that added so much to the perspective he was able to share with our group.
Stop at the South Gate to Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom was the capital of the Khmer Empire, and is the location of the third temple on my itinerary, Bayon. Spread out over 10 square kilometers, you could probably spend several days thoroughly exploring every nook and cranny of the ancient city. But even if you have only one day, the gateways to Angkor Thom are worth a brief visit. When you are coming from Angkor Wat, the South Gate is the most convenient path to take. Lines of gods, or ‘devas’, and demons, or ‘asuras’, greet those entering the walled Buddhist city. Taking a pit stop photo op like this, rather than going straight to the top sites within the temple complex, is a great way to avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat.
See Bayon in the afternoon
Crowds at Angkor Wat pick up again in the mid to late afternoon, so be sure you move elsewhere after the lunchtime lull. Bayon is another of the complex’s most famous temples, known for its carved faces. The patterns to the carvings and the overall structure of the temple are beautiful, and the late afternoon light is a great time to photograph them.
This is another area where it is worth having an experienced guide with you – knowing the complexes inside and out, they can point out patterns you might not recognize on your own and help you set up great shots. If you’re a photographer, you couldn’t ask for a better subject! There are many tours from Siem Reap that can pair you with a professional photographer to ensure you find the best shots, but I think any guide should be able to assist you to some degree with framing pictures.
Visit smaller temples
Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, and Bayon will always have some level of activity no matter the time of day. The best way to avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat is to take time to explore smaller, lesser known sites. Budgeting for a multi-day pass is the best way to see more of the off-the-beaten-path sites in Angkor, but my single day itinerary still managed to leave room for Baphuon and the Terrace of the Elephants. While getting a viewpoint from the top of Angkor Wat required waiting in a long line, being at the top of Baphuon felt like being completely alone in a ruined ancient city. The artful carvings at Angkor Wat are unparalleled and worth seeing no matter how many other tourists are joining you, but I suspect the latter sense is what draws people to visit the Temples of Angkor in the first place.
What are some of your favorite ways to get around the crowds at popular tourist destinations? Tell me in the comments!
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