Any recent visitor to the famed temple complex of Angkor Wat must find themselves wondering how many aeons ago all those wistful pictures of a deserted causeway bar a solitary dashing monk were ever taken. Today the typical sounds of dawn have been replaced by thumping boots, whirring cameras and hawkers flogging film. Entrances are staked out with tripods and their menacing owners who’ve been at the Western Gopura since 04:00 and aren’t moving for anyone. Others take in the atmosphere from their plastic chairs at the western edge of the northern pond — buzz, whirr, click, snap, buzz, whirr, click, snap — and the sun hasn’t even come up yet.
While, with careful planning, you can minimise your exposure to the crowds, the days of wandering through any of the “big ticket” sites at Angkor where the only other person you’ll see is a guard and a kid flogging postcards have long gone. You could always spend your time at the minor (though often equally rewarding) sites, but with all predictions saying visitor rates will continue to explode, people and more importantly traffic management are serious issues under consideration by the Apsara Authority — for the preservation of both the monuments and the visitor experience.
You can always re-arrange your itinerary to try to avoid the tourist plagues, who all spend dawn at Angkor Wat, followed by the Bayon and a skip by the Elephant Terrace, with their afternoon session comprising Ta Phrom followed by another late afternoon look at Angkor before climbing up Bakheng.
Admittedly Angkor Wat at dawn is breathtaking, though other dawn spots can be equally good. For example, Bakong in the Roulos group, Srah Srang, the Eastern Mebon or even Bakheng are all lovely. After sunrise, Bayon is problematic partly because it’s a compact monument everyone wants to see, but if you see it in the early morning, before about 7am, you can dodge a lot of those late-sleeping tour-bus hordes. Otherwise catch it in the afternoon.
Mid-morning, wander through the Royal Palace enclosure behind Elephant Terrace or Preah Khan, while in the afternoon, leave Ta Phrom till late and visit Ta Nei or Preah Khan beforehand. At sunset ditch the Bakheng and instead go to Pre Rup or Ta Keo, or view Angkor from the eastern side.
You can now buy a one-day pass for $20, a three-day pass valid for one week for $40 and and a seven-day pass valid for one month for $60. You don’t need to bring passport photos anymore as they now have the technology to snap your pic at the ticket booths.
Plans are underway for the re-routing of roads through the park, primarily to try and spread out the traffic and to allow monuments to be approached in the right direction — for instance, Bayon from the east rather than the south. There is already a one-way system in place around Ta Prohm, with more reroutings under planning. This will also result in all traffic no longer needng to pass by the western entrance to Angkor Wat — a welcome improvement.
The Apsara Authority is actively considering numerous options for better traffic flow management, and improved environmental impacts. With such a large area to cover, the Angkor Archaeological Park is 400km2, it is impossible to exclude vehicles altogether. However, a new management committee at The Apsara Authority is tackling the issue head on, and proposing, testing and implementing changes. Naturally, these things take time and are often more complicated than first, quick, impressions allow.
Banning tuk tuk drivers, for instance, might ease congestion but would mean finding alternative income sources for as many as 3,000 men. Green vehicles are being slowly introduced, and there are also electric golf carts, buses, and even an electric tuk tuk. Visitors can also rent e-velos, for which there are charging points dotted around the Angkor Park. We expect that there may soon be a scheduled shuttle service between temples, which would certainly restrict the number of tuk tuks in the Park, and also hopefully the number of large, polluting and unwieldy buses.
Of course, introducing all of these changes is going to take time and, until then, congestion is going to be the norm, both on the roads between the temples and inside the temples themselves. In relation to the latter, we can also expect more visitor-flow management strategies to be implemented too, with people being more carefully channelled between locations. This means that visitors may not have the freedom to roam at will that they enjoy now.
It also means that visitors will be less able to clamber like giddy goats on fragile stone work or, as seems to be some inexplicable trend lately, attempt to take nude shots of themselves while in the temples. In 2014 and 2015, several tourists from Europe and the United States have already been deported for this, and because we know that some people can’t help being stupid, we’re depressingly sure there are going to be more. Actually, we have lots of other words for these people, but guidelines mean we can’t print them.
As visitor numbers continue to grow, the best thing you can do for the moment is plan carefully, if you have a guide resist his efforts to follow the tried and trusted route every other guide follows, and make the most of the lesser-known temples; our favourites are Banteay Samre, Ta Nei, Preah Khan and Phnom Bok.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 21st May, 2015.