You can do it!
With more than two million visitors a year flocking to Angkor—a number increasing annually—savvy visitors looking to avoid the crowds quickly realise that what makes the difference between a packed-out temple versus a people-free one comes down to a combination of the right timings and the right sites.
It is all too easy to get caught up focusing on Angkor Wat alone and forget the enormous scale of the Angkor Archaeological Park. While there are ways to avoid the worst of the crowds at the “big three” (Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon), it’s surprisingly straightforward to find less crowded moss-swathed temples, if you’re prepared to make only a little extra effort.
Angkor Wat is never going to be deserted at sunrise, but that doesn’t mean you can’t at least start with a serene impression of this archaeological wonder. Entering via the east (back) gate in the pre-dawn is an oasis of calm compared to the chatter at the front as crowds gather round the ponds. Once everyone has tired of pressing the click button and the sun has risen, the big tour groups go back to their hotel for a late breakfast. Now’s the time to make a dash for the temple—it is at its quietest in the early morning. Others may beeline for the apex. Wander the galleries a little first in peace before climbing to the summit.
Another iconic temple, Ta Prohm, similarly has scant moments of desertion. Around 06:30 till 07:00 is your best window of opportunity to get photos of the twisting tree roots taking over the temple, before everyone else has the same idea. Getting up early pays off at any of the temple sites when it comes to avoiding the crowds, with the added bonus of the temperature being a little cooler.
Bayon is also always busy, except at the very end of the day when everyone else is flocking to Phnom Bakheng to catch the sunset. Take advantage of this and do the reverse—as the crowds pour out, you can step in.
As for sunset at Phnom Bakheng, seriously don’t bother unless you like queuing, feeling packed like a sardine, enjoy so-so views and get a kick out of a tuk tuk traffic jam as everyone then tries to leave at the same time. Visiting in the daytime, however, is well worth it and it’ll be almost impossible to imagine the mass tourism mecca it transforms into.
This Angkor Sunset Finder has suggestions of alternative places to enjoy the sunset, from paddling the North Baray on a boat to taking in the views over the Tonle Sap from the hilltop temple of Phnom Krom. We also recommend walking to the temple on the southwest corner of Angkor Thom—up on the laterite wall—overlooking the moat. Bring a torch, as the paths and roads at Angkor aren’t lit and the light disappears quickly.
Be sure to visit Angkor’s more minor sites as they have a noticeably reduced footfall, not featuring in the cookie-cutter itineraries. Lesser visited doesn’t have to mean remote, either. Walking on top of the laterite walls of the city of Angkor Thom takes you around the heart of the park, yet a world away. The Khleangs are opposite major temples like Baphuon and the Terrace of the Elephants, but devoid of people. Baksei Chamkrong—between Phnom Bakheng and the South Gate of Angkor Thom—is often forgotten. From here you can walk along a forest path to Prasat Bei, parallel to the moat of Angkor Thom. It’s hard to believe it’s only a matter of metres from the busy South Gate, given the contrast.
At some point you will pass through the South Gate, but in terms of photo opportunities we strongly recommend heading over to the West, East or Victory Gates; it’s as picturesque—if not more so—and without any traffic.
Another crowd-avoidance tactic is to head to sites that vehicles can’t reach—Ta Nei, Banteay Thom and Prei Monti are some such examples where you’ll need to use your feet or pedal a bike to get there.
A general rule that benefits independent travellers is to do anything in reverse or the opposite to the big tour groups. At Beng Mealea groups all stick to the wooden walkways. Follow these in parts, but break the mould and also clamber over the stones and create your own route to play at being Indiana Jones. An exception would be following the marked route between Baphuon and the Royal Palace area, which is logical and doing this in reverse would still hit upon the same crowds. However, few continue over to Preah Palilay through the tranquil, green section that takes you along shaded paths—a gorgeous walk in the woods, and not how you probably imagine Angkor.
Whichever temples you choose to visit, it also helps to walk to the back of them. There is usually a main entrance in use today—usually closest to the road—so they will always be quieter at their other entrances/exits.
Finally, when it comes to avoiding the crowds, money is well spent in enlisting the services of a first-rate tour guide. A tuk tuk driver might not be familiar with some of the more minor sites and it might even stretch the knowledge of an average tour guide, who all learn to follow the same identical routes and will just copy what everyone else is doing. The best tour guides know the Angkor area like the back of their hand and will help you get to the right places, at the right time.
Caroline swapped the drizzle of Old Blighty for the dazzling sunshine of Siem Reap and she spends most weekends cycling the temple-studded terrain that she can call her backyard.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Angkor