I first went to Angkor in 2000. It was practically devoid of tourists. Nowadays, it is Southeast Asia’s premier tourist destination. We wondered if it was still worth visiting despite crowds and mass tourism. Our verdict: it’s worth a visit, but takes some planning to find the quieter temples. At the famous temples, there is no choice but to grit your teeth and put up with the crowds.
On my first visit, Siem Reap was a ramshackle town with a few hotels and restaurants. Angkor was unbelievably monumental and beautiful but, curiously, had few visitors. The road from Thailand was terrible. A dusty red dirt road traversed by open pick ups. There were potholes so big that they could swallow a whole pickup and then some. Cambodia was opening up to tourism but many areas were off-limits due to continuing activities of remnants of the murderous Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia is now firmly on the tourist circuit and Angkor may well be the most visited sight in Southeast Asia. I googled ‘Angkor Wat 2000’ and found an edition of an English language Cambodian newspaper from that year. The PM, Hun Sen, seemed excited about the prospects for Angkor tourism. At the time, he was hoping that numbers would rise from 10,000 visitors a year to 30,000. There article mentioned that there were 5 guest houses and only 1 hotel. I googled Angkor visitor numbers for 2015 and discovered that an incredible two million people visited. There are now 650 hotels and Siem Reap is a bona fide boom town with bust nowhere in sight. In 2000, I recall quietly sitting on the Bayon for hours while my two travel partners sketched the famous faces. You could wander around Angkor Wat all day and never be bothered by other tourists. We had Banteay Srey to ourselves for a whole morning. Those days are gone but still it would be odd leaving Southeast Asia without a visit. However, given our general antipathy towards mainstream travel destinations, we did consider skipping it. We are glad we didn’t, though, since with careful planning you can still enjoy Angkor and sort of avoid the crowds.
- Angkor Wat at dawn
- Bayon at sunset
- Ta Som
- Ta Prohm
- Preah Khan
- Tropical fruit and smoothies
- Blind massage
- Arbitrary dress codes on certain temples which were enforced for women but not men
- Crowds at Banteay Srey
- Sunset at Angkor Wat
- Inconsiderate tour groups
When we were there
February 17-21, 2016. Still high season but not quite the madness of the Christmas-New Year period. It was hot, dry, and dusty.
Getting there and away
We flew in from Luang Prabang on Lao Airlines, which we dubbed Falang (Foreigner) Airlines since there were no Lao or Cambodians on the flight. The flight was expensive, $156, but better than a 2-3 day overland trudge. The visa on arrival process was fairly straightforward. Pick up some cash dollars from the airport ATMs just before immigration. Pick up the application form, fill it out, attach one color passport photo, and hand it over with $35. Join the line a few meters away for collections. In twenty minutes or so, an immigration official will call out your name and hand you back your passport with visa attached.
Cambodian border police are notoriously corrupt but the large signs in immigration were heartening. The signs inform tourists that the border guards do not accept cash. It was extremely odd, therefore, to witness a large Korean group lined up, each tourist handing over a crisp one dollar bill with their passport. They got their entry stamp and entered Cambodia a dollar down. I have no idea why they were doing it, but they all did it. Maybe it was an instruction from the tour guide, who had to grease palms in the past to get everyone through smoothly.
Leaving Cambodia, we traveled overland on the Siem Reap-Bangkok direct bus service provided by Nattakan Transport. The bus waits for you as you negotiate border formalities at both sides and drops you at Mo Chit 2 bus station just north of downtown Bangkok. The bus was expensive at $28, but hassle-free. The bus company provided water and snacks for breakfast and lunch. The border crossings are fairly smooth and few tourists get scammed leaving Cambodia (we hear that entering Cambodia here is a different story). The Cambodian exit office is extremely busy, though, so be prepared for delays and being packed into a small room with lots of sweaty tourists. The Thai side looks more efficient but actually took more time processing the long lines.
Food and drink
- The cafes around the central market in Siem Reap were good spots for cheap, filling local dishes
- There were amazing fruit juices and fresh fruit everywhere. Mango, soursop, starfruit, jackfruit, chikku, custard apples, and durian were all in season when we were there
- The IPA at Siem Reap Craft Beer pub was an unexpected treat
- Little Red Fox was the best place for espresso. The owners were super friendly too.
- The fruit baguettes from Tous Les Jours bakery were excellent
We stayed at the Angkor Reas Guesthouse, which was in a quiet spot not too far from the infamous Pub Street and Siem Reap’s restaurants and markets. The guesthouse had a small pool which was handy for a quick workout and cool down after a day of sightseeing in the blazing heat. A decent breakfast was also included which made the $15 a night cost an absolute bargain. But, we skipped the free breakfast in favor of spending the early morning hours at the temples.
Siem Reap is firmly on the Banana Pancake Trail and every need is catered for. There are 24 hour laundries with cafes, French bakeries, hipster coffee shops, cheap eats and drinks, extremely expensive eats, and, unbelievably, a craft beer brewery. You can get massages at every corner with or without ‘happy ending’. Fruit juice stalls were ubiquitous and sold every imaginable kind of smoothie including durian!
Given our aversion to the Banana Pancake Trail Party People, we avoided Pub St like the plague. But, if you want to get in a mess after a day’s sightseeing you can guzzle down glasses of fifty cent beer in a dizzying array of bars.
We originally thought it would be a great idea to cycle round the temples. We would be free to do our own thing and it would be exercise to boot. I slowly began to back away from that idea as soon as I saw the traffic in Siem Reap. Cambodian traffic is fairly lawless to say the least. Still we checked out a bike shop to get the lowdown. It was $12 per bike which seemed like an okay deal. For sure, you can find cheaper but if you are going to be in the saddle for 3 long days you want a decent bike. We were also put off by the other option: traveling around in a tuk tuk. The driver who picked us up from the airport was super pushy and really annoying. We didn’t want to hire him, but we didn’t know how to find a good driver.
The first evening we took it easy and went for a walk around the central market area. There were a bunch of cheap restaurants and tons of fruit stands. We even found a woman selling custard apples and we hadn’t seen any of those in a long time. The food was decent enough, tofu and pumpkin or eggplant curries, and an absolute bargain at $2.50. The passion fruit, soursop, and mango smoothies from the juice stands were delicious and cost a dollar.
We ended up getting a late start the next day which really didn’t set us for the day. We rushed over to the bike shop but my nervousness about the local traffic would not go away. It all felt wrong so we abandoned our plan to visit the temples that day. I recall earlier in the trip that we had decided to have a whole day chilling out at these enormous tourist spots to get the lay of the land before diving on in. We should have done that here.
A massage with a happy ending… it cured my back pain!
Despite a fairly mellow time in Luang Prabang, I feel like we were still suffering from too much sightseeing in the past eight weeks. I was also still in pain from hurting my back in Laos. So, we decided to spend the day on more rejuvenating activities. Massage, swimming, espresso, and fresh fruit. We found a fantastic little coffee shop called Little Red Fox. It was run by a couple of Aussies and they clearly took their coffee seriously. Certainly some of the best coffee with have had on our travels.
We then headed down a shady back street to find the well regarded Seeing Hands massage parlour. Seeing Hands is run by blind masseurs. The massage was truly excellent, if a tad painful at times, and it really sorted out my lower back pain which had been bugging me for ten days. Paying the masseur was a little complicated. They are truly blind so they really have to trust what you give them. We didn’t have the correct change and we didn’t speak any Khmer to be able to explain what we had given them. By trial and error we eventually paid up but if you visit make sure you have plenty of small bills. And, by small bills I mean American dollars. Siem Reap, and maybe Cambodia as a whole, works on two currencies, US dollars and Cambodian Rial. Most ATMs dispense dollars. However, they typically dispense $100 bills which makes it tricky when paying small businesses. It is common to get a mixture of dollars and Rials as change.
We found a fantastic fruit stall near Little Red Fox which sold jackfruit, durian, chickoos, dragon fruit, Sirsak, rambutans, and mangos at fair prices. ‘The best fruit stand ever’, Laura declared. On the way back to the hotel, a sign on the back of a tuk tuk caught our attention. It was an advert for Siem Reap Craft Beer. This is the last place I expected to find a microbrewery. I took a photo of the address for a future visit and got chatting to KD, the tuk tuk driver. He seemed like a really nice guy, relaxed and very un-pushy, and he spoke excellent English. We took his card and told him we might need a tuk tuk later.
We took a Tuk Tuk
After a swim, we felt more on our game and called up KD to take us to the temples. We were going to visit the temples for three full days but we knew that you can pick up your three day pass after 5pm and see the sunset the night before your first full day. This is actually a good move since you can be ready to go first thing the next day and you get a few more hours at Angkor. The sunset tuk tuk ride cost $5, a full day cost $15 or $20 if you include sunset, and $25 if you head out to Banteay Srey. The three day pass cost $40. The ticket booths are fast and efficient. The tuk tuk worked out cheaper than two decent bikes. Bargain!
When I saw the traffic mayhem I knew we had made the right decision not to cycle round. We went straight to Angkor Wat for sunset. This is a famous sunrise spot, but a little less crowded at sunset. There are a couple of pools just inside the outer wall from where you can take nice reflection shots. Well, you can do if you can fight your way through enormous Chinese tour groups hogging the good spots for frenzied outbreaks of selfie taking. It was the kind of ludicrous activity we witnessed at the Tak Bak ceremony in Luang Prabang. I would set myself up for a photo of the incredible temple bathed in gorgeous afternoon light and then would be barged out of the way or asked to move by some dude gurning with his selfie stick with 50 other gurners behind him. In the end I spent my time photographing the selfie stick warriors. It was pretty amusing. I have no problem per se with people who need to travel in large groups, each to their own, but there has to be some sort of group awareness of what a monstrous pain in the ass you can be. At times in the temples, it really came down to mob rules. The only way to deal with it is to be rude back. Not the way I like to work. Annoying as it was, the sunset still whetted our appetite for three days of Indiana Jones type activity.
We headed back into town and straight for the craft beer bar. It was a modern, somewhat austere place, but away from the mayhem of Pub St. The bar sells four beers: an IPA, a Dark, a Blonde, and a Golden. We went straight for the IPA. It wasn’t as crazy hoppy as the beers we like back home but certainly the hops were there. It had a malty finish which led to a nice mouth feel. It probably won’t be troubling the judges at the World Beer Awards but it was a very good IPA given the context.
Alone at Angkor? Almost.
We decided on a very early start the next day. We jumped in the tuk tuk at 5.30am so that we could be at Angkor Wat for sunrise. This is probably the best time of day to visit the temple. We went in via the backdoor at the East Gate. Tour groups rarely rise this early and if they do they head in through the West Gate. At certain points, we felt like we were the only people there. The temples are at their most atmospheric, maybe even a little eerie, at this time of day. For a couple of hours or so, we could enjoy the temple without the tour group onslaught. Even when the groups arrived, they didn’t seem to spend much time checking out the bas relief that run around the walls on the inner temple. They are the standout feature of the temple, but we wandered round without too much tour group interference.
There are some annoying rules and regulations to abide to when entering the top most inner sanctum of the temple. Shorts must cover the knee and shoulders must not be revealed. This was applied strictly to women only. A few women had prepared for this by bringing a sarong or long pants, and a shawl to cover the shoulders. This does not work. The temple guardians seem to take the regulations literally and even if your shorts or vest top are covered you cannot go in! The same rules were applied at the Baphuon temple but seemingly nowhere else.
To be honest, the next couple of days and a half became a blur of dusty rides and temple visits. You have to be fairly strategic about what temples to visit at certain times of day to avoid tour groups. The Bayon, the famous temple with the stone faces, is supposed to be busy all day but we found that it was fairly quiet around sunset. It is quite a beautiful sight in the late afternoon light but, thankfully, the tour groups prefer places where they can actually see the sun set. The faces slowly change color as the sun fades and you can spend hours just snapping away at this fabulous spectacle.
We visited the Baphuon in late afternoon too. Like the Bayon, it was low on tourists at that time. The Baphuon isn’t the most beautiful spot but it does have a few bas relief depicting Khmer life back in the day. Baphuon is close to the woodlands that surround the park, so it is quite a pleasant place to see and hear bird life.
Ta Prohm featured in the Angelina Jolie film, Tomb Raider, so it is very popular. It has not been overly restored so you can still see places where the tree roots have cut into the stone work. The temple is quite shady so it is very popular with tour groups just before lunch when the sun is beating down. We got there just before the tour groups but as we were leaving they were piling in through the magnificent gates. The atmosphere became more annoyingly carnival like and we weren’t the only solo travelers to pull faces and jump into our tuk tuk pronto.
Preah Khan and Ta Som are two more temples where nature’s forces are still evident and there are plenty of tree roots strangling temple gates and walls. These temples are also on the tour group schedules but ask your tuk tuk driver when they are quieter since both temples warrant a long stay.
Ta Keo’s standout feature is its insanely steep steps that deter most travelers.
The East Mebon was another pleasant temple surrounded by jungle that was nearly deserted when we visited at around 9:00 in the morning.
The best sunrise spot that we found was the Sras Srang reservoir. Formerly a royal bathing pool, it was home to only a dozen or so sunrise watchers when we visited. It was a beautiful, serene place to watch the sun rise over the pool’s guardian lions.
On more prosaic matters, there are plenty of restaurants around the sights, but the quality is fairly low and the prices relatively high. There are a couple of espresso carts at Angkor Wat West Gate, but this is the only place coffee addicts can get their fix. We had some fairly taste-free, overpriced noodles for lunch on day one, so for subsequent visits, we picked up some bread rolls from the excellent bakeries in Siem Reap and loaded up on fresh fruit and little snacks for picnic lunches.
On day one and two, we had early starts and missed the hotel breakfast. This is a good strategy because you can enjoy the temples in the soft morning light while the tour groups have breakfast. Again, the local bakeries have plenty of tasty fruit and nut baguettes to keep you going. Surprisingly, finding a bathroom is not that straightforward. Your tuk tuk driver will be your best friend when nature calls but it may take a detour of a couple of kilometers!
Banteay Srei. Small temple, big crowds
Visiting Banteay Srey, which is 30km North of the main temples, was one of the highlights of my visit in 2000. The temple is small, but it has some exquisite sculptures and carvings. I am pretty sure there were only a few people there when I visited which seemed about appropriate given its petite size. Now, it is fully on the tour group circuit, and boy did we hit it at the wrong time. Because of the distance from the main area, the tuk tuk drive here costs $10 extra. We got there around 10:30 but the groups were already there en masse. It was damn tricky to get a photo without a gazillion Chinese tourists getting in the shot. All the other temples are massive so even with huge numbers they can be appreciated. Not Banteay Srey.
The site has had a lot of work done to it over the last 15 years in conjunction with overseas NGOs. The site has the best visitor’s center in Angkor, the cafes are at a discreet distance from the temple, and the parking is well organized. There is plenty of information available on the restoration projects and the temple itself. Maybe they need to go one step further and have timed entry to keep the numbers sensible at any one time. It was thoroughly unenjoyable and another example of mass tourism utterly ruining the place people come to see. We would say that it’s not worth the extra time and cost to visit Banteay Srey unless you come extremely early in the morning.
Thankfully, the mentality of the tour groups is to visit the famous stuff, get a selfie, and leave. That means there are a few temples where lovers of peace and quiet can be sated any time of day. We visited Pre Rup, Banteay Samre, and Banteay Kdei and they were quiet and mellow. There are other lesser visited temples so maybe you can find your own chill-out spot amid the mayhem. None of the less famous temples are must-sees, but they are must do’s if you want to keep your sanity among the tour group induced idiocy.
Tour groups, especially from China, are organized with an almost military precision. The groups typically have several guides-cum-cat herders who communicate with each other via two way radio to keep the tours on track. Part of the reason is that Asian tour groups often visit the temples for one day only. This strikes me as insane. There is way too much to see. The groups have no time to be subtle. They are herded into a sight, back on to the bus, and herded into another temple. They have limited time and they need the selfie at the iconic spot. They don’t give a shit if you are trying to quietly contemplate a beautiful bas relief. You will move!
It is fantastic that Asians now travel more and appreciate their own country and/or continent. I am no historian of travel habits, but it seems to me that the vanguard of the Euro-Australasian-American tourism was the lone backpacker. They forged the routes that the larger groups later followed and then they moved on. Asian tourism seems to have gone straight to the group package stage! We do see the odd Malaysian, Chinese, Korean or Japanese backpacking couple but in the main their countries seem overly represented by large groups. Yes, the lone backpacker can always go to quieter spots but it is now something you have to be prepared for when heading for some of the more iconic spots. Or maybe Laura and I are just weird moaning minnies and other backpackers just love going to places that are slammed.
Amazing tuk tuk driver. Really!
A word about our tuk tuk driver KD. Tuk tuk drivers get a bad rap everywhere. Often deservedly so. They always overcharge tourists, they try to steer you towards businesses where they get a commission, and they try to force itineraries on you that suit their needs, not yours. KD was the exception to the rule. He was never pushy, insisted on discussing the itinerary every day before we set off, he was consistent with his pricing, his suggestions were invariably on point, and he even supplied us with cold mineral water all day as part of the service. His English was great and even though he was not a guide he had a fairly decent knowledge of the history of the temples. He has his own website and Facebook page and we highly recommend him. Contact him at siemreaptaxitravel.com or Pheakdey Tuktuk driver on Facebook.
Still worth a visit!
Angkor is probably the last major tourist hotspot we will hit on this trip. I suppose it is not a bad place to end a hectic eight week blaze through mainland Southeast Asia highlights. Despite the crowds, it is still worth visiting. The temples have a scale and grandeur that are unmatched by any other archaeological site we have visited. Our advice to independent travelers is to manage your expectations, don’t expect to have the famous temples to yourself, pack a picnic breakfast and lunch, and do your research to figure out the best time to visit each temple.
Major sights only ever get busier and busier as long as the country is politically stable and avoids natural or human induced disasters. Lord knows how many people will visit Angkor in 2026. Should backpackers drop Angkor from their itineraries? Do you have any tips on avoiding the large groups?