The temples at Angkor in Cambodia are unquestionably one of the great wonders of the world. Unfortunately, the world has now worked this out – the small bands of intrepid backpackers that made their way to Angkor in the 1990s have turned into over a million visitors per year.
In the last five years, visitor numbers have ballooned. Mass tourism from other Asian countries – South Korea in particular – has seen tour groups swarm to the major sites for much of the day. To get the best out of the major sites, some cunning herd avoidance strategies are needed.
The key tactic for anyone with a few days in which to explore the temples is to forget any ideas about saving the best ‘til last. There are scores of temples spread over a wide area, but three are generally regarded as must sees. Most famous is Angkor Wat, the largest religious building on earth, but Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom would be the tourist board mainstays anywhere else. Ta Prohm is the temple from the Tomb Raider movies that the jungle has somewhat reclaimed – trees wrap themselves around the walls. Angkor Thom is more a walled city with numerous temples inside, but the hundreds of stone faces carved out of the towers of Bayon – Angkor Thom’s centerpiece – are the highlights.
The earlier you get to the big three, the better – both in terms of light for photography and avoiding the hordes. A three day park pass costs US$40, and if you can bring yourself to get up at 6am every morning, then one of the most popular temples should be the first stop each day. Angkor Wat is the possible exception here as many come for sunrise – hanging back for between 7am and 9am will usually prove more judicious.
If you don’t have the luxury of three days, it starts to get trickier, and it pays to know The Route.
Andy Booth, who runs upmarket tour operator About Asia Travel, says: “Responding to demand, many local girls and boys have studied for guiding qualifications and taken up a profession which is one of the best remunerated jobs around.
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“Most of them begin guiding straight away and rarely find time for reflection on the itineraries they have been taught, based closely on the work of Maurice Glaize in his 1944 book Angkor,” he explains.
“Unsurprisingly the result is a concentration of visitors into a few key sites at certain prescribed times of day. It’s like a pig passing through a python.”
The book was written at a time when only poor tracks connected the temples, and those following it aren’t taking into account vastly improved roads or alternative walking tracks that have been cleared since.
Booth and his team have monitored footfall around various temples at different times of the day, and try to optimise their itineraries accordingly. The general theory of The Route is that Angkor Wat is best tackled in the afternoon as it faces west. Bayon faces east, so it’s usually done first, and Ta Prohm fits in somewhere in between.
Dawn Rooney, author of the Odyssey guide to Angkor, says this is mainly about the light. “Most tour guides at Angkor do follow the same route, whether it is the one set out by Glaize or the one in my guidebook,” she said.
“There is, though, a very logical reason for following a particular route – it’s the light on the temples. Certain ones must be seen at certain times. This is particularly true of the reliefs at Angkor Wat, Terrace of the Elephants, and Banteay Srei.”
Not everyone – particularly those who are happy enough with holiday snaps rather than professional photos – would agree. If you’re time pressed, therefore, it’s best to go with Ta Prohm first. The difference between a 7am visit and a 10am visit is phenomenal. Go early, and you’ll share with a couple of other people. Turn up later, and it looks like a bus factory.
At Angkor Thom, the temptation to just visit Bayon should be avoided. A walk along the outer walls is tremendously atmospheric. For photographers, it’s best tackled before 4pm – and preferably between noon and 2pm when most of the tour groups have gone back to Siem Reap for lunch.
For the same reasons, the noon to 2pm window is also good for Angkor Wat, but if you can’t make it then damage limitation is possible by going in through the back. Go in through the east gate as the umbrella-following flood passes through the western entrance. That way, you can slot into the tour group gaps to get a closer look at the bas reliefs and statues, without being swept along by the waves.
The end of the day is when the guide books really get it wrong. The often recommended sunset spot – on top of the Phnom Bakheng temple – is now a complete circus. “Last year on one footfall survey we counted 1,981 people up there,” says Andy Booth. “And it’s not even an especially good vantage point.”
It’s best to avoid the elbows and rugby scrum-esque scramble down in the dark altogether, and plump for a spot where the exiting sun will be reflected in Angkor Wat’s moat. There’s more than enough water to go round, so you shouldn’t struggle for relative peace. The smart move, of course, is to head back to Siem Reap for a couple of hours of freshening up, then return with a picnic and wine for a less sweaty sunset.
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