GO IN THE OFF SEASON
In Cambodia, April to September is considered low/monsoon season and sees a huge drop in the number of tourists. Peak season is December to February. April and May are very hot and humid.
Just because it’s monsoon season doesn’t mean that it will rain every day, and when it does it’s usually heavy tropical rain, which can lend a different kind of romantic atmosphere to the temples. Visiting at this time means that the vegetation is at its lushest and greenest, which will look especially impressive at temples like Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker. Also, the lichens and mosses that cling to the temples come to life when damp, adding a characterful vibrancy to the stones. Of course if you’re in Cambodia not just to see the temples but also to hit the beaches at Koh Rong, it might not be the best time to go. Bear in mind also that it will be more humid in the wet season.
BUY YOUR TICKETS THE DAY BEFORE
This way you can be one of the first people in the complex while everyone else is in the long ticket queue. The office is open from 5 am to 5:30 pm and tickets can be valid for one, three or seven days.
ENTER ANGKOR WAT THROUGH THE EAST GATE
If you’re not particularly fussed about seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat, or already have, then start the rest of your days by entering from the smaller east Gate instead of the main west gate. This side of the park sees markedly fewer tourists in the morning.
Getting up early won’t necessarily help you if you do the typical route, as everyone else has the same idea.
Where it will help is if you reverse the order of your route. The most heavily visited temples are, in this order, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (including Bayon), Ta Prohm, Ta Som and Banteay Srei. Most of the day tours visit these five temples only and this is where you’ll find the biggest crowds.
The logical order of visiting these areas is in the same order as above. You can outsmart the crowds by acting counter-intuitively and starting your tour from the bottom of the list.
You can combine other temples that are nearby when using this strategy. Ta Keo for example, is right by Ta Prohm and well worth a visit.
Another advantage of visiting the temples in reverse is that you get a build-up effect that ends with the most dramatic ones – Angkor Wat and Thom. This can help to avoid temple fatigue.
PICK YOUR TIMES
Even the most popular temples experience a lull in the crowds at certain times of the day.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a sea of tourists, especially at the weekends. However once sunrise is over, the crowds thin out as people head back to their hotels for breakfast. Some start to return at around 9am but dissipate again for lunch. By this time a lot of people are exploring other temples so you should find plenty of quiet areas to explore in peace, especially at the rear of the temple.
Conversely, going very early/at sunrise is a good rule for most of the other temples, as everyone is at Angkor Wat. The light at this time of day can be quite beautiful. If you’re intent on climbing up the central tower at Angkor Wat, it’s a good idea to get there early. Bear in mind that only 100 visitors are allowed each day, so make sure you’re in line while everyone is watching the sunrise, before 7.30. A lot of people using this strategy say they had the whole central tower to themselves.
Going to the temples at sunset or just before closing also generally works, as all the crowds flock to Phnom Bakheng to see the sunrise from the top of the hill.
So the general rule is – Go early (except for Angkor Wat and Ankor Thom) or late in the afternoon/sunset (except for Phnom Bakheng). Prioritize the temples you want to see and plan to see them in the earliest part of the day (6 am – 8 am) or the latest part of the day (4.30 – sunset) while combining your route with some of the lesser visited places in the middle.
FYI Banteay Srei seems to be an exception to this rule, as some of the tour buses start here, and being small and popular due to it’s pink sandstone colour, it never really seems to experience any significant lull.
Another tricky temple is Ta Som. Although it doesn’t have a particular time of day where it’s significantly less busy, it’s only a brief stop for the tour buses. This means that even if you show up and it’s crowded you can wait a short while and the crowds will thin between buses.
VISIT THE MORE MINOR TEMPLES
Trust me. While Angkor Thom and Wat are undoubtedly the most dramatic of the temples, the others all have their own unique beauty.
Angkor Thom outer walls: Right at the heart of the park are the the Angkor Thom walls, which generally remain pretty quiet. You can enter from any of the gates and simply walk along the wall to the next gate. From here you’ll have beautiful views over the area and be able to visit the small and generally empty Prasat Chrung temples at each corner. The North-West Prasat, overgrown with lush vegetation, is particularly beautiful at sunset.
Baksei Chamkrong: Again, this temple is just opposite the busy South gate, and yet they’re a world apart. Just opposite the major temples of Baphuon and the Terrace of the Elephants is perfectly preserved Baksei Chamkrong, which though quite important archeologically, is inexplicably devoid of people. From here you can walk along a forest path to blissfully quiet Prasat Bei.
Banteay Kdei: Another romantic temple of tumbling and overgrown courtyards and halls covered in pale green lichen. The rear of the site boasts one of the most stunning strangler figs in the park. You shouldn’t have trouble with any crowds here.
Preah Khan: If you want the romantic atmosphere and beautiful protruding tree roots of Ta Prohm but with fewer visitors, visit Preah Khan. To the north-east of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan is much larger than Ta Prohm and wasn’t used as a set in the Tomb Raider movie, so while it’s just as atmospheric, it suffers less from overcrowding.
Ta Keo: Just behind Ta Phrom is the unfinished but incredibly well preserved Ta Keo temple.
Ta nei: Right by Ta Keo temple is Ta Nei. If you’re absolutely adamant on avoiding the crowds then this is the temple for you – its location off a muddy dirt road ensures that no buses stop here at all. Enjoy the peace and the sound of cicadas.
Consider visiting some of the more remote temples in Cambodia.
Banteay Samre: Further out than the other temples but still within the Angkor complex is Banteay Samre temple. Restored in 1944, it’s in remarkably good condition. The sandsone is of a beautiful pinkish colour that is especially impressive at sunset.
Bakong: Bakong was one of the first mountain temples to be built at Angkor (9th century), and you can immediately see the difference in its unique architecture. One single tower protrudes from a pyramid of five tiered enclosures. It has not one but two moats.
Phnom Krom: Phnom Krom and Bok are the sister mountaintop temples to overcrowded Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Krom is the most southerly of the temples and has the unique feature of having sweeping views overlooking Tonle Sap lake. If you’re looking for tranquillity it’s a good alternative to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. It has the added bonus of being able to drive to the top.
Phnom Bok: Phnom Bok’s position on top of a mountain that requires a 20 minute climb ensures that it’s always pretty much deserted. While the temple is worth seeing, the real highlight is the view over Phnom Kulen to the north and the plains of Angkor to the south. If you want to watch the sunset from here rather than Bakheng to avoid the crowds, bear in mind that unless you leave straight after the sunset then you’ll be descending in the dark.
Koh Ker: An entirely separate temple complex in the jungles of Northern Cambodia, Koh Ker was the majestic capital of the Khmer empire before it was relocated to Angkor Wat and is absolutely worth visiting. Prasat Thom temple in particular is stunning. Much more reminiscent of a Mayan pyramid than a typical Angkorian temple, each of the seven tiers is now covered in dense, green vegetation, having long been claimed by the jungle. You can now climb to the top via a wooden staircase on the northwestern side. You’ll be rewarded with incredible sweeping views of the Dangrek Mountains bordering Thailand all the way down to Phnom Kulen.
You can combine Koh Ker with Beng Melea as it is relatively nearby (just less than an hour’s drive), but bear in mind that Beng Melea is on the tour bus route and is always quite crowded until about 4.30.
Banteay Chmar: Banteay Chmar is another huge temple complex to the northwest of Siem Reap. A three hour drive away, this is one of the most remote of all the accessible sites, and you will likely have this place almost entirely to yourselves. Left to the the elements and unfortunately suffering the effects of looting, these temples are also beautifully intertwined with jungle.
Preah Vihear: At the very border with Thailand, Preah Vihear is also very remote. Rather than foreigners, you’re more likely to encounter local tourists that visit Preah Vihear due to its political and cultural significance. This scenic mountaintop temple was recently won back by Cambodia after many years of fighting with Thailand. Before then visitors had to sign in at a nearby army base. Perched on a mountain 550m above ground, Preah Vihear has possibly the most dramatic positioning of any of the Angkorian temples, with 360 degree views over the Thai and Cambodian countrysides.
Kbal Spean: Kbal Spean is possibly the most unique of the sites mentioned so far. While there’s also a beautiful pink sandstone temple at the site, the highlight is its position on the river, and the intricate carvings etched into the riverbed almost 1000 years ago. The Hindu carvings are intended to bless the water as it splashes over them, and it’s incredible to think that they are still so clear and hardly eroded by the river at all. One of the largest carvings is directly under a clear, still pool, unbelievably still very visible after so many centuries of being underwater. You can cool off after the climb under a beautifully shady waterfall nearby.
Perhaps because of its uniqueness this site can occasionally get quite busy. However it’s also a 2 km uphill jungle climb, so you may also find you have it entirely to yourself.
DON’T GO DURING CHINESE, VIETNAMESE OR THAI HOLIDAYS
Many of the bus tours that visit Angkor are weekend getaways for the growing Thai and Vietnamese middle classes. Usually, these trips leave Friday afternoon from Bangkok or Saigon/Hanoi and travel overnight to reach Angkor by Saturday. This means that the weekends see exponentially more crowds. If you can, try to avoid the major sites at the weekends or use that time to visit some of the more remote temples.
Similarly, Chinese holidays can see markedly bigger crowds. The main Chinese holidays are Chinese New year; which in 2018 is from February 16 – 21 (People normally take about 16 days off), Labour day; April 30th and May 1st and National day; October 1 – 5.
SWITCH IT UP – GO TO PHNOM BAKHENG AT SUNRISE AND ANGKOR WAT AT SUNSET
Though it’s famous for it’s sunrise, Angkor Wat is actually set in a westerly facing direction, so the best time to visit according to a lot of people is at sunset, when the burnt orange light streams moodily through the elaborate window columns and reflects off the lotus-covered lake.
With sweeping views of the whole area Phnom Bakheng is mistily beautiful at sunrise, and has none of the crowds you’ll find at sunset. Bring a torch for the short hike.
This Angkor Sunset Finder has suggestions of alternative places to enjoy the sunset.
CONSIDER GETTING A KNOWLEDGEABLE GUIDE
If you have the budget, consider getting yourself a tour guide that knows the area like the back of their hand. They’ll know which temples are busy at which time. Mr. Tong Hann is one veteran tour guide that’s often highly recommended.
Again, if money is no issue, Anantara has a Discovery Tour Package that includes an English speaking guide and organises a private breakfast, high tea or ‘Dining by Design’ at the lesser-visited Banteay Thom temple.