Angkor Wat without the crowds? It’s not the challenge that some travel writers would have you believe. Follow our insider guide and you’ll experience a quieter side of Angkor. Visit in low season, avoid weekends, national holidays and equinoxes, after sunrise make a beeline for the ‘back door’, and savour sunset with the locals overlooking Angkor Wat moat.
There’s a misconception that Angkor Wat, the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage-listed Khmer Empire temple city near Siem Reap in northern Cambodia, suffers from overtourism, that crowds swarm the temple all day, every day, year-round, damaging the iconic site, draining natural resources, and inconveniencing locals.
It’s a myth perpetuated by the writers, bloggers and travellers who visit during the peak tourist periods – the short high season (December-March/April), national holidays, weekends, and equinoxes – when Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park‘s other star attractions, Ta Prohm and the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, are undeniably at their busiest, and leave with the impression that Angkor Wat is perpetually crowded.
As a Southeast Asia-focused travel and food writer who first visited Cambodia almost a decade ago, has been based in the country on and off since 2012, and has been to Angkor Wat nearly a hundred times since our first visit to the stupendous 12th century temple city in early 2011, I guarantee you that’s not the case – contrary to what a contributor to Australia’s Traveller website recently suggested when he put Angkor Wat at the top of a list of places to avoid in 2020.
For me, the UNESCO-listed Angkor Archaeological Park, home to Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, tops the list of must-see UNESCO World Heritage sites in Southeast Asia. The vast 400 square kilometre site boasts a dozen outstanding Hindu and Buddhist temple cities and state temples, sanctuaries, monasteries, universities, and libraries, elaborately decorated with carvings, bas-reliefs and sculptures, along with dozens of smaller atmospheric ruins of temples, hospitals, towers, rest houses, dams, gates, bridges, and roads. Why a travel writer would advise missing such a magnificent site is mind-boggling.
For those of you averse to busy tourist sights, there’s no reason to avoid Angkor Wat. Just follow my insider guide to experiencing Angkor Wat without the crowds. But first, let’s look at how crowded Angkor really is and separate the facts from the myths.
Angkor Wat Without the Crowds – Insider Guide to a Quieter Side of Angkor
Angkor Wat Without The Crowds – How Crowded Is Angkor Wat, Myth Versus Reality
“When you’re drawing up your 2020 travel plans, you can safely strike these destinations from your list,” Ben Groundwater wrote on the Traveller website, claiming that “the UNESCO World Heritage site has become phenomenally popular, particularly with Australians, and it’s now beginning to show signs of wear and tear, as well as having issues with water management” – much to the frustration of Cambodia’s residents who took to social media to protest, including the spokesperson for the Apsara Authority, which manages Angkor Wat, who wrote a letter to the Traveller editor, which was published by the Cambodian media.
As much as we adore Cambodia’s beloved Angkor Wat, unfortunately it’s not “phenomenally popular”, if popularity is determined by tourist numbers, so let’s dispel that myth first. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Cambodia was the 50th most visited country in the world in 2018 and recorded 6.2 million international arrivals, which includes leisure and business travellers.
Just 127,000 of those were Australians. Compare that to Thailand, where 768,668 Australians visited in 2019 and 801,637 in 2018, and Indonesia, which recorded 1,301,225 Australians arriving in 2018. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Cambodia didn’t rank in the top 22 destinations for Australians in 2018. Indonesia was number 2 (1,188,449 Australians visited, ten times the number that visited Cambodia), Thailand number 5, China 6, Singapore 7, Japan 8, India 9, Vietnam 11, Malaysia 12, Philippines 13, and Hong Kong 15.
More Australians travelled all the way to Mexico than they did to Cambodia. Nor did Cambodia rank in the top ten for Traveller’s readers in 2018. According to their data, the most-searched destinations were Japan, Singapore, Bali, Vietnam, London, Sri Lanka, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Italy, and New York.
Of Angkor Archaeological Park’s 2.2 million visitors in 2019 (there were 2.6 million in 2018), only 54,942 were Australian, 25% less than 2018 when 73,673 Australians visited. All of this is a shame, of course, because Australians are the world’s sixth highest spenders according to the UNWTO, and while Cambodia has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, it remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorer countries with some 35% of Cambodians in poverty in 2018, with 90% of Cambodia’s poor living in the countryside and provinces such as Siem Reap, where Angkor is located.
So what about that “wear and tear”? Well obviously a temple built in the 12th century, no matter how well restored and maintained the monument is, will show signs of ageing and tourists will have left their marks: well-trodden routes more worn than others, bas-relief carvings polished from rubbing, and chips here and there from the bumps of backpacks, tripods and selfie poles.
Popular archaeological sights around the world face similar challenges of overcrowding in high season, surface damage, strains on resources and infrastructure, and bad behaviour by tourists. Angkor Wat is not alone. A Code of Conduct was introduced by the Apsara Authority which manages Angkor Archaeological Park a few years ago to try to curb a trend of tourists getting naked, among other things.
However, Cambodia’s main tourist attraction actually fares far better than many other UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites. Rome’s ancient sights, scattered around Italy’s capital, heaved with 15.2 million tourists in 2018. Aside from the high season crowds, vandalism was one of the biggest problems, with countless tourists carving their initials onto sites such as the Colosseum.
At another popular Italian archaeological site, Pompei, which received 3.6 million tourists in 2018, cruise ship tourists, which visit in large numbers and follow the same itineraries, were blamed for well-worn paths, while security guards caught tourists stealing artefacts and dislodging priceless mosaic tiles “to get good photos”.
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has several UNESCO listed sites, and received almost 4 million tourists in 2018, has serious water management issues. Cyprus “suffers from the highest water stress level in Europe, particularly in years of excessive drought”. Tourists, most of whom visit the island in the hot, dry, summer high season, exacerbate water problems.
Yet none of those archaeological sites featured on Groundwater’s list of destinations to avoid in 2020, despite Angkor Archaeological Park receiving just 2.5 million tourists in 2018 and 2.2 million in 2019. (Worth noting that the Angkor authorities have more recent, or perhaps more easily accessible, tourism statistics than the European sites, which is why I’m using a mix of stats from the last 2-3 years).
Angkor Archaeological Park is also a far larger site, sprawling across a massive 400 sq km or 40,100 ha, while Angkor Wat itself is a sizeable 163 ha in size. After watching sunrise on the western side of Angkor Wat, the most congested time/spot when the largest number of visitors are in one place, it’s easy to escape the selfie pole-toting tourists and experience Angkor Wat without the crowds. Not to mention parts of the Park completely devoid of people at that early hour, and I’ll cover that in another post.
By comparison, the area of Rome’s Heritage-listed sites is just 1,430.8 ha, Pompeii’s is even smaller at 98.05 ha, and Paphos, the busiest UNESCO-inscribed site on Cyprus, which received 1.5 million tourists in 2018, is 162 ha in size. During their peak periods in high season all sights could be described as over-touristed. Angkor is far better able to absorb its comparatively smaller tourist numbers across a far greater area.
I didn’t mention the Acropolis in Athens, which at only 3.04 ha is a small site, yet in 2017 had 2.5 million tourists, around the same number as Angkor. That’s because – unlike the other archaeological sights I mentioned above – the Acropolis and Angkor are on UNESCO’s Best Practices list, having been recognised for outstanding World Heritage conservation and management efforts, which at Angkor include dealing with water issues among other challenges. Angkor is also on UNESCO’s list of success stories for its conservation and restoration activities.
No matter which way you look at things, Angkor Wat is going to be far less crowded than most of the world’s top archaeological sites, but for those of you who prefer quieter temple encounters, here’s how to experience Angkor Wat without the crowds.
Angkor Wat Without the Crowds – How to Experience Angkor Without Other Tourists
Visit Angkor Wat in Low Season from May to November
If you’re really averse to large numbers of other tourists then the easiest way to experience Angkor Wat without the crowds is to avoid visiting Angkor in the high season of December to March/April, particularly the Christmas-New Year week. If you prefer cooler climates, unfortunately, this is the period for you – it’s cardigan weather with cool ‘winter’ temperatures more akin to spring elsewhere. Though worth noting that there have been far fewer tourists in Siem Reap in December 2019 and January 2020 compared to the same period two years or even a year ago. If you can handle the heat – and it’s no hotter than the northern half of Australia, Europe in summer, the Caribbean, and Florida – Siem Reap’s low season from May to November is the best time for experiencing Angkor Wat without the crowds. Also known as the green season it coincides with monsoon, when everything is lush, green and gorgeous and it doesn’t rain every day (read our post for more on the myths about monsoon season). Not only are the landscapes and temples prettier, dappled in moss with plenty of ponds and puddles for capturing reflections, there are far fewer tourists and you’ll be very much alone at most temples. On the quietest morning I experienced at Angkor Wat in October 2019, there were just 25 people poised with cameras on tripods in front of the southern pond ready to capture the sun rise above the sublime temple. There were another few dozen tourists scattered about, standing on the causeway and swinging their legs over the sides of the libraries. Which brings me to sunrise…
Savour Sunrise at Angkor Wat Then Make a Beeline for the Back Door
For sunrise lovers such as myself, sunrise at Angkor Wat is unmissable. I’ve treasured every one I’ve witnessed, whether there’s been a golden-orange sunburst sky, a shift from cobalt blue through a range of purple and pink hues, or grey cloud-covered sky, which made for a striking black and white image. Whatever it offers, sunrise is still special because this is Angkor Wat. It has a certain magic. Whether it’s because it’s one of the most breathtaking monuments to one of the world’s richest civilisations, a sacred site for Buddhists, a symbolic site for Cambodians, an impressive feat of engineering, and an architectural gem rich in art and sculpture, there’s simply something very special about sunrise at Angkor Wat. I’ve taken people to savour sunrise who have cried. I’ve cried. But of course sunrise at Angkor Wat is the most congested time when everyone is gathered around two ponds or positioned on one of the two libraries. You can just go with it and join in on the collective act of sighing as the first light appears – in high season you need to arrive in the pitch black dark to find a spot closest to the water’s edge – then, after the sun is up, if you’re still intent on experiencing Angkor Wat without the crowds, make your way around the perimetre path via the northern side toward the ‘back door’ and the eastern approach (see below), where you’ll find yourself either quite alone or with no more than 10-20 people. Wait a bit and you’ll start to see the orange glow on the top of the towers and then it’s time to go inside and start to explore the lower galleries of bas-reliefs at the back of the temple. Note: Angkor Wat officially opens at 5am, except the Central Tower or Central Sanctuary, which opens at 7.30am. Numbers are limited to prevent congestion and damage to the tower so expect to wait in line a while.
Enter Angkor Wat from the Back Door and Savour Sunrise There
The vast majority of visitors to Angkor Wat arrive from the western side of the temple city. Your tuk tuk will drop you off – ideally in the darkness if you and the driver have timed it right – on the road that runs alongside the moat, from where you’ll walk for a minute or two until you reach the line of ticket-checkers at the top of the stairs. You’ll then proceed down to the temporary bouncy bridge across the moat (the original causeway is being restored) to reach the temple. However, there’s another option for those who want to experience the entire sunrise at Angkor Wat without the crowds… have your driver drop you on the eastern side (arrange to meet him in the car park on the western side later), from where you’ll stroll across the dirt causeway (take care in rainy season when it’s muddy and watch out for the monkeys) to Ta Kou, the east gate and entrance to the fourth enclosure. The path passes around the sandstone gate, rather than leading you directly through it, and as you turn the corner you’ll see a beautiful avenue ahead through towering trees with Angkor Wat at its end. If you don’t care about capturing the classic sunrise silhouette and reflections on the pond, this is the way to experience sunrise at Angkor Wat in silence. Take your time strolling along the avenue, then when you arrive at the ‘back door’ you can wait for the golden light to hit the eastern side of the temple. When you’re content, you can enter the temple from this side via the eastern gopura, from one of two sets of stairs, either side of the central part of the gopura (which has no stairs). You probably won’t see anyone for quite a while, so take some time to sit for a bit and savour the moment before heading in to view the bas-reliefs on the galleries, which on this side of the temple depict the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and Vishnu Fighting Against the Demons.
Visit Angkor Wat as Early in the Morning as You Can
Even if you’re not that excited about sunrise at Angkor Wat, it’s still best to start out as close to dawn as you possibly can if you’re determined to experience Angkor Wat without the crowds. The vast majority of Angkor tours begin around 8am and even if you’re not doing a tour and are hiring your own freelance guide, I guarantee you that the guide is going to suggest a hotel pick-up at around the same time. Most guides and drivers don’t want to wake up at 4am to get you to Angkor Wat before its 5am opening, which is why they charge an additional fee for a sunrise start. Sunrise might seem busy because everyone is gathered in the same location, but if you go for sunrise, explore the temple immediately after, and then leave Angkor Wat around 8.30-9.30am, take note of how many people are arriving at that time you’re leaving and then tell me which time is busier! Another reason to leave for Angkor Wat in the darkness and explore after dawn is simply because it’s the coolest part of the day. You’ll love the fresh breezes that you’ll feel on your cheeks soon after you leave Siem Reap town and trundle through the towering forest that lines the road to Angkor Wat. While it’s coolest during winter obviously, when it can actually feel chilly (take a cardigan or jacket), early mornings are coolish all year, even during the sticky summer when temperatures/humidity is higher.
One of the worst pieces of ‘advice’ I’ve read in countless travel stories recommends that you visit Angkor Wat in the middle of the day to avoid the crowds. Do so and you put yourself at risk of severe dehydration or sunstroke.
Walk the Track Around the Angkor Wat Outer Wall
One of the most enjoyable ways to experience Angkor Wat without the crowds is the most off the beaten track – literally. There is a narrow track around the Angkor Wat wall that is very pleasant to explore. At times it is little more than a dirt ‘path’ as wide as a motorbike tyre. At other times, you’ll be walking through grass that might be knee-high or, if you’re lucky, recently cut to a nicely manicured lawn where you could spread out a picnic mat. On one side of you there will be the laterite outer wall around Angkor Wat’s fourth enclosure, and, on the other, the water-filled 180-metre wide moat. You can access the trail by taking a left or right as soon as you cross the causeway over the moat to Angkor Wat There are only a few points of interest: Ta Loek, the north gate, Ta Kou, the east gate, and Ta Pech, the south gate, all of which are well preserved. All of the grey sandstone structures have taken on reddish-black hues. The stairs of Ta Loek make for a good rest-stop as the views are particularly bucolic looking through the trees across the moat. You’re unlikely to pass anyone on the route and if you do, it will most likely be a few monks out for an amble, a young couple canoodling, Apsara Authority cleaners snoozing in hammocks strung between trees, or local residents on a motorbike making their way to one of the two pagodas that are hidden within the forest to the north west and southwest of Angkor Wat.
Explore Angkor Wat in the Quiet of the Late Afternoon
Another option for those of you who don’t care for sunrise at Angkor Wat but are still keen on experiencing Angkor Wat without the crowds is to instead make a beeline early in the morning for the Bayon temple, which opens at 7.30am, stopping on the way at the South Gate. Located in neighbouring Angkor Thom temple city, Bayon remains quiet immediately after opening as everyone is at Angkor Wat. Begin exploring the Bayon before anyone else arrives. Do note that you can only visit the lower levels now; the upper level has closed this month for a long term renovation. After, have you driver trundle you over to Ta Prohm, Angkor’s next most popular site, which will still be relatively empty until the Angkor Wat crowd arrives. Or, save Ta Prohm for your first point of call the next day and continue exploring Angkor Thom, starting with Baphuon, then the Elephant Terraces and Leper King Terrace, and if you’re a completist, the Royal Palace area and Phimeanakas. After, push on to Preah Khan, which should still be empty. By then it will be time for lunch, which I always recommend enjoying back in Siem Reap, followed by a swim, spa or massage. Then, refreshed and rejuvenated you can return to the Park and explore Angkor Wat in the late afternoon just as everybody else is starting to leave. Follow the advice above and arrive via the eastern approach and ‘back door’, then slowly work your way around the galleries of bas-reliefs, climb up to the higher levels, then back downstairs to explore the cruciform cloisters (and perhaps have a water blessing), then down to the cruciform terrace, stroll along the causeway, exit through the western gopura, and cross the moat. Settle on the grass or on the laterite wall where you can sit and take in the soft, golden late afternoon light. Note that Angkor Wat officially closes at 5.30pm.
Enjoy Sunset With the Locals Overlooking Angkor Wat Moat
By far the best way to experience Angkor Wat without the crowds is to do as the locals do. Pick up some Cambodian street food and cold drinks at a stall in Angkor Archaeological Park or go prepared and head to a stall, market or supermarket in Siem Reap before you leave for picnic supplies then make a beeline for the Angkor Wat moat. Rent a mat to spread out on the grass or find a prime viewing spot on the laterite wall overlooking the moat where you can settle in for some snacking time as you savour the golden light upon the Angkor Wat towers as the sun starts to sink behind you. A tip: take a bag of fruit or pastries for the local kids who might approach you. No sweets/candy, which is not allowed; see the Angkor Code of Conduct. You also can’t buy anything from child sellers so don’t succumb to the sad faces and requests to purchase a scarf for “one dollar, one dollar…” Instead, distract the kids with the pastry or fruit and politely explain you’re here to enjoy the magic of their beautiful home. They’ll get it. Last time I used this tactic, the kids sat down with us and watched the sunset as they munched on the bag of taro and sweet potato crisps we shared with them.
Avoid Angkor Wat on Weekends
Fortunately for the locals whose livelihoods depend upon tourism, Siem Reap receives visitors year-round on weekends, particularly visitors from around Asia, including Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, and East Asian countries such South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. So another way to experience Angkor Wat without the crowds is to avoid visiting the temple on weekends. If you must travel on Saturday and Sunday, try to take a long weekend and arrive around midday on Friday so you can spend the late afternoon at Angkor Wat and then see other temples over the weekend. That will then allow you to beat the crowds to the next two busiest temples, the Bayon and Ta Prohm, first thing on Saturday morning, before people start arriving from Angkor Wat. You can then return to Siem Reap for lunch and spend the afternoon out at the Roluos Group of temples, Lolei, Preah Ko and Bakong. Then early Sunday morning you could make a beeline for Banteay Srei before the tour buses around, then see little-visited Banteay Samre, Pre Rup and Banteay Kdei. You could lunch at a local family eatery in the hidden village behind the royal baray, Srah Srang, snooze in a hammock, then hit a couple more lesser-visited temples, such as East Mebon and Preah Khan, before finishing back at Angkor Thom, where you can see the Elephant Terraces and climb Baphuon. Another option is to see Angkor Wat for sunrise on Monday morning.
Avoid Angkor Wat on Public Holidays
Of course if your long weekend coincides with a long weekend in Cambodia due to a public holiday, then it’s going to be next to impossible to see Angkor Wat without the crowds. However, on Cambodian holidays you’re going to find a different kind of crowd – local tourists – and you could find yourself loving the experience of an Angkor Wat that is full of Cambodians instead of foreigners. Some of my favourite times to be in Siem Reap and out at Angkor Wat are the biggest national holidays, Khmer New Year in April, Pchum Ben or Ancestors Festival in October, and the Water Festival in October-November. Over these important national holidays, when everyone takes some time off to rest, the temples heave with domestic tourists, which is rare the remainder of the year. Most Cambodians will only visit Angkor Archaeological Park once in their lifetime and when they do they make the most of it, strolling the grounds of Angkor Wat, receiving blessings from the monks, making offerings at the nearby pagodas, and picnicking on the lawns overlooking the moat.
Avoid Angkor Wat During the Equinox
What? Who wouldn’t want to experience an equinox, let alone witness an equinox at Angkor Wat? Travellers who hate crowds, that’s who! The equinox, which occurs when the centre of the visible sun is directly above the equator, is a magic time to visit Angkor Wat if you don’t mind crowds. The equinox takes place just twice a year over a few days around 20 March and 23 September and when it happens at Angkor you get to see the sun rise right behind the central tower of Angkor Wat. For Cambodians, it’s further evidence of the sophistication of the Khmer Empire, demonstrating that their ancestors were very much aware of this natural phenomenon when they designed and constructed their temple cities. But it is insanely crowded during the equinoxes. Most of those images in the media that accompany stories on the so-called overtourism at Angkor Wat are of the causeway heaving with tourists holding cameras and smart phones above their heads to capture sunrise during the equinox. The fact that the sun is rising above the central tower is a dead giveaway. If you want to experience Angkor Wat without the crowds, this is the time to stay at home. The equinox periods at Angkor Wat are some of the busiest days of the year, with an average of 7,500 tourists cramming Angkor Wat each day during the 2019 equinox events.
See Angkor Wat from the Air By Helicopter
Of course the best way to see Angkor Wat without the crowds is not from Angkor Wat at all, but from the air on an exhilarating helicopter flight that will give you a birds-eye-view of Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park. You might not be completely alone – a minimum of three passengers or payment of three seats is required, but you can be assured there’ll only be a maximum of five passengers and no selfie sticks! Helistar Cambodia’s shortest flight (8 minutes; US$99 per person) flies along the Angkor Wat moat so you can appreciate the size and beauty of the temple, and also takes in the hilltop Bakheng temple and the West Baray (royal dam), near the airport. The slightly longer Angkor scenic flight (14 minutes; US$165 per person) also flies along the Angkor Wat moat, but additionally takes in Phnom Bakheng, Sras Srang, Pre Rup, East Mebon, and Ta Som temples, whilst the longest tour (20 minutes; US$240 per person) flies over the temples above, as well as Siem Reap township, Phnom Krom, the Chong Kneas floating village, and the edge of Tonle Sap Lake. The knowledgeable pilot provides an informative narration and can also answer questions. An Angkor helicopter flight is a fantastic way to begin or end your Angkor archaeological explorations.
Look out for our post on How to Experience Angkor Archaeological Park without the Crowds.
Book Angkor Wat Tours and Other Angkor Archaeological Park Activities
Planning a trip to Cambodia? I craft bespoke itineraries and occasionally host culinary tours and food and travel writing and photography retreats in partnership with small local travel businesses and Cambodian guides. More details on our Siem Reap Retreats and Tours site. Need accommodation in Cambodia? See our recommended hotels in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang, all tried and tested.