It's one of the world's best tourist attractions – at least according to Lonely Planet – and attracts millions of visitors every year. But despite the crowds, your Cambodia's Angkor Wat visit will be an experience you'll remember for life.
More than two million people visit the temples around Angkor Wat each year– including an increasing number of big groups from North Asia – and the amount of tour buses, group leader flags and selfie sticks can threaten to overwhelm the independent traveller. Note our following tips to make the most of a visit, and be sure to add a couple of extra days to your itinerary to enjoy the considerable charms of nearby Siem Reap.
Escape the throngs at the main sights
Many visitors on organised tours only take in the Big Three - Angkor Wat itself, the Bayon and Ta Prohm – and work on a well-defined timetable for visiting them. Follow these guidelines to minimise the impact of the large groups: sunrise at the main temple complex at Angkor Wat is exceptionally busy, especially at the main West Gate entrance point, so a good strategy is to instead enter via the East Gate where you'll have the stone corridors largely to yourself. Visiting at sunset is also a good idea for Angkor Wat.
For the enigmatic stone faces of the Bayon, consider visiting from noon to 2pm when the big groups are dining back at their hotels – it's worth bringing a fold-up umbrella for shade though – and the best time to visit the jungle-cloaked ruins of Ta Prohm (also known as the Tomb Raider temple), is at dusk as most big groups visit these more shaded ruins during the day.
Get a guide
Hook up with a tuk tuk (motorcyle rickshaw) driver for a few days. All accommodation providers can arrange a driver – expect to pay around US$10 per day. Most drivers have a smattering of English and will act as an unofficial guide, especially to lesser-visited and more scattered sites like compact Banteay Srei, beautifully crafted in pink sandstone. It's also worth buying a well-researched guidebook for a good understanding of the history and significance of the various temples.
Explore beyond the Big Three
Beyond Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm, the three sites usually visited by big tour groups on a day trip, there are many other temples worth visiting. Sign up for a three-day entry ticket and you'll also have time to visit Preah Khan, a massive labyrinth of interconnected rooms with an intact roof, or Ta Som, a compact temple slowly being engulfed and strangled by a huge tree. If you're keen on visiting a more remote temple, consider a visit to Banteay Chhmar, around three hours northwest of Angkor Wat near the Thai border. The temples there are still entwined with the jungle and you'll find welcoming homestay accommodation in traditional wooden Khmer houses nearby.
Don't overlook the appeal of Siem Reap
The nearby town of Siem Reap is an interesting destination in itself and it is a mistake not including time to explore its attractions. Look forward to excellent shopping around the local market – including chic homeware and stylish silk clothing – and there's a great eating and drinking scene with Asian fusion restaurants like Cuisine Wat Damnak or Malis. Adventurous travelling foodies should look at booking a street food tour, and the best cocktails in town are at the Kiwi-owned Miss Wong.
Make a difference
The tragic history of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 means the country still experiences many social challenges, but at two Siem Reap social enterprises travellers can help to make a difference. Economically and socially challenged youth receive training in the arts and education at the Phare Cambodian Circus – look forward to a spectacular hour of dance, music and acrobatics – and Marum is an excellent restaurant where disadvantaged teens receive training in hospitality skills before moving on to work at other establishments.