Travels with my Godmother: Uncrowded Angkor Wat
Fellow travel friends, I hope you are all doing well and hang in there!
This “uncrowded Angkor Wat” post is coming to you at a strange time. I know of less than a handful of countries that would now let me, a German citizen, visit without imposing a lengthy quarantine. Even fewer countries have a quarantine imposed by the German authorities upon return. As much as I would love to travel and spend some of my money on independent hotels and restaurants, infecting someone else would be the worst for me. So, although travel would in theory be possible, I am staying put. It’s not like I haven’t got enough work to do.
Most of all I wish to travel safely – for those around me and of course, for my own safety as well.
Anyway, I have not lost the appetite for travel, but my way of coping with the situation, blog-wise, is to dig deep in that central memory box and churn out some older stories of some wonderful trips of the past – of which the Travels with my Godmother will always have a top space. For matters of transparency, we visited in 2009, so while I am sure all the great Angkorian temples are still standing, some more practical things will have changed!
Bangkok to Angkor Wat journey by train and private car
I previously had no idea how you would get to Siem Reap from Bangkok nowadays, except flying. Which I’ve done. It’s super convenient especially when you arrive in Bangkok, then move straight on from Bangkok. Just an hour and a short taxi ride and you are in Siem Reap. Which is kinda boring. Oh, and I am sure you can take a minibus from a more tourist-minded area of Bangkok. Never done it.
Especially when you can take a third-class Thai train through endless suburbs and agricultural Southeastern Thailand. Which we thought we do, loving a good train ride and also a nice view of the rural Thai country side. In general, train journeys in Thailand are comfortable and beautiful. I’ve done a few, and even a third class train, other than being painfully slow, is a great adventure. For anything longer I’ve taken second class sleepers, but never has a train journey in Thailand disappointed me.
So, with the jet lag finally getting us, we were wide awake at 04.30, walked to Sukhumvit Road, jumped into a taxi and enjoyed an early breakfast in Hualamphong Train Station. We went to the local train counter for our 48 Baht, tickets to Aranyaprathet, about 300km and six hours away. After two hours of Bangkok suburbs and satellites and four hours of scenic countryside, dangling our legs over the rail tracks for some of the journey, we arrived in the small town of Aranyaprathet. We took a tuk-tuk to the actual border, then stubbornly crossed the border ignoring the bloody forms waved in our face for “express visa”, the cheeky ask for the “health fee” along with my 20-dolalr visa on arrival then the taxi scams on the other side of the border, in Poipet. Somehow looking not rich and sporting 1980’s car boot sale backpacks helps convince most people we are seasoned backpackers and we take not sh8t from no one, and we’re finally shepherded into a shuttle bus to the transport stop, where we purchase a ticket for a shared taxi and get to ride the remaining 150km to Siem Reap in great comfort.
Arriving in Siem Reap in a downpour, we got into a moto-remorque which is basically a motocycle with a little trailer, and into the hard sell from the fixer, who will start price negotiations to hire the moto for our forthcoming sightseeing, Once we agree on a price that seems good to all parties, we arrange to be picked up at 5.30 the following morning.
Siem Reap is pretty touristy and there is no way around it
After our longish train ride, all we wanted was a luke-warm shower and a lounge by the pool.
We had booked our hotel in Siem Reap through a booking portal (probably Agoda), and it was cheap and geared towards Chinese tourists. It still exists and is now named the Grand Sunset Angkor. Still, we had a clean bedroom and a decent breakfast with tons of fresh fruit. The hotel was central but not in the thick of the market/pubs and has a really nice pool.
We noted with disgust most loungers were occupied by towels only, which we arse-bombed with plenty of water. In the early evening, we set off into the centre. I highly recommend a hotel somewhere between National Route 6 and the Psar Chas Central Market. It was safe and easy to walk to the restaurants and markets in the town centre, and pretty quiet at night as well. After dinner, a little rummage through the Psar Chas, and a foot massage, we went to sleep in our airy room, ready to tackle the biggie, sunrise at Angkor Wat!
Angkor Wat, the Sunrise Madness
We visited in November, which is considered shoulder season between the rainy season (May-October) and the drier but very busy dray season (December to January). But even at 5:30, while there was little going on at the ticket office, coaches were lining up already.
We just go the three-day Angkor ticket and quickly decided to tackle the spectacle somewhat anti-cyclical after our first morning saw us standing in front of Angkor Wat with a few thousand at sunrise. By now, we had picked up a tuk-tuk and driver (or rather they had picked us up).
And it really was no surprise that by the time we reached the causeway, there was a mob of people already. And while it was certainly impressive, the sunrise passed without drama or without much colour to speak of. Since we were already here, we entered the temple, which was a good idea in hindsight, as most sunrise viewers headed back to their hotels.
We persevered and walked round the back to get shots where we wouldn’t need to erase people in time-consuming Photoshop airbrushing.
Once in the main galleries, we had them pretty much to ourselves at about 7am, taking our time to admire the bas-reliefs, with decent light. We ambled through the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery to the Eastern Entrance, where only a few monkeys paid us company. The steps leading up to the base of the three central prangs, which on my first visit in 2003 could be climbed, were now roped off, probably for the better. By now it was about 8 o’clock, with a few sightseers arriving, so we went back to the hotel for breakfast and to plot the rest of our day.
Uncrowded Angkor Wat Day One: Visiting some outlying temple groups
Our driver duly returned for more sightseeing after breakfast. I have my own idea, but am duly beaten into submission to visit the major temples of the Roluos Group 10km outside Siem Reap. The minor one, as the driver explains to me, are “for scenery only2 and “the road is very bad”. Okay, okay. As we roll on a nice wide National Route 6, there are reassuringly few tour buses, and when we leave the road, only a smallish bus and a few tuk-tuks are parked at Preah Koh, a pretty early Angkorian temple (9th Century), where some pretty random-looking conservation work is being carried out: a stone mason here, a sand stone duster there, and among them children trying to sell postcards.
Next along the road is the Bakong, the earliest known temple of Angkor (9th Century) . This is a very picturesque and well-preserved temple with a central platform that can be climbed. Still, we cannot escape the very loud American tour group until we fall way behind and let them continue at their fast pace.
Lolei, the third in the Roluos Group that is usually part of small-scale tours, is less impressive in terms of ancient remains, but has a modern village with monastery close by. We spend some time chatting to a monk who willingly explains his numerous tattoos. “I am a monk because I am lazy” is his explanation as to why he chose the robe – and there goes my spiritual awe.
Uncrowded Angkor Wat: go anti-cyclical
On our way to Prasat Kravan, we pass many coaches heading the opposite direction into town – presumably for lunch.Excellent. Prasat Kravan is a tiny row of five brick towers containing a cell each. Dating from the 10th Century, it was one of th last brick temples and spans the early Roluos style to the grander architecture of the main temples of Angkor.
We continued our tour of the lesser-known but impressive Angkor temples with Banteai Kdei, going along the “Small Circuit” anticlockwise. Banteai Kdei is another smaller temple, but built in the 12th Century, and similar in style to the more famous Ta Prohm, but much less visited – and in somewhat worse condition.
We passed Ta Prohm on our way back, so we thought we might as well visit. With it being one of the most visited temples along with Angkor Wat and the Bayon, there was a fair lot of activity even in the late afternoon heat – visitors souvenir and drinks vendors, restoration workers… far from what the peaceful pictures of this partially overgrown temple might suggest. However wild and mystical this one might have been in the past , there was hardly anything left of it.
And since we’re talking must-sees here, we also made our first trip the to the Bayon, the central temple of Angkor Thom, the one with monumental faces carved into its 37 tower. The Bayon is enormously impressive and detailed but even in the late afternoon was overrun with visitors, most of them in tour groups.
We’d had quite an early start, so we decided to call it a day an, passing on the Bakheng, where fifty or more tuk-tuks are already jammed up for the traditional sunset viewing. We returned to the comfort of our mid-range hotel for a quick dip in the pool then a newer market dominated by souvenirs dinner and the now obligatory massage.
Uncrowded Angkor Wat Day Two – the lesser visited temples of the Grand Circuit
Almost, a lie-in, getting up at 6, and straight to breakfast, then to the Phnom Bakheng which is the must-do sunset spot in tourist life, but in the early morning we got it all to ourselves, walking up the stairs of the large pyramid-shaped temple in the relatively cool morning air. This is one of a few temples with a view, built in the 9th Century as a Hindu temple, its plateau representing the mythical Mount Meru. It is monumental rather than intricate.
Also our next stop, the Bayon, was surpriginly quiet at this early time, with most visitors still admiring the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We got to be quick though and head for the central section with the carved Lokeshvara faces first, because half an hour later its getting hotter and the place is heaving with tour groups. The Bayon is perhaps the most famous and most beautiful temple of Angkor Wat, and also one of the most recent of the Angkorian temples – well, 13th Century.
Funnily enough , most groups then moved on to a gallery of bas-reliefs to one side of the temple, while the other one was completely deserted.
By the time we get to the Terrace of the Elephants, it is already mighty boiling. The Terrace of the Leper King is very impressive, too, but it also is very hot and we are already flagging a bit. We traipse through the blazing sun to two more temples of Angkor Thom, the temple pyramid of Phimeanakas, and the monumental terraced temple of Baphuon, both nice and totally undervisited, but after a little while they do start to look quite similar… and it is time to be somewhere shady again.
After a restorative cold drink, we tackle the Grand Circuit of Angkor, and immediately it gets a lot quieter.
Preah Khan was once a place of study and remains a significant, if undervisited site, almost deserted compared to the circus at the Bayon. It is also shaded, and there is some impressive jungle invasion going on here. It really got a bit of everything and remains one of my favourite Angkor temples.
The next site, Neak Pean, was also deserted, and partially submerged, so a bit much water for my liking,o ver which we balance on narrow wooden plank walks. Well, it was always meant to be on an artificial island, and since the North Baray, a giant ancient water reservoir, has been reinstated, it is pretty much a tiny temple island surrounded by a very large pool.
We stop for a snack of a pomelo and a pineapple before the next one. The good thing about the Grand Circuit is that these temples are ll quite different, and also quiet – it never feels rushed to visit there. The next one, Ta Som, is small and in quite poor condition. It was a Khmer Rouge Hideout once. I am not sure this is a reason why it is one of the most vandalised ruins, but it really is not terribly pretty.
We were flagging a bit more but, it is getting a little cooler, and traipse across grazing pastures with buffalo and kids playing football to the East Mebon before saying “not another one today” at near-idential looking Preah Rup, where we are moving back in time to the brick-built temples of the 9th and 10th Century.
Then… pool for an hour but we had “plans” – Psar Chas, Food, massage… So standard Angkor tourist programm, really.
Uncrowded Angkor Wat Day Three
After two days of non-stop temples, we needed a break and thought we do… nothing. But wait, not quite right. It’s lie-in, breakfast with double portions of everything, the internet cafe to book our onwards accommodation, and the local bazaar to purchase fruit we have never tried.
Then we have a really good crowd-free rummage at the the tourist bazaar for… yet more cotton scarves and T-shirts. Before I know it, I sit in the “donation lounge” of the Angkor Hospital for Children. After meticulously checking the needles and chatting with the lab technician, I give a little bit of blood. 350ml, to be exact – Cambodian units are allegedly smaller! Good excuse to pick up papaya salad from the street vendor, drink sugary drinks in a couple of cafes which are quite sleepy during the day.
We also check out some of the fancier hotels. It was the period of the day beds on ropes and black and white colour scheme that would look a bit dated now. I feel somewhat smug in our 22Euro a night hotel, thanks very much, fake Apsaras and nylon bed covers or not. Last not least, time ro review another of the numerous day spas in town. We are ready for another day of heavy-duty sightseeing!
Uncrowded Angkor Wat Day Four: Banteai Srei and what’s lying outside
Our last day was spent outside Siem Reap. We pitch up early at Banteai Srei – absolutely necessary if you don’t want the circus that comes with the tour groups filling the very small but intricately carved temple. Especially when you decide you want to go there by tuk-tuk and the driver reassures you it is an easy ride, totally do-able. Well.. It is about 40km , and takes a while, but the ride is pleasant, through villages and plantations.
Still, we manage to pitch up there early. By the time we’d gone round the relatively small temple, the place was teeming with people, with much pushing and shoving along the processional walkway. However – it is not a temple I would leave out. It may not be very large, but it is stunningly beautiful in its intricately carved red sandstone, again a relatively early Angkorial Hindu creation (10th Century) which was pretty much buried in the jungle and is continuously being restored. But well, the early bird… when we arrive, it is quiet, and we had enough time to walk through this small temple.
Our next stop, 15km along a pleasant smooth road through gently rolling forested hills, require da bit more effort, and fewer people made the trip here.
Kbal Spean was an ancient spa resort, which is known for its phallic symbols carved into the riverbed.
The walk there was a gentle uphill amble of 1,5km on a slightly swampy jungle path, and part of the attraction was just taking a gentle hike in the jungle, carefully watched by guides hired to show visitors where to lie on the boulders to admire the riverbed carvings.
We returned via Preah Rup which is to be our last Angkor Temple – this time.
Another brick temple built for funerary purposes, it is in a nice village, and gets its fair share of visitors – enough for kids asking for money and flying vendors. I felt a bit sad but also happy to leave. The temples of Angkor ar undoubtedly significant and impressive, but I feel the crows of sometimes inconsiderate visitors, the blatantly tourist-oriented infrastructure of Siem Reap and the complete dependence of the area from tourism have soured the experience a little. It was already a completely different experience to my first visit in 2003, when the only time there were enormous crowds was Angkor Wat at sunset. So I hope my tips help you a little to plan your visit and avoid the worst crowds.
My visit is a decade ago, so take my recommendations with a pinch of salt!
How to get to Angkor Wat
There are regular flights from many South East Asian cieties to Siem Reap, and this is what I did in 2003 – straight flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap by modern jet.
This time, we took the train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, crossed the border, then a shared taxi to Siem Reap – slightly more arduous but cheap as chips and perhaps not the most common route.
There are also regular buses of different comfort to and from Phnom Penh, operated by at least ten companies. Before the road was upgraded, there was an express boat between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. With about 35 US-Dollar for a single trip, I wonder if any one still uses it.
We stayed at the Grand Sunset Angkor. It is mid-range, geared towards package tourists, but rooms are clean, uncluttered, and prices unbeatable. In addition to this, it is well-located a 5-10minute walk from the centre, in a well lit area with many medium-sized 4-and 5-star hotels that are relatively quiet. I only have good memories of it! The cheaper places tend to be further out along Route 6, or in the centre – both can be noisy, and obviously, you don’t want to take a taxi each time you wish to visit a restaurant or bar.
Visiting Angkor Wat
One or two days do not do it justice, and my minimum recommended stay would be three full days. A three-day ticket cost 62 US-Dollars in 2020 and a seven-day ticket cost 72 US-Dollars, so I really recommend paying the extra ten dollars for maximum flexibility. Also, the ticket does not need to be used on consecutive days – what counts is the number of days you enter the site.
We found it easy to find private transport into the site and negotiate prices. We were pretty much snapped up by a driver at the bus station, but there are tuk-tuks for hire just about everywhere in the centre, including in the front of the hotels. there is absolutely no need to go on an organised tour unless you wish to have a guide to tell you about the sites. We did that on my first visit – it meant we had to hire a car and driver but the guide we hired on the spot was really knowledgeable, and we were completely flexible in what we wanted to see and how long we could stay at each site.