Travel Icons… by the Back Door
Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
Visitors per year: Around 2.1 million
A masterpiece of Khmer archaeology, the sprawling complex of Angkor takes up a 400 sq km swathe of Cambodian jungle, scattered with temples dating from the ninth to the 15th century. There is nowhere quite like it.
Front door: Most visitors base themselves in Siem Reap. An Angkor Pass costs from US$20 (£14), and the majority enter via the west gate (open from 5am) and head to Angkor Wat for sunrise and Phnom Bakheng for sunset – beautiful viewpoints, but expect crowds.
Back door: New rules affecting early visitors mean Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, Pre Rup and the lake of Srah Srang are the only sites now accessible at sunrise, with the rest of the park opening at 7:30am. This has cut down your options for early-morning alternatives, but attack these bigger sites just after sun-up, when the tour groups leave for breakfast, or during lunch and it will thin crowds out a little. However, there are plenty of impressive alternative temples to see…
“The season you visit is important for avoiding crowds. Throughout June, July and August, it usually rains two out of every three days, so the standard travel advice is to visit Angkor between November and March (peak time). But this is misguided. During the summer months, rainfall before noon is usually one day in seven, and the mornings are often sunny. If you visit then and arrive early, you’ll beat both the tour groups and the rain.
“Make sure you visit some of the lesser-known temples while you’re there too, such as Bakong, Beng Mealea (early in the day) or even Banteay Thom and Chau Srei Vibol. These latter ones are almost sure to be deserted and are equally beautiful. You may have to walk a while off the road or even cycle to reach them, but they reward your efforts with magical solitude. Within the main temple area, also visit Preah Khan, Ta Nei and walk on the walls of Angkor Thom, which have fewer tourists.”
“One of my personal favorite side trips is to walk away from the road between the wall and the inside of the moat. This is good especially on the north side where you can often find ripe mangoes in late spring.”