Angkor Wat

The expert guide to Angkor Wat

How to get Cambodia’s national icon, the temples of Angkor Wat, all to yourself

When is the best time to visit Angkor Wat?

Every morning from 4.30am, hundreds of bleary-eyed tourists tote cameras to the reflecting pond to get the sunrise shot of the Angkor Wat temple. It’s a beautiful sight but a real bunfight and amateur shots are hit-and-miss, as the temple is backlit by the rising sun, so it’s reduced to a mere 2D silhouette. You won’t regret daybreak at Ta Prohm, a massively popular Tomb Raider temple – it’ll be packed by 10am, but at this time of day it’s utterly deserted.

How many days are best for a trip to Angkor Wat?

Allow at least three days or a week to really take in the stunning architecture and eerie atmosphere of this ancient city – don’t do a day trip. Often wrongly described as a temple complex, Angkor Archaeological Park is actually the remains of a city that covered 1,000sq km. Travelling all that way just to tick off A-list sites such as sprawling Angkor Thom, tree-strangled Ta Promh and the majestic Angkor Wat is like visiting Paris just to see the Eiffel Tower.

Top tips…

1. Put your money where it matters

You’ll see folk who’ve spent thousands on flights and top-end hotels trying to interpret the ruins from a £10 guidebook while their tuk-tuk driver dozes outside. Better to spend less on the hotel and more on a top-quality guide, who’ll show you highlights you’d never find otherwise. Though beware: would-be ‘guides’ are everywhere in Siem Reap, so to guarantee quality book with a reputable tour operator.

Ta Prohm temple. Ancient Khmer architecture under the giant roots of a tree at Angkor Wat complex, Siem Reap, Cambodia.Shutterstock Images

2. Take a packed breakfast

Sunrise over, the hordes head back into the nearby town of Siem Reap for breakfast, leaving the entire park near-empty. Bring a packed breakfast from your hotel and not only can you eat it in one of the most fabulous locations on Earth, you can start exploring – this is the time of day when temperatures are lowest and the light is best. Even better, you’ll have a few hours to explore some of the must-sees – Angkor Thom; the enigmatic faces on the 37 towers of Bayon and Ta Prohm; the 300m-long Terraces of the Elephants; and, of course, Angkor Wat – before all those tourists return around 9am.

3. Remember to relax

You’ve been up since 4.30am – and you’ve probably walked close on 10km. Head back to town at around 11.30am, have lunch, a siesta, then lie by the pool. If your hotel doesn’t have one, pay-per-use alternatives exist at Angkor Century Hotel or at the Cockatoo, which also has a swim-up cocktail bar.

4. Book a tour where all the details are sorted for you – try this…

5. Go against the flow

Over the years, guides have got into the habit of following exactly the same anti-clockwise itinerary, starting with Angkor Thom, then traipsing to Ta Promh, Pre Rup (the former island temple of East Mebon), then to tiny Ta Som and jungly Preah Khan. So you’ll find yourself queueing up behind selfie-stick-wielding coach parties, even in low season. The solution is to ask your driver or guide to travel in the opposite direction, and when you run into the crowds call it a day.

Two neophytes walking in an Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia.Shutterstock Images

6. Head into the bush

There’s plenty to see in the Angkor Archaeological Park, but you’ll rarely be alone – so if you want to act out those Indiana Jones fantasies, spare a day for an expedition into the deep jungle. On a 90-minute drive east, en route to the rarely visited Beng Mealea temple, you’ll travel through communities where life has barely changed from the 12th century. The temple itself is thought to be the prototype for Angkor Wat, and this film-set-worthy ruin of moss-covered blocks and secret courtyards offers exactly the fantasy you’re looking for.

7. Skip the crowded sunset

At the day’s end, every tourist heads to many-spired Phnom Bakheng to see the sunset. But there’s a better spot where you can avoid the crowds – hidden in the deep jungle on the overgrown western edge of Angkor Thom. Enter via the West Gate and immediately turn right onto a jungle path that brings you to the rarely visited ruins of Prasat Chrung temple. Chrung means ‘corner’, and there are four such temples within the precincts of Angkor Thom. If you’ve picked the right one (in the southwestern corner), you’ll climb up to your own epic, private sunset show over the waters of the Western Baray.

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