Or how to discover (many) Angkor Temples around Siem Reap without the crowd… and without straining your budget!
No visit to Cambodia would be complete without marvelling at Angkor Wat and the stunning Khmer temples around Siem Reap! Nevertheless, seldom have we experienced such strong contrasts as in Siem Reap, the hub to visiting the stunning Angkor Temples… On the one hand, the city itself and unfortunately the most famous temples like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm have turned into a congested tourist mess and now represent mass-tourism at its worst. On the other hand, as soon as we headed a bit further afield, we could enjoy beautiful temples almost void of any visitors…
Siem Reap has indeed changed a lot since my last visit in 2008, and not for the better – It is now a gigantic tourist hub, with 2 million people arriving every year. Huge fancy hotels that cater mostly for large groups from Asia, have popped up like mushrooms. The Old Market Area, especially around “Pub Street”, tops it all… though some restaurants there are quite pleasant.
And unfortunately, the main temples are terribly overrun, with large groups creating a (loud) commotion at every corner and people more busy taking pictures of themselves or of one another than discovering the temples and soaking up the atmosphere of these unique places.
Maybe the worst experiences – yes, hard to believe – are Sunrise and Sunset over Angkor Wat. Sunset at Phnom Bakheng, I remembered as overcrowded and not spectacular from back in 2008, so we did not even bother. This time, we decided to give the “Sunrise Over Angkor” a chance… At 05:00 we became part of the most impressive Tuk tuk armada anyone has ever seen… Well, another (unspectacular) mass-tourism experience under our belt!
Nevertheless, there are many ways to enjoy the magnificent Angkor Temples more Off The Beaten Track…
- Of course you cannot miss both Angkor Wat (visit in the morning and at the end of the afternoon for pictures) and Angkor Thom (best enjoyed in the afternoon). Ta Prohm has changed for the worse and is now, in my opinion, very disappointing. In those temples, you will not be alone! No chance… The “Balloon Over Angkor” Ride (15 USD) is a good opportunity to change perspective, and there seems to be no tour groups there, at least if you avoid sunrise and sunset.
- Beng Mealea (a must do, the opportunity to experience a real “Jungle Temple”, and a major one at that) can be enjoyed in total quietness if you visit early enough.
- Other remote temples like the pre-Angkor Roluos Temple Group, the very refined Banteay Srei or the mystical Jungle Sculptures in Kbal Spean are far less overrun. You won’t be alone, but it is unlikely that you will witness masses. Be very early at Roluos to beat the tours heading there in the morning. Few people do the hike to Kbal Spean, and this you can do at noon time as it is almost completely in the shade.
- At far away temples, you will really be completely on your own, especially if you stay there overnight and start with an early visit:
- Stunning Koh Ker with the most impressive Prasat Thom.
- The “Sky-Temple” or Prasat Preah Vihear, Cambodia’s second UNESCO World Heritage, so very disputed with Thailand.
- Sambor Pre Kuk, the oldest of all temples in the Angkor area, built between 618 and 635 AD.
- And last but not least Banteay Chhmar, an imposing construction that remained as it was when discovered.
- Preah Khan we would no longer visit, as this is a long and very rough drive. The temple is impressive though!
- Around several of the remote temples, you also have the opportunity to do Home Stays. We did in Sambor Pre Kuk and in Banteay Chhmar, the latter being a highlight of our trip. This is such a great way to discover a much more genuine Cambodia and to support communities that truly need the extra-income. Moreover, you will actually save money there, as those are really cheap…
- Last but not least, an adrenaline pumping activity around Siem Reap is a flight in an Ultra-Light Plane with Aero Cambodia over Angkor. For 125 USD you are taken on a large loop over Angkor Temples.
How to get there?
- If you have some money to spend, consider renting a car. We used Sout Transportation, a very nice gentleman who spoke good English, was eager to share everything we wanted to know about his country and drove us carefully but efficiently in his own car. We paid 80 USD a day (car, driver, gasoline, driver’s costs…) for our loop. Of course, you can share such a car with fellow travelers to cut costs. Expect to travel 4 to 5 busy days to cover all the remote temples.
- If you are on a limited budget, you should hire a scooter (like 125 cc semi-automatic) and do a big loop. Allow a few extra days for that. Roads are good except to Preah Khan (only for extremely experienced off-road drivers) and the last 5 kilometers to Banteay Chhmar. If you have the time, this is also a very good way to discover life in more remote parts of Cambodia.
- If you are on a very tight budget and have time available, many remote temples (but unfortunately not all…) can be reached by public transport. This is no personal experience, but I met a few travelers relying on shared taxis in very remote areas. This can be rather time-consuming and sometimes frustrating, though…
As a conclusion?
Yes, you can go Off The Beaten Track in and especially around Siem Reap. It does not mean missing the most stunning and hence most popular temples. It only means to take the time and also consider visiting those really bypassed by the vast majority… And they are definitely worth the visit!