By Explorer Helen Alexander –
Cambodia’s ancient temples attract thousands of international visitors every year. But if joining the tourist masses doesn’t appeal to you, there are still plenty of atmospheric and off-the-beaten-track buildings to explore, plus a range of inspiring activities, to ensure your Angkor experience is as authentic as possible.
Top Temples in Cambodia: Where to Visit
While Angkor covers some 400 square kilometres, most visitors follow a well-trodden route around the main complex. However, if you are prepared to travel a little further, you can roam around some less well-known temples away from the camera-toting crowds.
Attractive smaller temples, such as Neak Pean and Ta Som, tend to avoid the onslaught of tourist buses, as do the outlying collection of structures at Roluos. But if you are really keen to get off the beaten track, travel to Banteay Chhmar – of the 74 accessible sites it is by far the most remote, but it rewards those who make the effort with its beautiful carvings.
If you only have a couple of days for your visit or you don’t want to spend your days travelling too far, it’s still possible to enjoy a relatively peaceful encounter with Angkor’s magical temples – it’s simply a question of being clever about how you time your visit.
By packing a picnic rather than returning to Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor ruins, or lunching at one of the many canteen-style restaurants near the main sites, you can wander around while everyone else is busy eating. Even Angkor Wat itself becomes noticeably quieter around this time.
Also, it’s worth noting that most tourist buses enter after sunrise, so get up early and be there when the complex opens at 5am to see warm rays of light illuminate the intricate architecture. The same goes for Bayon, situated at the heart of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, where faces cut from giant stones are pretty much your only companions first thing in the morning and at lunchtime.
Transport: How to Get Around Angkor
Hiring a tuk-tuk and driver is a sure-fire way of seeing the main sites and is a great option if you are on a budget – a day’s sightseeing should cost around US$15. But be warned, persuading drivers to take you on diversions can be tricky and it’s hard to stray from the pack.
If you don’t want to keep bumping into the same people you can rise above the crowds – quite literally – with a microlight flight. Companies like Sky Venture offer a range of panoramic packages giving passengers an incredible bird’s-eye of the sprawling site. Tick off the major temples without having to elbow people out of the way for the perfect photo, before hovering over the floating villages of nearby Tonlé Sap Lake.
Alternatively, hover silently above the ground with Angkor Hot Air Balloon, or take in the sights at a slower pace with a four-legged tour through Cambodia’s stunning rural scenery.
Khmer Food: Where to Eat in Siem Reap
If exploring the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire leaves you feeling a little peckish, you can learn how to cook up a meal fit for royalty.
A number of culinary classes operate in the Siem Reap area, and most will see pupils head to the local market by tuk-tuk to pick up fresh supplies and learn about the ingredients essential to classic Khmer dishes, such as fish amok and the lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime-infused breakfast dish of nom banh chok. Back at the kitchen, get busy with a mortar and pestle to prepare your Khmer curry paste and learn to make a number of dishes to share with new-found friends.
If you prefer not to do the hard work yourself, Siem Reap is home to plenty of eating and drinking options. Thanks to the volume of tourists passing through, a number of places offer Western fare – The Glasshouse Deli. Patisserie does great bagels, burgers, sandwiches and pizzas if you’re feeling homesick – but expect to find yourself sharing a table with backpackers and expats rather than locals.
For a cheap and authentic experience, make for Wat Damnak Market Street and order smoking sticks of barbecued meat (ko ang). These tasty beef skewers are marinated in palm sugar, soy and kreung (lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime and garlic paste) and cooked over coals on a traditional clay grill.
Alternative Things to do in Angkor, Cambodia
When you fancy a break from temple-hopping or want to find out what makes the locals tick, you are in the right place – Siem Reap is not only the gateway to Angkor but also the main base for a range of activities throughout the Mekong region.
Hire a scooter and see where the dirt tracks take you – outside the main tourist areas it’s possible to stumble upon communities full of inquisitive children keen to play – or take a tour run by Vespa Adventures if you want to set out as a group. Pack a football and you’ll be the most popular person in town.
To see the local wildlife up close, book a spot on a jungle-canopy zipline adventure to glimpse recently released gibbons in their natural habitat. Flight of the Gibbon has 10 ziplines linked by wooden bridges and, from the highest point of the course (a dizzying 50 metres up), it’s possible to spot the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen in the north.
Best Time to Visit Cambodia
Siem Reap Weather: Like much of Southeast Asia, Cambodia experiences two distinct seasons – wet (from May to late September) and dry (October to late April). The hottest temperatures and highest humidity are experienced during the transition from dry to wet season (March to June).
Where to Stay
Everyone from backpackers to luxury travellers are catered for at Siem Reap and if you have been travelling on a budget and fancy splurging, this is the place to do it – from the colonial grandeur of the FCC Angkor Boutique Hotel (Foreign Correspondents Club) to the Khmer-style Sala Lodges.
Give something back to the local community by booking one of the 10 villas at Sojourn Boutique Villas. The socially responsible accommodation employs staff from nearby Treak Village and a percentage of profits go to community projects.
From Siem Reap it’s just a short taxi ride into town which should cost less than US$10, from Phnom Penh a new sealed road means the journey by bus to Siem Reap is relatively smooth and speedy (around seven hours).