Around Angkor Wat— without the crowds

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Beneath Angkor’s Elephant Terrace

Since I first visited Angkor Wat in 1998, tourist numbers to Cambodia’s number 1 attraction have increased exponentially. So, when I returned in April, it was with misgivings.

Would I would be able to linger before the extraordinary bas reliefs and take in the atmosphere, without being crushed in the throngs? I was delighted to find that it can be done.

A 4:00 am wake-up and a pre-dawn tuk-tuk ride out to Angkor Wat ensured I’d be there in time for the obligatory sunrise photo op. It was a decidedly lackluster dawn, though, and the reflecting pool had dwindled to a puddle in advance of the rainy season. Despite an early rise and a quiet, tourist-free dawn, the Perfect Photo of the famous ruin was simply not to be.

It was still early when our guide led us through the temple’s empty corridors, and waited patiently as we admired bas reliefs, poked into shrines and cubbyholes, and wielded our cameras.

Monks were there, too, stopping for prayers, and devotees kneeling before candles in the dim. But the throngs we’d spotted on the way in must have stayed outside. We had the place virtually to ourselves.

From a balcony, we spotted the saffron robes of prison inmates participating in a trial rehabilitation program. They had been released to a week of service and education under the tutelage of Buddhist monks, and were gathering for a sermon that would soon blare across Angkor from loudspeakers.

By the time we had had breakfast, sites were a bit more crowded, but not overwhelmingly so. The Ta Prohm we saw looked much as it did when the French explorer Henri Mouhot discovered it in 1860. When we left by a little-used gate, we walked under a massive stone head, like those we would soon see at the Bayon.

On the way into the Bayon, extensive bas reliefs in stellar condition provide glimpses into Khmer foodie history, depicting meal preparation and service in ancient times. Happily, most visitors crowded right past us, eager to get to the dramatic sculpted heads on the Bayon temple roof.

After taking a number and queuing to climb the stairs ourselves, we clambered around the noble pile of rocks, enjoying the enigmatic expressions of the many faces topping the towers. Although there were many people on the rooftop gallery, htere seemed to be enough stone smiles to go around. Only once or twice did I fight back an urge to flee the crowd.

We finished our tour of Angkor’s main complex with a late afternoon stroll along the majestic reaches of the Elephant Terrace. Amazingly, when we descended into the narrow alleyway below the Terrace of the Leper King, we seemed to be the only visitors.

The day ended as quietly as it had begun. We may have been deprived of a soulful sunrise, but were gifted with the last rays of the day, casting a spell over the moat of Angkor Wat.

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August update: For more images of Angkor without the crowds, take a look at this post on Tom’s Travels.

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