Angkor Wat is, without doubt, one of the most majestic landmarks in Asia, and right at the top of the inspiration list when planning a trip to Cambodia. It’s certainly an incredible place - you don’t get to be an often-cited ‘Wonder of the World’ by accident! - but, sadly, it feels rather less incredible when you’re standing in a crowd of thousands all trying to snap the same sunrise selfie. The reality of being there can fall short of the Angkor experience we dream about, unless it’s approached a little differently. This is where Selective Asia steps in, sharing our expertise to bring you the genuine wonder of Angkor without the tourist clamour.
Keep reading for some tips and alternatives to the cookie-cutter excursions, immersive experiences nearby and some of our favourite properties in the area that tick all the right boxes.
Angkor Wat is utterly unforgettable (if you can avoid the worst congestion!), so we understand why a visit is a must for many. With that in mind, we’ll help you have clear expectations and offer tips on the best times to visit.
Our first big tip is simply to have a good chat with your guide before you go to Angkor. If you have a favourite temple in mind, let them know and explain your expectations. They know these temples inside out and can give you the local lowdown on the best times of day to visit (spoilers - probably not at sunrise!) and the routes to take to see Angkor Wat at its best.
While you’re Wat-wandering, be sure to check out the many food vendors nearby. Don’t automatically skip out on eateries that look a little ‘touristy’, as they’re mostly locally-owned and your lunchtime spend goes directly into the local economy. They all offer a different selection of simple, tasty dishes and keep an eye out for the stalls with the longest queues of locals - and again, it's always a good idea to ask your guide for some tips, they'll know of the best spots away from the crowds.
It’s a huge step, but it’d be remiss of us if we didn’t tentatively suggest (deep breath…) skipping the main Angkor temples and changing the focus to the hidden, less-visited ones nearby? We know it’s a big ask, but it's not without merit - the country is rich in alternative Angkor-era sites to explore that don’t come with those crowds.
Both nearby to Angkor Wat and further out into the country’s northern provinces lie several lesser-known temples, such as Preah Vihear that bring you into the heart of the country’s Khmer history without having to jostle through the crowds. Our Cambodia Specialists can help you integrate these extraordinary sites into your journey.
Putting an alternative spin on a trip is central to how we travel, and experiencing Angkor Wat by bike is definitely one to remember. Thanks to the even terrain, the going is fairly gentle and you can pause at individual temples, such as the Southern Gate of Angkor Thom, richly-carved Bayon and others, taking time to appreciate each.
One tempting possibility is to cycle the loop that takes in Ta Prohm, a temple reclaimed by the roots of enormous fig trees and gigantic creepers, followed by Banteay Kdei and the Srah Srang reservoir. We can mix up distances, from an easy 5K to a more challenging 20K, where you can ride past some villages within the Angkor complex. However far you decide to go, every corner you turn reveals another ruin, frozen in time.
Tonlé Sap, just south of Siem Reap, is Cambodia’s ‘Great Lake’, its shores peppered with floating villages, markets and the 200-year-old Cheu Khmao Pagoda. During the dry season, Tonlé Sap is comparatively small and flanked by rich, green forest and a fertile agricultural floodplain. In June, the rains start to fall and the lake’s waters spread to cover the land for miles around, rising to the treetops and depositing nutritious sediment that’s perfect for next season’s rice seedlings.
The flooded forests make perfect sheltered spawning grounds for fish, and as a result the area is particularly famous for its abundant waterbirds, with storks, ibises, and rarities like the spot-billed pelican and grey-headed fish eagle amongst the potential ticks on your twitcher list.
Kayaking on Tonlé Sap is different to travelling with the crowd - you don’t feel like you’re intruding on local life and the experienced guides know the best vantage points for getting gorgeous shots of the dramatic landscape. Glide across the lake, enjoying the scenery and looking for wildlife, and when water levels are high, paddle through the flooded forest with birds peering down at you through the branches.
Shinta Mani have several extraordinary properties throughout Cambodia, including the unmatchable Shinta Mani Wild and, through the Shinta Mani Foundation, they offer training and education in the hospitality industry to disadvantaged young people from across the country.
Rustic luxury is an overused term, but there are some resorts that it perfectly applies to and Phum Baitang is one of them. Sitting on eight acres of land, surrounding rice fields and lemongrass terraces, its collection of wooden stilted villas, crafted from local materials and with private pools, look out over the tranquil landscape.
Situated in a quiet area of Siem Reap, each of the traditional wooden houses at the Sala Lodges has been lovingly restored to celebrate its history. Explore lesser-visited temples and take trips into the city by tuk tuk, or head out into the country for rural relaxation.
Come for the temples and stay for the party! Siem Reap’s diary is full of events throughout the year, celebrating everything from Pride to puppets. The November Water Festival, marking the annual changing course of the Tonle Sap, fills the city with vibrant colour, as do the festivities for Cambodian Independence Day. Ask our specialists about what is going on when and how to get involved.