The Daily Telegraph - Angkor Wat, Trip of a Lifetime
November 15, 2012

In the latest of our series on ultimate journeys, Michelle Jana Chan offers a smart way to see Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple minus the crowds.

The masterpiece of Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most beloved and best preserved temple. The 500-acre site is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and represents the architectural pinnacle of the Khmer Empire. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, it has remained a place of worship since its founding in the 12th century. Thought to be a miniature replica of the universe, its composition of towers, moats and concentric walls reveals an architectural sophistication, and the bas-reliefs with their plump figures and triumphal battle scenes reflect a robust, healthy and wealthy period of history.

This majestic structure lies at the heart of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which covers 154 square miles and contains scores of other Khmer temples dating from between the ninth and 15th centuries. Each has its own allure. Banteay Srei has intricate carvings of sensuous celestial dancers wearing bangles, beaded anklets and sheer drop-waist skirts. The pleats are still folded beautifully in the sandstone, 1,000 years on.

Ta Prohm is one of the most photographed temples, deliberately left mostly unrestored, and tangled and strangled by undergrowth. The perennial favourite, at Angkor Thom, is the Bayon temple, the towers of which are etched with enlightened bodhisattva faces and where enchanting bas-reliefs depict ordinary Khmer life rather than Hindu gods.

With the epic sweep of the Bayeux Tapestry and the humanity of The Canterbury Tales, it shows families preparing dinner, men getting drunk, some playing board games; there are tightrope walkers and circus acts; one woman helps another in labour; monkeys peek out between the spokes of cartwheels. After the landmark temples there are smaller but equally moving sites such as Ta Nei, Ta Som and Banteay Samre. Indeed, there are few places in the world with such an astonishing concentration of significant archaeological sites.

When to travel
Between November and March there is reliable sunshine and low rainfall, but higher prices and heavier crowds. The “green season” (June-October) offers lighter crowds, lower prices and lush photogenic landscapes. Explore early to avoid afternoon showers.

Viewing tactics
With more than a million tourists visiting Angkor Wat each year, it is inevitably becoming congested. Large tour groups tend to follow similar timetables, which are better avoided. Set your alarm or ask to be woken before dawn, when there are fewer visitors and temperature and humidity are at their lowest. Arrive at the temples when doors open (usually at 5.30am).
After sunrise, most tourists head back to their hotels for breakfast. Instead, take snacks and stay out until 9am, when the temples are remarkably peaceful. Return to your hotel for a later breakfast, before heading back to the most popular temples at noon, when most tourists are having lunch. Afternoons are best spent at the smaller temples. At dusk, head to the Pre Rup or East Mebon sites, where the darker stonework turns fiery-red at sunset.

Beyond Angkor
Lesser-known sites opening up in Cambodia include the glorious 12th-century Banteay Chhmar, in the north, and the colossal, albeit collapsed, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, which has a dramatic step-pyramid. The seventh-century Sambor Prei Kuk is a trio of temples located halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Tourists often twin Cambodia with neighbouring Vietnam, Laos or Thailand – although I would avoid cramming too much into one trip.

Before you go
Arrive with a basic understanding of Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. Useful reading includes The Rough Guide to Cambodia (£13.99) and Footprint’s temple guide to Angkor Wat (£5.99) and guidebook to Cambodia (£14.99). Lonely Planet has the most up-to-date Cambodia guidebook (£14.99). The illustrated Eyewitness Travel guides bundle up Cambodia and Laos (£15,99) and Vietnam and Angkor Wat (£14.99). The Luxe guide to Cambodia (£4.99) is a slick resource on where to eat, drink and shop.
Other reading includes First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung (£7.99), a harrowing account of childhood under the Khmer Rouge regime, and the classic Fifties travelogue A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by Norman Lewis (£12.99).

What to take/pack
At the temples, wear comfortable shoes with good soles as the paving is uneven and slippery when wet. An umbrella is useful against the rain or sun. Take a torch to shed light on decorative stonework. The only currency needed is US dollars; bring small-denomination bills, too.

What to avoid
It is not uncommon to hear tourists say they are “templed out”. Pace yourself, take breaks and visit smaller, less busy sites. Explain to your guide that you might like half an hour alone. Find a quiet corner to study the detail of the artwork rather than be overwhelmed by the temple’s grandeur.
At some temples children sell souvenirs and employ emotive language about how they need money for school. Buying from them will encourage them to work in this way. Most tour operators and hotels have links to NGOs, and visits can often be arranged to schools and orphanages; donating to these organisations might be a wiser way to support the local community.