Angkor Wat isn’t what it used to be…

Angkor Wat at sunrise shot from Bakeng Hill.

About 15 years ago I visited the famous temples of Angkor Wat for the first time…I took a boat up the Tonle Sap river to the town of Siem Riep and then spent a few days on the back of a motorbike ridden by a young Cambodian guy who took me on an informal tour of the temples. So much has been written on Angkor that it seems silly for me to simply rehash it all here – a thorough description of the temple complex can be found right here.

This time we travelled by uncomfortable mini-bus to Siem Riep from Kratie – a miserable 9hr trip on some pretty bad roads. From Phnom Penh I would suggest rather taking the far more comfortable Giant Ibis overnight sleeper bus to Siem Riep. Varied accommodation is available in Siem Reap – for $15/night we were able to book a large room with aircon, fridge and cable TV – with the added bonus of a hot shower. It’s hard to believe, but some accommodation still offers cold showers in Cambodia 🙂

Inside Angkor Wat’s courtyard

Any visit to South East Asia would be incomplete without a visit the what is now officially known as the Angkor Archeological Park. It’s right up there with the Egyptian temples and the temples of the Inca. The park itself is very well run and clean – an unusual combination in Cambodia. To really appreciate the temples I’d say that the 3 day pass at $62 is the best option…To rush around in 1 day would not do justice the the site and a single day pass is a massive $42.

A monk inside Angkor Wat…

Much has changed since my first visit 15 years ago…Siem Reap is almost unrecognizable as a result of massive development and growth of what was once a small town. There are now virtually hundreds of hotels, hostels and backpackers, and over 10 000 tuk tuks!  Luxury hotels have sprung up near to the entrance to the park, and one has to buy one’s ticket at a fancy reception centre adjacent to these hotels. The number of tourists said to visit Angkor now numbers in excess of 2.3 million per year….many visit as part of big tour groups from China, Japan and Korea.

Costs have risen dramatically as well. We booked a tuk tuk with driver for $ 20/day including unlimited bottled water for the small and big ‘temple circuit’. On the third day the 35km trip to Banteay Srei cost us $30.  It is wise to take snacks and food with you to avoid the crappy food offered at $6/plate around the temples. Don’t be fooled by travel blogs who tell you that you can eat in Cambodia for $1/meal. For $1 you get a local snack of grilled chicken feet or chicken entrials, or a few scraps of pork on a stick. For slightly more you get a small bowl of noodle soup. If you sit down at one of the thousands of local ‘restaurants’ in Siem Riep which all seem to offer exactly the same menu, you’ll pay $2.50 for a small portion of ‘Lok Lak’,  ‘Amok’ or fried noodles. A decent plate of food will cost $ 4.50 – $7.00 in a cleaner restaurant with English-speaking waiters.

Beautiful reliefs inside Angkor Wat

Beautiful relief’s inside Angkor WatIn order to avoid a nightmare experience when visiting Angkor, the clever traveller needs to take a more creative approach when planning a visit. Firstly I would avoid going in the peak tourist season from November to March as the hordes of tourists will make it virtually impossible to get a clean shot of any of the temples. We visited in September in the rainy season when tourism numbers are lower – May and June are also lower than the other months of the year. November and December are the busiest months and Angkor must be very crowded then. Even in the quieter months it’s hard to find a time during the day when there are not tour groups at each and every temple. 

Bayon, one of our favorite temple’s…

Unfortunately Chinese tourists have developed a bad reputation for swarming over a tourist site with little regard for other visitors, so trying to avoid arriving during or after a tourist bus has arrived at a particular temple becomes a vital element of one’s planning. We tried to stay ahead of the curve by starting at 05h00 the first morning, getting some quick shots of the sunrise at Angkor Was, and then moving quickly to the main temple complex for some interior and exterior shots. Then we raced off to Bayon and managed to shoot some cool pics before the hordes arrived. We kept ahead of the crowds for most of the day, and on the second day we skipped Angkor and got to Bayon before anybody else. After an hour there we hit Ta Phrom, but tour busses were already arriving. We  managed to find some cool spots to shoot off the main tourist path through the temple.

Ta Phrom,of Tomb Raider fame…

On day three we slipped up and ran 45 min later than planned, so by the time we got to Banteay Sreithe tour groups were already cluttering up the place and we struggled to get great shots there, although with bit of patience I managed to leave fairly pleased. Frustratingly these large tour groups are also very noisy and can ruin what would have been a quiet, more spiritual experience for more sensitive traveller’s. We are already starting to hate the onset of the mass tourism season which we will encounter in Thailand and Indonesia in the coming months.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is very small by comparison to Angkor Was, but the level of detail in the carvings and reliefs is the best I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. Taking photographs other than very touristy snapshots is further complicated by the use of unsightly white ropes to cordon off 80% of the site – needed to stop unruly tourists from clambering onto the walls of the beautiful buildings.

Stunning model at a stunning location…

Any visit to the Angkor Wat temple complex needs to be undertaken with a large reserve of patience, and as much planning as is realistically possible. It is not a cheap excursion when one considers the  cost of the temple pass, the daily cost of transportation and accommodation, and of course the daily cost of eating at the sometimes  pricey restaurants in the famous Pub Street.  Don’t miss Angkor Wat, but go prepared for the realities on the ground…


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Derek Antonio Serra is a photographer and filmmaker who has run several successful businesses in the film, tourism and advertising industries. He has recently embraced the nomadic lifestyle after selling his businesses and home. His passions are photography, travel and writing.