Wat no crowds? Escape Angkor Wat tour groups

Experience the lost temple city the way the first explorers did

Photos by Anna Bella Betts and ABOUTAsia
Generally speaking, my idea of the perfect day definitely does not start before sunrise. But today, having relinquished responsibility for navigating the 300-plus temples of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex to an innovative Siem Reap-based tour operator, I don’t have much of a say in the matter.

The subtle light that greets most days in these parts has barely started to seep in and, already, ABOUTAsia’s representative – scarily cheerful for this time of the morning – is waiting downstairs to lead me on its one-day best-of-Angkor tour.

Despite my aversion to such early starts, I’ve convinced myself this will be worth it. ABOUTAsia is committed to showing guests around Cambodia’s top attraction without the hassle of crowds, but that’s not its unique selling point. The company is also one of Cambodia’s key innovators in the field of philanthropic travel, donating 100 percent of its net profits to an education company that currently supports 51,000 Khmer kids.

This is not my first visit to Angkor Wat, which literally translates as ‘temple city’. That first trip was in 1996 – only 17 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but before the mass arrival of camera-toting tour groups – and involved me jumping in fright at each hopping frog, so tense was I that I might stand on an unexploded landmine.

In the years since, I have returned more than a dozen times to climb around Siem Reap’s now landmine-free ruins. However, it’s been more than four years since my last visit, when my frustration at the maddening crowds and tour bus traffic led me to swear my Angkor Wat temple touring days were over.

But then ABOUTAsia’s Twitter moniker, ‘@WithoutCrowds’, coupled with a growing buzz about the company started in 2007 by Briton Andrew Booth, sparked my curiosity. I wanted to know, 152 years after Henri Mouhot happened upon Angkor’s crumbling remains, whether it was possible to experience something of the French explorer’s sense of discovery.

So, off into the darkness we go, with my animated guide, Bunchay, offering a historical overview of Angkor for my two travel mates, Wolfgang and Alexis. My eyes adjust to the creeping daylight as the guide dates the birth of Angkor civilisation to 802AD. He explains in flawless English how the Khmer Empire, which Angkor was the capital of, extended beyond Cambodia into present day Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

Even after more than a dozen visits to Angkor, the sheer number of temples still fills me with a sense of awe. The last great Khmer king, Jayavarman VII (1181-1220), whose death signalled the decline of the Angkorian empire, built hundreds of the temples, including Preah Khan, Bayon and Ta Prohm – the latter our next destination.
Ours is the only car to stop in front of the temple, which is one of Angkor’s ‘greatest hits’ thanks to the dramatic silk-cotton tree roots that wrap around its 12th-century stones. Bunchay explains that, although we’re approaching the hour when tour buses descend upon the temples, he’s brought us in before the crowds, allowing us to take in the interplay between nature and the manmade, as well as the temple’s carvings of dancing deities and meditating monks in peace.

Booth’s team studied other travel companies’ itineraries to deliver as private an experience as possible to their guests. They use Google Earth and Nasa photographs to identify alternative paths, like a narrow forest pathway we later access by tuk tuk to Ta Nei, a less visited but charming temple. 

While we roam around the ruins, Bunchay and an invisible team of helpers set up a breakfast of hot coffee, fresh fruit and flaky croissants from the bakery at our hotel, Shinta Mani. I greedily reach for more as another tourist walks towards Ta Nei, as surprised to come upon us as we are to see her in this serendipitously private jungle setting.

Back in the van, I count buses heading towards us, making their way to their own morning visit. When the figure quickly exceeds my fingers, I feel grateful for our early start. We stop at the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom to gawk at its colossal heads of gods and demons and then walk along the 8m-high laterite wall to the East Gate. Bunchay tells us this is sometimes called the Gate of Death because, during Angkorian times, executions took place here and the bodies were cremated nearby. As the day progresses, his wealth of knowledge seems almost as vast as the temple complex.

Days before, Booth had explained to me that, while all guides must complete a three-month nationally approved training course to lead visitors around these temples, those working for ABOUTAsia receive incentives to dedicate time to further research on Khmer history, culture, environment and other areas of interest to visitors. 

Picking up a fallen stick and using the tip to draw a detailed map of the complex, Bunchay starts telling us about how historians are investigating whether the alignment among early Angkorian temples (like Phnom Bakheng and the 10th-century Phimeanakas, with its hidden bathing pools) suggest an even earlier sprawling city on these grounds. The idea of ancient, yet-to-be-revealed secrets is a great distraction from the searing, Cambodian midday heat.

After lunch, we pass the Terrace of the Elephants, a 300m-long row of elephants carved alongside lion-headed warriors, garudas (mythical eagle-like creatures) and seven-headed horses, where Alexis stops to photograph saffron-robed monks strolling past. We continue to Jayavarman VII’s state temple of Bayon at the centre of the ancient city of Angkor Thom and explore its 37 towers, carved with enigmatic smiles.

And then we climb aboard one of the elaborately painted boats that have recently started cruising the Angkor Thom moat. Ours is the only pleasure vessel among a handful of fishing boats. A lone fisherman, waist-deep in water, sings hauntingly as our charming boatman rows us past. Bunchay turns out to mix a mean G&T and hands around sunset-coloured crisps as the real thing sinks into the surrounding coconut foliage. 

It just confirms my thoughts from the day: 152 years after Henri Mouhot happened upon Angkor’s crumbling remains, this is the way to see the temple city.

Essential info

How to book For details on ABOUTAsia’s tours and history, visit www.aboutasiatravel.com.

Where to stay Recently redesigned by ‘starchitect’ Bill Bensley, Shinta Mani (doubles from 1,560RMB per night; +855 63 761 998; shintamani.com) balances creature comforts with support for the hotel’s in-house hospitality school, where young Cambodians learn how to bake mouth-watering croissants. For those who prefer something more intimate, the five-suite Maison Polanka (suites from 750RMB per night; +855 12 499 810; maisonpolanka.com), in two traditional Khmer stilted houses among tropical foliage, doubles as Siem Reap’s first villa rental.

How to get there Return flights with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com) via Kunming to Siem Reap, cost from 3,130RMB (including taxes).
  • 4 out of 5 stars