My eyes open underneath my facemask as I feel the mini bus hurtling down the road on my way to Siem Reap. This bus is a lot more stable than the last one I was on. I pull my face mask off to see a group of men using electric tools to sculpt a massive stone into what looks like will become a seated Buddha. I check the map to see how much longer we have. Kampong Kdei. We’re making amazing time on our way from Phnom Penh where I had stopped off for a few nights.
My stomach was not in the best condition so I was happy for the well-paved highway and the chance to get some sleep. I wanted my strength for a full day visit of Angkor Wat, the ancient temple and main reason to visit Siem Reap. I was looking forward to seeing the famous temple. However, with its vast reputation, I wasn’t looking forward to what I expected to be hoardes of other tourists coming to visit. I also had not yet experienced the phenomenon I have heard referred to as being “templed-out”, but I had a feeling that after one day, I might be ready to move on.
I had decided to stay a few streets away from the ever popular ‘Pub Street’ in order to get a good night’s sleep after Phnom Penh. At my hostel, I arranged with a few other American tourists to visit the temple in the morning. We planned to take a tuk-tuk at 4AM, our logic being that we would likely miss some of the crowds if we reached the temple before sunrise. Ha! This is everyone’s idea. In the morning, we entered the temple grounds in the dark, surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. I found a good spot by the lake but was then surrounded by the most chatty visitors who tried over and over again to get a picture of the temple before sunrise using their camera’s flash. Woof.
I shouldn’t be too judgemental, I am also one of the many many tourists who comes to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. But there must be a better way to spread the guests out. If you are visiting, I’d recommend coming for sunrise but then asking your tuk-tuk driver to take you as far away from the main temple as possible. In the early hours, most of the sunrise guests will all enter Angkor Wat before visiting the surrounding temples. This way, you can enjoy at least an hour of solitude with the many faces in the Bayon Temple or standing in awe at the force of nature which has overtaken the temple of Ta Phrom (you’ll recognize this from the Tomb Raider film).
And to be fair, once I got over my disappointment at the crowds and figured out the best way to navigate around them, I was able to better appreciate the beauty of these temples. They are truly wonders of the world and absolutely worth a visit. Just moderate your expectations accordingly for how many people will be visiting with you. One day was enough for me, and I spent only other day in Siem Reap (my last in Cambodia) swimming in the pool, reading Nile Rodgers’ biography, tasting new fruits in the night market, and getting my feet nibbled by some fish.