The sun was just peeking over the rows of jungle trees and the lichen-covered stone blocks of the temple began to warm under my hand. The unfamiliar forest noises – birds? monkeys? – filled the air around me and I marveled at how peaceful and alone I felt. Here in Bayon – one of the highlights of the Angkor temple site of Cambodia, and with more than 2 million international visitors per year, one of the most visited spots in South East Asia – we were alone.
We were uncertain of what to expect from the Angkor Temples. Obviously, they are an amazing sight to behold (otherwise they wouldn’t be slated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but after our rather disappointing tour of Halong Bay, we were wary of the hoards of tourists spoiling the experience for us.
Tourists. Technically, we are tourists too: we are visiting a foreign place for leisure in order to appreciate its beauty and culture. We, like many backpackers, would like to shed this moniker in favor of the more alluring “traveler”. While I suppose there are subtle difference in choices of transportation, accommodation, and the ways we spend our money, “travelers” are really just a sub-category of tourists.
The irony is that tourists complain about other tourists – being with tourists, seeing other tourists, having sites ruined by other tourists. Hypocritical, yes, but it’s an unavoidable feeling. The ideal traveler situation is to take advantage of these beautiful sights and locations, like the Angkor temples or Halong Bay, in your own peace and calm, or possibly with some locals.
The best antidote we’ve found to the tourist problem is two-fold: change your destination and change your schedule:
- Change your destination.
This sounds obvious, but if you want to avoid tourists, don’t go to the most popular sites. Don’t go see Angkor Wat at sunrise. Don’t take Lonely Planet’s advice on the “biggest” or “best” place to go. Watch where the tour buses are headed and go the opposite way. On our morning trip to the temples, we sped straight past the popular Angkor Wat and went straight to Bayon – and had it totally to ourselves for the sunrise. Climbing around the giant stones and cavernous rooms like a large jungle gym for adults, we were really enjoying ourselves.
- Change your schedule.
We usually get up around sunrise. For the temples, we got up even earlier in order to take the 20-minute tuk-tuk ride from our hotel in Siem Reap and be there when the sun just started to rise. It was dark and cool when we set off, and we were rewarded with some breathtaking practically deserted temples, particularly the more unknown ones. It also gave us the chance to explore calmly for a few hours in the morning before the heat got really unbearable. Then we headed back to our hotel pool for midday, and ventured out again when the Chinese and Russian tour buses started heading back into town.
The temples themselves were absolutely worth it and we spent our mornings completely mesmerized, staring up at the stone faces of Bayon or the dinosaur-like trees of Ta Prohm. Our favorite was a (relatively) small temple called Banteay Kdei which we had all to ourselves for the better part of an hour, giving us the chance to explore the long chambers, study the intricate carved dancers on every surface, and wonder how much vision, man-power and artistry it took to create these amazing temples all on our own. It looked and felt like a playground for grown ups – tourists, travelers and all.