Avoiding the crowds at Angkor Wat is like avoiding motorbikes on the streets of Hanoi. There are really only times when the crowds are a bit thinner (of course, I also visited during the high season; low season is hotter and requires luck in avoiding rain).
I was told that the best time to see Angkor Wat was at dawn–there were well over a thousand visitors there to watch the sunrise, which was disappointing with the cloud cover of the morning. As it was nearly impossible to catch a photo without tourists, I turned around and took a few of the tourists searching for the best perch for the morning. Most of the crowds arrive after 8.
My driver for the first day advised me to leave immediately after sunrise so we could see other parts of the UNESCO World Heritage Site before the masses arrived.
Our first stop was the south gate of Angkor Thom. True to my driver’s word, the area was almost empty. There were a few people who passed by and allowed me to take a few undisturbed pictures (unless you count the monkey on the trunk that scared the hell out of me when I stepped out of the car).
We drove through Angkor Thom on the way to Ta Prohm, which most people recognize from the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider. In fact, that’s the selling point for visiting the temple, even though most tourists I met hadn’t seen the movie and really didn’t care because the temple is really cool.
Ta Prohm was even better to visit with the few people there at the same time. I probably saw about 20 other tourists, so it wasn’t too difficult to take pictures without other people around. On my way out of the temple, larger groups began to arrive, as did vendors at the gate.
After Ta Prohm, I saw nothing but crowds. On the way back through the south gate of Angkor Thom, there was a line of cars, buses, and tuk tuks stretching for a mile on their way to Ta Prohm. My driver laughed and pointed out how he knew we should avoid that, and I thanked him for it.
However, on our final stop back at Angkor Wat, I witnessed the power of the crowd. It was difficult to walk around parts of Angkor Wat through the crowds. I even had to wait in line with little shade to climb up into the central structure.
As Angkor Wat closes just before sunset, I realized there was no chance of ever seeing this amazing piece of history without the masses.
On my group tour the following day, I saw the advantages of having a private driver to avoid some crowds, but I enjoyed spending the day with other travelers and having a real tour guide instead of a driver who just told me where to go.