/ 3 April 2014

Angkors, away from the crowd

Hordes of people trying to make a unique photo at Angkor Wat.
Hordes of people trying to make a unique photo at Angkor Wat.

There's nothing but darkness and the occasional caw of disgruntled jungle creatures, reluctant to wake. But as I climb a steep, uneven staircase the sky begins to turn from deep navy to indigo and slowly, slowly reveals the outlines of crumbling stone towers. As the sun starts its gradual ascent the sea of darkness gives way to a milky ocean of mist, which dances and flirts with the tree tops. By the time I reach the roof of Phnom Bakheng the sun has begun its climb with real intent. I watch while the mist melts to reveal a sprawling, matted jungle, feeling like some kind of a queen of a glorious, secret kingdom.

The truth is I'm not alone. If I look slightly to the left I can see a British couple snuggled together in awe of their shared experience, my tuk-tuk-driver-slash-self-appointed tour guide is at a distance to the right chatting to a security guard and behind me a lone Canadian sits hypnotised by the mist and silence. But compared with what's going on a few kilometres away this is sublimely serene.

At Angkor Wat, passengers alight from tourist buses, bicycles and tuk-tuks to elbow their way through the dark, like patrons at a rock concert jostling for prime position. When the sun begins its ascent it reveals something far more surprising than the anticipated spectacle of a golden orb rising over a craggy silhouette – thousands of swarming shutterbugs snapping selfies and manoeuvring tripods to capture the oft-replicated shot of "Angkor at sunrise".

Of Cambodia's 1.4-million-plus tourists a year, about 85% head specifically to the province of Siem Reap to visit the Angkor Wat Architectural Park, with Angkor Wat (Cambodia's go-to temple for "things to see before you die") being the bull's-eye of the visit.

There's good reason for it – the park hosts Southeast Asia's most beautiful and intact examples of an important archaeological, spiritual and political era. Spanning the 9th to 15th centuries, and stretching over about 400km², the park boasts the majestic remains of the Khmer Empire, including temples, reservoirs, canals and communication routes.

It's mind-boggling to comprehend the engineering abilities, sophistication and sheer political power of the creators of this empire, which encompassed most of Southeast Asia – and that's before you've even begun to explore the cultural, esoteric and religious symbolism and art.

What's almost as boggling is the sheer density of tourist feet that traipse, limp, saunter and strut around the Khmer compound on any given day. Having to kick-box your way through the crowd like Lara Croft can really put a damper on the ethereal grandeur the temples otherwise evoke, but there is a way to see the best of Angkor's big hitters on a day visit, while avoiding having a temple tantrum.

The majority of visitors to Siem Reap tend to follow a standardised schedule of visiting Angkor's favourite temples, which makes avoiding them relatively simple. Here's how:

Phnom Bakheng

Built at the end of the 9th century, Phnom Bakheng is a Hindu mountain temple dedicated to Shiva. It was built by King Yasovarman as the architectural centrepiece to a new capital. The east-facing temple was built in a pyramid form of six tiers and at that stage had 108 small towers at ground level and on various tiers. You can still explore the crumbling remains of some of these towers, but the highlight is the dense, unscathed jungle surrounding the temple and its hilltop setting, which allows stunning views.

Phnom Bakheng is a popular sunset spot, so rather head here at 5.30am to enjoy a spectacular sunrise in relative peace.

Once the sun has risen and you've had your fill of the jungle view, head to the city of Angkor Thom via the south gate.

Angkor Thom (South Gate)

Angkor Thom was the last and longest-lasting city of the Khmer empire. Built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, it covered nine square kilometres and was surrounded by 12km of defensive walls, intersected by four gateways. The south gate is the best preserved and is approached from a causeway, which is flanked by a railing comprising giant stone figures – 54 devas (guardian gods) on the left and 54 asuras (demon gods) on the right. The figures represent the famous Hindu myth in which the devas pulled the snake in one direction and the gods pushed in the other, thus precipitating the churning of the ocean and the formation of the Earth.

If you reach the gate at about 7.30am, the light is still soft and beautiful for photographs and the villagers living within the architectural park are just beginning their work day.

Your best option now is to head for Angkor Thom's favoured Bayon temple.

The Bayon

The Bayon, with its massive stone faces, was the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. The most popular theory is that the 216 giant faces carved into the temple's towers are representations of the king himself as an enlightened being. If you get here at about 9am a few of the early morning shutterbugs will still be around, but not enough that you won't get unobstructed views of the serene effigies against a crisp blue sky.

You'll want to head out of the Bayon by about 10am when the tour bus hordes begin arriving, but take your time on the way out to explore other sites in the Angkor Thom complex, such as the terraces of the elephants and of the leper king. Now is a good time to find a cool restaurant to escape the heat. Basically you'll want to bide your time until the hordes head back to Siem Reap for lunch.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII. It's known locally as the Tomb Raider temple, specifically because scenes from the blockbuster were filmed here. The temple has an otherworldly feel because the jungle has taken over the site. Giant vines have split massive stones and grown through the tops of the temple ramparts. The temple's delicate carvings are encased in moss and red and yellow lichens.

The very best time to visit Ta Prohm is early in the morning, but if you've only got a day try heading here at lunchtime. The jungle canopy makes it a cooler option than other temples at midday and there are far fewer people at this time.

Angkor Wat

Aside from being the most famous symbol of Cambodia (it even adorns the country's flag), Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious monument. This well-preserved structure was commissioned by King Suryavaram II and built over a period of about 30 years. The temple is a miniature version of the universe, and the design, architectural features and carvings represent ideas from Hindu cosmology.

Get to Angkor Wat at about 4.30pm so that you have an hour or so to explore the interior, before taking in the sunset and celebrating Cambodia's most endearing symbol of a powerful ancient empire.