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Angkor Wat and Siem Reap Without the Crowds: Insider’s Guide

Andy Booth | September 15, 2016

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam: Andy Booth.

Trusted Travel Expert

An Oxford-trained physicist, Andy Booth traded London for Siem Reap nearly ten years ago, intending to improve Cambodia’s educational system; the best way to earn funds to do so, he wagered, was to dive into the country’s burgeoning tourism industry. Today, 100 percent of ABOUTAsia’s profits are plowed into local education, mainly through purchasing school supplies and paying the salaries of English teachers. Assisted by Ethan Crowley, an American raised in Northeast Cambodia (with the perfect Khmer to prove it), Andy excels at helping travelers connect with leading academics and friendly locals in Cambodia and Laos, while avoiding the tourist crowds. He’s even conducted surveys to measure minute-by-minute tourist flow around the Angkorian ruins, using the data to calculate the timing and routing that will make for the least-congested experience. When Andy recommends a dish in a restaurant, it’s because he ate there on Wednesday and it was superb—not because it won some award a year ago. He holds the post of British Honorary Consul and wrote the well-regarded Angkor Guidebook, a coffee-table-worthy tome. He can also arrange seamless travel throughout Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as layovers in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore.

Trips start at $400 per day for two travelers.
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Things to Do and See

Ta Prohm without crowds, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ta Prohm without crowds, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: ABOUTAsia Travel

Most overrated place
Sunset atop Phnom Bakheng. Rather than pushing and shoving to catch a photograph through a crowd of chattering tourists, try floating along an ancient waterway with a gin and tonic in hand; the tail end of a day should be a peaceful time for reflection.

Most underrated place
The boat trips on Tonlé Sap Lake that leave from Chong Kneas are known to feel packaged, and in peak times there are more tourists than locals in the floating villages. But Tonlé Sap seen with the right boat from the right spot is a magical and photogenic place not to be missed. That’s why we built our own classic day boat, the Ella, all shiny wood and brass, which is available for private hire by the half-day. We keep it in Mechrey, a local fishing village that sees virtually no tourism.

Hidden gem
The Cambodian countryside is very often ignored by visitors who fixate on the ancient Angkorian temples. There are places to visit just a few minutes from Angkor Wat where the rural landscape has not changed for a thousand years: Masses gather to inspect carved bas-reliefs of pastoral activities in the galleries of the Bayon, but few realize that they can see these images in real life just up the road.

The Ella, ABOUTAsia's custom-made wooden boat, which is used for private cruises on Tonle Sap

The Ella, ABOUTAsia’s custom-made wooden boat, which is used for private cruises on Tonle Sap. Photo: ABOUTAsia Travel

How to spend a lazy Sunday
Play golf (equally appealing any other day of the week, as well). Siem Reap’s three award-winning courses are beautiful and challenging; the Faldo course at Angkor Resort is especially fine, with truly world-class practice facilities and a welcoming staff.

Cheap thrill
The market and fun fair on 60 meter road to the east of the Angkor ticket booth. The whole spectacle sets up each afternoon and is buzzing with food and clothing stalls and fairground games (many built out of jury-rigged toys and other household items), and usually not a barang (Khmer for foreigner) in sight.

Villa Chandara at night, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Guests enjoy a private feast at Villa Chandara at night, Cambodia. Photo: ABOUTAsia Travel

Bragging rights
Take one of our boats across the West Baray, an ancient reservoir near Angkor Thom, then walk through the charming and unspoiled farming village of Kork Tnout (literally, Island of Sugar Palms) to reach Villa Chandara, which we open to an exclusive group of diners each night. Illuminated by candlelight and oil lamps and surrounded by rice paddies, settle in for an evening of free-flowing drinks and an 11-dish celebratory Khmer menu with other invited guests: ambassadors and rock stars mix with writers and professors. For the ultimate V.I.P. experience, you can take over the entire restaurant for a dinner conversation with Dr. Damian Evans, the leading academic at Angkor, and a private performance by Phare, Cambodia’s version of Cirque du Soleil.

Where to Stay and What to Eat

Best-value splurge hotel
For the most genuine colonial feel, stay at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. But instead of booking the most basic State Rooms, which are located in a modern wing of the hotel, book the Landmark Rooms, in the original heritage building. For the most authentic luxury Khmer experience, there’s the very swish Phum Baitang, in a parkland just outside town (Brad and Angelina rented out the whole place when it first opened), or Sala Lodges, where traditional wooden houses from all over the country have been re-erected, with all the mod-cons added. Phum Baitang has only been open since September 2015, so its introductory rates make it a particularly good value. At all of these properties, we can arrange for early check-in and late check-out.

Restaurant the locals love
Many travelers—including myself—turn to TripAdvisor to find restaurants in an unfamiliar town. However, several of Siem Reap’s top-listed restaurants are more accomplished at marketing than cooking. Places that I personally recommend—and eat at regularly—include Charcoal, for genuine, un-westernized Khmer cuisine and the best steak in town (you’ll get a free martini if I send you); Abacus, for dependable French fare with a great host; and Cuisine Wat Damnak, for a tasting menu of award-winning dishes that mix Cambodian flavors and French techniques.

Dish to try
Charcoal’s Khmer Discovery tasting menu offers bites of prahoc ktis (a dipping sauce that combines fermented fish, minced pork, and coconut milk—utterly delicious when made properly, as it is here), knoub (a fish curry cooked and served inside a banana leaf, created as an on-the-go lunch for farmers spending the day in the field during planting or harvesting), and other local delicacies.

Meal worth the splurge
Our own Villa Chandara (see Bragging rights), for candlelit fine dining in the most unexpected setting, surrounded by rice paddies. The journey there is half the experience, as you travel by road, oxcart, boat, and on foot. The food is prepared by the staff from Charcoal (see Restaurants the locals love, and Dish to try).

Best Times to Go

Cambodia’s weather is dominated by a monsoonal system of dry northerly winds between November and March, wetter winds from the Indian Ocean between May and September, and unsettled periods as the monsoons tussle for supremacy in April and October.

Many a guidebook will recommend visiting Cambodia from November through March, but I tell my friends to visit between late May and early September, during the green season. Sure, it rains two days out of three, but the mornings are almost always sunny and bright, with rain clouds gathering toward the late afternoon; get out of bed early to explore when Cambodians are most active ahead of the midday heat, and you’ll enjoy far fewer crowds and vibrantly green rice paddies. Plus, the money you save on shoulder-season hotel rates you can spend on massages, world-class golf, and fine food.

If you must travel with the busloads of Chinese and Korean tourists in the cooler dry season, try to do so during the first two weeks of December for far fewer crowds and great hotel deals.

Worst Times to Go

The heat in April and May isn’t quite bad enough to “melt a brass doorknob,” but it’d probably get mushy. If crowds drive you nuts, avoid the New Year and Chinese New Year periods.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Trying to do too much, both in a single day and a single trip. Getting from one place to the next can often take a full day. You will experience more by trying to see less. Leave some time unscheduled; the most memorable moments arrive when you are sitting on a temple stone, motionless, watching some boy lead his buffaloes out to graze, or in conversation with a monk.

Can't-Miss Photo Op

The globe of the sun dipping into the Tonlé Sap from the roof of Ella (see Most Underrated Experience).

The Souvenir

A bowl by the leading lacquerware artisan Eric Stocker, which you can purchase at his uncommercial workshop on the outskirts of town. For years, the United Nations has sponsored Eric to train local craftspeople, re-teaching an ancient technique that was nearly lost.

Scam to Avoid

Up to 50% of what you might pay for an Apsara dance show and dinner could be a commission for the guide or driver who sent you there; better to see one of the performances on the Raffles’ Apsara Terrace, or at the theater attached to the Angkor Village Hotel. Be aware that if you ask your guide for shopping recommendations, they’ll usually steer you toward the stores that offer them the highest commissions. (We forbid our guides from doing this.)

Airport Intel

Resist getting to the airport too early for your onward flight; the airport in Siem Reap is close to town and small, with little to entertain you.

Tipping Tip

Tips are an important source of income for drivers and guides and should be considered, but only when the service provided is above and beyond the call of duty. In that case, I suggest $15–$20 per day for a guide, $3–$5 per day for a driver (both per group, not per traveler).

Don't Forget to Pack

A waterproof plastic bag to shove your expensive DSLR into in case the heavens open.

A Polaroid camera is a guaranteed way to break the ice with villagers—give them a photograph of themselves!

Reviews

Never felt the crowds

JoEllen Shelden | March 1, 2017

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