As the seventh wonder of the world, Angkor Wat is an incredibly popular, but still off-the-beaten-path destination in Cambodia. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, this site has somehow managed to withstand the test of time.
Visitors from around the world come to see the ancient site. But if you’re looking to avoid the crowds, we’ve got some great tips for visiting Angkor Wat in the rainy season.
Guest contributor Susan James recently visited the temple in the off season. Although the word “rainy” isn’t exactly what you want to hear right before a trip, the rainy season, which runs from May through November, can be a great time to visit the ancient site. While downpours can and do happen, it’s worth taking the chance to see the temple without being elbow to elbow with thousands of people. Check out Susan’s tips for visiting Angkor Wat in the rainy season.
Visiting Angkor Wat in the Rainy Season
We climbed bleary-eyed into the two-wheeled trailer hitched to the motorbike. Once we’d settled back against the seat, our tuk-tuk driver gunned the engine and we lurched forward. It was 5.30 am, and the sky above us was black; its hazy half-moon smudged by cloud.
It was late September and the height of the rainy season that runs between May and November. Our hotel was halfway down an unpaved road and despite the early warmth, stubborn puddles from a previous downpour – small ponds really – lay across the road’s edges. Starting early often means avoiding the worst of the rain, and going to see Angkor Wat at sunrise was our earliest start of all.
We joined a loose convoy of other tuk-tuks all heading in the same direction. The still-quiet of the early morning broken by a rumbling of small engines on the road; the lamps over the bike’s front wheels burning like fireflies in the dark behind us.
It Can Rain a Lot in the Rainy Season
Guidebooks can be disparaging about visiting during the rainy season and the advice isn’t entirely without merit: roads can quickly become waterlogged or flooded, low-cloud can make even an impressive landscape look dull and flat and who wants to spend a day temple-hopping in wet clothes? The rain can be intense, violent almost when it starts in the afternoon. Spectacular to watch from a hotel balcony but less so when you’re standing exposed amid twelfth century ruins.
Why You Should Visit Angkor Wat in the Rainy Season
And yet, it’s a great time to visit. Fewer tourists means the temples are quieter and easier to navigate. It’s still hot and humid but less so than other times of the year; exploring the sites are less demanding, more enjoyable. The surrounding area is lush and greener because of the increased rainfall. In nearby Siem Reap, hotels have greater availability, and locals have a knack for anticipating what the weather will be like tomorrow. Insider knowledge that will be more accurate than the app on your phone.
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Arranging a tuk-tuk driver can be done on the spot or through your hotel very easily. Unless you choose to, there’s no need for strict itineraries allowing you to work around any bad weather. Adding an extra few days onto our stay in Siem Reap gave us the flexibility to accommodate any wash-out days. And Siem Reap is a fantastic little town with good food, cheap drinking and a great place to souvenir shop. Pub Street is perfect for people-watching between rain showers or after a long day of temple-hopping.
Buying Your Ticket
Buying a ticket to get into the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park is extremely straightforward. An official ticket office just outside Siem Reap is open from 5am to 5.30pm. You can buy a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day pass from a cashier who’ll also take your photograph and print it onto the pass. A 3-day ticket costs $62 but it doesn’t have to be used on consecutive days, so it’s great for building flexibility into a rain-proof schedule.
What is Angkor Wat Temple?
Angkor Wat was built at the beginning of the 12th century, it was originally a Hindu temple (the 5 towers symbolize Mount Meru where the Hindu Gods live), but it later became a Buddhist shrine. Angkor Wat means ‘temple city’, so there’s more to the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park than just the iconic Angkor Wat Temple. It’s the largest religious complex in the world covering 163 hectares. Even the most dogged of explorers can struggle to scratch the surface even with a 7-day pass.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat in the Rainy Season
Arriving at Angkor Wat Temple just before dawn, we climbed out of the tuk-tuk and followed a stream of people in the direction of the temple, over the floating bridge stretched across a moat. Hundreds of us walking together in a reverent hush, in respectful anticipation and with ample space to move with no pushing, or rushing forward. During the rainy season there’s less competition for that “prime spot” at the water’s edge.
Honestly, sunrise at Angkor Wat in the rainy season isn’t that spectacular. There was a slight haze to the sky and a murky quality to the sunlight as it cast itself over the temple.
But we didn’t go for a sunrise. They’re ten-a-penny after all, and they happen every morning, all around the world. What made going at sunrise during the rainy season so special was the way the sunlight gently revealed Angkor Wat. It was like watching a sketch artist drawing the first vague outlines and then going back, adding in the detail and depth. The famous pinecone towers were undressed by the watery sunlight rather than overshadowed by it.
We took photographs at the edge of the water. Something that can be difficult to do during the busier tourist seasons when visitors stand tightly packed together, trying to catch the sun rising behind the temple’s iconic reflection in the pond.
Once the sun was up, we were free to go inside the temple itself and start exploring.
Visiting the Other Temples in Angkor Wat
During the rainy season, it’s a good idea to stay out and explore rather than to return to your hotel for something to eat. Most hotels will prepare a breakfast that you can take with you. Part of the “small tour” circuit that includes Angkor Wat is nearby Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. At Angkor Thom is Bayon Temple where remarkably well-preserved carved smiling faces watch serenely over visitors’ heads. Ta Prohm is famous for being the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple where strangler figs have thrived by wrapping their thick limbs in and around the ancient stonework.
Angkor Wat’s temples aren’t hidden away behind roped-off areas, and you won’t find many signs telling you not to climb on the ruins. You can touch and walk over much of the complex. Steep stairways up to towers and platforms provide good viewing points for the surrounding areas, too. Visiting during the low-season gives you a better chance to explore and reflect without dense pockets of people following you around. Although, expect the temples on the “small tour” to be busier than the “big circuit” whatever time of year you go.
Do the Big Circuit
Most people will do the small tour but you should definitely consider doing the big circuit, too, as it includes the ruins of Neak Pean which sits in the middle of a beautiful reservoir. There’s also Pre Rup, built in the 9th century, which during our visit, had hundreds of dragonflies zipping around its walls.
Visiting Angkor Wat in the rainy season is a great way to avoid the crowds and to escape the intense heat that comes earlier in the year. Take an umbrella, take a sense of adventure and take your American Dollars (accepted everywhere in Cambodia) and visit during a time of year that’s very much underrated.
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