is angkor wat ruined by tourism

Angkor Wat Cambodia: Sunrise ruined by tourism

You can probably picture the image in your head right now. The sun rising over an ancient temple complex that was abandoned over 700 years ago. Previously untouched and consumed by the dense jungle surrounding it. The perfect reflection on the lake. The feeling conveyed by promotional material is one of being one of only a few people to have ever witnessed this magnificent event.

Sorry to burst your bubble

It’s no longer the destination of adventurers and dedicated photographers: 


Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/shankaronline/ (2008)

Today, it’s like this (2013):

Angkor Wat Cambodia, Sunrise Crowd

It’s been 8 years since I last visited Angkor Wat. Maybe that’s the problem. I was here before Cambodia became a popular tourist destination. In fact, most people thought I was crazy for even considering travelling to Cambodia in 2006. But coming back in 2013 something was different this time, Angkor Wat had lost it’s magic.

2006: Angkor Wat Cambodia.

It was almost 5 in the morning as I made my way along the bridge towards the temple that I had travelled so far to see. I was here to witness sunrise, something recommended by all who had travelled before me.

At this time of morning the temperature was still cool as the early mist still hung in the air. But everyone knew the sticky humidity of the day wasn’t far away. Small children and local ladies who had been up long before me were already set up, ready to sell their daily wares of scarves, books and postcards. It was the usual touristy stuff I had seen time and time again the last few days I’d been in Cambodia.

Making my way through the passageway that led to the official Angkor Wat grounds, sure footing was essential. This place was old and lighting was minimal, only the lighter I carried in my shoulder bag illuminated my path over the stone steps.

The grounds are divided into two sections, but choosing where to sit wasn’t difficult. Everyone had seen the National Geographic images and new that being on the side with the small lake was the ideal place for photographers both amateur and professional.

Finding a place to sit on the grass, I comfortably waited until it was time for the day to break. The sunrise did not disappoint. As the sun crept higher into the sky it revealed the beauty of this ancient structure that for so long had been hidden away, a slave to the Cambodian Jungle.

But this was not all that the Angkor Wat complex had to offer. After daybreak the remainder of the day was spent in what seemed like my own personal jungle gym. I climbed the stone stairs of the different temples, finding the detailed architectural differences of each where past kings had tried to out do their predecessors. I was In awe of how ancient monks actually climbed these tiny, steep staircases everyday on their way to prayer.

What a great day.

A day I remember fondly. Full of fun and exploration.

2013: A very different first experience

It all seemed so hurried:

* Racing to the ticket counter before 4:45pm to get our tickets for the next day.

* Watch as bus load after bus load and Tuk Tuk after Tuk Tuk turn up. All here for the same reason as us.

* We all eye each other off, making sure no one cuts in front.

* Finally get ticket in hand and head back to our own Tuk Tuk – we are set for sunrise!

* Wake at stupid o’clock. Remind myself why I hate sunrises, and ask myself “am I a terrible tourist?” (my hungover inner voices answer is usually “yes”)

* Our driver revs the Tuk Tuk and hauls ass to the Angkor Wat complex to catch sunrise and hopefully beat the masses we encountered at the  ticket    booth the day before.

* Arrive well before the sun is due to rise, but even at this time the drop off / parking area is loaded with tuk tuks and mini buses – fuck! Maybe we should have got up earlier. (Hungover inner voice – “Nope”)

* We suddenly become power walking pros as we expertly dodge past little old Chinese ladies and tour guides with their coloured flags raised high.

* Make our way through the walled entrance. This time we were smart, we brought torches to light the way. No wasting time fumbling over the entrance. This is where I first noticed something was up – new, fancy, evenly spaced, wooden stairs. Very health and safety – are we still in Cambodia?
* I led the way knowing just where to go – after all I’d done this before and knew the perfect spot… Turns out, so did about 300+ other people – double fuck!

* As the sky begins to lighten there is only one open spot we see with a clear shot of the temple. Ever stood in a pit of mud just to get a good shot? We can say we are now members of that dirty and slightly stinky club.

* Desperation for a better angle drives others in our direction – and the elbow nudging, passive aggressive dance begins. People with iPhones and hand held tablets lean in front and block the shots of those who had spent time setting up their expensive DSLR camera and now muddy tripods.

* Hungover inner voice speaks up “do they really think they will get a better shot with their pissy iPhones than I will with my DSLR? Get outta my way, give me your email address, and I will send you my quality pics”

* Realise, hungover inner voice can be a real bitch sometimes…..wow!

At at this point I have to mention I am not a sunrise person. It’s rare that I have dragged my butt out of bed and been wowed or astonished by a sunrise. The only times have been when I’ve pulled an all-nighter, and then I’m honestly more impressed with the fact I was still awake – This drunk and still conscious at sunrise – I Rock!

I’m not entirely certain why I keep bothering with sunrises – I am really a lover of sunsets. Needless to say, as predicted, this particular sunrise was nothing to write home about.

Actually we did manage to get this shot. But we performed the elbow nudging, passive aggressive dance many times before doing so.

angkor wat purple

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t go to Angkor Wat. You MUST go to Angkor Wat! The temples are fascinating, the stone carvings a lasting impression of ancient kings all trying to out do each other in grandeur.  It is an awe inspiring place, if you can get a chance to see it past the bus loads of tourists. Each one insisting on a complete photo shoot, with a selection of well rehearsed poses for each “touristy” feature of the temples.

Who knows, maybe at the ripe ol’ age of 30 I’m becoming one of those cranky old travellers. One who rants about “Well, back in my day” and “What is this shit music playing in this bar?” or “Is everyone else here, like, 12 years old?”. I get that things change, mostly I was disappointed for Tom who hadn’t been there before.

My girlish stories became like dust in the wind as soon as we saw what tourism has done to Angkor Wat. Many have suggested that they should only sell a certain amount of tickets per day. Then on the flip side, there would be people like me who will be bitching  about lining up all day and not getting a ticket at all, and how tickets being sold on the black market are destroying Siem Reap – hmm not bad article ideas….if it ever happens watch this space.

I guess I have to have a cup of concrete (harden up – get it?!), and accept that the old Asian saying really is true – Its just “Same, same but different”


Have you been to Angkor Wat recently? What was your opinion? 
Need me to explain further what “Have a cup of concrete” means?

Then leave us a comment below.



Comments 3

  1. My driver told me to go for the sunrise but to leave immediately afterwards so we could see other temples without the crowds. He was right about that. The crowds at Angkor Wat are ridiculous.

  2. What makes you so special that you should be entitled to watch the sunrise without anyone else around to get in your way? Why is your desire to see it somehow more acceptable than theirs? Who’s to say that they value their iPhone shot any less than you value your fancy DSLR photo?

    This seems to be a common theme on travel blogs, complaining that places are overcrowded and ruined by tourism, yet you yourself are a tourist in these places. What is particularly mind-boggling is that you have published ebooks that to all intents and purposes are encouraging people to travel, yet seemingly don’t want them to travel, lest they get in your way and dare to take a snap with their iPhone. You can’t have it both ways.

    1. Thanks for your comments Nic. You are right that a lot of travel bloggers post about travelling but complain about too many tourists, which seems contradictory. The reason a lot of people are starting to prefer independent travel guides/blogs over major guides, is that they want to find the less touristy options – something we highlight in our own e-book.

      This article is about the changes that have happened at Angkor Wat in the last few years, not about our “entitlement” to see sunrise, simply that it would be preferable to see it with space to move. It’s a warning to other travellers that want to have a non-touristy experience, not to have the high expectations, like we had, that are set up by advertising media sources, and from photos that are years old, about the Angkor Sunrise.

      As for DSLR vs iphone.The reference is to the stereotype of pushy tourists. It’s an image that we hoped would resonate with readers, especially photography enthusiasts. The jostling and pushing in front of you that we have only encountered with smartphone users.

      They are just as entitled to take photos, and they are also just as capable of turning up early, like we and many others did, in order to get a front row space. Of course, maybe they also thought it wouldn’t be that busy… If only there were more independent blogs giving alternative perspectives so people could decide for themselves in advance…

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