ANGKOR, Cambodia — We bounced along the road in a tuk-tuk — picture a rickshaw attached to a moped — anxious for our first glimpse through the trees of the temple of Angkor Wat. Our imaginations flared with visions of hacking our way through the overgrown jungle, then quietly discovering the nearly 900-year-old stone towers with only a solitary monkey looking on. Perhaps we've watched too many Indiana Jones movies.
Angkor is the largest, and perhaps most exotic, religious complex in the world. Accordingly it's a perennial favorite on travelers' lists. The most prominent structure is Angkor Wat — it's pictured on the Cambodian flag — but it is just one temple among dozens in the vast complex. Over two million tourists descend on the small town of Siem Reap each year to visit the temples. As we neared the magnificent site, it seemed most of those visitors had chosen today to make their pilgrimage.
We usually try to avoid crowds. But what's a privacy seeker to do at one of the world's most visited sites? It turns out there are ways to find a quiet corner, even among thousands of visitors.
One quality that makes Angkor so popular is its sheer size. Angkor Wat itself covers almost 600 acres, and it's not even the largest temple. The national park that houses the ninth- to 13th-century temples of the Angkor complex covers over 150 square miles.
We used that massive scale to our advantage. All those people couldn't be everywhere at once. With a little planning, and the help of a knowledgeable guide, we sought out tranquil spaces and dark, winding hallways within the stone temples; there were times we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
Official guides to the park and temples are available for about $25 per day. Our guide, Pheara, had studied the temples for several years. He had also learned English so he could work in the burgeoning tourism industry. Pheara quickly picked up on our desire to avoid the crowds.
Most visitors spend only two nights in the nearby town of Siem Reap, giving themselves just one full day for a grueling marathon of a guided tour that could be called "the greatest hits of Angkor Wat." They usually start at sunrise and many don't finish until after sunset. Marathons, or anything grueling for that matter, aren't our speed, so we spent a week in Siem Reap, a wonderful town in its own right.
We purchased a three-day pass to the temples so we could explore at our leisure. As usual, the tour books say to get there early to avoid the crowds and, as usual, that's when it gets most crowded. Instead we arrived at midday, just as many people were leaving.
We started out at the western entrance to the temple of Angkor Wat. The buildings are surrounded by a moat with a stone causeway for crossing. On the other side, Pheara turned left, avoiding the narrow main entrance where tourists were lined up like a gaggle of geese. He led us about 50 yards to a smaller doorway where there was — nobody. We felt like we were entering a secret garden as we stepped through the narrow opening into a vast hallway decorated with weatherworn bas-relief friezes depicting epic Hindu tales.
Seeking out solitude became a pattern as we continued our explorations. Angkor Wat is built as a series of ever-rising concentric squares surrounding inner courtyards. Most tourists were clustered along the same section of each courtyard. As we reached each new level, Pheara led us to the opposite side, which had similar ornamentation without similar crowds.
A visit to the temple of Ta Prohm using the same strategy worked well. Known best as the temple used by "Tomb Raider" Lara Croft, Ta Prohm has been left in its native state. Giant spung trees have reclaimed much of the temple, with some spots seemingly swallowed up whole by nature. We ventured off the well-worn path to seek out intriguing nooks and crannies. Pheara showed us a rare stone Buddha's face peeking out from an opening in a tree trunk; it escaped destruction by vandals due to its embracing protection by the tree.
Armed with a detailed map, we opted to explore some of the remaining temples on our own a few days later. Preah Rup, built by King Rajendravarman II in 961, is smaller than Angkor Wat but would be a major attraction anywhere else in the world. The five-towered laterite and brick structure is well preserved. But because it's not on most tour groups' one-day itineraries, we practically had the place to ourselves. We climbed over the stone parapets at will and scaled the large stone steps of the central tower to find a tiny Buddhist temple nestled inside. In the spirit of the moment, a saffron-robed monk guided us in lighting joss sticks as we gave thanks for our journey and prayed for loved ones back home. From our solitary vantage point atop the tower we spent a few quiet moments admiring the unimpeded view of the jungle canopy below.
By now it was late afternoon, the perfect time to take in Bayon, the 12th-century temple of many faces. Over 200 carved stone faces, each over 6 feet tall, stand watch over the site. With their enigmatic smiles they are sometimes called "the Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia." Although Bayon is one of Angkor's "greatest hits," by this hour the bus tours had left and there were only a few stalwart souls enjoying the grandeur. The few who remained took advantage of glorious photo opportunities as the lengthening shadows caressed the inscrutable stone faces.
Our newfound knowledge of crowd avoidance led us to revisit the main temple of Angkor Wat — this time via the little-used east, or back, entrance. Unlike at the front, this portion of the temple has been left in its natural state; the surrounding jungle has been allowed to creep back toward the temple's rear walls. We hiked into the shady relief of the jungle virtually alone. As we watched the towers gradually emerge through the trees we finally had our Indiana Jones moment and, no kidding, a few monkeys even scampered by.