Touring Ancient Angkor…For Free! – Cambodia

A trip to Cambodia is incomplete without at least a day spent wandering around the magnificent temples of Angkor. This complex, east of the Thai border, is home to about one hundred temples, all dating between the 9th and 13th centuries. They stretch over several kilometres of jungle, once part of the Khmer Empire that ruled over southeast Asia and beyond.

Travelling in Cambodia can be done for about five dollars a day. Know the prices locals pay for food and transportation (not much different than Thailand) and develop an aggressive and persuasive bargaining technique. This is good news to very-low-budget travellers who might want to purposely stay under five dollars a day knowing that the entrance fee to the archaeological site is the equivalent of twenty days’ work for a Cambodian.

It costs twenty dollars for a one-day ticket to see the temples. For an additional twenty, you can buy a pass for three days (you must provide a passport-sized photo). The site is so big that some people opt for a three-day pass. However, it’s very possible to do most of the main sites in one day, starting at dawn and leaving after sunset. (You can be sure that by the end of the day, you will have quite a “temple-overdose”).

Why is it so expensive? After travelling around Cambodia and arriving in Siem Reap, the closest major town, located seven kilometres south of Angkor, it will be like crossing the border from Cambodia into Thailand. Suddenly, roads are paved with high-tech traffic lights. There are gardens with flowers in bloom, a canaled river with several bridges resembling Amsterdam. Such infrastructure suits those occupying rooms at the many expensive luxury hotels scattered everywhere. And more are being built!

Angkor has an airport serving a large number of organised tours and independent visitors who prefer flying into Cambodia just to see the temples. They don’t mind the hefty twenty dollar entrance fee. But for backpackers, this is the equivalent of four days’ travelling in Cambodia and neighbouring Laos. You can curse the Cambodian government for ripping-off tourists and pocketing all this money, but apparently (as the rumour goes), eighty percent of your fee goes to an oil company in Vietnam. Both Cambodians and tourists are getting cheated!

The good news is that there is a way to avoid paying this fee. It involves playing a few tricks with the guards around the temples and, most importantly, avoiding the ticket booth on the road to Angkor. When you are in Siem Reap, don’t arrange for a motorbike with a driver to take you around the temples. Not only is it more expensive (around five to six dollars a day), but it won’t give you the freedom to move around the site and to avoid the ticket booth.

Instead, hire a bicycle which can be bargained down to one dollar and fifty cents for twenty-four hours. You can find bicycles in many places. One shop is on Sivatha Street, near Naga Guesthouse, past the Cambodian Commercial Bank. There is a big neon Fuji sign on the western side of the street and next to it are bicycles and motorbikes for rent. You can hire a bike the evening before your intended visit and return it the day after on your way back from Angkor.

It takes about thirty minutes to cycle to the entrance of the complex. You may want to leave at five in the morning so that you can be in Angkor Wat at dawn to see the sun rising over its towers. As you leave the town and go northward past all the luxury hotels, the road continues straight until you reach an intersection. Traffic rules require you to go right. Go around the rotunda and ride northwestward until you reach the ticket booth. However, do NOT turn right. Go left instead. You’ll know you’re on the “right” path because of the “Do Not Enter” sign on the right-hand side. Don’t worry about traffic speeding towards you. It’s unlikely there will be any vehicles coming your way since all the tourists will be heading the other way.

You’ll come to an intersection where guards will stop you and ask for a ticket. Since you don’t have one, they will direct you to the western entrance of the site, where you can buy a ticket. They will, most likely, not ask you to backtrack to the ticket booth you purposely avoided. Even if they did, you can easily do a U-turn after a couple of minutes.

You will not be noticed in the darkness once you pass them again at the intersection. They don’t check vehicles coming from their right. Their sole purpose is to check traffic coming out of the complex or from their left. This is Cambodia. The locals do it all the time. There is no street lighting. It’s very easy to miss the “Do Not Enter” sign at the beginning of the road, which I’m sure other visitors with no guide often do.

Once you have passed the guards, you are officially inside the temple complex. The penalty for visiting temples without a valid ticket is thirty dollars. The worse that can happen is that you’ll get caught and will have to pay ten dollars more than planned. The risk and the penalty are low.

Guards check tickets only at Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm – the major temples.
(You probably won’t have time to see more than these in one day). All temples have several entrances. Find the entrance that has no guard. If you can’t, you have two options:

During the dry season, you can take a shortcut through the jungle surrounding the temples of Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. The first temple has no wall around it but the second temple does. It won’t be necessary to climb it since it has many damaged sections where you can easily walk through (just don’t do it near the entrance and wait when there’s no traffic on the road). Once inside the perimeter, it is just a matter of finding a trail leading to the temple. Beware of snakes, thorns and spider webs, though.

The other option involves waiting till four o’clock. If you purchase a ticket in advance, you can visit the site after four o’clock on the afternoon before your intended visit. After four o’clock, most people start making their way out of the site. Even the guards go home. This will give you two full daylight hours to see those temples.

I entered the site with an “accomplice” friend via the one-way street. It happened by chance because we did not see the “Do Not Enter” sign in the dark. Once inside, we just couldn’t be bothered to look for the other ticket booth. The sun was rising, tours were flocking in, and we decided to see how far we could go without a ticket. To my surprise, we saw everything we wanted to see. We left at five thirty, cycling back to the hotel totally euphoric for having saved twenty dollars. If I was paranoid at first, I soon learned that there was no need. Guards stay at the entrance, never venturing inside. They only check tourists coming in, not going out. This turned an otherwise normal visit into an exciting adventure!

If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Asia Insiders page.

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