I am standing at the 900-year-old remains of Ta Prohm (ប្រាសាទតាព្រហ្ម), one of the world’s most visited structures, but today, my thoughts are very far from Angelina Jolie’s swashbuckling adventures at this legendary temple. The sky is a perfect blue, birds and butterflies flutter all around, and crowds of camera-wielding tourists are nowhere to be seen.
I’m enveloped by the sound of silence. As I gaze at this miraculous intertwining of human creativity with the natural world—the temple is wrapped all around by the coiling roots of trees embedded perfectly into its ancient stone formations—I can barely believe my good fortune. The only other humans here are the guards employed by Apsara, the organisation responsible for the upkeep of Angkor Archaeological Park (ឧទ្យានបុរាណវិទ្យាអង្គរ), staring vacantly at their smartphones.
It wasn’t a wrong turn that led me here—some random detour that ended at this world-famous site on an inexplicably quiet day—but something closer to divine providence. I had moved to Siem Reap (ក្រុងសៀមរាប) in May 2019 on a residence permit and was due to leave in February 2020 when my wife had secured a job overseas. But 2020, as we were soon to discover, is a year when things rarely go as planned. As COVID-19 began to spread across Southeast Asia, her job was suddenly cancelled, leaving us adrift in a tourist town with no tourists.
In Cambodia (ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា), where the virus silently lurked but remained largely innocuous, the effect on the travel industry was nonetheless instantaneous. These majestic ruins, after years of foreign intrusion, were suddenly the exclusive domain of local travellers. As visits to this vast complex plummeted by up to 98 percent, the government extended the validity of the Angkor Pass—the document that allows entry into the temples—leaving the path forward for the small number of foreigners resident in Cambodia to admire these mystical creations entirely at their leisure. At US$72, it was a complete steal.
Without hesitation, I spotted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embark on a personal exploration of the temples, using nothing but Google Maps as my guide, and stretching out my trek across a whole month—allowing me to ramble through not just the oft-visited landmarks I had seen on previous trips, but a plethora of lesser-known ruins scattered liberally around this 400 square-metre antique playground.
So while the all-seeing eyes of Bayon (ប្រាសាទបាយ័ន) stared down at me impassively from its central location, I made for next-door Baphuon ( ប្រាសាទបាពួន), where a lengthy walkway leads across a huge moat to this three-tier “temple mountain”—a kind of monolithic, outsized wedding cake—that took fully 20 minutes to walk around. I could only wonder why this extraordinary spectacle had never attained the renown of its multi-faceted neighbour.
Such surprises hidden in plain sight only left me hungering for similar jewels further into the park. The Angkor Pass’s month-long duration freed me up to travel whenever the weather suited, so as the sweltering humidity of May became the cooler month of June—with frequent downpours, but also prolonged dry periods—I would glance at the sky in the late morning. On cloudless days I simply cued up my Grab app to clamber on a decorative remorque (a Cambodian two-wheeled carriage) directly to the temple of my choice.
Only once did my strategy fail me. On a seemingly bright afternoon, the heavens quickly conspired to turn my outing to the stone-lion-guarded monastery of Banteay Kdei (ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយក្តី) into a frantic race to escape the oncoming monsoon rain. As I bade a hasty farewell to the kindly old lady who’d wrapped a bracelet around my wrist at the temple’s sublime inner shrine, I ran through an opening in the outer wall to a café just 200 metres away.
In another stroke of unbelievable luck, I had arrived at the best vantage point imaginable to view the manmade lake, Srah Srang (ស្រះស្រង់), in all its serene grandeur just before it was replenished by the mother of all rainstorms. With no remorque in sight, the café owner, a grinning young man who’d previously been my landlord—it’s that kind of small town—drove me home through the lashing sheets of rain.
Undeterred, I returned the next day in the cool air and clear sky that the downpour left behind, on a personal quest. The previous September, at the time of Pchum Ben (បុណ្យភ្ជុំបិណ្ឌ)—Cambodia’s annual festival venerating the people’s ancestors—I recalled a bartender telling me of her plans to visit the “coiled serpents” temple to pray to her forefathers.
As I crossed the wooden boardwalk towards the temple—these were the wetlands of the Jayatataka Baray, deeper into the Angkor woodlands—I was captivated by the stark, Dalí-esque beauty of the surrounding fields, all parched earth interspersed by the jutting-out branches of withered trees.
On the final approach, as a group of teenagers greeted me with a friendly “Hello, barang!” (បារាំង; “foreigner”), I realised Neak Pean (ប្រាសាទនាគព័ន)was no temple in any conventional sense, but an ornate island shrine decorated with gargoyles representing a king, an elephant, a lion, and a horse. From a distance the intricate carvings, and the snakes that give it its name, stood out less than the overall impression of perfect symmetry in what weirdly resembles an immaculate, far-flung village pond.
A short walk from Neak Pean lies its polar opposite: Preah Khan (ប្រាសាទព្រះខ័ន), a cavernous 56-hectare temple built in 1191 in honour of King Jayavarman VII’s father (Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother). Constructed to commemorate the king’s victory over the invading Chams from modern-day Vietnam, Preah Khan once contained a university, and employed almost 98,000 servants, 1,000 dancers, and 1,000 teachers—as well as hosting shrines devoted to 430 deities that were bedecked with unimaginable riches.
Today, this shell of a city-within-a-temple is empty, its silence deafening, its historic corridors cracked with the weathering of eight centuries. If I close my eyes, I can almost summon the spirits of the dancing apsaras who once animated these stone halls in glorious technicolour. Yet, for most visitors to modern-day Angkor this unfeasible colossus—which would be an unmissable attraction in any other city but Siem Reap—barely registers on the radar.
I chanced upon many more temples on my travels that seemed prime examples of majestic architecture in their own right, but were overlooked by all but the most ardent Angkor trekkers—despite being completely accessible and overloaded with photo-op allure. I spent hours alone in a dusty clearing sizing up the construction of Ta Keo (ប្រាសាទតាកែវ), a formidable behemoth built with two terraces, an upper pyramid, and five towers protruding in the air—the first building in the Angkorean era made entirely of sandstone.
Around the corner, down a rugged dirt path and through a dense thicket, was one of the most delightful surprises on my Angkor travels: Ta Nei (ប្រាសាទតានៃ), an unassuming little miracle in an overgrown forest that appeared to my eyes like a tiny Ta Prohm, its fragile thirteenth-century shell swallowed up by the jungle, with strangler figs creeping all around its decrepit outer walls like a tarantula slowly crushing its prey.
Pandemic aside, why were these wonderful relics now total obscurities? I could only assume that a three-day trip around Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Angkor Thom satisfied the incurious gaze of those umbrella-chasing group-travel parties we love to hate, leaving the rest of the spoils to us intrepid solo adventurers.
The Angkor Pass covers many more significant temples outside the park proper—some meriting a day trip. In the case of Preah Vihear (ប្រាសាទព្រះវិហារ), the long-disputed temple on the Cambodian-Thai border, you’ll even need up to three or four days.
In an afternoon trip from Siem Reap, you can wallow in rural solitude at Banteay Srei (ប្រាសាទបន្ទាយស្រី), a far-flung location whose surrounding lakes cast a bucolic spell, and where startled-looking chickens run amok among the amazingly intact doorways, carvings, and shrines of this haunting temple built more than a thousand years ago.
On my own, and greatly outnumbered by animals, it’s all a little spooky: In the late afternoon, as crows screeched in the trees, I was reminded of that terrifying scene in The Omen where a priest is impaled by a metal pole falling from a church roof, and hastily beat a retreat.
On a longer day trip I took in two locations an hour from each other, in the direction of Preah Vihear. Beng Mealea (ប្រាសាទបេងមាលា), I found, was a properly dilapidated temple whose reputation far outshines its reality—no doubt a once-mighty collection of galleries and libraries but now, left to the ravages of nature, and without meaningful restoration efforts, languishing in ruins with only a series of staircases and wooden walkways allowing visitors to trudge around its piles of fallen sandstone.
By complete contrast, Koh Ker (ប្រាសាទកោះកេរ្ដិ៍) further north comprises not one site but many, spread across remote countryside, which was for 16 years the seat of the early Khmer empire. Covering a vast area, its two standout sites catch you completely unawares: Prang, a giant seven-tiered pyramid outscaling anything at (and predating most of) Angkor; and Prasat Pram, a group of five towers which were once shrines but are now swaddled in tree roots, forming a photogenic scene in this way-off-the-beaten-track location.
My month of temple-trekking was almost up, and with only one hole punch left to perforate my laminated Angkor Pass, I opted for an alternative viewing of a familiar destination: sunrise at Angkor Wat (អង្គរវត្ត). This dawn visit came with one subtle difference—I was to be treated to the unthinkable luxury of seeing the largest religious building in the world virtually alone.
Those iconic beehive-like towers were just coming into vision as darkness yielded its first light under a pale orange sky, slowly turning a bright pink as perhaps 20, at most 30, pilgrims trod sleepily up the empty path that leads to the temple. Seeing this world-famous place in the half-light, my view completely unimpeded, was unlike anything I’d experienced before, even a daybreak sighting of the Taj Mahal in Agra several years before. This was on a different scale: the shifting light effects gradually illuminated the fullness of this magnificent site, until sunlight flooded the entire complex in all its fine harmony, while the sugar palms set off the perfect symmetry of the temple and its grounds.
I sat staring at this wondrous vision well after daylight had settled, bedazzled by the magical confluence of manmade ingenuity with the glories of nature. In the company of a scattering of sunrise watchers—some saying prayers, some chanting, others practising yoga—I felt a sudden tug of inexplicable melancholy. I’d just been witness to one of the rarest privileges travel can bring. But without family or friends around me to share the joy, it felt eerily lonesome in this giant field.
As I spotted just one coffee vendor and one tourist guide at a site that would be normally be thronged with dozens, I was reminded of the catastrophic effect of the pandemic on the global tourist industry. For once, I might have even welcomed the sight of a tour group. While I wouldn’t have changed this private Angkor odyssey for anything—I’m unlikely to experience any comparable journey in my lifetime—the abiding feeling was undeniably bittersweet, as if I had been handed the keys to a seven-star citadel yet was destined to remain there forever alone.