Want to See Angkor Without the Tourists? Take a Hike.

Explore ancient  temples and dodge hungry monkeys on this lesser-known route around Angkor Thom.
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One of the gates in the Angkor Thom walls. Photo by Matt Chabe

One of the gates in the Angkor Thom walls. Photo by Matt Chabe

Over two million people visit the famed "lost city" of Angkor in Cambodia each year. The ruins of this ancient megacity, at one time the largest in the world, spark a sense of wonder that few other locations in the world can capture; but for travelers used to wilderness solitude, exploring the ruins alongside tour groups and throngs of Instagrammers can turn the experience from awe to irritation. To avoid the crowds, my companion and I settled on a different tactic: hiking the neglected, jungle-choked remains of Angkor Thom’s eight-mile perimeter wall in its entirety. We were sure to be alone there.

When we told our hired driver, Mr. Rahn, about our plans, he looked confused: "Why do you want to do that? No tourists do that." That was the answer we were hoping for. On a blazing hot Saturday morning, Mr. Rahn dropped us off at Angkor Thom's towering entrance gate, already teeming with coconut vendors, sweaty tourists, and lumbering elephants.

Mr. Rahn wiped sweat from his brow. "Watch out for monkeys," he said, with an air of distinct gravitas, before climbing back into his car. "The monkeys are not nice."

With that mysterious warning we peeled away from the crowds at the entrance. A quick scramble to the top of the sandstone wall brought us to the trailhead. The path we found was dusty, barren, and quiet, without another human in sight. Mr. Rahn had been right: there were no tourists here. We cinched our day packs closer, slurped down some water, and started along the wall.

The trail along the top of the wall is crowded by the jungle slowly retaking the ruins. Photo by Matt Chabe

The trail along the top of the wall is crowded by the jungle slowly retaking the ruins. Photo by Matt Chabe

The stone crumbled away in irregular intervals, leaving us scrambling over the ancient masonry. To our left the complex’s massive moat fell away in a tumble of stone. Only the occasional bird call pierced the jungle's silent heat; not even the voices of the tourist swarms could reach us. Around every corner was a new forgotten temple, tangled with tree roots and thick green moss, the dark sandstone swirled with cryptic inscriptions. Far from the crowds, we literally had these ancient jungle ruins all to ourselves.

A temple along the wall. Photo by Matt Chabe

A temple along the wall. Photo by Matt Chabe

Still, one thing continued to perplex us: despite Mr. Rahn’s dire warning, we had seen no monkeys. And then, as the trail neared its end, it happened.

As we rounded another moss-draped temple we spotted a solitary macaque in the middle of the path, staring in our direction. We stopped. Should we continue? Wait it out? Macaques in Cambodia have a reputation best described as surly, so we were reluctant to risk confrontation.

From my peripheral vision, I watched as my partner fished a dried mango from her pocket, still deep in thought. The plastic bag crinkled. As she raised the mango to her mouth, the macaque leapt forward; the trees to either side began to rustle. Suddenly, without any further warning, the jungle was alive with monkeys. They emerged from the forest in every direction, flanking our path in search of free handouts. We looked at each other in horror and, as if on cue, began sprinting through the gauntlet. Through the jungle ahead we could just barely make out the towering gate at the trail’s end.

We skidded through the gate under a living waterfall of more macaques. They must have been some sort of monkey beacon—when we looked back, the horde of monkeys was hot on our heels. We ran to meet Mr. Rahn’s waiting tuk-tuk as they took to the trees around us.

"What did you do?" he asked us in horror as he started his bike.

We didn't answer. It was evident, anyway. Sweaty and dusty, we stared back at the screeching horde hanging from the temple and trees as the bike puttered away, leaving a crowd of macaques in the dust. Not today, monkeys, I thought to myself, adrenaline rush finally fading. Not today.

DO IT Fly into Siem Reap International Airport and grab one of the many tuk-tuks to a hotel or guesthouse. Inquire at your lodging about transportation to Angkor—most have drivers on call. To hike the wall of Angkor Thom, get a ride to the south gate (13.427531, 103.859514)—about a half-hour drive from Siem Reap—and take a sharp left on foot up onto the wall after passing through the gate. Follow the even eight-mile loop path along the wall to return to the south gate. Pack in plenty of water—temps are hot and there are no water sources.

SEASON Year round

PERMIT An entrance pass is required. One-day passes are $37; fees drop with multiple days.