UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Wat is a bucket list item for many travellers, and is the star attraction of Cambodia. It is certainly a wonder to behold, being one of the largest religious monuments in the world. The beautiful temples that have stood the test of time tell the story of what was once the largest city on Earth; a marvel of modern civilisation until the 15th century. Originally built for Hindu worship, Angkor Wat was converted to a Buddhist site in the 14th century and it remains an active place of worship for Buddhists today.
With millions of visitors exploring the vast complex each year, the problem with tourism to Angkot Wat is that it is becoming destructive. Some of the buildings are crumbling, many tourists do not obey the signs of stick to walkways, and the sheer number of visitors means the popular sites never get a break from trampling explorers.
Still, I do believe it’s possible to visit Angkor Wat responsibly. Tourism can be a force for good when it’s done mindfully: with a focus on what we can give as the traveller instead of only what we can gain. It goes without saying that we will have an amazing experience if we visit this historic site. If we have the privilege to go there, let’s use our visit to help the local people and preserve Angkor Wat’s magnificence, not contribute to its demise.
Travel in the off-peak season
The best way to avoid being a part of overtourism to such a well-visited location is to go in the low season. For Angkor Wat, that’s the wet season, from May until October. The monsoon brings regular rain but it’s not every day, and it’s brings cooler temperatures which are perfect for exploring. Locals and people in the know love this time of year, which is also known as the Green Season as everywhere is so lush and alive.
Some of the sites within Angkor Wat are deserted at this time of year, so you might be lucky and have a temple all to yourself! You will also be providing employment for tuk tuk drivers during the quiet period, helping to sustain their families and spread your travel income.
Another benefit of travelling in the off-peak season is lower accommodation prices. That in itself is a win, but being in Siem Reap without enormous crowds will provide you with the experience of Angkor Wat and other attractions much more mindfully and enjoyably.
Explore the temples carefully and ethically
Dress appropriately at all temples and religious places: modestly is key. Cover knees and shoulders at Angkor Wat and do not wear clothing with images of the Buddha.
It goes without saying that a responsible traveller is also mindful of not harming the places they are visiting. Angkor Wat is a significant historical site that is accessible to explore, yet it’s vulnerable to damage from both irresponsible tourists and souvenir hunters—who simply take artefacts or remove pieces to sell to tourists.
Always stick to the designated pathways and never try to walk or climb on areas of a temple which are sectioned off, or look unstable. Do not touch buildings or plants if there are signs asking you not to, and never remove or deface anything. And please do not buy souvenirs from a seller who may have taken items from a historic site. If you are unsure, don’t buy it.
To get around the vast complex you can walk, hire a bicycle or e-bike, or take a tuk-tuk to the places you wish to go. It is a reasonable distance from Siem Reap so walking from the city is not really an option, but you can walk to different temples once inside the complex. Bikes are a great low-impact option to get around from Siem Reap and there are charging stations for e-bikes along the way.
But there is one form of transport to avoid as an ethical traveller, and that’s elephant rides. The poor elephants who have been working there for many years are finally retiring in 2020, after petitions and public outcry raised awareness of their plight. Please do not seek to have a ride on one before they leave the site. They are overworked and unwell, and the sooner their workload diminishes, the better.
And finally, be responsible for your waste at Angkot Wat and in Siem Reap. There is no excuse for littering and with a few simple tweaks you can minimise the rubbish you create from your stay. One that will have a huge impact is to refill your own water bottles rather than buy plastic ones each day. Siem Reap ultilizes the excellent Cambodian Refill not Landfill program, which is widely accessible clean water for free or a very small cost.
Support local people and genuine Cambodian craftsmanship
Tourism is the biggest industry in Siem Reap, the closest town to Angkor Wat. Still, Siem Reap is one of the poorest cities in Cambodia, and often Khmer people do not gain anything from the influx of tourists in their town.
To ensure that your visit does help local people, do some research to ensure your accommodation is owned by a local family, or they employ local staff and pay them properly. Avoid large resorts unless they have demonstrated policies and initiatives that benefit locals.
Also, choose locally-owned tours for your visits to Angkor Wat, and other attractions around Siem Reap too. If you would like a guide to go with you inside the temples, you must find a licenced one. The Cambodia Tourist Association website has a list of all accredited guides and which languages they can speak in.
There are also several tour operators who are community-based or fully locally-owned, with Khmer guides and programs designed to help their communities and provide you with an insightful experience. Being mindful of supporting these businesses ensures that your touring is ethical and that your money is going towards the people who need it.
For souvenirs of your time at Angkor Wat, seek local sellers and real craftspeople. Buying from the maker helps to keep traditional skills alive, and benefits their family directly. Check out the Made in Cambodia market is the best place to go for dedicated local craftsmanship.
Eat well to sustain you and to benefit Khmer people
The food scene in Siem Reap is really good, with cuisines to suit every taste and budget. Being such a popular place it is also very busy much of the time, and many of the cafes and restaurants are big businesses specifically built to cater to tourists.
You can choose to benefit local people with your diet as well as your adventuring, by seeking small family restaurants, local market stalls, and cafes that are run as social enterprises. My family and I loved the cafés with heart, which employ and train disadvantaged people and tended to utilise local produce too. They offered excellent Western choices as well as traditional Khmer food, and they always felt vibrant and happy with a bigger mission than just making money.
Stay longer and enjoy all that Siem Reap has to offer
The site of Angkot Wat is so big, you will need several days in Siem Reap to explore it all. Instead of rushing through your visit and exhausting yourself in the temples, plan to stay for at least a week and take advantage of the flexibility of your entry ticket. Opt for the better value three- or seven-day passes, which don’t have to be used on consecutive days, and you can tour at your own pace.
You can also explore more of Siem Reap and its surrounding attractions, including more ancient temples outside of Angkor Wat, and the huge Tonle Sap Lake and Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. There are also Khmer cooking and martial arts classes on offer, the incredible Phare Circus which is a must-see event, a butterfly centre, landmine museum, and much more to discover.
Most of these activities can be done ethically, too! I have a detailed post about all of the cafes, shops and activities in Siem Reap that are sustainable, which includes more tips on how to give back and ensure your visit has maximum positive impact. One final thing I will highlight here is that you might be tempted to visit an orphanage during your stay. It seems like a great way to help some kids who need it, right?
Wrong, actually. Orphanage tourism is unfortunately big business, and most of the children are not actually orphans. The more that well-meaning tourists visit these places, the more orphans they create. I know it seems backwards and I know it’s not your intention to make matters worse, but treating children as tourist attractions does exactly that. You can read more about this issue on the Think Child Safe website.
If you would like to give back in a larger way than supporting local people to eat, stay, shop and tour, blood donations are always needed at the local hospitals. Or if you have money to donate or the time and specific skills to help in a volunteer capacity, visit conCERT Cambodia to ensure your assistance goes to where it is needed.
And finally, enjoy temple town! Angkor Wat is a truly amazing place that never fails to impress, and it’s worthy of mindful attention and future preservation.