I don't think I've ever heard anyone advise skipping Angkor Wat on a trip to Siem Reap. After all, Angkor is known as one of Cambodia's national treasures, and rightly so.
The temple complex is amazing and in just walking across the giant moat to get to it, one can immediately get a sense for its grandeur. Why would I ever suggest that you skip seeing something like this? Crowds.... Big. Massive. Crowds. Guides with flags on poles leading stampedes of tourists, who march forward crushing anything in their way, like giant amoebas drifting amok, spreading their ooze onto the ambiance of this great complex. Sad, but it's just the reality of Angkor Wat.
See the picture above? It looks peaceful right? Well, I had to wait for a large group of tourists to start clearing away from the entrance and pick the exact right moment to get this shot. I also took it at a time of day when people were clearing out to eat lunch and avoid the heat. The photo tells a story of peace and ambiance, but the reality was different. The photo below shows the reality inside the temple.
Not so pretty, right? Angkor Wat gets super crowded, which is one reason you might want to consider skipping it if you go to Siem Reap. It is really, really hard to get any kind of ambiance inside Angkor Wat. When I visit temples like this, I like to walk around on my own, look at the various aspects of the architecture, and try and get a feel for it - try to transport myself back in time a little bit. I don't like to go with guides that will talk my ear off for hours with every single detail. I'm an ambiance guy, and it just wasn't there at Angkor Wat. If you watch my video on the temples around Siem Reap, you will hear me comment about the crowds. I basically had to take a little time out in the shade in the corner of the temple complex to get away from them for a bit.
However, all is not lost! There were quite a few other temples around Angkor that were really amazing, and I'm suggesting that you skip Angkor and go see those if your time is limited. Of course, if you have the time to see Angkor Wat as well, you might as well do it. It's worth it just so you can "feel like you've seen it" if you have the time, but don't cut out other temples just because Angkor Wat has the biggest name - that would be a mistake. I had two full days in Siem Reap and was able to see Angkor Wat and the other temples, but I walk pretty fast because I'm a hiker, I was out all day on both days, and I did not use tour guides that would have otherwise slowed me down.
My favorite temples and the ones with the best ambiance were Preah Khan, Ta Som, and Banteay Srei. The good news is, there is an easy way to prioritize. Most people will hire tuktuk drivers to take them to the temples. This is quite cheap and gives you the flexibility of a personal driver for the day. The drivers generally recommend doing a loop, or circuit, a day, and there are two circuits - the big, or grand, circuit and the small circuit. These are just logistical loops designed to deposit you at various temples in a logistically efficient manner. Think of them as "highways" and the temples as on the highway exits. In reality, they are mostly just small dirt roads.
The small loop takes you to Angkor Watt, Angkor Thom, and a few others. If you only have one day, this is the loop I suggest you skip. You already know why I say to skip Angkor Watt. Angkor Thom is a much larger complex and it is a little easier to get away from crowds there, especially when you hike the paths in between temples at the complex. Still, it doesn't offer the same ambiance impact as the favored temples I mentioned above. Ta Prohm is also on the small loop and may seem a hard one to skip. This temple was in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie (the original), and it is famous for the trees growing over the temple walls. Sadly, Hollywood exposure just brought the crowds. The good news is that you can see many trees growing over temple walls and inside the temples of Preah Khan and Ta Som, all with fewer crowds.
Take the large loop. It's the best and will take you to Preah Khan, Ta Som, and a few others that are quite nice and more remote. Banteay Srei is not part of the large circuit, but you can add it on. It's farther out, so I recommend you have the driver go to Banteay Srei early in the morning. Go there first and then head back towards town to finish the small loop. If you really have your heart set on including Ta Prohm, talk with your tuktuk driver about a custom itinerary. Once you see these other temples though, you might not be as impressed by Ta Prohm.
Why did I like Preah Khan, Ta Som, and Banteay Srei so much? The crowds were definitely easier to manage, and sometimes I could find myself alone and wandering through the quiet of the temples. Having these moments was pretty priceless as it really allowed me to immerse myself in the essence of the temple. Aside from that, Preah Khan had a real "Indiana Jones" feel to it, with beautiful, giant banyan trees growing throughout it. I also loved the way the sun illuminated the stone walls and trees with a golden hue. You can see this in the photo above.
Ta Som feels very rustic. It's majestic doorways immediately catapulted me back in time. There was a lot of moss growing on the rocks, which enhanced the flavor of the experience there. There is a lot of "rubble" at Ta Som - places where the old walls have collapsed and stones are out of place or have fallen to the ground. It doesn't have a clean, restored look to it, but you can still walk freely through it, both amongst the standing walls and the ruins. This really makes it feel authentic and more meaningful, in my opinion.
If you are looking for some more Lara Croft or Indiana Jones vibes, Ta Som has this as well. Just check out the door in the picture below, overgrown with the roots of a huge tree. It's pretty amazing to be able to walk under that - you can truly feel the magnitude of it. It left me feeling small, which is a sensation that I love to experience. I was in awe.
Banteay Srei is absolutely worth adding to the large circuit. I enjoyed the drive to get there. We passed by jungle, farms, and a few tiny villages. The magic of Banteay Srei lies in the details of the stone carvings that cover the temple, as well as the beautiful pink hue of the red sandstone it was built with. When the sun hits the temple walls, the stone almost glows a golden pink. The level of detail in the temple wall carvings is pretty incredible. You can see an example of this in my photo. I could have spent all day taking pictures of the various motifs within the temple walls. It is definitely a bit different than the other two in terms of architecture, which is another good reason to add it into the mix. It's easy to get "templed out" in Siem Reap, so a little variety is good.
If you're not convinced yet, then by all means, go to Angkor Wat. I'm just a dude with his own opinions. As the saying goes, "you do you." If you can squeeze it all in like I did, then I recommend that as well. I'm glad I went to Angkor Wat, even though I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the other temples. I'm even more glad, though, that I didn't choose it over some of the temples on the grand circuit. No matter what you do, I guarantee you will come away from Cambodia impressed. If you decide to brave the crowds at Angkor, I recommend trying to see it around noon. It will be hot, but most of the crowds leave for lunch. Evening is also a little better than morning I hear.
Lastly, there is the matter of sunrise and sunset. You've probably seen pictures of both in front of Angkor Wat, and they are undoubtedly beautiful. Again here, the reality is that you will be packed in like sardines if you go to Angkor Wat for sunrise, or to some of the other popular temples for sunset. To get to Angkor Wat for sunrise you will probably have to leave at 4am. Why? To stand in line of course! You'll have to fight for a spot at the front of the lake, and it's unlikely you'll get one. And then, of course, all of those crowds of people with go with you into Angkor Watt.... Instead, ask your driver to take you to Sras Srang for sunset. It's a lake not too far from Ta Prohm and the northwest corner of the small loop, and it can also be easily reached from the large loop. There are places to sit on a tiered hill, so if someone is in front of you, your view won't be blocked. I saw a lovely sunset there, and I think there were only about 10 other tourists. I sat chatting with my tuktuk driver enjoying the fabulous view and thinking about the wonderful experiences I'd had that day. Monkeys running around inside 8th and 9th century temples, walking amidst the giant banyan trees - Cambodia's Angkor area really does offer a magical experience and I highly recommend checking it out!