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At Angkor Wat, ‘You Have One of the World’s Wonders to Yourself’

ANGKOR WAT, Cambodia — Standing shoulder to shoulder, jostling for the perfect angle, hordes of tourists used to gather before dawn each morning to watch the sun rise over the magnificent ancient temple of Angkor Wat.

Motivating this multinational scrum was the chance to capture an iconic photograph of the monument’s spires mirrored on the surface of a nearby pond.

“It was like a sea of people in front of the reflecting pool,” said Rares Ispas, a dentist from New Zealand, recalling his visit to the celebrated Cambodian monument four years ago.

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But that was before Covid-19 brought global tourism to a screeching halt.

This time, on a visit in late January, Dr. Rares and his wife were treated to a sublime experience that may never come again: They were almost alone at Angkor Wat, a bucket-list destination for untold millions whose enormous crowds could make the experience feel more like a theme park than a sanctum.

“This was the perfect opportunity,” said Dr. Rares, who now lives in Singapore. “You can’t help but feel a bit special when you have one of the world’s wonders to yourself.”

Cambodia, a nation of 17 million people wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, reopened to fully vaccinated tourists in mid-November with entry requirements among the least restrictive in Asia.

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The country, headed by Asia’s longest-serving authoritarian leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, was recently ranked second only to Taiwan in the Nikkei Covid-19 Recovery Index for its successful handling of the pandemic. With 84 percent of the population fully vaccinated, daily cases fell to nearly zero in December but have been rising with the Omicron variant, and are now averaging about 350.

Even so, the sprawling Angkor Wat complex, considered the world’s largest religious structure, has sat largely empty during this peak tourist season, which runs from November to March.

Local residents say the last time there were so few tourists here was in the early 1990s, when the country was recovering from decades of civil war and the Khmer Rouge genocide known as the “killing fields,” which wiped out a generation of leaders, teachers and intellectuals.

In the years before the pandemic, the Angkor complex — a stunning collection of Hindu and Buddhist temple complexes in various stages of ruin and restoration — was one of the most popular destinations in Southeast Asia and a major source of foreign revenue for the country. More than 6.6 million international tourists visited Cambodia in 2019, more than a third of them from China. But last year, fewer than 200,000 foreign visitors came.

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A few miles from the Angkor Archaeological Park, the city of Siem Reap was once overflowing with tourists who packed its hotels, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. But during what should be the high season, it felt like a ghost town.

Most businesses were closed, and many workers had left for the countryside. Until recently, a “Happy New Year 2020” sign still hung prominently over one of Siem Reap’s main streets, as if the town had been frozen in time. The once-thriving night market had become a dark, desolate street.

Among those in Siam Reap forced by the pandemic to shut their doors were Chin Meankung and his wife, Botum Nay, owners of the Khmer Grill, a restaurant so popular that foreign tourists lined up on the sidewalk waiting for a table.

Before they reopened in December in anticipation of the tourists’ return, Mr. Chin and Ms. Botum often took their children to visit the deserted archaeological park. “We love for the temples to be peaceful,” Mr. Chin said. “But it is also a very sad thing to see because, economically, Siem Reap is a town that relies solely on tourism.”

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Since Cambodia’s reopening, the number of overseas tourists has been gradually increasing. On one morning in early March, several dozen tourists attended the Angkor Wat sunrise, up from just a handful.

But at lesser-known temples like Preah Palilay, where moss-covered faces carved into stone peer out from the ruins, it is still possible to spend hours in contemplation without seeing another visitor. In the stillness and solitude, it is easy to imagine that you alone had just rediscovered these monuments from a different age, so long swallowed up and kept secret by the jungle.

At the popular Bayon temple, famous for its giant stone heads, one of the few visitors was a monkey that felt free to wander around, climbing to the top of one of the massive stone towers, surveying the scenery from its high perch.

Cambodia’s reeling tourism industry got a significant lift in mid-December when Singapore Airlines resumed service between Singapore and Siem Reap, the first international flights to arrive since March 2020. Earlier this month, Thai Smile began flying again between Bangkok and Siem Reap.

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Over the past 15 months, Siam Reap received a major face-lift, with nearly 70 miles of newly paved roads, renovated sidewalks and re-landscaped parks along the small Siem Reap River, which flows through town. Newly built bike paths connect Siem Reap and the temples.

“I’ve settled on cycling as the best way to discover the nooks & crannies of the spectacular Angkor Archaeological Park,” the United States ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, posted on Twitter in January. “The new bike paths help!”

Angkor was once the seat of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia between the ninth and the 15th centuries. At its height, Angkor is believed to have had a population of nearly one million, making it one of the world’s largest cities at the time.

In the mid-19th century, French explorers were stunned to come across the temples, many of them completely overgrown by vegetation. International efforts to stabilize and restore the temples began soon after, only to be disrupted by the bloody conflicts that engulfed the country in the 1970s and 1980s before resuming in the early 1990s.

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Tourism to Angkor got a major, global boost in 2001, when the ancient city was highlighted in the film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” The movie was partly shot at Angkor Wat and at Ta Prohm, a temple beloved for the huge 200-year-old trees that grow from the ruins.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, hundreds of tourists at a time would line up at Ta Prohm to take photos of themselves standing by tree roots that wrap around the temple walls like giant snakes. Now, the temple sees fewer visitors than that in a day, said Long Sineout, a caretaker who has been working there for more than a decade.

“You see the photo spot by that tree?” he asked, pointing to a deserted wooden platform in front of huge roots that help hold a temple wall in place. “It was so crowded that people had to wait their turn.”

Tourism revenue aside, some younger Cambodians say they miss the large crowds at the temples, where mingling with fellow Cambodians and people from all over the world is part of the attraction for locals.

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“There are two ways of thinking,” said Deourn Samnang, 25, a tech worker from a neighboring province. “We like to go to a place with a lot of people and see the other people. Western people like to go to a place and see the nature.”

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