Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and is but a piece of the more important ancient city of Angkor. Scientists now believe that Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, containing some 1,000 square kilometers (390 sq miles). As a result, there are seemingly an endless number of temples to explore.
Things to Know Before Arriving
Tours of the ancient city are typically broken up into two pieces. The locals refer to them as the Short Tour and the Long Tour. The Short Tour consists of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei. The Long Tour is comprised of Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom (if you haven’t already been), Preah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup.
Angkor Archaeological Park tickets can be sold in a variety of lengths, but we will stick to the standard options. Essentially you can get a one-day ticket or a three-day ticket. The one-day ticket can be purchased the day of or before hand. The ticket will be good for one week from the date of purchase. The three-day ticket is the way to go, and it can be used for any three days within one week of the acquisition date. All tickets must be purchased in person.
Unless you have been highly recommended a particular guide or tour company, there is no need to arrange your trip before you arrive. Every hotel can set up your visit to the park, including finding you a driver and a guide.
What to Bring
- Comfortable shoes – the complex is massive, and there are tons of uneven stone steps and walkways.
- Camera and extra batteries if available – the photo opportunities are endless.
- Sunscreen and a hat, as there is only a tiny amount of shade to be found.
- Cash – there are chances to get food and refreshments at nearly every stop.
- Water – Stay hydrated.
Tips for Your Visit
Your options on these are limited by multiple factors. For starters the opening and closing times for the park are not uniform, different temple complexes have different hours. The next factor is the natural woodlands that surround the entire area. The trees are so tall in some sectors that seeing the sun is impossible, either that or they are blocking the sunlight from reaching the temples.
Sunrise is the most limiting, as only a handful of places open in time. Angkor Wat is the favorite location by far and has the crowds to match. Everyone is trying to line up on the same patch of land, that is roughly 50 meters across (the western end of the reflecting pond). To line up right along the edge, you must enter the park when it opens at 5 am, and walk directly to the lake to stake your spot.
This is the most popular location in the park, and sometimes you can find yourself sharing it with a thousand other people. Good photos can also be found from the Angkor Wat Basin or through the windows of either the North or South Library. If you are going go through all of the trouble to watch the sunrise, don’t leave until a few minutes after the sun is fully up for some of the best shots.
Sunset is even less appealing than sunrise. At least with the sunrise, you have the chance to get one of the temples in a photo, which is not the case for sunset. The two main spots that the guides have picked are more about watching the sunset in general, mostly over the jungle. The main one is a hill near Angkor Wat that they send people up, don’t even bother with this one, tons of people with nothing to see. Pre Rup is the temple option, and while it is your best choice, it too gets quite crowded; arriving early is a must.
There is no way not to benefit from having a guide accompany on your tour. In fact, we consider it mandatory. The sheer volume of information available for the temples is mind blowing. Understanding the different entryways, pathways, carvings, reliefs, statues, gods, and lucky numbers just to name a few, plays a huge role in getting the most out of your visit. If you are only doing a one-day visit, the guide can help streamline your tour, and you digest what you are seeing. If you are doing a three-day visit at least get a guide for the first day, and then you will have some background for understanding the other temples.
Angkor Wat is busy from sunrise thru to sunset. It is the most well-known temple, and also the one with the most details left intact. If you are traveling with a guide, expect him to spend a good amount of time there. The Bayon Temple inside Angkor Thom is also incredibly popular due to its many face statues. A good opportunity to hit this one is right when it opens at 7 am, or during lunch hour when most tours are on a break. Ta Prohm or the jungle temple is also extremely appealing amongst visitors, especially since the movie “Tomb Raider.” Mornings are also a good time to visit this temple but expect some people no matter what.
Preah Khan (on the long tour) and Banteay Kdei (on the short tour) both provided us lots to see and seemed to be overlooked by most of the crowds. Another temple that shouldn’t be missed is Banteay Srey. However, this temple takes a little extra effort to visit. You must request it with your driver, and he will most certainly add an extra fee for the 27 km round-trip journey. It is not very large, but it is dedicated to Shiva and full of intricate details.
If you are looking to go further afield and see all of the best temples in the area, I recommend a car trip to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. Beng Mealea is another temple where the jungle is putting in a lot of effort to reclaim the space. There are a few crumbling walls, but there is also a lot left to explore. Koh Ker is more like a small compound with 12 different temples to visit. Heather’s favorite was the Pram Temple and its tight grouping of five towers. You can also see the Thom Temple, which closely resembles a step pyramid that you can use an exterior staircase to climb.
Please remember that these are still active religious sites. You will see monks traveling throughout and worshipping at the different temple sites. Always be respectful to their beliefs. If you would like to take a picture of them, please ask first.
Beware of the monkeys around Angkor Wat! They can be very aggressive. If one lunges for a bag you are carrying with food; your best bet is just to drop it. We did not see very many monkeys, but the few we did see were constantly on the prowl for food.
- The temples are almost all a shade of gray, and with the contrasting bright blue sky, this can throw your exposure off. If you can pick up a Graduated Neutral-Density Filter to help keep detail in the sky.
- Also, there are many areas that are almost void of light, so think about a high ISO or a fast lens that has an f/stop between 1.4 and 4.
- Space can be limited in some areas so you may also want to bring a wide lens with you to get more detail in your shots.
Visas – Visas are required for almost all countries to enter Cambodia. Some countries can apply ahead online, and we chose to get our visas at the airport. Check with your local government for more details.
Money – While Cambodia has its own currency; don’t expect to use it very often. Every price we were quoted was in U.S. Dollars and every ATM we used distributed U.S. currency.
Weather – The best time of year to visit Angkor Wat is between November and March when the days are cooler and rain is less likely. June to October is your next best bet, while the temperatures are on the hotter side, rain is only occasional.
What We Did
Lodging: Shadow Angkor Residence in Siem Reap. Centrally located in the city with restaurants and shopping, including night markets, all within a few hundred meters. The hotel arranged all of our tours and got us a guide; all of them were top notch. I would recommend this hotel, and their pancakes were super tasty.
Guide: Our guide’s name was Mr. Sok Chea, and we booked him through our hotel. He was outstanding and full of knowledge on the temples. He also gave us a lot of information regarding recent history in Cambodia. You can find Mr. Chea at the following: Phone: +855-12-705-106, Email, or Facebook.
Extra: Looking for an alternative to the bars at night consider a visit to Phare, a Cambodian circus. It is essentially an acrobatics performance, but the subject matter was relatively mature, so I am not sure I would take young kids. We enjoyed the performance, and it is a good way to support local street children as they are the performers.
4 out of 5 Travelationship High Fives. Type of traveler rating – Historical, Bucket Lister, Spiritual, Adventure. Angkor Wat is a fascinating place to visit and is full of wonder and delight for all who make the trek.