Angkor Wat is one of the most stunning attractions in the entire world. It’s a bucket list item! And I was so glad to cross it off my bucket list when we visited Cambodia in January. And even though Angkor Wat is very popular, there are a lot of things I didn’t know before visiting that I wish I had.
So I’m sharing those things with you.
Angkor Wat is a temple complex located just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s one of the largest religious monuments in the world. It was constructed in the 12th Century, originally as a Hindu temple, and eventually was converted to a Buddhist temple.
The cool thing about these temples is that they are still reconstructing them to this day. Builders are hard at work putting these temples back together. And unlike many other monuments where you can only stare at a distance, in Angkor Wat you’re invited to walk right in and explore.
Visiting Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is best visited by day trips from Siem Reap. The closest temples are only 15-20 minutes away by car or tuk tuk. You can also bike, but I wouldn’t advise it in the heat and given how much walking you’re going to do.
To visit the temples, you need to buy a temple pass. These are sold in 1-, 3- or 7-day variations. If you do a multi-day pass, you don’t have to go on consecutive days; the three days can be spread over a week and the seven days can be spread over a month. Passes are purchased at an office about halfway between the Old Town of Siem Reap and the temples.
How long do I need?
Colin and I got the 3-day pass and I think that was perfect. While you can see a lot in just one day, you won’t be able to see everything. Three days is a great way to get a taste of the popular temples that are close by to Siem Reap, as well as some of the ones that are farther out. We spent 4 days in Siem Reap, so we even had a day off from temples, which was nice to avoid temple burn-out. I would suggest spending 4-5 days in Siem Reap and buying the 3-day pass.
When should I go?
Angkor Wat is always going to be busy. Expect crowds. Of course, high season (December to February) is going to be the most crowded. But that’s also when the weather is going to be the coolest (relatively speaking, it’s still freaking hot). We went in January, in the middle of high season, and didn’t find the crowds unbearable – especially not with some of my tips below! But I would think pushing it to the shoulder season of November or March would be the perfect mix of not boiling hot, not rainy season and not over crowded.
Do I need a tour guide?
Do you need one? No. Every tuk tuk and taxi driver in Siem Reap will know all about the temples and will be able to take you to whichever one you want. You don’t need to get on a tour bus that picks you up from your hotel and shuttles you along. And you definitely want to avoid the massive tour buses, as that means you’ll always be showing up to the temples with a ton of other people.
I would suggest getting from temple to temple by tuk tuk or taxi, not tour. But if you are looking for more information and historical context, you can hire guides to walk you around each temple. There are often guides waiting around the temple entrances ready to offer their services. We didn’t get a guide, though I think it would have been a cool way to make the visit even more memorable and meaningful.
Guess what? It’s not actually called Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the common name used for the entire temple complex. But “Angkor Wat” actually only refers to one temple, Angkor (“wat” means temple). There are tons of other temples in the complex, and Angkor is just one of them. But it’s the most popular! So the area is often called Angkor Wat even though more accurately it should be called Angkor or the temples of Angkor.
What to wear to Angkor
This is a biggie. As the temples are religious sites, it’s very important that you dress appropriately. Even if you’re not religious, it’s important to be respectful. The rules are also strictly enforced so don’t try to get around them.
Shoulders and knees must be covered. In general, I would say to cover from shoulder to knee, though I did see a few crop tops (which I don’t think technically follow the rules). If you don’t arrive dressed correctly, there will usually be scarves and pants available for purchase.
For those who wear dresses, I suggest buying a light-weight dress that covers your shoulders and knees. I am so in love with the dress I got from Old Navy. It fit the rules and was very flattering. Plus, with the A-line shape and loose sleeves, I was able to have some air flow. The last bonus? The bright red colour was a gorgeous pop against the darker coloured temples. I highly recommend a similar style and colour if you’re into dresses!
I did do pants and a thin sweater over a tank top one day and found it much less comfortable. Putting on a sweater when it is incredibly hot outside is another kind of torture. Do yourself a favour and avoid adding layers.
Footwear: I suggest wearing closed toe walking/running shoes. There were some people in sandals and even a few in heels and it just looked dangerous. The terrain in these temples is quite uneven and you’re often walking on dirt paths. As well, you are doing a ton of walking, so you want shoes that are comfortable and supportive.
How to stay cool
Cambodia is HOT! Especially if you’re not used to Southeast Asian heat. The entire temple complex is outdoors and you are required to keep your shoulders and knees covered. But despite this, it is possible and important to try your best to stay cool.
As you drive from temple to temple, enjoy the cool air (tuk tuk) or air conditioning (taxi) as well as the shade. And when you’re in the temples, seek out the shady spots. You can find places under trees or under structures that provide a little bit of shade.
Take breaks along the way. Temple hopping is hot and exhausting work. Take a moment to sit down at the temple (in the shade!) or make a longer stop for fresh fruit between temples. And, of course, drinks tons of water and wear sunscreen.
If you’re visiting the temples of Angkor, it’s essential that you head out first thing in the morning. If you go early in the day, it’ll be considerably cooler and less crowded.
Aim to arrive at the temples before 9:00 AM. That way, you can explore for a few hours and return to your hotel in time for lunch, a nap and a midday swim. This also gives you lots of time to do other activities in Siem Reap, because there is tons to do. I’m going to write another blog post soon about everything you can do in Siem Reap once temple burnout sets in.
Don’t lose your ticket!
Your ticket is your lifeline. You do not want to lose your ticket. When you get it, put it in a safe place but also a place that is easily accessible. That’s because your ticket will get checked all the damn time. At the entrance of each temple, your ticket will get checked. At random stops along the road, your ticket will get checked. If you do lose your ticket, you’ll have to buy a new one.
How much are tuk tuks/taxis?
If you’re visiting Angkor Wat, you’ll likely hire your taxi or tuk tuk for the day. They will pick you up from your hotel, drive you to the different temples, wait for you while you visit the temples, and, when you’re done, drive you back home. You can also stop for lunch or some shopping along the way. While they are hired for the day, it’s usually closer to half a day as that’s how long it will take you to do one of the temple routes (and how long before you’ll need a temple break).
Cambodia uses USD, so prices for tuk tuks and taxis will be quoted and paid in USD. You may see some Cambodian Riel and receive it as change at restaurants or shops, but it’s incredibly hard to pay with as the bills are worth so little. Colin literally had a stack by the end of our time in Siem Reap and it was worth less than $1.
Prices for tuk tuks and taxis will vary. Obviously, taxis will be more expensive. For the Small Circuit, I think we paid $30-35, including sunrise at Angkor Wat which adds a premium, with a tuk tuk. And for the Grand Circuit, we paid $20, with a tuk tuk. We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, which was $10, but I think we got a little ripped off.
Bargaining is allowed and you are welcome to negotiate prices. Doing the sunrise at Angkor or visiting a temple farther out of town will cost more. But generally, in the $20-30 price range for the day sounds about right.
Should you take a tuk tuk or taxi?
We preferred the tuk tuks. They’re cheaper than the taxis and feel like a more unique way to get around. I’d say they’re “authentic” but the majority of people in tuk tuks (and in Siem Reap, for that matter) are tourists. But it is still a very cool experience! And you can enjoy “tuk tuk AC” – aka the cool wind that comes through the tuk tuk as you’re driving along. While the tuk tuks are slower than the taxis, there’s not much of a difference in journey time.
I would suggest a taxi for longer trips. We went out to Banteay Srei on tuk tuk and it was a very long time to be in that mode of transportation. We were quite sore and numb by the time we got out.
What are the routes?
The two main routes of Angkor are the Small Circuit (Angkor, Bayon and Ta Prohm temples) and the Grand Circuit (Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup temples). Every driver will know these routes. And most will have a map of the routes in their car or tuk tuk. The Small Circuit is the heavy hitters. If you only have one day, these are the must-see temples. Angkor, the namesake, is the temple everyone flocks to for sunrise (more on that later). Bayon is the temple of faces. And Ta Prohm is best known as the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed.
The Grand Circuit is an extension of the Small Circuit. So you’ll be driving some of the same roads, just hitting different and farther away temples. These temples are a bit smaller but still incredibly impressive and worth a visit (well, except for one of them. More on that later!).
Besides these two main routes, there are more temples farther out of Siem Reap. We visited Banteay Srei, about an hour out of town, and it was beautiful. And even along the Small Circuit and Grand Circuit route, there are a few other tiny temples you can also stop at.
Is sunrise worth it?
One of the big to-do items is see the sun rise over Angkor Wat (at the Angkor temple specifically). This is a very popular activity and requires you to wake up very early. Crowds and an alarm clock? Two things I try to avoid while on vacation. As we were reading about Angkor, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it.
Luckily, we showed up in Siem Reap and I had changed my tune. I figured, when is the next time I’ll be at Angkor Wat? Surely I can wake up a little bit early for this. And plus, we were still a little bit jet lagged, as we had only been in Asia for a couple of days, so that helped us wake up early.
We met our tuk tuk driver outside of our hotel at 5:15 am. Note that times may vary. We already had our tickets, so didn’t have to stop to buy those. We also definitely were not the first people there. If you want a front row seat, you’ll need to get there even earlier.
When you show up, it’s going to be dark. Remember, you’re there for the sunrise so there’s not much sun up yet. I would suggest getting your phone flashlight out to help guide you as it’s a bit of a walk from the main entrance to where you stand for the sunrise (including over a floating bridge).
Once you get closer to the temple, you’ll see the crowds gathered for sunrise. The best view is from the left viewing pond, which will be the more popular one. Don’t let the crowds scare you away. We were in the second/third row of people standing – there’s also a section of sand in front of that where people sit – and had a great view. Once you’ve found a decent spot, stick to it. You don’t want to lose it.
And then, you wait! Vendors will be around and happy to sell you tourist trinkets or even coffee and breakfast. But it’s a lot of standing there. Which yes, can be tiring and boring. But you are literally watching a gorgeous sight happen (albeit, quite slowly) in front of your eyes.
There’s not one single moment when the sunrise is best. It’s a series of moments. At first you can only see shadow. And then you start to see blues and oranges in the sky. Of course, the money shot is Angkor Wat reflected in the pool (which is why the left viewing pool is more popular; you don’t see the reflection in the right viewing pool).
My advice: Stick around. The crowds begin to disperse when the sun starts to peek out from behind the temple. But the view is still gorgeous! So take the opportunity to move around and take in the sun from different view points.
Once you’ve gotten every sunrise photo you can think of, it’s time to head into Angkor Wat. Surprisingly, many people just come for the sunrise and then leave. But this is the perfect time to head into Angkor and explore. The temple is much quieter and cooler than any other time of the day. I was so surprised how much of the temple grounds we had to ourselves and how nice it was to explore before the sun started beating down.
How to add in a sunset viewing FOR FREE!
This is by far my best tip for Angkor Wat and I’m so glad I read about this online before we arrived.
On your first day, you’ll likely arrive in Siem Reap in the afternoon. Head to your hotel, check in and then get ready for a sunset viewing at one of the temples – for free!
Here’s how it works: remember the 1-day, 3-day and 7-day tickets? They are actually good for 1/3/7 full days as well as the evening before. So what you want to do is go to the Angkor Wat ticket office in the late afternoon (around 5:00 PM, but your driver can confirm the time) and purchase a ticket. You’ll pay for it, get your photo taken and receive your ticket.
You can then head out to a temple for exploring and sunset views, and your ticket won’t be stamped until the next day! So you get a bonus afternoon without eating into any of your paid temple time.
Beyond getting an extra few hours of temple time for free, this is also a great way to save you time in the morning, especially if you’re trying to make it to Angkor for sunrise. You won’t have to wake up even earlier and stand in line to buy your ticket – you can just head straight to the temple.
I’m very glad we went with this option, arriving at Pre Rup temple in time for sunset. I don’t think we would’ve seen a sunset otherwise, as we did most of our other temple days bright and early and were exhausted well before the sun was setting. Pre Rup was a cool temple to explore and had a nice view, but it’s nothing on the sunrise at Angkor. And, be warned, there are some very steep steps to get to the top of Pre Rup!
Visiting the farther away temples
Besides the temples close by Siem Reap on the Small Circuit and the Grand Circuit, there are temples farther out of town too. You’ll have to do your research on where these temples are and which ones are worth the trek.
We visited Banteay Srei which was about an hour outside of Siem Reap via tuk tuk. In hindsight, we probably should’ve taken a cab for that long of a drive. I really enjoyed Banteay Srei; in fact, I think it was my favourite temple. But I’m glad we didn’t drive an hour just for that. We combined it with a visit to the Cambodian Landmine Museum, which was really incredible.
The farther away temples are generally less busy than the close ones, though Banteay Srei still felt pretty popular. And some of the really far away ones require an additional fee to enter. So make sure you do your research. But if you want to get off the beaten path and explore more of the temples of Angkor, definitely add these to your list.
Do the Grand Circuit better than we did
As we were doing the Grand Circuit route, we realized something: This would be so much better if you did it in reverse! That way, you would be going in the opposite direction of the crowds and ending with the most beautiful temple (in my opinion). You would also be able to tackle the most physically exhausting temple, Pre Rup with the stairs, earlier in the day before it’s sunny and you’re tired.
Another way to improve the Grand Circuit? Skip Neak Pean. I loved our time at Angkor but Neak Pean was a huge let down. It’s the only temple we visited where you can’t actually go inside. You get to stare at a small monument from across the water. And to get there, you have to walk on a long narrow bridge without any shade. Maybe if this was our first temple, we would’ve been game. But this was temple six or seven, and we were unimpressed. It was hot and crowded, and going to Neak Pean just wasn’t worth it. Skip!
Be conscious of others
This should be obvious. But unfortunately, it’s not at Angkor Wat. Remember that you are one of so many tourists trying to explore the exact same place. This is not your private photo shoot. This is not your personal temple. Everyone else wants to walk on the same path that you’re on and grab that same photo.
So just be considerate. Don’t stop walking in the middle of a narrow path because you will be blocking everyone behind you. If you need to take a photo, step to the side. And if you need to be in a photo, try to take it as quick as possible.
But of course, you know all this. It’s the other tourists we have to worry about 😉
Step away from your camera
I took so many photos while we were visiting the temples of Angkor. So so so many photos! It’s hard to put your camera down when you are walking through stunning temples with incredible architecture and hidden details all over the place.
But it is so important to take a moment and step out from behind the lens. Snap your photo and then put your camera down. Just absorb it all with your own eyes for a moment. Photos are supposed to remind us of our experiences and trigger memories. But if your only memory is from behind a screen, that’s not exactly what you want to be remembering.
Angkor Wat is definitely one of the most stunning places I have ever been. I’m so glad we had a chance to visit on our Southeast Asia trip. It was one of the highlights of the trip – in fact, one of the highlights of all of my trips! If you ever have a chance to visit, do it!
Have you ever been to Angkor Wat? Let me know what you thought of it!
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