Angkor Wat is one of my favorite places on the planet. I can’t imagine ever tiring of visiting this archaeological wonder. Many people don’t realize how much there is to see. I know I didn’t on my first visit, just three days, in 2010. The seven-day visit last month gave me a chance to see some of the key temples, (Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm), multiple times and at different times of the day. I was able to see many of the smaller temples that I hadn’t seen before. In some cases, I walked alone through the ruins. Since most of the temples are surrounded by jungle, I felt isolated, alone, imagining life a thousand years ago. With good planning on this latest trip, I had several hours in the early afternoon to kick back, swim in the hotel pool, catch-up on my reading and have a leisurely lunch. It was great. I didn’t feel like I needed to keep a breakneck pace. I wasn’t exhausting myself each day. Keep in mind this may be your only visit to this incredible place. Don’t cut it short. Make the most of it.
Planning your time at Angkor Wat is important. It allows you to see the most popular temples when the hordes of people are at a minimum and the lighting is good (early in the morning or late in the day). After all, isn’t it all about getting great photos? You don’t want a selfie in the boring, mundane light of mid-day or a photo with 20 other travelers in the picture. That’s not going to look good on Instagram or your Facebook page.
I have categorized the temples at Angkor Wat into three groups.
First, there’s the Big 3 (as I call them) – any visit must include these three locations. They are the most popular sites, which means they garner more visitors than any other. I imagine good photos of these temples are important to you. I know they are to me. The opportunities are best in the early morning or late afternoon. A travel photo book I read from one of the National Geographic Traveler photographers calls this “magic light”. The Big 3 are the following:
Angkor Wat is the focal point and most popular of all the temples. It is best visited at sunrise and in the late afternoon. It’s western facing so the best photos are later in the day. Two and a half hours before sunset is a good time to visit. The crowds are thinning at this time and the temple’s colors are brought to life with the setting sun.
Bayon is the centerpiece of Angkor Thom. It is best seen early in the morning (be there by 6:30 to 6:45) where you should have excellent access and photo ops. The sun should be up by this time. Remember, you can visit the temples beginning at 5:30 am. It’s better to get there a little early rather than later in the morning. There will be some individual tourists visiting in the early morning; however, the groups should not arrive until 8 to 8:30 am. Bayon is a small area and there are many, many photo ops (you in front of one of the stone faces or you peaking through one of the many windows or doorways). It’s very difficult to get these photos when there are a lot of people there. Late afternoon is also a great time to visit. The sections that didn’t get the early morning sun should be getting the late day sun. About two hours before sunset is good. The crowds are thinning. The groups are minimal. You’ll be amazed at the stunning photos you can get – provided it’s not cloudy. It’s great to have a tour guide for your visit to Bayon because they know all of the good photo angles, which are not always easy to find. If you’re a solo traveler, they will be your photographer, which is much better than selfies or constantly asking others to take your photo.
Ta Prohm, as seen in the late afternoon, is known as the "jungle temple".
Ta Prohm is known as the jungle temple or tomb raider temple. I suggest getting there by 6:30 to 6:45 in the morning and/or about two hours before sunset. Most groups do not arrive until after 8 am. The main attractions at Ta Prohm are the ruins that are enveloped by sponge trees and/or strangler figs (hence the name “jungle temple”) and the section (one of the most popular photo ops in the entire park) that was filmed in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie (hence the name “Tomb Raider temple”).
Next, there are three temples that are not a must see; however, I think you will find them very interesting. I suggest visiting these after finishing your morning visits to Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Preah Khan is a great temple to walk through. There are so many doorways and corridors you can almost get lost if you want. This temple does not receive as many visitors as the Big 3 so you have a little more room to yourself.
Banteay Kdei is similar to Preah Khan in that it’s a great temple to walk through; I love the early morning sun filtering through the open roof and down the narrow corridors making for some nice photos.
Banteay Srei is 37 km (23 miles), or about an hour tuk tuk ride, from Siem Reap. This temple is in good condition and does not receive as many visitors. I think there are more souvenir vendors than visitors. Another thing I like is the hour drive through the Cambodian countryside as the road winds its way past villages and wooden/bamboo homes built on stilts.
Lastly, there are the other temples such as Baphuon (in Angkor Thom), the Roluos Group, Ta Som, Ta Nei and a number of others.
Note that most temples will have a souvenir or food/beverage selling presence in front of the temple’s entrance. Some touts (or sellers) provide a little more persistence than others. A friendly “no thank you” is a good way to respond. If they persist, just continue to walk to the temple’s entrance. For the most part, they are not allowed inside. I have never had an issue once I get past the entrance to the temple.
Tour guides are very helpful and informative at the temples. They not only provide information about each specific temple you visit, they are very knowledgeable about the entire archaeological park. In addition, they know the best photo angles and can be your photographer whenever needed - great for solo travelers. You can request a tour guide from your hotel prior to arrival or upon arrival. Some people read the reviews (e.g. tripadvisor) prior to arrival and find a tour guide noted in a review. They then contact the hotel and/or tour guide directly setting up an appointment for post-arrival. If you reserve a specific guide prior to arrival, contact them and ask their opinion. Most will have e-mail. The verbal English should be pretty good; whereas, their written English might not be as good. They should know where to go, how to stay away from the large groups, what times to visit, etc. The tour guide that I used multiple times on my last trip cost $35 for the day ($45 if you want to include sunrise).
$20 USD for a 1-day ticket
$40 USD for a 3-day ticket (can be used within a 7-day period)
$60 USD for a 7-day ticket (can be used within a one month period)
Admission tickets are sold at a central ticket office located on the road between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Tickets are verified when you pass certain roadside checkpoints and at each temple. So remember to carry it with you when you leave your hotel each day. Otherwise, you’ll be taking an additional 30 to 45 minutes to go back and get it – valuable time wasted.
My Travel Op’s tips
Angkor Wat is the most popular place to view the sunrise. The large groups go inside the outer walls and stand in front of the pond that fronts the Angkor Wat temple. This can be a great photo when the crowds are smaller and the pond has more water (e.g. during the rainy season). During my visit last month (March), the pond did not have much water and it was still high season meaning there are many people vying for photos from a small area. Many individual travelers (including myself) stay outside the moat and get the water, the Angkor Wat temple and the rising sun in the photo.
Phnom Bakheng, located on the road between Angkor Wat and the south gate to Angkor Thom, is the most popular spot to watch the sunset. From the road, where your tuk tuk driver will drop you off or you park your bicycle, it’s about a 15 to 20 minute normal paced hike up a fairly compacted dirt road to the top of the hill. From there, you will climb a series of steps to the Phnom Bakheng Temple. I have been there for sunset. Personally, I do not care for it. Since they only allow 300 people to the top of the temple (there seemed to be more than 300 when I was there), you are forced to start the walk to the top about 4:15 (or about an hour and a half to two hours before sunset). Since this is late afternoon when the sun is lower on the horizon, you are missing some of the best times (great photo ops and less visitors) to visit the primary temples such as Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. Instead, you’re forced to get to the top of Phnom Bakheng well before sunset and just hang around. I would rather spend the time at one of the other temples and then view the sunset from Angkor Wat or the South Gate of Angkor Thom (see below). If you do go to the top of Phnom Bakheng, do not waste time holding a spot to watch from (my opinion). I find that people move around a lot on the top, which allows you to take photos from a number of angles. In addition, don’t delay your descent after sunset. There are no lights on the dirt road to the bottom. The other thing I do not like about Phnom Bakheng is that there’s nothing special about the sunset. It’s a great view of the sunset; however, there’s nothing else in the photo (e.g. the towers at Angkor Wat).
There are two spots that I like better for sunset viewing than Phnom Bakheng.
First, is the South Gate of Angkor Thom. I like to visit Bayon shortly before sunset when there are not many visitors and the lighting is great, and then take a short tuk tuk ride to the South Gate. From there, I can see the sun as it sets over the moat surrounding Angkor Thom. I am not sure if it sets over the moat all year round; however, it did when I was there in March. It was beautiful.
I also like to view the sunset from Angkor Wat. You can watch initially from inside the wall with the sun setting over the outside towers and then go outside the wall and watch it set with the moat between you and the setting sun. The temples officially close at 5:30 pm; however, the staff seems to let you watch the sunset before clearing people out.
For more information about Angkor sunsets, check out http://angkorsunsets.com. It’s got some good information to consider.
Early morning or late afternoon light is best; NOT in the middle of the day. Most of the temples face east so the morning sun provides the optimal time for photos. Angkor Wat, on the other hand, faces west so the afternoon is best – except for those sunrise shots.
Avoid the large tour groups
Large groups visit Angkor Wat at sunrise and go inside the wall. I suggest you visit Angkor Wat at sunrise but stay outside the moat. This is what many of the local tour guides suggest.
After sunrise, the large groups either stay and tour Angkor Wat or go back to their hotel to eat breakfast. I suggest you visit Bayon or Ta Prohm immediately after sunrise getting there by 6:45. Large groups start arriving at these popular sites at 8:00 to 8:30 am. If not viewing sunrise, then arrive at Bayon and Ta Prohm by 6:30 to 6:45 am.
Personally, I feel it’s much better to travel/sightsee on your own (or in a very small group up to four persons) than with a group tour. Traveling on your own allows you the flexibility to determine which temples to visit and on the days/times you want. It also allows you to spend as much or as little time at each location. Tour groups can be noisy when going through the temples – not something that I enjoy listening to.
Don’t under-estimate the heat and the humidity
There’s a lot of walking and climbing stairs. Even in the morning hours, you will become tired and sweaty. I suggest sightseeing from the early to late morning, then resting at your hotel (lunch, nap and swimming), then finish your sightseeing from 3:30 to just before sunset and then enjoy sunset somewhere. Most people travel in a tuk tuk. Some people bicycle throughout; however, if you do, make sure to have a good bike and carry adequate water with you. You can purchase water in various places.
There’s a large grass area just outside the moat on the west entrance to Angkor Wat. Many locals sit, relax, talk, and have something to eat here in the late afternoon before sunset. It’s a nice spot to kick back and just take in the whole scene.
Extending your stay a few days not only allows you to see more things and go at a more leisurely pace, it also provides a second chance to visit and photo the temples in case you have any rainy or cloudy days.
Air - there are a number of non-stop flights from Hong Kong, Singapore and cities in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, China, South Korea and the Philippines to Siem Reap
Bus - Giant Ibis from Phnom Penh is one of the best options. I’ve taken Giant ibis on several occasions. They use a large bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap which takes about 7 hours including a couple of stops. The bus is air-conditioned, has fairly comfortable seats and electrical outlets. Reservations, with seat assignment, can be obtained on their website. There were two drivers who split time driving plus a host on board. Currently, the road is partly paved and partly gravel. They appear to be in the process of paving the rest of the road.
Boat – I have not taken the boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. TourismCambodia.com states “though generally safe, these ferries are local transport and have experienced breakdowns, groundings and other difficulties. Travel is best during the wet season (June-November). Dry season low waters can mean smaller, less comfortable boats and occasional groundings.”
Train – none
Where to stay
I usually stay at the Pavillon d’Orient Boutique Hotel (#8 on tripadvisor’s list of hotels). I love this hotel. Rates are about $110 to $120 per night. There are 37 rooms with two gorgeous pools and an open-air restaurant (serving local and western food) and bar. Service is very friendly and efficient. Included in the rate is your own tuk tuk and driver from 5 am to 10 pm each day of your stay and transfer to/from the airport (or even the bus station) in a car. I arrived in Siem Reap, via the Giant ibis bus from Phnom Penh, at their bus station and my driver was right there waiting for me when the bus arrived about an hour late. There is an onsite spa that provides massage services starting at $10 per hour.
If this doesn’t work for you, there are over 240 hotels and over 380 B&B locations listed on tripadvisor.
Food and beverage
There are plenty of food and beverage opportunities in Siem Reap. I had dinner at Marum (#42 of 535 on tripadvisor), on two occasions, and Chanrey Tree (#35 on TA). Both have excellent Cambodian dishes (in addition to a variety of western) in a nice outdoor setting. I really enjoyed both restaurants. In addition, there are a number of cafes and bars in the area around Pub Street. Check them out.
Tuk tuk is the best, and easiest, way to get around the temples and Siem Reap. I find it to be a lot of fun and very relaxing. At the Pavillon d’Orient Hotel, I had a tuk tuk available to me throughout my stay. I had the same driver each day and I indicated to him when and where I wanted to go. It doesn’t really get any easier or more convenient.
Bicycle is another widely used option. Keep in mind that walking through the temples and climbing the stairs can be pretty tiring in the heat and humidity. Riding a bicycle from one temple to another will make you even more tired. If you do get a bicycle, make sure to get a good one with the seat well positioned that fits you well and has good tires. If you don’t, you might end up regretting it. Another thing about using a bicycle is that your time spent per temple is going to increase because it will take longer than a tuk tuk to travel between temples and to/from hotel.
Car can be another option. Check with your hotel if you want to hire a car and driver and with/without a tour guide.
Currency – everything is in USD, which you can obtain from the local ATMs in Siem Reap. Yes, you can obtain USD or Cambodian Riel. There is no need to get any Cambodian Riel because all transactions can be made in USD. It is very easy to travel throughout Cambodia using only USD.
Entry to Cambodia – a visa is required along with a valid passport that has at least six months validity remaining. The visa can be obtained upon arrival at the Siem Reap Airport. The fee is $30 payable in USD. You will need two passport size photographs. Most visitors, in my opinion, opt for the visa-on-arrival. The process is usually very quick.
When to go – November thru February is the best time to go from a weather perspective; however, it’s also the high season meaning larger crowds and higher lodging and possibly air prices. If you don’t mind the heat, late April and May is a good time to go. The crowds are smaller. It’s still somewhat dry and the prices are a little lower. Prices are the cheapest during the rainy season (June thru October).
November thru February (high season) – cool (relatively speaking) and dry
March thru May – hot and dry
June thru August – hot and wet
September thru early November – cool and wet
Health considerations – check with your travel healthcare professional. At the very least, you will probably need anti-malaria pills and possibly insect repellent. It’s going to be hot and humid so carry a hat, sunscreen, cool clothing and water. Some people carry an umbrella to keep the sun off.
Information and map - Canby Publications has a lot of information about all of Cambodia. I like the following Angkor map on their site.
A new ticket location is being completed. I am not sure of the estimated opening date.
There is talk of electric vehicles only being allowed into the Archeological Park – no tuk tuks. It’s unsure, based on what I heard, whether the tuk tuk drivers will become electric vehicle drivers. If not, this could significantly impact the tuk tuk drivers.
There are many ways in which you can plan a trip to Angkor Wat – which sites you see, when you see them, how long you stay, how you get around. The list can go on and on. The suggestions in this post are based on my experiences. I suggest using this blog as a guide when planning your trip.