Our tenth date was the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We had met each other shortly before my trip to Asia. Only shortly after my departure, Sebastiaan decided to book a ticket. As a brand new couple in love, we saw the sunrise over the Cambodian temples on our tenth date. But you don’t have to be here with your new love to feel the magic here. Angkor Wat is like walking around on the film sets of Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider and Jungle Book. In this blog we give you the best tips to make your trip to Angkor Wat as unforgettable as ours was!
What is Angkor Wat?
Let us clarify something right away: Angkor Wat is not what everyone means by it. The huge temple area in Cambodia should actually be referred to as the Temples of Angkor or – even shorter – Angkor. Angkor Wat itself is one of those temples. The largest and most important to be precise. The one where everyone gathers around sunrise.
The Angkor temples are spread over an area of approximately 400 km². For hundreds of years, this was the capital of the Khmer Empire. King after king built his temple here to worship the gods. Little is left of the city now as the wooden houses have not survived the time. But the jungle has slowly taken over the stone temples and preserved them. For the past 150 years, archaeologists have been digging up the temples and restoring them.
Siem Reap is the perfect base for visiting Angkor
The base for visiting Angkor is the town of Siem Reap. Because Angkor is the most visited place in Cambodia, this town is flooded with tourists. Everything you might need on your travel, you’ll find here. From a cheap hostel to a luxury hotel with a private swimming pool. From local street food to a pub street. And there is much more to do in Siem Reap and the surrounding area than just Angkor. We also visited huge Tonle Sap Lake and the floating villages.
Tip: Siem Reap has an international airport. Tickets to Siem Reap are sometimes cheaper than those to the capital Phnom Penh.
Arrange your own tuktuk
Because Angkor is so big and the climate is very hot and humid, you don’t want to visit the temples on foot. We also believe it would be difficult and uncomfortable to ride a bicycle, as some people do around the area. So if you really want to go on your own, consider a motorbike. But we highly recommend you to rent a tuktuk with a driver. Your driver will then pick you up at your hostel or hotel and drop you off again after your visit.
Make sure you coordinate exactly with your driver the itinerary you want to take during your visit. Do you have no idea? Then your driver will just drive his own standard lap. That is of course a great way of visiting the temples as well, as your driver knows all too well what the highlights are. But if you know exactly where you want to be and where you want to see the sunrise or sunset, make that clear. And don’t forget to discuss the exact price as well. The price will go up, if you want to visit more temples or ones that are further away from the main highlights.
Tip: pay attention to the colours and characteristics of your tuktuk. At some busy temples, dozens of tuktuks are waiting for the tourists. You will be happy if you know what to look for to find the right one.
How much time do you need for Angor?
You can spend as much time in Angkor as it fits in with your travel itinerary. There are tickets for a day, but also for 7 days. The area is so large that even with a 7-day ticket you won’t see everything, so let go of that illusion right away. And moreover, I believe that you will be templed out much earlier to fully use that 7-day ticket.
We recommend to plan 2 or 3 days for Angkor. You can then visit the temple area in the early mornings and rest at your hotel in the hot afternoons. Start as early as possible to enjoy a sunrise each morning and to avoid the heat. You will then also have the opportunity to visit the busiest temples before they are flooded by the tourist buses.
There are a number of things to keep in mind when you visit Angkor. First of all, remember that this is not only a tourist attraction but also a sacred place. Adjust your clothing accordingly or bring something to cover yourself.
You can buy a ticket for Angkor at the ticket center between Siem Reap and Angkor. There are tickets for 1 day or for 3 or 7 days. The prices are respectively 36, 62 and 72 dollars. You should use your 3-day pass within 10 days and the 7-day pass within a month. The tickets are personalised with a photo that is made on the spot.
Most temples are only open from 7.30 am, so well after sunrise. But a few temples are open much earlier, including Angkor Wat of course. You are welcome there from 5 a.m. in the morning for the famous sunrise. Please note that the ticket center is only open at 4.30 a.m. and usually people have already been lining up there much earlier.
That way you avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat
Our most important tip: do not wait for the sunrise, but get inside immediately. As soon as there is enough daylight, you should visit the temple. So that is during the sunrise. The light is magically beautiful and you will be almost alone. The moment you get outside again, you will have the picture perfect sunrise moment: the sun just above the temple. Make some nice pictures of the famous reflection in the water with the rest of the crowd. But when the rest will then go see the temple, you can continue to the next place. You will be almost alone there as well.
Tip: avoid Phnom Bakheng around sunset. This temple on top of a hilltop is the most popular place to see the sunset. Although in the Angkor area you should normally just go where all the others go – as with the sunrise at Angkor Wat – that does not apply here. The small temple cannot handle that amount of tourists anymore and therefore a maximum of 300 visitors has been set. That number is reached so quickly full that even the hill around the temple is usually full of visitors.
The most beautiful temples of Angkor
# 1 Angkor Wat. This main temple is of course at the top of this list. This is one of the largest religious buildings in the world. You will for sure be amazed at its size. It has hundreds of meters of reliefs that tell the best stories. It is worth paying for a guide to explain the stories to you. Or buy a guide book that you can use as we did to understand the stories. With a little luck, one of the monks will invite you to a blessing in the front part of the temple.
# 2 Ta Prohm. This is the Tomb Raider temple you may have heard about. Here you can see how the jungle overgrew the Angkor temples. Trees grow on the temples and you walk under the canopy of the forest. Ta Prohm is therefore especially a nice place to visit in the middle of the day when it is too hot in the sun.
Tip: because of the heat many tourist leave Angkor in the early afternoon. So if you get to Ta Prohm in the hot afternoons, it is much more quite and peacefull around here. I visited this temple twice. The first time in the middle of the day we were almost by ourselves here, while the second time in the morning we could only shuffle shoulder by shoulder with all the other tourists through the temple.
# 3 Bayon in Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat may be unique in its size, but Angkor Thom is unique in its own way. Angkor Thom was a walled city within the Angkor area and that wall is still there. Inside the walled area, you will find some of the most beautiful temples including Bayon.
The Bayon temple has no less than 54 towers with large faces in stone on all four sides. Can you imagine how you are being looked here by 216 huge stone faces? Just like at the Angkor Wat temple, Bayon is surrounded by walls telling ancient stories in relief. Take your guide book again for some explanation to make the artwork come to life.
# 4 The gates of Angkor Thom. I already mentioned that Angkor Thom is walled. There are gates on all four sides. You will probably pass through the south if you come from Angkor Wat to Angkor Thom. This one is very well restored and gives you a good impression of ancient Angkor. The other gates are a lot less frequently visitied. So if you want to be able to take some photos without the crowds, go there.
# 5 Baphuon. This temple is a magical place for me. I visited the Angkor Wat temple so early – during the sunrise itself – I was also super early at both Bayon and Baphuon. We explored the temples in peace and quiet with hardly any other visitors. The soft morning light was beautiful and the sound of birds made it a magical experience.
Tip: as you probably don’t want to spend half of your day in the tuktuk, I recommend you to walk around Angkor Thom. It makes a nice to walk from Bayon to Baphuon and further through Angkor Thom. Make sure to walk along the Phimeanakas temple – you cannot enter it though – and past the smaller temples and the water.
# 6 Pre Rup. Save some energy if you want to visit this temple, because the stairs are steep and high. Archaeologists suspect that the temple was used as a crematorium. Because the highest level is so high, I was told it gets busier at the end of the day for the sunset view over the rice fields.
# 7 Ta Keo. You are probably leaving Angkor Thom via the western gate on your route to the Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm. Right next to that gate you will find Ta Keo. Though you may already be a bit templed out, you might want to visit this one. This temple is quite impressive in size, even though it wasn’t even finished.
# 8 Preah Khan. This temple is located just north of the Angkor Thom area and is a huge maze. It is a bit like the famous Ta Prohm, as here too jungle and temple are intertwined.
Our itinerary for 2 days in Angkor
I have incorporated the temples above – and many more – into the perfect itinerary for two days in Angkor. Do you just have one day? Then just stick the one for the first day, so you can visit the well-known highlights.
The first day (orange on the map) starts super early with sunrise at Angkor Wat. Visit the temple during the sunrise itself and then go through the southern gate to Angkor Thom. Visit Bayon and Baphuon there, but especially take some time to walk past all the temples in this walled area. Then continue your way through the eastern gate to Ta Keo and then visit the Tomb Raider Temple. After this Indiana Jones experience, you are probably a bit done with all the temples for this day.
But can you handle some more temples? Or do you maybe have only one day around the area of Angkor? Then I suggest you ask your tuktuk driver to drive you to Pre Rup and/or Banteay Kay.
Time for the second day (green on the map)! Your trip will bring you deeper into the jungle. You can watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat again first, but then continue quickly to the temple area north of Angkor Thom. On this day you’ll make a tour around the large lakes over there. The temples are less crowded here, so you enjoy much more relaxed visitis. Start with Preah Khan and continue with Prasat Leek and Banteay Knit, Jayatataka in the water, Ta Som, the elephants of Mebon, Pre Rup, Banteay and Prasat Kravan. Yes, that is quite a full program, but I also promise that many of the temples are a bit smaller than the ones on the first day.