Angkor Wat has always been at the top of the list for anyone visiting Cambodia. It is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and it remains at the heart and soul of history and culture of Cambodia to this day. Visiting the temples of Angkor is an absolute must for anyone traveling to Cambodia, but you don’t need me to tell you that!
First let’s get a few things straight. Despite popular belief, Angkor Wat is not the name of this famous UNESCO Heritage Site, but rather a name of just one of over 50 temples/ruins sights inside the Angkor Archeological Park, an area that spans over 400 square kms and houses famous Khmer Empire ruins that date back to the 9th through 15th centuries.
The Angkor Archaelogical Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, attracting millions of travelers to visit its sights on a yearly basis. That means that on a daily basis, there are roughly 5,000-6,000 people roaming around the park. That’s quite the crowd! Despite the fact that the park covers a massive area, tourist do tend to congregate around the most famous temples, snapping photos and often making you feel like you are visiting Disney World and not holy sites that draw thousands of monks and worshippers to its symbolic steps. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your Angkor Visit.
Best Way To Get To/Around the Park
There are lot of different options for getting to Angkor Archeological Park, but I strongly recommend that you hire a tuk-tuk. A daily tuk tuk rate is about $12-15 depending on what temples you are traveling to and whether you would like to get to the park by sunrise or not. Getting to the park by tuk-tuk will only take 20-30mins. You driver will wait for you at every temple, giving you as much time as you want to explore the ruins. They will also be a great source for local advice on temples, best times to visit, etc.
Your other options for getting to the park are:
a) You can arrange to join a tour group. While you might learn a bit more about the park from listening to a guide, you will likely only go to 2-3 main temples and miss out on the other less known, but just as spectacular “secondary” sites.
b) You can hire a car with a driver to take you around the park for the day. This luxury will set you back by $50-75 per day and in my opinion has no added value.
c) You can hire a bike and ride it around the part for only $1 per day. While this may sound like a great idea at first, it really isn’t for everyone. If you frequently ride at home and are able to travel for long distances, you may enjoy the experience. Otherwise, take a close look at the map and at the distances you’ll have to cover in a day, and you might want to reconsider. A ride to the park itself will take anywhere between 30-45mins, then account for about 15 mins between every site with hours of walking in between in hot and humid weather and you’ve got yourself a recipe for an exhausting day!
How Much Time Should You Spend at Angkor?
If you want to make the most out of your Angkor Archaeological Park visit, plan to spend at least 3 days exploring the park. Unless you are really short on time, don’t try to cram your visit into one day. One of the best things about visiting the Angkor Temples is having the time to read about each temple, to sit down, to reflect, and to allow yourself to picture each temple and each ruin in the ancient Khmer city that once stood on that site.
Exploring the temples takes a lot out of you. You’ll be walking from temple to temple, climbing the stairs to explore the intricate buildings, and trekking in the forest to reach some of the further set ruins. And the sun and humidity will only make it worse. If you’ve got the time, purchase a 3 Day Park Pass, which will set you back by about $40USD, and enjoy the chance to explore the park for 4-6 hours per day. I recommend the following rough itinerary:
Wake up early and head to Angkor Wat for sunrise. There is nothing more magical than catching the first glimpse of this stunning temple and its surroundings at dawn. Grab a good spot early, as hundreds of other visitors will be there to keep you company.
Right after sunrise, head over for your first day of exploring the ruins. Many others will go back to their hotels to catch some sleep and grab some breakfast, so you’ll have the luxury of visiting the ruins with minimal crowds. Straight after sunrise, start exploring Angkor Wat, then follow the main park road into Angkor Thom, passing through the South Gate. Inside, visit Angkor Thom’s famous ruins of the Bayon Temple, the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, and Phimeanakas Temple. Exploring Angkor Thom can take a few hours, leaving you exhausted!
Exploring Angkor Thom can take a few hours, leaving you exhausted! By around 10-11am, just as the crowds start to build up at the temples, you’ll be ready to head back. Don’t fight the exhaustion. You’ll have 2 more days to see a whole lot more of the park and the added benefit is that once you’ve had your power nap, you can spend the afternoon checking out other activities in Siem Reap.
Arrive at the park in the afternoon. Many people start their days around 9am and leave the park shortly after lunch, meaning the crowds always die down around mid-afternoon. Take advantage of this and spend your time exploring the ruins along the “Small Circuit”. Have your tuk-tuk take you straight into Angkor Thom complex, so you can start the day at the Terrace of the Elephants and head East, passing through Ta Keo Temple, Ta Prohm Temple, Prasat and Kravan Temple.
Finish your day on the Eastern side of Angkor Wat. Pack a picnic and settle down on the grass to enjoy a unique view of sunset over Angkor Wat Temple. By positioning yourself on the opposite side of the Temple and away from the crowds, you’ll get an unobstructed view of Angkor Wat at dusk.
A word of caution: Watch out for the monkeys! After sunset, they are EVERYWHERE! They may look cute (and they are..), but they are vicious creatures that will get inside your bag and steal your last apple… or two!
Today, you can arrive at your leisure and take your time to explore the lesser known temples around the “Big Circuit”. It’s the perfect day to explore the areas that other tourists miss . Have your tuk-tuk drop you off at Preah Khan Temple and then follow the big circuit road stopping at various ruins along the way. Choose between Prasat Prei, Banteay Prei, Krol Ko, East Mebon, Presat, and Pre Rup, or see them all!
While you can certainly spend more time exploring Angkor, most travelers will find that 3 days will give them plenty of time to check out all of the ruins. However, if you are a history buff, or an architectural photography enthusiast, or just someone who falls in love with heritage sites, you may need to purchase a 7-day pass to have the time to see every nook and cranny of the magnificent Angkor Archeological Park.
And Don’t Forget…
When visiting the temples of Angkor, be respectful. Wear clothing that covers your knees and shoulders, just as you would if you were visiting any religious site or holy space in Cambodia. The dress code is not strictly enforced, but short shorts and singlets/tank tops will be frowned upon and taken as sign of disrespect.
Take great care of yourself at the park. Remember to bring a lot of water and keep yourself hydrated, take frequent breaks by sitting down to admire the views and take in the significance of the park. Wear comfortable foot wear and be careful not to slip while climbing up and down the stairs.