A Beginner’s Guide to Angkor Wat

by stephmylifetravel

A UNESCO world heritage site and one of the main draws for tourists in South East Asia, the Angkor temple complex is a stunning glimpse into 12th century Khmer civilisation. Spread over 248 square miles, there are over 50 temples to be discovered and most tourists only visit a handful of these – so there’s always a chance to get away from the crowds and explore a temple by yourself. Tim and I have been three times and we’ve barely scratched the surface! Whether you’re a first time visitor or a seasoned veteran, my Angkor Wat Guide gives you all of the information you need for your visit to these fascinating temples!

If you’re a returning visitor then skip to the end to see my favourite temples that aren’t on the usual tourist trails. Maybe I can entice you to pay another visit and go beyond Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, the Bayon and Ta Phrom!

The Angkor Wat temples were built around the 12th century and constitute the largest temple complex in the world. Angkor Wat was built over a period of 30 years by the Khmer people for King Suryavarman II and at one point over 1 million people lived within its walls. A little confusingly, ‘Angkor Wat’ is the name of the largest and most important temple in the area, but is also used to refer to the entire complex of temples at Angkor.

 

Angkor Wat Ticket Information

To access the temple complex you will need to buy a 1-day (37USD), 3-day (62USD) or 7-day pass (72USD). If you’re staying for 2 days you’ll have to buy a 3-day pass and anything over 3 and you’ll have to buy a 7-day pass. Plan your timings well so that you don’t end up paying for unused days on your pass.

  • A 1-day ticket can only be used on the day you buy it (unless you buy it after 5pm, in which case you can use it that evening and the next day).
  • A 3-day ticket can be used any three days within a 10 day period. Your card is simply stamped each day you go so you don’t need to let them know which days you want to visit in advance.
  • A 7-day pass can be used for a whole month from the date of purchase. Like the 3-day pass, your card will be stamped until your 7 days are used up. This is a great option if you’re in Asia for a few weeks and flying in and out of Siem Reap.

Ticket offices are located outside of the temple grounds at 4 locations, and are open from 5am – 5:30pm each day. If you buy your pass after 5pm your ticket is valid for that evening and the next day, so you can watch the sunset AND get a full days sightseeing from a 1 day ticket.

You can pay in cash in USD or by card (Visa, Mastercard, UnionPay, JCB, Discover and Diners Card are accepted).

 

Angkor Wat Temple Dress Code

Angkor Wat Guide

You’ll need to cover your arms and legs to get into any of the temples. You don’t need to wear jeans or a full shirt, you can wrap your legs in a pashmina and cover your shoulders with one if you prefer. That way you can ride around in the heat in more appropriate clothes. Tim usually wears jean shorts and a t-shirt to go to the temples, so guys don’t need full trousers either but make sure your shorts reach the knee. There’s no dress code for shoes so you can wear what you like. I usually wear rubber flip flops, or you might prefer trainers for walking around all day. Be aware that your shoes will come back covered in red dust so don’t wear anything you can’t wash. To get to the top of the main Angkor Wat temple you will need to be wearing trousers and a shirt or t-shirt. You won’t get in with a pashmina wrapped around you, but again guys can wear shorts and get in. The dress code for the top of the Angkor Wat temple is stricter than a West London nightclub on a Saturday night so don’t even queue if you don’t have proper sleeves and trousers on.

What to bring

Bug spray, high factor sun lotion, water, cash for lunch and cover ups to enter the temple. And I know this sounds obvious but don’t forget to bring your pass with you, you’d be surprised at how many people forget it on their second or third day.

I would really recommend bringing a book or guide with some history about the temples, even just a PDF saved on your phone. There have been a few times where we have found some fantastic temples away from the crowds and sat at the top chatting or watching the sun set and wished we knew more about where we were sitting.

 

Where to stay in Siem Reap

Downtown Siem Reap is where most visitors to Angkor Wat choose to stay, and where we always stay when we’re there. It’s just 7km from the entrance to the Angkor Wat complex so it’s within easy driving distance for sunrise or sunset and there are lots of options to eat, drink and sleep. There are a huge number of restaurants, hotels and hostels in Siem Reap town along with a night market and the infamous Pub Street where people go for a night out. After a day of seeing the temples you’re usually just fit for a meal and a good sleep so staying in the town makes sense as you won’t have to travel anywhere once you’re back.

We always stay at Garden Villa Guesthouse on Funky Lane. It’s a large backpacker hostel with super cheap double and dorm rooms plus a large swimming pool and bar that’s open 24 hours. There’s usually a good party there in the evenings and they even have pool beer pong, or if you don’t feel like getting involved you can relax in one of the poolside cabanas. Rooms are simple but clean – try to get one at the back so you don’t hear music from the bar.

There are some great places to eat super cheap Khmer food on Sok San Road – the section between Funky Lane and Angkor Wat Night Market Street. As you get onto the Night Market street and towards Pub Street, prices increase but food quality decreases. You’ll pay $5 for a good meal on Sok San, then a couple of minutes walk will get you to Pub street for drinks.

 

How to get around the Angkor Wat Temples

You have a few options for how to tour the temples. The right one for you will depend on your budget, desired comfort level, and driving skills.

Hire a driver

You can hire a private driver for around $30 per day for a 4 seater car to take you around the temples. The driver won’t act like a tour guide but will just bring you where you need to go and wait outside. If you find it hard to handle extreme heat and have a bit more money then this would be a good option.

Hire a Tuk Tuk

For just $10-15 per day you can hire a Tuk Tuk to bring you around the temples. You’ll have to forgo the air conditioning and leather-seated comfort of a private car but riding around those temples in a traditional Tuk Tuk really adds to the whole experience.

One bit of advice if you’re doing this though, don’t expect your driver to know the complex well or to go out of his way to make the experience better for you by bringing you to less popular temples. He will probably just want to take you the top sights, then bring you home and get paid. Have your list of temples planned out before you go, with a marked map, and tell him in advance if you want to go to any distant temples. He may charge more to account for petrol. We’ve tried to wing it before and ask our driver (“Spider”) to show us some off-the-beaten-track temples – he agreed and then just took us to the main sites anyway!

Self Drive

For me, this is easily the best way to see the temples! You have the freedom to go wherever you want, and to explore and discover these magnificent temples for yourself, avoiding the crowds and channelling your inner Lara Croft. You can rent a motorbike, scooter or eBike in Siem Reap town starting from $10-15 per day. There’s a scooter / ebike rental shop right across the road from Garden Villa Guesthouse where we got ours on our last trip.

Be aware that there are a few downsides/risks associated with exploring this way. Firstly, Cambodian driving is really chaotic, to put it mildly (a more accurate word might be ‘insane’)! We’ve ridden scooters all around South East Asia and found Siem Reap tough to drive around. People will pull out in front of you without looking, dogs will run into the road at the last minute, traffic is really heavy in the city and there are no discernable rules, so drive really carefully. This is not the place to learn how to ride! Driving around the temples is easier than the city as the roads are clear and flat, but that 20 minute ride from Siem Reap town to the entrance can be a bit hairy.

Another thing to note is that you are not technically allowed to drive motorbikes or scooters without a Cambodian license. We have driven scooters there without any problems from the police, but be aware that it’s a risk, especially given that you’ll be asked to leave your passport as a deposit. We tried e-bikes on our most recent visit – they are eco-friendly and legal, but they’re also frustratingly slow and need to be charged regularly.

Organised tours

It pains me to give advice about organised tours here (it would be an understatement to say I’m not a fan), but in the interest of giving you all of your options here we go!

There are many tours that you can take around the complex which can be booked through any tour company in Siem Reap town, even at very short notice. They do full day, half day, sunrise and sunset tours to the top temples in the complex that start from $25 per person.

You’re usually driven in an air con mini van with a guide and there will be a lunch stop.  Organised tours are the easiest way to see the temples because the most effort that’s required is counting out the money to pay. But with that you give up your freedom to explore at your own pace and the chance to find a temple completely empty and wander about it on your own.

 

The Top Sights of Angkor Wat

Watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat – the main attraction

The namesake temple of the compound is the largest and where all tourists will go during their visit to the Angkor Wat complex. This temple is very popular for sunrise, as seen from the top (where the super strict dress codes are). There are a limited number of visitors that are allowed up here so arrive early to get a good spot for sunrise.

This temple is quieter before 10am, so arrive as early as you can. You can have breakfast at one of the little cafes running along the right hand side of the compound so go straight from your hotel and eat when the crowds start to arrive. The coffee and food aren’t bad and prices are around $5 for most things.

Because of it’s size you will always find a quiet spot within the temple grounds so carve out a moment between the picture taking to sit and take in the beauty of this temple.

The Bayon/Angkor Thom – the Faces Temple

This is my favourite temple and is a fascinating work of art. Known as ‘the faces temple’ as it has over 2,000 sculptures of faces throughout. The Bayon looks like a pile of rubble from the outside but it’s only when you get onto the upper floors that you can appreciate its beauty.

Top tip: the Bayon is on all Angkor Wat tour itineraries and can get super crowded, but come here at either 12pm or 5pm and you’ll have it almost to yourself.

Ta Phrom – the Tomb Raider Temple

Often referred to as the Tomb Raider temple because some of the Angelina Jolie movie was filmed here, this is one of the busiest temples in Angkor Wat. Because of it’s smaller size in comparison to the rest of the temples it can feel very overcrowded and it can be hard to really take in how majestic this temple is. If I were to work hard to get to any temple early in the morning it would be this one as the number of people here really affect the experience. Lunch time is also quiet here.

Finish with a sunset at Phnom Bakheng

This is the most popular spot to watch the sunset at Angkor Wat. There are a limited number of tickets available so you have to arrive at about 4pm and queue for your pass, once you have it you can leave and come back again in time for the sunset.

There are 300 tickets allocated for sunset here so it gets pretty packed in the evenings which spoils the experience a lot. There’s lots of noise, people standing and blocking your view for a photo, pushing and general chaos. If you *just* want a good sunset photo here then do go and get a good spot for your photo. However if you’re looking for a calm moment to end the day then I would consider going elsewhere.

We usually drive until we find an empty temple, climb to the top and sit for a while watching the sky fill with orange and pink hues while listening to birds chirping in the trees around us. It’s my favourite time of day in Angkor Wat and even though the view might not be as spectacular as Phnom Bakheng, the atmosphere is so much better.

You can also use this Angkor Wat Sunset Finder to find the perfect spot to end your day!

 

 

Lesser-known Angkor Wat Temples

I’ve taken you through the top temples that people visit at Angkor Wat, but there are a few others that I love that aren’t on the usual lists. I’d recommend not just seeing the top sights – if you do you might come away disappointed with how touristy and busy the place is. Buy a SIM card at the airport (data is really cheap) and you can look up temples on Google Maps as you drive around. Here are some other options that I’d recommend to visit.

Preah Khan

This temple was one of my favourite discoveries in Angkor Wat. After a disappointing visit to Ta Phrom due to how packed it was, we came across Preah Khan while we were driving around looking for something different to explore. It’s a large complex of twisting corridors and crumbling towers, with giant tree roots twisting themselves around some of the temple entrances. It’s not completely off the beaten track and there will be tourists there, but it’s a lot quieter than Ta Phrom and is very Tomb Raider-esque.

Banteay Kdei

Similar to Angkor Wat temple, but on a much smaller scale, Banteay Kdei is a peaceful and quiet complex of crumbling corridors. This is a great place to watch the sunset if you want to avoid the crowds. A number of buddhist monks and nuns sit in the maze of corridors and offer blessings to the visitors (you can offer a donation for this but it’s not required). We did one of the blessings and it was a really beautiful experience to be sitting in the ancient temple, with the noise of cicidas ringing in our ears, the smell of the incense and the hum of the buddhist chant while we were being blessed.

Banteay Shrei

This pink sandstone temple is located much further out than the rest of the temples, but definitely worth the visit. Most tourists won’t go this far and if you go first thing in the morning it should be really quiet. The morning light hitting those pink hued rocks is a beautiful sight so it’s a photographers dream. Make sure to tell your tuk tuk or taxi driver that you want to go here as it’s not on the usual itineraries and may cost more to account for petrol.

Angkor Wat truly is one of the highlights of South East Asia, and even though we’ve been there a lot already I would go again in a heartbeat. Having an authentic experience in such a popular tourist spot can be hard but follow my tips and remember to just relax and enjoy the day exploring. Climb to the top of every temple, stop anywhere you want to and no matter how packed a temple is there is always a quiet spot to sit and admire the view.

Planning a trip to Cambodia? Check out these essential posts before you go!

Thanks for reading.
Steph
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