Everything you need to know before you visit Angkor temples

After I found out about Angkor and saw the photos of those gorgeous temples, the decision to visit Cambodia was very easy. The harder part was figuring out the details, such as: how many days I need to visit the temples, what to wear, whether to hire a tour guide or to do it by ourselves… you know, all the basic questions everyone else asks before visiting such a magnificent place for the first time. This is probably one of the reasons you found my post, right? 😉 Lucky for you (and me of course), I did A LOT of homework before fixing our Siem Reap itinerary so now I can give you all the answers on a silver platter. You can thank me by using my Booking.com link where we both earn 15€ with your hotel booking. So now you can thank me twice. 😉

Please don’t ask “Angkor What?”

This is the most typical “joke” everyone makes when you say Angkor Wat. Although I never found it funny, it is actually a convenient reminder not to look for that “h” – because it is simply NOT there! Another thing we need to clarify is that by saying “I want to visit Angkor Wat” people usually refer to the ancient city of Angkor and the temples that surround it. Angkor Wat is “just” the biggest temple and the one you shouldn’t miss in Angkor. Now that we have sorted this out, let’s get to the serious shit.

The history of Angkor

To cut things short, Angkor was a capital of the great Khmer Empire that covered a huge territory of South Asia between 9th and 15th century. The majestic temples of Angkor (built by kings to worship first Hinduism and later Buddhism) bear testimony of the Khmer Empire’s wealth, culture and impressive architecture. After the fall of the Empire Khmer elite has moved on the territory of today’s capital Phnom Penh and the city of Angkor was more or less abandoned for centuries. Modern satellite imaging has revealed that during its peak between 11th and 13th centuries Angkor was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world.

 

How many temples are there in Angkor?

While there are over 1000 temples in Angkor, the main ones are gathered in the so called Small Circuit and Big Circuit to make life easier for the tourists. Its most famous and biggest structure, known as Angkor Wat, stands outside the walls of Angkor Thom – the actual metropolis and site of the royal palace. The temples constitute the Angkor Archaeological Park, attracting millions of tourists to Cambodia each year.

Where is Angkor located and how do I get there?

Angkor is located just a few miles outside the city Siem Reap, which will probably be your starting point. Siem Reap has been growing fast since the temples were put on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It has its own Airport with direct flights to several Cambodian provinces as well as to some Asian capitals (Bangkok, for example, is just 1-hour flight away). Once in Siem Reap you can either rent a tuk tuk – they cost around 15 USD for small circuit and 20 USD for big circuit (add 10 USD for sunrise because you and the driver will need to wake up early AF), hire a taxi (costs around 30 USD and up) or rent a bike or scooter if you don’t mind leaving your belongings, wearing a helmet and sweat under the hot Cambodian sun.

How do I plan my trip, should I do it alone or hire a local guide?

It depends on how much time you have and what are your priorities. If you just want to “check” Angkor of your bucket list and show off on Instagram, one day is enough and you probably don’t need a guide to do that – unless you are traveling solo and need someone to take your photos. If you want to know more about Angkor and Cambodian history it is easier to have someone explaining stuff to you.

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Guides cost around 20 – 30 USD per day; depends how many days and which circuit you take. Keep in mind that tuk-tuk drivers rarely speak English and they are also not allowed to enter the temples without a license. So don’t try to save money and hope you will get an “all in one” package. You can either ask your hotel to fix you up with a driver (and a guide) or search for one on the internet – they will usually give you WhatsApp number and contact you a day before your arrival. They are all very professional. If everything else fails, you can always drop me a line and I’ll send you our guide’s number – he was a real pro!

Can I visit Angkor in one day and which temples are worth visiting?

Yes, you can visit Angkor in one day. You won’t see all the temples but you will see the most important ones and you will get a pretty good feeling about how big and magical this place is. But if you have time, I suggest you take 2 full or 3 “short” days like we did. You will find our itinerary in the end of this post. In general, you need less than 30 minutes for smaller temples and around 1 hour for bigger ones (waiting in lines for posing in front of “most wanted” places not included).

In short, these are in my opinion the most attractive temples:

  • Angkor Wat: the “capital” temple with 5 lotus-like 65 meters high towers is the largest religious monument in the world, also a part of Cambodian flag. Tip: try to visit it in the afternoon, it will be less crowded.
  • Bayon: the temple with 37 towers and four carved faces on almost all of them. Tip: photos of “kissing” the face on the mouth are popular, so ask your guide to find you a spot (or observe other tourists – that always helps).
  • Ta Prohm: the “Tomb Raider” temple, known for the massive tree trunks wrapping around the thousand-year-old ruins. Tip: lines for posing under the “central” roots are crazy, but if you go a bit left or right, there are many more where you will be alone.
  • Ta Som: “baby” Ta Prohm, also covered with tree trunks, but smaller and more quiet. Tip: Ta Som is the most distant temple in the Grand Circuit, it takes around 30 minutes to get there by tuk tuk, but totally worth it.
  • Angkor Thom (Big Angkor) gate: really nice entrance to the ancient city, lots of photo opportunities also from the bridge, lined with stone statues.
  • Baphuon: a beautiful “temple-mountain” with a very nice park and steep stairs leading to a terrace which offers one of the best views of Angkor park.
  • Pre Rup: really nice pinkish temple with lots of stairs, popular for sunrise spotting. Tip: make sure to arrive before 5 pm to be on the safe side for the right light.
  • Preah Khan: combination of all the pretty stuff from above and lots of photo opportunities. Tip: if you go alone make sure you remember which entrance you took – there are 3, so you might get lost (at least I did).
  • Neak Pean: the “water temple”. Not so much for the temple itself (it is rather small), but for the path that leads to it through a large lake-swamp with lots of water buffaloes in it.

 

What to wear in Angkor, is the dress code really so strict?

I am not addressing your fashion dilemmas but the fact that Angkor is a religious site and some monks actually live within the area. This means that women need to cover their shoulders and knees, and men are also expected to dress respectfully (I am just saying this because I really don’t get it why women can’t wear shorts but men can be practically naked). I kid you not, the guards are very strict and female dress code is enforced. At least wear a scarf when entering the temple; it worked out very well for me – I just took it the off for some of the photos. 😛

Where do I buy the Angkor Pass and how much does it cost?

Entrance fee for Angkor Wat is not cheap. One-day pass costs 37 USD and if you are not sure how much time you will spend in Angkor, I suggest you go for the 3-day pass which costs 62 USD. The good part is that you don’t need to visit Angkor for 3 consecutive days but within the period of 10 days. This came in very handy for us: after 2 days of Angkor sightseeing we went to Koh Rong Sanloem and saved the sunrise part for the day of our return from the island. It was totally worth it!

If you are on a tight schedule I suggest you buy the tickets one day before you enter Angkor site. First of all, the ticket office opens at 5 am so it will be hard to fight for your spot to watch the Angkor Wat sunrise (early birds get there before 5 am). Second, if you buy your ticket in the evening after 5 pm it is valid for 24 hours, plus you can catch the sunset on that day for free. Note that the ticket office closes at 5.30. You’ll find some other useful tips in the end of this post.

Is it worth to see Angkor Wat sunrise?

Angkor Wat sunrise is “a must” if you are obsessed with Instagram. It is very nice (we did it, but it was a last-minute decision) but on the other hand you need to get up early AF just to queue among the hundreds of other tourists. I warn you, it is not as romantic as it seems. A special post about our Angkor Wat sunrise experience is coming soon!

Are there any restaurants and places to buy food and drinks?

Don’t worry; you can buy water, cut fruits and snacks almost anywhere within the Angkor area. Your tuk tuk driver (or guide) will probably want to stop for lunch in front of Angkor Thom. You will find 2 or 3 restaurants there with Asian and “tourist” menus at decent prices. There are also a few Restrooms within the circuits, so you should be just fine.

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Some other useful tips and suggested Angkor itinerary
  • The Angkor Pass can only be purchased at the official ticket center, located 4 km away from Siem Reap. Tickets purchased from hotels, tour companies and other third parties are not valid.
  • You can purchase the tickets with cash (also US dollars are accepted, but they have to be intact and not too old, I shit you not!) or by credit card.
  • Cover your shoulders and knees before you purchase the ticket – otherwise they might not sell you one at all. You can uncover later at some points, but this is your first “check point” and you don’t want to screw up already in the beginning!
  • They will take a photo of you at the ticket office (so even if you send your boyfriend to buy tickets for you, you still need to show up!), which means that tickets are not transferrable. And yes, they check photos at various points. Needless to say: Don’t lose your ticket! If they catch you without the ticket (even if you lost it), the penalty is 100 USD.
  • Most of the temples in the park are open from 7.30 am – 5.30 pm, with the exceptions of Angkor Wat & Srah Srang (watch the sunrise from 5 am) and Phnom Bakhend & Pre Rup (watche the sunrise or sunset until 7pm).
  • You can find photos from Angkor in my Facebook album
  • Our suggested itinerary:
    • Day one: depart from the hotel around 8.30 am (we had an exhausting flight so we decided to take a longer nap) – Small Circuit (we took opposite direction as most of others and got very lucky with avoiding the crowds, thanks to our awesome guide!), closing with Angkor Wat just before the sunset around 4.30 pm. Evening spent in Siem Reap market.
    • Day two: depart from the hotel around 8.30 am. We took the Big Circuit without the guide, only tuk tuk driver who patiently waited for us when we wanted to stop; returned around 4 pm to Pub Street for shopping and cheap beer.
    • Day three: (actually this was one week later after we had returned from Koh Rong Sanloem) we woke up for the Angkor Wat sunrise. After that we took the 45 minute ride to Bakong Temple – this one is not in the Angkor area, but on the opposite side of Siem Reap. Tickets are valid for this one as well and if you have time, I strongly recommend it! We returned at 11 am because we had an afternoon flight back home.

So, did you find out everything you wanted to know about Angkor temples in this post?  Scroll down and drop me a line, I will be happy to answer your other questions if I can.

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