Lessons Learned: Tips for Touring Angkor Wat Like a Pro

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We spent seven days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and three days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. Here are some of the things we wish we knew before arriving at the largest religious monument in the world.

Understand your admission ticket

For some unknown reason there’s a great deal of confusion on the internet about how Angkor Wat tickets actually work. Most sites agree that there are three different options for gaining access to the temple compounds. And indeed, we found passes for one, three, and seven day visits available for sale at the gates. What a lot of sites seem to get wrong, though, is whether those multiple day passes need to be used on consecutive days. They don’t.

We’re not exactly sure why there’s so much confusion on this issue. Our three-day tickets stated pretty clearly that we could use it on any three days within a given week. Similarly, the seven-day tickets are valid for visits within a given month.

Angkor ticket rules

Even so, we had read so often that you needed to visit the park on consecutive days that we weren’t sure how the policy would actually be enforced, regardless of what our tickets said. We were half expecting to be turned away when we showed up for the third time in five days, but no; the guard smiled and punched our tickets without issue. And it’s a good thing too. Because as it turned out, we saved the best for last.

Allow a couple of days to explore

Trees and Statues in Preah Kan Angkor Wat

Whenever we’re asked to reveal our best travel tip we always answer with the same two word reply: “slow down.” We always cringe a little when we hear people say things like “you can ‘do’ Rome in three days” or, in this case, Angkor in one. Sure, it may be possible to hit the highlights of Angkor Wat in a single day, but we wouldn’t recommend doing it that way.

First of all, the place is huge, a fact that is probably poorly understood by first time visitors. When people think about Angkor Wat they mostly imagine the iconic main temple of the same name (shown in silhouette below). But the Angkor Wat temple is just one of dozens of ruins that dot a 400-square-kilometer area known as the Angkor Wat archeological site. You don’t come to Angkor just to see the one temple. You come here to explore the whole area. And that takes time.

How much time? We went back to Angkor on three separate days, and that was perfect pacing for us. Even with three days we only hit the major sites but did so at a leisurely pace. I could see cramming everything we did into two days but would be hard pressed to see how it could be done in one. I can also envision taking a fourth day to spend at the less popular sites.

The second thing to consider about visiting Angkor Wat is the heat. We visited in the dead of winter in mid-January and the sun still made us feel like ants under a magnifying glass. Walking the temples in those conditions is tiring. Climbing them is worse. And biking the long miles in between as some people do is something we wouldn’t even consider.

Get up early for sunrise

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat is one of those bucket-list items that graces so many “100 Things to Do Before You Die” lists that it’s hard to visit Cambodia without feeling like it’s an obligation. So it’s probably a surprise to no one that we nearly blew it off entirely–and would have if it weren’t for the persuasive young tuk-tuk driver we met the day before and hired to take us to the temples. Somehow he convinced us that getting out of bed at 4 a.m. was a terrific idea.

In our experience sunrise and sunset activities are almost always a disappointment, partly because most sunsets are totally lame. And generally speaking, if something needs a spectacular sunrise to make it worth seeing it’s probably not that interesting in its own right. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to make that case for the main temple at Angkor Wat.

Of all the ruins we visited at Angkor we found the iconic main temple to be the least impressive, at least up close. It lacks many of the elaborate details and nuances that made the other structures in the area so memorable. What Angkor lacks in finesse, though, it makes up for in grandeur. And that grandeur is best seen silhouetted against a brightening morning sky. A fantastic sunrise would obviously make the scene better, but unlike so many other “must see” sunrises, the one at Angkor is less about the sun and more about the site.

Keep tabs on your tuk-tuk

P1060767

After our first morning watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat we returned to a parking lot crammed with look-alike tuk-tuks. It took us about twenty minutes to find our driver, who was fast asleep. That’s twenty minutes of prime touring time before the heat hit and the crowds descended that we’d have loved to get back to actually spend at the temples.   

Before you let your ride go, try to get a sense of exactly where he’s planning to wait for you. Also make note of anything distinctive about your vehicle to help you identify your specific needle in the tuk-tuk stack. There’s usually something.

P1060766

Don’t follow the circuit

Angkor Temple Map

This map will bring you to most of the sites you’ll want to see, just not in the order you’ll want to see them

If you just show up at Angkor and have a tuk-tuk driver take you to the sites they’ll almost certainly drive you around one of two well-established circuits. There’s a big loop and a small loop. We did both and they’re great. The one thing we’d change about the loops is that they deliver you to the best sites late in the day when they’re already mobbed by other tourists.

The Crowds at Ta Prohm in Angkor Wat

That was especially problematic at Ta Prohm, more commonly known as “The Tomb Raider Temple” owing to its use as a backdrop in that first Angelina Jolie movie. We arrived at Ta Prohm around noon to find it completely overrun with annoying people standing for what seemed like forever in front of the most amazing ancient ruins so they could snap countless photos of themselves with clasped hands and index fingers pointed skywards in what I can only guess were the worst Lara Croft imitations you’ll ever care to see. I wish I could have punched each and every one of them. You know? Lara Croft style.

Trees overgrowing Ta Prohm Temple in Angkor Wat

A rare clear spot

If we had to do it over again, we’d ask our tuk-tuk driver to take us to Ta Prohm (and other popular sites like Bayon and Banteay Srei) first thing in the morning or immediately after watching the sunrise at Angkor. It’d probably take some cajoling because going to those sites first would mean doing some backtracking later on to get to the other temples on the route. But there’s enough drivers looking to ferry tourists around Angkor Wat that it should be easy enough to find one who’s willing to do the tour you want.

Make the long drive to Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei at Angkor Wat

One of the best reasons to spend more than a single day at Angkor Wat is because that extra time allows you to take the roughly one hour drive out to one of the most spectacular ruins in the entire complex. It also gives you the opportunity to get there early in the morning while all the other tourists are milling around Angkor after watching the sunrise.

Banteay Srei, meaning “Citadel of Women” but more commonly referred to as the Lady Temple, is the most delicately ornate and well preserved temple we visited. It is also the most unique. Unlike the other temples Banteay Srei is constructed out of hard sandstone that not only allowed intricate carving but also gave it a distinctive red color.

Banteay was by far our favorite temple and one that many visitors miss because of its distance from other popular sites. We made it here on our third day and combined it with a stop at the Landmine Museum and the Banteay Samre temple, both of which you pass en route from Siem Reap.

Avoid temple fatigue

Neak Pean temple reflected in a pond at Angkor Wat

Not all temples are alike

It’s easy to see how someone who’s trying to cram in a dozen or so temples in a single day might experience a bit of burnout. And it’s also understandable why those same people might then advise others that they only need to spend a single day at Angkor because “all the temples start to look alike after awhile.”

But something amazing happens when you slow down enough to really take in the various sites. Instead of just seeing the superficial similarities (yup, they’re all Khmer temples) you begin to appreciate the nuances, like the faces carved at Bayon, the trees engulfing Ta Prohm, the remoteness of island temple Neak Pean, the post-apocalyptic alleyways of Preah Kan, the red brick of Pre Rup, and the intricacies of Banteay Srei.

And most of all, don’t forget to look up

Macaque eating fruit at Angkor Wat

You never know who’s watching.

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33 Comments on “Lessons Learned: Tips for Touring Angkor Wat Like a Pro”

  1. Victoria April 14, 2015 at 8:37 am #

    I’ll be going there in a few months, and these tips are priceless!

    Like

    • Brian April 14, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

      Thanks Victoria, we hope our experience is helpful.

      Like

      • jeff January 16, 2017 at 9:38 pm #

        Hi brian, excellent post…I have 2 full days in Feb..what 2 day circuit or resource should i use to navigate my way around the temples? Want to have an idea before the guide takes me to the spots…Definitely want to minimze the big crowds during the wrong times…

        Like

  2. lovetotrav April 14, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    Thanks for the excellent clear post! Heading to Cambodia for Christmas ( a second time) and we will follow your advice. Happy travels, Cheryl

    Like

  3. Rechito April 14, 2015 at 8:49 am #

    great advise, thanks

    Like

  4. mytimetotravel April 14, 2015 at 8:50 am #

    Great sunrise photo!

    Totally agree with all of this. I would just add that reading Dawn Rooney’s guide beforehand can help you decide which temples you want to see, and fill you in on a lot background info.I enjoyed Angkor Wat itself mostly for the wonderful reliefs, but i agree that Banteay Srei – and Bayon – are special. Also – siesta! It helps not to tour in the midday sun.

    The first time I went I was there for two and a half days and decided that wasn’t enough and went back for a second look. The second time I visited a number of the lesser known temples and enjoyed them, too.

    I was lucky enough to visit in 2002 and 2004, and can only imagine how bad the crowds are now.

    Like

    • Brian April 14, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

      Good point. We mention the heat but don’t explicitly say that it might be better to schedule a couple of half-day’s at the temples rather than trying to power through during the worst of the heat.

      Like

  5. Where's Zoe Now? April 14, 2015 at 8:57 am #

    Following various travel blogs, I’ve read a bajillion posts about Angkor Wat, but I think this is the first post that really makes me want to go there myself! (I’ve seen waaaay too much of the ‘do it in a day’ stuff… :/ )

    Like

    • Brian April 14, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

      That’s high praise. Thanks so much.

      Like

  6. The Guy April 14, 2015 at 12:00 pm #

    I’ve never been here but I’ve read lots about it. I do like your tip on avoiding temple fatigue, I can see how easy it could be done if you are not careful.

    With regard to your point on consecutive or not consecutive days I’m still not convinced after seeing the picture of your ticket.

    It reads “This ticket is delivered for a three-day visit during its one week validity.” I appreciate you have been so will know better than me. As I read it I would think of the following scenario:-

    I buy the ticket on a Saturday but don’t enter the attraction on a Saturday. I first enter the attraction on a Tuesday. From reading that I can’t figure out if I can only then enter Tues-Wed-Thurs or maybe Tues-Thur-Fri (both are within the 7 day validity).

    Maybe you found out some more information to make it clearer? I can see the confusion people have.

    Like

    • Brian April 14, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

      Yeah, I agree the wording is non-specific but I don’t really think its very ambiguous. It says you can visit three days in seven and that’s all it says. I wouldn’t assume a bunch of other restrictions that aren’t explicitly stated without good reason.

      But the best evidence is the little hole punches on the ticket which correspond to the days we visited. Three hole punches in five days. Also, if the park required you to visit on consecutive days there’s no reason to punch the ticket every single time you entered the park. A simple date stamp on the first day would suffice.

      Of course, when in doubt, ask. I’d encourage everyone to get an update about specific park rules when they buy their ticket. These things do sometimes change.

      Like

      • The Guy April 15, 2015 at 4:32 am #

        Oh, I didn’t know about the hole punchers. They make sense, you’ve convinced me 🙂

        Like

  7. Bulldog Travels April 14, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    Always wanted to visit there. Thank you for letting me travel vicariously in the meantime!

    Like

    • Brian April 14, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

      It is seriously our pleasure.

      Like

  8. sandydunne April 14, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    Oh, absolutely brilliant! Cambodia remains the part of the world that has most socked me in the guts, – a huge emotional and sensory impact. Your photos are REALLY great and I can relate to so much of your experience. And may I add, for traipsing around the ruins in the middle of the day (despite being very un-Lara Croft), it really helps if you have a brolly 🙂

    Like

    • Brian April 14, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

      Ha, thanks. And we absolutely learned the value of the sun-umbrella while in SEA.

      Like

  9. maristravels April 14, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

    Great advice. I did just as you did but 16 years ago. And hey, I shall be in Vienna same time as you – ships that pass in the night. I am only there for two nights.

    Like

    • Brian April 14, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

      Cool about Vienna. Shame we’re not there longer. We just finagled a 20 hour layover on our way to Santorini. So we’re basically just getting off the plane, touring the Hofburg Palace, grabbing an early dinner, hopefully getting some sleep and then boarding another flight to our intended destination.

      Like

  10. mytimetotravel April 14, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

    Forget to mention in my first post that it occurred to me that – since my memory is not what it was, duh – it might be a good idea to take a photo of your tuk-tuk if it is going to wind up in the middle of a bunch of others. That only happened once when I was there, but the crowds look to be very much worse now.

    Like

  11. Jane Lurie April 14, 2015 at 11:46 pm #

    Excellent and informative post, Brian and Shannon. Visiting Siem Reap was a thrill for me and your images tell a beautiful story.

    Like

  12. Holly Beddome April 16, 2015 at 9:21 am #

    Fantastic advice- I wholeheartedly agree. Banteay Srei and Bayon were my faves. I was there in May, right at the hottest part of the year. I feel like a lunch break during the hottest part of the day is essential, and will help prevent burnout!

    Like

  13. White Postcards April 16, 2015 at 8:28 pm #

    Some great information here and tips I hope no one else will read so that we can have Ta Prohm to ourselves when we visit early in the morning:) – Ginette

    Like

  14. Chryt April 19, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

    The information about the validity of the entrance ticket you give is definitely correct at this moment. The confusion comes from the fact that a few years ago it was not possible to do three separate days in a week, but it had to be three consecutive days. That has changed.
    We did the visits on bicycles (being Dutch), and really loved it because it gives you a really good feel for the beauty and atmosphere not only of the temples but of the whole area. Just be prepared to take it slow and spend time on visiting the place. That’s not so difficult though, when there’s so much to see!
    Contrary to what you say, we did Ta Prohm just after noon, when most tourists were having lunch and the place was relatively quiet, and had a rest afterwards.
    One more tip: avoid Bayon around nine o’clock, when the Chinese tour-buses arrive and you can’t move around at all. Either do it before or later on the day, when all the buses have already left.

    Like

  15. luckytravelblog April 29, 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    Reblogged this on luckytravelblog.

    Like

  16. Caramel World Traveler March 12, 2016 at 6:42 am #

    We are here now. Thank you so much for your tips. We went to the Minefield Museum today and realized that the butterfly sanctuary and Bantey Srey are super close. Oh well. We`ll be buying a 3 day pass tomorrow after reading your post. Thanks!

    Like

  17. traveler123 March 22, 2016 at 1:40 am #

    Thank-you for the great tips….we followed your advise, especially helpful was keeping track of our tut tut and visiting the temples in the order you suggested. We managed to stay away from the crowds…

    Like

  18. Milos Ninkovic July 11, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

    Well, this is a pretty great explanation of the site. I have been planning on visiting Angkor Wat for a while now, and the decision is definitely made now. Great tips. Cheers.

    Like

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