Angkor Wat is undeniably the main attraction in Cambodia – and a symbol of national pride, even appearing on their national flag. Originally a Hindu temple built by the Khmer Empire, Angkor was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 12th century. It is the largest religious monument in the world and the temple complex is absolutely massive: you could spend weeks exploring the area. That said, if your time is limited it’s important to know what temples are a ‘must-see’. Passes are sold as one-day ($20 USD), three-day ($40 USD) or seven-day ($60 USD). The system is set up such that for the three-day pass you have a week to use your days and for the seven-day pass you have a month. Not having to go every day in a row is a huge plus as visiting temples all day can be exhausting – especially in 30+ degree weather.
The Angkor Wat complex is split into two main routes: the small circuit and the grand circuit. Almost 100% of tourists who visit complete the small circuit. Thus, if you have only one day – that’s your route. On their second day, the vast majority of tourists do the long route. And the rest of the days are pretty open.
We opted to do the two main routes our first two days although we didn’t feel the need to stop at every temple and the time we spent at each temple varied from two minutes to an hour. We spent four to five hours each day visiting the temples instead of the eight to ten that some people do. After a few hours the heat started to wear us down and we felt pretty ‘templed out’. Additionally, the restaurants around the temples are ridiculously priced and a huge rip off. What would cost $1 to $2 on the street in town costs over $5 at the temples. Although it’s worth keeping in mind that when the lady overheard us looking at the menu and complaining about prices she offered us any dish for $3 plus a free drink. I just don’t understand the point in a menu, with prices, if you’re still supposed to bargain for your food…
Day 1: Small Circuit
Tuk-tuk cost: $15 USD
Bridge to Bayon Temple
The main stop in the Angkor Thom Complex. Our driver dropped us off here and we walked through the remainder of the complex, meeting him on the other side.
A quick stop in the Angkor Thom Complex.
Another quick stop in the Angkor Thom Complex.
Our last quick stop in the Angkor Thom Complex.
Could be missed, but a quick stop doesn’t hurt (it’s on the route).
Day 2: Grand Circuit & Bantey Srei
Tuk-tuk cost: $25 USD
Quite far from main complex but definitely worth the trip. Very popular with tour buses and can be quite busy. The temple is built primarily from red sandstone and is covered in elaborate and decorative carvings – some of the best in the entire Angkor complex.
Cambodian Landmine Museum
On the road to/from Banteay Srei. The entrance fee – $5 USD – is a little steep but goes to a good cause and includes an audio guide (although you may have to ask for this as it wasn’t offered to us immediately).
One of my favourites.
This was one of the worst temples we stopped at, not worth the walk.
A small temple but worth a quick stop as it’s much less touristy and has beautiful photo opportunities as well as a well-preserved face carving (similar to Bayon).
The elephant statues here on all four corners were my favourite part of this temple.
We didn’t spend long here.
Day 3: On our own (after a two-day break)
Scooter Rental Cost: $9 USD + $1.25 USD for gas
This was our second visit to Ta Prohm so I think that speaks for itself. Definitely a must see temple. Keep in mind it’s a very popular temple partially due to the fact the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie was filmed here.
Thommanon & Chau Say Tevoda
Two very tiny temples on either side of the road. When we visited the only other people there were a group of monks.
We came here for sunset but once we realized how crowded it was getting – and that the sunset wasn’t really that great – we left and headed on.
By chance, we caught the sunset over Saras Srang on the way home. The reflection on the still, clear lake was beautiful.
Sunset & Sunrise
You might notice we didn’t wake up at 3AM and join the thousands of other tourists at Angkor Wat in the pitch black awaiting sunrise. I’ve done it before and although I’m glad I did it, it was way too crowded and not that fantastic. For most people, it’s a must-do simply because it’s one of those things that everyone does and if you skip it, you’ll forever regret not knowing if it was worth it. That said, if you’re not really a morning person and not too into sunrises (like Dan) then you can probably skip it. I would say the same goes for watching sunset from anywhere in the complex – overcrowded and not that great. Although, the lake we stopped, as mentioned above, was serene and only had a few locals picnicking on the shore.
Here’s a couple photos from my last trip (February 2014):
There are four main ways of touring Angkor: hired car/van, hired tuk-tuk, bicycle rental or tour bus. The fifth (and best, in my opinion) is a scooter rental. This option isn’t widely advertised and not very popular possibly due to the fact that it’s not legal for foreigners to rent a scooter in Cambodia. However, we had no problem with the rental and the guy at the shop simply warned us to stay away from the parking lot near the main gate of Angkor (ticket office) where police tend to be and may question the rental. My second choice, and maybe a better first choice for your first day, would be a hired tuk-tuk. With all the walking involved in exploring the temples and not to mention the heat I think a bicycle rental would be one of my last options although it is the cheapest. My dead last option would be a big tour bus, but that’s solely personal preference.
The Dress Code
Yes, there is a dress code. Yes, you should obey it – at least to some degree. Angkor Wat is a religious site and it’s just plain disrespectful to walk around in shorts so short that I can see you entire ass and a tiny tank-top with your boobs spilling out (yes, I saw this, multiple times). I know it’s hot – and I’m not saying you need to wear full length trousers and a sweater, but cover up a little. The dress code is barely enforced (which I find frustrating) and we only came across three or four spots where you couldn’t enter unless your knees and shoulders were covered. I compromised with an ankle length dress with thin shoulder straps and carried a light cardigan to cover up more when required.
Overall, we enjoyed every moment we spent at Angkor Wat and it should be on everyone’s list of things to see around the world. It easily revivals many of the World Wonders, and I’m honestly shocked it isn’t listed as one. I would recommend at least a three day pass as one day just isn’t enough time to truly enjoy the complex.
If you have extra time, another beautiful day trip is to Phnom Kulen and the ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata. The mountain (Phnom means mountain in Khmer) isn’t included in the Angkor Pass and it’s not cheap to get out there. Also note that it’s nothing like Angkor Wat; it’s something completely different and that’s what I loved about it. Dan and I didn’t visit here but I visited on my previous trip and would recommend it to others. I hired a car to drive me out there (it’s a bit too long of a drive for a tuk-tuk) and my driver accompanied me to many of the spots and acted as a tour guide. You stop at the River of a Thousand Lingas, beautiful waterfalls, and the nearby massive 16th-century reclining gold Buddha carved out of solid rock at Preah Ang Thom. On the mountain, my driver arranged for a motorbike hire to take me deeper into the jungle to awe at a gigantic elephant and lion statue cut from rock at Srah Damrei (Elephant Pond).