Exploring the Temples of Angkor Wat

Make the most out of your trip to Cambodia's crown jewel

So you have a single day to visit this magnificent site? There's a lot of ground to cover and way too many spots you don't want to miss, so here are a few tips about how to organize your trip.

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Welcome to the land of the Khmer! Ankgor Wat was the capital of the once mighty Khmer Empire that stretched across South-East Asia. This is a unique destination in terms of architecture, history and pure beauty.

Trees outgrowing temples
A common sight in Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is a huge temple complex located in the north-west part of Cambodia, right next to the city of Siem Reap. Most likely you will be flying into Siem Reap's International Airport and you will be staying in the city for the duration of your visit to Angkor Wat.

Tickets for Angkor Wat are sold outside the temples area, in the north-east part of the city.

How much time do I need?

Ok, here's the thing. Angkor Wat is one of those sites where you can spend many days moving around and still not have enough time to see everything. It depends on how passionate you are about the history, culture and archeological value of the sites.

Detailed sculptures in Angkor Wat
Detailed sculptures in Angkor Wat.

Tickets are sold for 1 day ($37) or for 3 days ($62). Our recommendation, if you don't have a lot of time, is to go for the day ticket and make the most out of your day there.

A lot of people recommend the sunrise at Angkor Wat, as the sun comes from behind the main temple. Expect huge crowds and the possibility of clouds which ruin the experience. We did it, but looking back, it wasn't the high point of the trip.

Getting around

The main options for moving around inside the complex are renting tuk-tuks or bikes.

Tuk-tuks are small motorcycles that are carying a 4 seat carriage and are pretty comfortable as you spend the time between the temples sitting down under a shading roof. The drivers don't speak fluent english, but understand basic words and know the area really well. If you go with this option, you will rent a driver for the entire day and all you have to do is remember their face as you go to the parking lot outside each temple you visit.

A tuk-tuk at one of the gates of Angkor Thom
Mela with our tuk-tuk driver.

Renting a bike is fun, but can be quite challenging under intense heat and long distances. We rented bikes for our full day and had a great time going from temple to temple. We had a tuk-tuk for the second day as we wanted to catch the sunrise and get back to the hotel by lunch time.

Angkor Wat is a huge site, distances can be deceiving when looking at the map


Angkor Wat is the name of the entire area, but it's also the name of the main temple, the one most people can recognize before they even set foot in Cambodia. It is so important for the country, that they put it on their flag.

There are two classic circuits recommended for Angkor Wat: the small circuit and the grand circuit. But really, you don't have to stick with the recommendation since there are multiple routes to get from A to B at the site.

Ta Prohm

Probably the second most famous temple in Angkor Wat, this is the temple where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) was filmed. It is super popular because of the enormous trees that are slowly growing around and on top of the walls and rooms of the temple.

Trees growing over Ta Prohm
Trees growing over Ta Prohm.

There are a multiple temples in Angkor Wat where you get amazing sights like these. Ta Prohm is probably the most popular and will attract big flocks of tourists that are waiting in line to get a picture with a tree root or branch that falls on top of a wall or building.

Go to Ta Prohm early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

Ta Prohm is located almost in the center of the entire Angkor Wat area and this makes it a great place to start exploring in multiple directions. It is also on the small circuit if you look at maps with the entire site.

Trees growing over Ta Prohm
Trees growing over Ta Prohm.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is the biggest site in Ankgor Wat and is in fact a city with multiple temples and buildings, not just a single temple. At the exact center of the square city (really, check it out on the map) lies Bayon, another amazing temple which is a must stop during your visit.

Bayon temple is at the center of Angkor Thom
Bayon temple is at the center of Angkor Thom.
The famous Bayon faces.
The famous Bayon faces.

Bayon is famous for the giant faces sculpted in the columns of the temple. You will most likely come face to face with one as you wander around the ruins of the temple.

Just a few hundred meters from Bayon there's another interesting temple called Baphuon, with a very nice walkway that you can follow. It has way less people around and you can climb almost until the top of the temple, for a nice view of the surrounding forests and fields. For another panoramic view, you should check Phnom Bakheng which is popular for the sunsets and is just outside the south gate of Ankgor Thom.

The walkway towards Baphuon.
The walkway towards Baphuon.

Speaking of the gates of Ankgor Thom, they are quite impressive and will be a nice stop on your way from or to another temple, from any direction.

Another popular spot inside Angkor Thom is the Terrace of the Elephants, which boasts some impressive elephant carvings and statues.

Angkor Wat

Of course a visit to Angkor Wat would not be complete without a nice tour of the most important (and popular) temple in the area. The temple of Angkor Wat itself lies on an artificial island and can be accessed from the East or the West gates. Although it looks much smaller than Angkor Thom when you look at the map, there's quite some walking to be done if you want to get to the temple from the parking lots.

Angkor Wat temple upclose
The breath-taking view of Angkor Wat.

In front of the temple, as you arrive from the West side, there are two ponds which are just perfect for a photo with the temple reflecting in the water. The ponds are super popular at sunrise as well.

Inside, the temple has 3 levels that you can access, the 3rd one being the one with the 5 picturesque towers. There are also a bunch of inner courtyards which are perfect spots for relaxing and enjoying some silence, away from a lot of other visitors.

There's a queue for accessing the 3rd level of the temple, keep that in mind if you are on a tight schedule

The 3rd level is an active temple, so you are required to have your shoulders and knees covered. This is the only place with a strict dress code in the entire site and keep in mind that a t-shirt or blouse is required, as they don't allow scarfs that cover your upper body. Also, long sleeve pants are required, or at least shorts that are long enough to cover your knees.

Inside the main courtyard of the temple.
Inside the main courtyard of the temple.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat.

If time permits, you could stop by Ankgor Wat both at the beginning and at the end of your day, to enjoy different lighting and colors around the temple. The temple is both on the short and grand circuits and is also the first stop as you come from Siem Reap, so naturally, it can be the last as you go back.

Preah Khan

Even if you think you've seen enough, please take our advice and check out Preah Khan. It is one of the hidden gems in Angkor Wat. It is similar to Ta Prohm, meaning that the trees are outgrowing the temple, but it has a different kind of beauty and some unique sights. It is also not on the short circuit, so you can expect less people than Ta Prohm, but it is quite close to the north gate of Angkor Thom, so riding a bike to it is definitely an option.

Trees outgrowing the temple Ruins in the jungle
One of the hidden gems of Angkor Wat.

Other locations

Some of the other locations worth visiting are on the grand circuit so they are not that crowded. Going around the grand circuit will allow you to spend time alone and in silence at a lot of temples which are equally impressive to those on the small circuit.

Walkway over the pond
Another unique place on the grand circuit.
Decorated tower
Nice sculpted details as Eastern Meabon temple.

A couple of highlights outside the main temples that are worth your time:

  • Pre Rup, at the beginning of the grand circuit
  • The nicely decorated Easter Mebon temple
  • Another temple outgrown by trees at Ta Som
  • The walkway across the artificial lake at Jayatataka
  • Ta Nei Temple, one of the most remote locations inside the jungle
Trees outgrowing the temple
The back gate of the Ta Som temple.

You need to be in good shape to do the grand circuit by bike. Even the tuk-tuks take some time to circle the entire area, so be prepared for long distances.

Travel tips

We hope this paints a good picture of what Ankgor Wat is about. At the end, here are a couple of useful tips that we can share about our experience.

Visa and money

You can fly into Siem Riep from most of the big airports in South-East Asia. There are direct flights from Vietnam, Thailand as well as from Phnom-Phen. You can apply for an e-visa on the official government website.

Cambodia has their own currency called Riel, but US dollars are also working like a parallel currency. Expect to get Riel change when you pay with USD cash. The 1 USD banknote will get you a lot of basic goods.

Food and accommodation

Siem Reap is a very touristy place, so expect to see a lot of hotels and restaurants. You can find good deals for accommodations, just make sure you have an air-conditioned room since sleeping with a window open is not an option.

There are plenty of restaurants, bars and supermarkets in the central area of Siem Reap so you shouldn't worry about finding what you need. However, inside Angkor Wat there aren't that many options and you should be prepared to pay more for the same things.

Water is your best friend, but might come at a high price in some areas, make sure you put your barganing skills to work and get better deals throughout the site.

Remember that this is a tropical destination, so consult your doctor about vaccines and other precautions you need to take before your trip.

Our itinerary

We spent 1 and a half days in total and it was really nice as we got to see most of the main sites. We had enough time to go outside of the most crowded areas, so we could enjoy the sites alone.

In the first day, we started with Ta-Prohm, to get ahead of the crowds. Then we followed the grand circuit counter-clockwise, and stopped along the way to see Pre Rup, Easter Mebon, and then the quiet premises of Jayatataka. Our next visit was Preah Khan, followed by a quick stop to eat at a local restaurant.

We finished the day with two impressive sites: Ankgor Thom and Angkor Wat. We saw the sunset from there, and then quickly left for the city. Cycling back took us around 30 minutes, and the trip itself was quite safe (altough for Mela it was a bit scary in the roundabouts).

If you decide to rent a bike, make sure to plan some time to get back to the city before dark.

The second day started early in the morning. We left with our rented tuk-tuk to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Afterwards, taking advantage of the fact that the tuk-tuk could cover more ground, we picked some temples that we missed in the first day, like Ta Som and Ta Nei. Around lunch time, we headed back to the city to catch our flight.

Packing checklist

  • Sunscreen and mosquito repellent
  • Sunglasses and sun hat
  • A light backpack for carrying some snacks and water
  • T-shirt and long sleeve pants

Published on 4/26/2020

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