As one of the most iconic images of Cambodia and South East Asia, Angkor Wat is an essential visit for backpackers and tourists visiting the country. Featuring on the national flag, and famed for its remarkable beauty, it’s no wonder thousands flock to the historic site every day. Read on to see how much of this temple complex can be seen in just a day visit as part of our trip through Cambodia.
How to visit Angkor Wat
Day trips from Siem Reap are easily organised. Simply enquire at your accommodation reception and they will arrange for a tuk tuk to pick you up early in the morning on your chosen day. With this means of transport, your driver will be your guide for the whole day and take you to the top spots, as well as recommended temples and restaurants depending on your time restrictions.
How much does it cost to go to Angkor Wat?
One day entry tickets to the Angkor Wat complex cost $37 (USD – ticket prices increased by nearly double in Feb 2017) which provides you access to all temples but does not include tours, transport, or food and drinks. 3 and 7 day passes can be purchased for $62 and $72 respectively.
You can hire a tuk tuk driver from your accommodation to transport you to and from the complex from Siem Reap, and to take you to the main attractions and temples you wish to visit. The cost of our tuk tuk transport from The Living Quarters Hostel was just $20 for a sunrise trip which, shared between 4 passengers, is a bargain that’s hard to refuse for a 30 minutes ride to and from the complex, plus a morning of transport.
As part of our day trip, our driver also took us to a small restaurant where we were able to purchase lunch and snacks in a mix of USD or Cambodian riel. Currency in Cambodia is mostly USD and riel is used as small change.
What is Angkor Wat?
Angkor was is a complex of multiple temples, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat translates to “Temple City”, and certainly feels like the size of one. Although much of the complex is in ancient ruins, areas are still considered working temples and so appropriate dress and decorum is required at all times.
5am – Sunrise
After an early pick up by tuk tuk from our hostel we started the morning collecting our tickets (a very official process including a photo taken for your ticket!) and heading straight off to the easily recognised Angkor Wat temple itself for sunrise.
This particular temple is so famous that you’ll recognise it from the Cambodian flag, and must surely be one of the most photographed places in the country. With a tip from our driver, we managed to bag an excellent spot to sit and watch the sunrise just in front of the pond with a beautiful view of the three towers of the temple straight ahead.
TIP: When arriving at the temple you’ll be faced with deciding to sit in front of a pond on either the left or right hand side of the main path entrance. We were advised to take the left hand side for the better view of the sunrise, although this did mean the area was busier so arrive as early as possible for a spot at the front.
With the GoPro on timelapse and without much else to do, time seemed to drag on a bit as we expected some definitive moment of a Lion King-esque sunrise bathing us in light. The hype meant we left feeling a little underwhelmed, but looking back through the many photos taken, it really was stunning. A good sunrise requires patience (which I am severely lacking) and so my impatience and insistence that “sunsets are better” was a little premature. If you’re ever going to visit Angkor Wat, I would absolutely recommend the sunrise visit (and if you can stick it out, the sunset too!), you’ll never see anything quite like it, and it gets you out and about early to beat the unbearable heat in the afternoon.
6am – Angkor Wat
We then finally were able to make our way into the temple, wander the ruins and feel like we were living in a dreamland of an ancient civilisation. A steep climb of the steps and one can view from a height the sheer vastness of the complex. As far as you can see is an amazing mix of green park land and rocky ruins; it just never ends! Angkor Wat itself feel like a real Indiana Jones adventure; winding corridors and endless rooms fill the space with intricately designed stone and towering figures.
TIP: The dress code at Angkor Wat is particularly strict, as this is considered a hugely religious place. We were often stripping and adding layers to ensure our shoulders and knees were covered when entering the most religious areas. Bare this in mind when packing for the day, as layers are best to avoid overheating or being refused entry.
We left Angkor Wat feeling slightly duped, as we’d hoped the build up would have been really worth it. Why wasn’t our sunset as fiery as others’?! Despite the initial disappointment, I’m so glad we went and ticked it off the bucket list and had a wonderful chance for the experience. Onwards in our tuk tuk to the next complex, Angkor Thom.
7.30am – Angkor Thom
As we scooted around the grounds, we again realised just how big this place was. A good 5-10 minute drive to our stop, through imposing, statue lined gates, we made it to Bayon, a particular temple of Angkor Thom. We were drawn to this array of stone faces we were presented with, and suddenly we knew why the Temple City was so popular. We couldn’t believe the beauty, creativity and sheer feat of the enormous buildings, and this was only the ruins!
Feeling more than perked up (it was finally about normal waking time…) we eagerly made our way around the next couple of temples, occasionally stopping for many, many photos and cheeky “Lara Croft” poses (the movies were once filmed here!). We were having so much fun, enjoying the variety of temples for once, feeling like we were really experiencing the history of this fascinating culture.
8am – Breakfast
After sufficient early morning exploring we welcomed something to eat, and thank goodness we did, as a moment of hilarity was provided while stopping for breakfast. We noticed a rather large monkey wandering nearby, scouting out the food on offer. We didn’t think much of it, since we’d seen strange wild animals close by before. Very quickly however, this cheeky monkey was up on my travel companion’s chair, tenderly hugging her in a way that said “gimme your bread now or else…”. She was not pleased, and slowly stood up while quietly screeching “IT’S TOUCHING MEEEE” which led to our dinner guest swiping a piece of bread and legging it before we could fully realise what had happened! It doesn’t sound like much of an experience and is certainly a “had to be there” moment, but GOOD GOD I laughed for weeks about that, and still do. I will be telling that story for years to come.
8.45am – Ta Prohm
Back on track to more temples, we visited Ta Prohm, a quirky set of ruins popular with tourists as it’s overgrown with trees warping and colliding with the structure of the buildings. It was great fun to explore around this one, we felt like real explorers discovering a long forgotten world!
Ta Prohm was a favourite, as the juxtaposition of nature and man are clearly intertwined. It also made for some awesome photos! I loved the allowance here to clamber through archways and explore the innards of the temple, and stand where so many have stood before. The temples were getting busier at this point, with the post-sunrise visitors arriving in droves.
11am – Return to Siem Reap
We scooted around a few more temples and they all started to blur together. We were spending less and less time at each and so, feeling thoroughly temple-d out, we decided to call it a day and head back to Siem Reap in our tuk tuk.
While we could have stayed much longer, the heat was getting to us and it would’ve felt like more effort than enjoyment to keep exploring. We were totally saturated and information was going in one ear and out the other. I hope I can one day return with a clearer mind to see the rest!
Final Thoughts: Reflecting on culture & history
Trying to cram in as much as possible meant lots of temple visits were fleeting. Occasionally we stopped to really soak up the odd place, and one particular moment sticks in my mind; I caught the end of a tour guide’s explanation of an elderly woman who handed out incense to visitors, to make wishes and to hope that they would continue turning a huge wheel in the heart of the temple. It felt as though this small act kept this once great city thriving and alive, and I was touched at how simple the idea was – that the tourists who arrive in their thousands every day, are the reason that such wonderful pieces of history are kept alive in their spirit, despite being out of their original use for a long a time.
This caused me to become curious about the exact history of Angkor Wat, so once back at our air conditioned hostel I dug out the Lonely Planet’s guide and swotted up. Turns out, Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire, but over time it was turned into a Buddhist temple to match the religious views of the monarchy whilst continuing to act as the capital of the empire. This struck me as something incredibly unique, and the development of a culture through two separate religions is a compelling part of history that I wanted to know more about.
What we know about Angkor Wat is largely hearsay, and many legends have come about regarding its origins and life. What is clear however, is that people of all walks of life have come to respect it as a truly remarkable place, that combines the inherent perseverance and extraordinary passion of human nature. So here we have a seemingly abandoned site, but somehow it will never be completely alone, which is a strangely comforting thought. Soppy philosophical comments aside, I’d really recommend a morning at least to fully enjoy it all. However, you WILL get tired and bored of temples, so take breaks, bring snacks, and try to remember how lucky you are to live in a world where places such as this are protected and cared for!
Have you visited Angkor Wat? Did you aim for the sunrise? Let me know your temple-hopping stories, with or without cheeky monkeys!