The temples of Angkor Wat’s extensive complex are the largest tourist draw by far in impoverished Southeast Asia country of Cambodia, and they’re definitely worth the journey. While some may not stop to fully appreciate the ancient city, its place in history and its modern preservation and restoration, others tourists are able to truly revel in its past and its present. Translated Angkor means Holy City or Capital City in Khmer, which is the main ethnic group of Cambodia past and and present. Angkor essentially served as the capital of the Khmer Empire as far back as the 9th Century A.D.
Walking the empty, moss-covered, stone-ladden pathways and through the towering, ancient structures it’s hard to imagine what Angkor once was. Still historians believe the temples are the remnants of mass cities that may have been home to upwards of one million people. The strength of the Khmer Empire, centered around Angkor, began to crumble in the 12th Century A.D. as waring ethnic groups from surrounding lands began to chip away at the empire’s strength. Over the following centuries Angkor still operated as the main city for a much weaker Khmer Empire before it was essentially abandoned in the 15th Century in favor of Phnom Penh.
Some of the dozens of ruins have fallen into disrepair while others have been cherry picked for their artifacts. Still, wandering the ancient stone structures is awe-inspiring, and if you let your imagine roam freely, you can almost feel the bustling city life the walls once witnessed.
Seeing all the remaining temples of the Khmer Empire in an around the Angkor Complex is a feat in itself. It takes time, patience and a tireless sense of wonder. While many tourists zip through the main complexes in a mere day, maybe two, the temples are best seen during a 3-day exploration mission.
How Much Does it Cost?
Angkor park admission is perfectly suited for this extended sightseeing encounter with one day, three day and for the eager, energetic enthusiast seven day passes available for purchase. The three day pass, which I highly recommend, is valid for an entire week and doesn’t need to be consecutively, and the seven day pass is valid for an entire month.
One Day Pass $20.00 US
Three Day Pass $40.00 US
Seven Day Pass $60.oo US
How Do I Get To The Angkor Temples?
There are several options when it comes to actually getting to and around the ancient temple sites, but it’s important to note that they’re too far to walk to and too far apart to walk around. With that in mind, the first and by far the most popular, is to hitch a ride on a tuk tuk hired for the day. Tuk tuk drivers will go to great lengths to get you to chose them for your daily transportation. Almost anytime you hop in one of the three-wheeled carts the driver will always ask if you need transportation to the temples the next day. If you find a driver you like – make the arraignments a day in advance and have them meet you at a specified time at your hotel. A tuk tuk for the day to the temples should cost no more than $20.00 US but on average cost about $15.00. If you can talk them down to $10.00 all the better. The downside is they are open air, and the heat can be overwhelming as can be the exhaust.
If you’re up to putting in a little more effort, a bicycle is a great option as well provided you’re not out of shape and planning to tackle one of the longer routes mentioned below. A bicycle is a perfect way to peddle the several kilometers to Angkor Wat and around Angkor Thom at your leisure. While it’s by far the “healthiest” options, it’s also the most cost effective. If your hotel doesn’t provide free bikes, and many do, a rental at one of several bike shops around town should cost you no more than $5.00 for a nicer set of wheels and as little as $3.00 for an older bike.
Or, if you’re not up to either, hiring a car for the entire day is relatively cheap as well. The advantage is you can cover more ground in a shorter period of time, and they’re climate controlled. There is nothing better than climbing into the back of an air conditioned car after sweating your way through the temples. A private driver and car costs around $35.00 US. You can negotiate with a taxi in town or you can arrange a driver and car through your hotel.
Once you reach the Ankgor Wat complex, an elephant ride is a popular way to the temples from the outside. While we didn’t climb aboard the giant creatures here, you can. The elephant rides originate on the main road into the temples just before the Angkor Thom gate on the righthand side. According to the Siem Reap Ankgor Visitor’s Guide, a 25 minute elephant ride should cost you $10.00 to $25.00 US. The elephants are moved to the base of Phnom Bakheng in the evening to prepare them to transport tourists up the hill for sunset, according to the guide.
If you’re not into exploring on your own, you may also chose to tour the temples with a tour group that will provide your transportation via air conditioned buses. We didn’t work through a tour agency, so I don’t have any recommendations there, but most often your hotel will give you sound advice when it comes to selecting a reputable tour company.
Three-Day Exploration Plan
There are three main loops so to speak when it comes to exploring the temples. A majority of tourists will tackle the main Angkor Wat Temple along with Angkor Thom before boarding their large, roaring air conditioned tour buses and heading home. Spending one day between these two larger temples is advised. However, in my humble opinion, these two main attractions should be the last stops on your tour of ancient Khmer Empire. While all the temples are impressive, and some outside the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are equally if not more impressive, exploring the larger two first will undoubtedly leave you wanting more at some of the smaller temples. It’s as if by working from the small ancient buildings to the largest, you’re saving the best for last – a grande finale of sorts.
The temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park are divided into two circuits, the Grand Tour Circuit and the Small Tour Circuit. On day one, I suggest starting with the Grand Tour Circuit, a lengthier drive with smaller, less crowded temples. We hired a car for the day for this circuit, but there are still dozens of tuk tuks and even bicyclists making this route. There are several ways to start, just look at a temple map and chose your route. If you enter through Angkor Wat’s main gate past the archaeological park office and ticket booth, you can go right around Angkor Wat and past Angkor Thom, exit the North Gate and continue straight until the road curves into Preah Khan and begin the circuit there.
Preah Khan is a beautiful, large complex built in the late 12th Century. It’s here where you can capture images of massive, old trees growing alongside the temple walls. It’s a Bayon-esq Buddhist building that originally served as a monastery. For more on each individual temple, it’s best to pick up a guide book, but beware of those selling Lonely Planet copies outside of the temples. They are simply photo copies of the popular guide books, but may be missing pages and key information. It’s best to purchase your guides before arriving in Siem Reap.
There are more than a handful of other temples along the Grand Tour Circuit and an entire day should be dedicated to following the route and exploring ancient and often crumbling architecture and carvings found within. The “other” popular Grand Circuit temples include Ta Prohm, Pre Rup and Ta Nei.
Day two is dedicated to exploring the two largest temple complexes and therefore the two largest tourist attractions. Get ready to battle the sun-hat wearing, camera-toting, loud-talking, stamping hordes, but don’t get frustrated – after all we’re one of them as well! Unless you’re unable to tolerate heat or tire easily, you don’t need a car to explore Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, a tuk tuk or bicycle will suffice.
If you’re looking to avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat, schedule your time there around lunch; that’s when the tour buses usually head back into town to feed their hungry tourists. The crowds break up significantly from approximately 11:30 to 2:30 but pick up once again in the afternoon. My suggestion is to explore the unbelievably fabulous Bayon within Angkor Thom first. It’s here you’ll find the smiling faces repetitively carved into the stone towers stretching toward the sky. While it is extremely crowded, and it can be hard to pull off a photo without dozens of tourists blocking the view, it is still possible to wander away from the crowds to discovered secluded courtyards and lengthy hallways.
When the crowds return to Siem Reap for lunch, make your move to Angkor Wat and spend the remainder of the day wandering the absolutely massive complex. “Guides” will try to catch your attention outside, and it’s not a bad idea to take one inside with you, although we did not. Most guide books will suffice and do a decent job of explaining what you’re looking at. However, the history and the architecture are best explained by a knowledgable guide. Still, if it doesn’t feel right – it’s most likely not. Talk to several before settling on someone to lead you through the temple. Or, if you insist on a guide for Ankgor Wat, arrange on in town or through your hotel first.
If you’re not “templed out” after two full days of exploration, day three can be spent exploring the temples well beyond the main complex. It’s necessary to hire a car to reach the far-out temples such as Koh Ker, Banteay Srey, Phnom Kule and Kbai Spean to name a few.
Keep in Mind..
These are temples and you should dress appropriately. You will not be allowed into the third level of Angkor Wat if you’re wearing short skirts, spaghetti strapped tanks, etc. On the day you explore Angkor itself, it’s best to wear pants and a short sleeved shirt.
Bring plenty of water. Whether you’ve hired a car, a tuk tuk or are bicycling through the temples, it’s extremely hot and can zap your energy quickly. Pack several bottles of water and a few snacks to keep you going. However, if you find you don’t bring enough, you can buy drinks and food from the stands surrounding the temples.
Pack for the rain and sun – an umbrella is key!
You will be swarmed by young children trying to sell souvenirs outside the temples. It’s surprisingly less of a problem around Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but outside the smaller temples on the Grand Circuit there are dozens of children who beg and plead for you to purchase something.
There are people inside the temples offering blessings or people who will give you flowers to place beneath the Buddhas inside the active religious sites. Each is there for a reason – to get money. If you do engage with them, drop a dollar into their baskets. In addition, you may encounter a few children who are looking from candy or knickknacks from tourists, so come prepared if you want to pass out pencils or something from your home country.