Surviving the Temples of Angkor

Oh, the temples of Angkor! One of the highlights of travel in Cambodia. It may seem like an easy task to explore these ancient temples, but where does one even begin?!

Bike or tuk-tuk?

One day pass or seven day pass?

Angkor Wat or the lesser known sites?

Here are some of my tips for making the most of your visit:

Visiting Banteay Srei, one of the temples of Angkor

Take a tuk-tuk over a bike.

When we first got to Siem Reap and I saw people riding bikes en route to the temples, I too wanted to do the same. Sam who had been to the temples many times before (this was his fourth visit!) talked me out of it. “Audrey, you don’t realize how far they are. It looks small on a map, but the complex is massive…” (I thought he was just being lazy.) I eventually conceded and I am so glad I did. The boy was right…again. (This is becoming a recurring theme on our trip.)

I think a mistake that a lot of first time visitors (like me) make is to underestimate the distance from Siem Reap to the temples. I saw countless travellers trying to cycle back into town, looking completely exhausted and their faces burnt to a crisp.

Think of it this way: you’re going to have to bike about an hour to reach the nearest temples, then you’ll spend a few hours walking around the ruins and climbing up the towers, it will be very hot there with little to no shade, and once you’re completely knackered from the outing, you’ll still have to cycle your weary self back into town with the sun beating down on you. Sure, it’s doable, but you’ll be doing yourself a favour by hiring a tuk-tuk driver to take you around.

Visiting Banteay Srei early in the morning

Hire a driver and ask their advice.

Hiring a driver for the duration of your visit is one of the best ways to get around the temples of Angkor. The drivers are skilled, knowledgeable, and know the complex like the back of their hand. Let your driver know what temples you are most interested in seeing, but also ask for their suggestions; you might just end up at a hidden gem.

Keep in mind that hiring a driver is not the same as hiring a tour guide. A driver will drop you off at the entrance and meet you at the opposite end, but you will be wandering around the ruins on your own.

Most drivers charge around $10 to drive you around the temples for the day.

A fiery red and orange sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Get there at opening time.

There are two reasons for this: (1) the heat will be unbearable if you get there by mid-morning (it’s a scorcher by 9 am!), and (2) if you rise early enough you may just get one of the temples all to yourself, which makes the whole experience even more magical. (The second point does not apply to Angkor Wat since that’s the temple where everyone goes to watch the sunrise.)

A man strolls the temple grounds at the temples of Angkor, Cambodia

Dress modestly. This is a temple.

The temples of Angkor are both ruins and temples, so you need to dress modestly. I wore shorts on my first day not thinking anything of it, but when the tuk-tuk driver noticed I didn’t have long pants on, he shook his head and quickly drove me back to change.

You won’t necessarily be denied entry at the temples if you aren’t dressed modestly (I noticed plenty of visitors in booty shorts and string tank tops, no-no!), but do be mindful that this is an important religious site where people come to pray.

The smiling stone faces at Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Choose a ticket that’s right for you.

If you are really into architecture, you will be pleased to know that there is a 7 day pass to explore the temples of Angkor; and if you’ve been travelling around South East Asia for the past two months and are feeling ‘templed out’, you’ll be equally glad to know that there is a 1 day pass to explore the temples.

I personally went with the 3 day option and that was plenty. Once you’ve made it to about four temples, they all start to blend in.

Bring water with you.

Lots of water! I visited during the hottest month of the year, which meant the feel temperature rose up to 47 celsius. Fo’ reals! I think my face says it all.

Bring water to the temples of Angkor!

Must see temples?

It’s difficult to choose one temple over another because every temple is unique in its own way, however, if your time is limited and you want to make it to the most famed temples, here are some of my picks:

Angkor Wat – The most famed temple of them all. Even if you don’t know Angkor Wat by name, you’ll likely recognize a photo of it. Most people choose to watch the sunrise at this temple, and because of it’s popularity you can expect crowds there any time of day.

Bayon – This temple is best known for the stone smiling faces which look out in all four directions.

Ta Prohm – This temple was used as the movie set of Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. You’ll recognize the twisted tree that sits over the ruins.

Preah Khan – Like Ta Prohm, this temples also remains vastly unrestored. Blocks of stone lie in piles, vegetation grows over the ruins, and you get the same feel you would in Ta Prohm minus the crowds.

Banteay Srei – This one stands out from the rest because it is made of red sandstone. The bas relief carvings are also more intricate than the ones you find at the other temples. Architecturally speaking, it is one of the most beautiful temples to visit.

Have you been to the temples of Angkor?
Do you have any tips?


Join the Conversation

85 Comments

  1. Great tips! We also did the 3-day pass and used the same tuk-tuk driver every day, which made the experience more personal as fun. We treated him to lunch every day too. We did the outer circuit on the first day and saved Angkor and the rest of the inner circuit for day two. The last day we went out to Beng Melea, which ended up being my favorite temple! Would definitely recommend to the folks who have time. It was a long way to go in a tuk-tuk, but totally worth it!

    1. says: Audrey

      Ah! I didn’t make it to Beng Melea, but I’ve just googled it and it looks beautiful. It looks like it’s been kept completely untouched!

  2. says: Laura

    I haven’t been yet, but I really want to go. Thanks for all the practical tips. We don’t travel full time, so it’s helpful to know where to focus.

  3. says: Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    Oh, this is a great guide & so timely โ€”ย we will be heading to Cambodia in a week or so and are trying to figure out our plans for Angkor Wat already! These are great tips that I’ll definitely keep in mind (we have learned the “keep hydrated!” rule well here in Vietnam, too!) especially the one about skipping the bicycles. I have to say, I am super impressed that you are not a hot sweaty mess in that photoโ€”even at 7:30 am, I feel my face bursting into flames and the hot sting of sweat in my eyes… I’m scared to see that all captured on film! ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. says: Audrey

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Steph! I’m sure you two will enjoy your time there. Aside from the temples, Siem Reap has ah-mazing food! I spent my whole stay there eating amok (coconut fish curry cooked in a banana leaf), mmm mmm!

  4. says: SARAH F.

    Great post! I felt exactly the same way, we took a 3 day pass and it was more than enough unless you’re a serious temple architect. I’ve recommended the same temples on my blog too..
    Safe travels!

    1. says: Audrey

      Yeah, three days was plenty. If it hadn’t been the hottest time of year when I went, I think I could have covered more temples in one day.

  5. says: apol

    we rode the bicycle for 2 days. ๐Ÿ˜€
    it was hard but fun too and I felt more fulfilled hahaha.
    On the first day we did 6 temples then we did Angkor Wat & Bayon on the 2nd day.
    The hardest part of biking was going back to town from Ta Som, took us almost 2 hours with the hellish new year traffic..not to mention the oh so painful butt…it was dark and cars passing by would beep at you, some motorcycles counterflowed too.

    8 temples are enough though, more than that I would have been templed-out.
    6 temples only and I had a hard time remembering how Banteay Kdei looked.

    We drank really pleeeeenty of water and only peed once. LOL.

    1. says: Audrey

      You guys are troopers! I can’t believe you biked to 6 temples in one day!! I totally believe you about guzzling liters of water, haha, it seemed I couldn’t get enough water in me when I was there.

      1. says: apol

        Before we arrived in Angkor I didn’t know they were actually far haha. We were wondering how come we couldn’t see any temple yet when we had biked for quite long already hahaha. We visited the smaller ones on the first day… and just relaxed in Angkor Wat & Bayon on the 2nd day.

        It’s fun looking back haha! ๐Ÿ™‚

        Looking forward to more of your posts!! ๐Ÿ˜€

  6. says: Zhu

    I haven’t visite Angkor but I cannot stress enough the “dress modestly”. We backpackers tend to “forget” that point, partially because it’s so hot and partially because… well, backpackers rock shorts and tank tops ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thailand can be very stress about dress code for instance, I remember people being turned away (and slut-shamed, which really wasn’t nice) when their clothes were deemed “not appropriate”.

    1. says: Audrey

      Oh yes! I’ve seen people walking around in booty shorts in places where local women are covered from head to toe. It makes me feel a bit embarrassed for those travellers who are baring it all, but the strange thing is that some of them don’t seem to notice how inappropriate their clothing really is…

  7. says: Agness

    We took the bikes and spent a few hours cycling around the temples. I must admit it was a great experience, so different from getting there by tuk-tuk, but we cycled the full length of Vietnam and we love cycling so it was not so exhausting for us. Getting there as early as possible is a great tip and yes take your water with you! Great post Audrey. We’ve seen the videos, awesome!

    1. says: Audrey

      Hehe, I could see you guys totally rocking it out with the bikes after covering the length of Vietnam. My hat goes off to you two! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. says: Tommye

    Take a fan. Take a photo from the far side of the lake on the left (when facing front of Angkor Wat) so you get the complete building in a reflection. Don’t go to the top if you have any fear of heights whatsoever. (There were a lot of panic attacks coming down.) If you have time, visit the Citadel of Women (Banteay Srei).

    My digital scrapbook of Indochina:
    http://app.picaboo.com/WebView/Project.aspx?clientID=bd285531d9ee1f470cd27fbbd77125a0&version=309967&siteID=ViaPreview

    Travel Indochina blog link with photos:
    http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog/spoonball/5/tpod.html

    1. says: Audrey

      Yeah, the drivers really know their way around the temple grounds. We got to see a few cool temples that weren’t on our initial list, but that the driver recommended, so it’s worth asking. I hope you guys enjoy your trip there!

  9. says: Dani

    Excellent tips, Audrey! Totally agree with you about the bikes – it’s just too hot and too far to cycle out to the temples. We had a 3-day pass, too, and we liked that we could use it over 7 days, which meant we went to some temples on the first day, then did something not temple-related the next day, went to see more temples on the third day… and avoided getting ‘templed out’, I think. Our recommendation would be to arrive early if you’d like to see the sunset from Phnom Bakheng (the most popular sunset spot) – it gets incredibly crowded. And in addition to plenty of water, bring sun screen ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. says: Maria Alexandra @LatinAbroad

      That’s exactly what I was thinking Dani! Good to know that a three-day pass can be used over a week. It’s always good to take a break from Temple hunting!

      Great tips by the way Audrey. I especially love how you broke down the list of the best temples to visit ๐Ÿ™‚

      -Maria Alexandra

    2. says: Audrey

      Thanks! Yeah, the sunscreen is a big one. I saw so many people biking around with really bad sunburns, yeeesh!

  10. says: Ryan

    I’ve been to Angkor three times (2001, 2005, 2010) and had a 3-day pass each time. These are all really good tips, especially the one about hiring a tuk-tuk driver for your entire stay. Usually, you can spend a day on the inner loop, a day on the outer loop, and then a day having your driver taking you to some more remote and lesser known temples.

    1. says: Audrey

      Wow, three times! The place must’ve made quite the impression on you. I bet it’s interesting revisiting every few years and seeing how the popularity of the place is growing.

    1. says: Audrey

      I’m not entirely sure… But if you contact a tour operator ahead of time and inquire, they might be able to help you out with that.

  11. says: Tamanna Shaikh

    All tips are actually very helpful for all travel lovers or particularly for the persons who are going to the same place in ear future. I like the third photo very much.

  12. says: Jemma

    Thanks for the tips and the photos you shared here are really amazing, especially the second one. It’s my favorite!

    Angkor Wat or the lesser known sites? – I think it would be great to visit both the Angkor wat and the lesser known sights. Angkor wat is really among the most stunning temples on Earth. I hope Cambodia will be a progressive country soon. They have lots of amazing tourist spots that can generate income for them.

  13. I really appreciate the conciseness of this post. I’ve never been to SE Asia, but a guide like this very much simplifies what would seem to me a very daunting process of digesting a lot of options for visiting such a world famous spot.

  14. says: Cam @ Traveling Canucks

    Great tips. We did the 3 day pass and hired a tuk-tuk driver that was recommended by our hotel. To prevent temple burnout, we did two days of temples, took a day off, then did the final day. It worked out well, though we still got temple overload by the end of it all. The biggest lesson we learned was to slow down… it’s not a race, and there is SO much to see.

  15. says: Thomas Dembie

    Love the tips! I would agree on all fronts. During my visit I rode along on a motorcycle with a local. I spent 2 days visiting the sites and could easily have spent many more. Getting there early and keeping a few bottles of water on me was key.

  16. says: Travel Musts

    I have been to the temples of Angkor and I wish I had read this post before going there!! But even with a few difficulties this is without a doubt a magic place! I loved every corner of it! Amazing pictures by the way ๐Ÿ˜‰

  17. says: Charli l Wanderlusters

    This such an informative piece. I dread visiting any ‘tourist’ hot spot but something like this is unavoidable. A visit is a must! I’m booking marking this for our visit! We’ll get there one day I’m sure!

  18. says: Wally Zebco

    I went there in 1991 and spent a week in that very spiritual place. I’m glad the Khmer Rouge is out of service. Back then you always had to keep one eye out for those headbands. They mostly wanted cigarrettes if you did run into them.

  19. says: Tee

    If you ever to Siem Reap and want to do something fun before or after your tour to Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat Putt welcome you, your friends and family. It still the temple but you will be able to hit your ball under and around them. There are 9 miniature Angkor temples including Angkor Wat, Bayon, Elephant Terrace, Banteay Srei and Preah Vihear temple.

  20. says: cdnski12

    I went to Siem Reap in 2010. I hired Sam Pho a local tour guide. $50 for the car & Sam. He is a local history teacher. We screamed around the main temples in a day. He was very knowledgeable. I didn’t bother taking many photos that 1st day. The next 2 days we hired Khen a local Tuk Tuk driver. He spoke very good English and was excellent at picking us up on the other side of the temple we were walking thru. He was a good, careful driver. We treated him to lunch and a cool beer. He managed to find a local soi restaurant, where my Thai GF could indulge in the crazy hot chilli papaya salad, she can not do without. Khen tried the 3X Phet (hot) salad she so likes. He freaked out at it’s strength. We toured the temples very early and from 4-6:30 pm, the best hours for photographs and less tourists. I recommend a tour of the local museum before touring the temples.

  21. says: Jenna

    Off to SE Asia next Sunday, Audrey your blogs have made me even more excited! Our first stop is Laos but we will be heading to Siem Reap late November.

    Stumbled across your page after googling ‘How to pack a back pack for SE Asia’ and your fab blog came up, thanks!

  22. says: Rudolph.A.Furtado

    I will be In Siem Reap in December 2013. Audrey thanks for the wonderful and simplified guide to the temple complex.

  23. says: Aia

    Hi Audrey,

    This blog post is one of the best Angkor Wat guides I’ve read so far! We’ll be going there in the coming months and we’re so excited especially after reading your guide!

    I just want to ask, where did you guys stay during your Angkor Wat experience? Do you have tips on finding a hotel that’s worth the price (cheap if possible).

    Thanks a lot! Your response would be greatly appreciated!
    -Aia

    1. says: Audrey

      Hi Aia,

      That sounds like an exciting trip you have coming up! I’m sure you will have a wonderful time out there. I stayed at the “Ta Som Guesthouse” in Siem Reap. They are located slightly in the outskirts of town on the way to the temples (about a 15 minute walk to all the main bar/restaurants in the centre of town). They had good rates, especially if you are staying there for a while, and if I remember correctly breakfast was included. They also helped us arrange transportation and tours around town.

      I hope that helps!
      Audrey

  24. says: Cliff

    Just visited the temples the last two days. Best tip was to enter Angkor Wat from the east entrance. The path goes through shady jungle and there were just a few other people. It was really magical entering this way instead of going in with the masses of tour busses at the main west entrance. And, go early- it’s hot!

  25. says: Raymond

    Great topic and excellent information. Thank you. This is on my list of things to do soon. It is refreshing to see how much you love travel and the details you added to this discussion. Very useful. Happy Trails!

  26. says: Veronika

    Hi,
    I completely agree. We were too lazy and got up at 9 a.m. and heat was unbearable, also agree with tuk tuk, I was the one who wanted bike and thank god we didn’t do it. after whole day of reaching the temples you are pretty exhausted.

    1. says: Audrey

      Hi Toni,
      I suppose you could, but it would be a very busy day. It’s best to choose temples that are close to each other and focus on one area each day. Banteay Srei is a bit out of the way (about 1 hour outside of Siem Reap), and also Angkor Wat is popular for sunrise not sunset. If you’d like to watch the sun set from a temple, then Phnom Bakheng is a good choice.

  27. says: Jayne

    Great Advice! I’m visiting Cambodia in March next year and have been wondering about doing a bike tour round Angkor. Given I will only have one day sounds like hiring a tuk-tuk is the way forward and arriving for sunrise would be a good option considering how hot it gets! ๐Ÿ™‚

  28. says: Sabina @GirlvsGlobe

    What a great, informative post! I can totally empathise with wanting to take a bike – I always set myself up for disaster because I never want to be “the lazy one”. However, instead of being the lazy one that turns me into the crazy one. The crazy one who climbs hills in the sweltering heat, the crazy one who walks miles upon miles… in high heels. Ugh. I’m slowly beginning to learn from my mistakes and… what I really mean to say is: “Good call on getting that tuk-tuk for sure!”

  29. says: Gela

    Great advice!! We’re visiting Siem Reap tomorrow and all week I’ve been re-reading this post over and over so that I/We will be ready for the adventure ๐Ÿ˜€

  30. says: Ellen

    Hi,I’ve been to Ankor Six years in a row now. Lots more to see then Temples friends In Siem Reap.
    Go birding, take the Lake trip that’s a must Do! Have your driver take you off the beaten path.look for the fields of Lotis flowers! I can go on and on.

    Visit the New Elephant Rescue Sanctuary out of Siem Reap approx. a hr.You can Volunteer if u wish.
    Elephants have been rescued from Trekking Camps, Abused and Starved, beaten with hooks!
    No riding just spending time with them at this rescue camp.Owned by The a famous Lek of Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai!!

    Elephants back are all bones not like a horse. After yrs of abuse,there backs Break and then they still use them ! Tourists have no a Idea the torment all Elephants face in S.E Asia. A dirty little secret!

  31. says: 1/2d

    Hi Audrey, I wish I had read your brief but informative post on Angkor Wat before I visited… well, your post didn’t exist back then ๐Ÿ˜‰

    A few additional things I wish I had known that may be helpful for future visitors:

    1) It was built by an ancient race: the Khmer people. These people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, dating back to 2000 BCE. They developed the first alphabet still in use in SE Asia, from which Thai and Lao scripts are derived. Angkor Wat was erected during the peak years of the Khmer Empire, somewhere around 1113 and 1150 CE.

    2) Pol Pot did not want to destroy Angkor Wat. We hired an โ€œunofficialโ€ guide who told us that the Khmer Rouge tried to blast out the temple, as Pol Potโ€™s aim was to abolish all cultural forms and start civilization anew. A new civilization without architecture. There was one exception, however: Angkor Wat (and other Khmer temples). โ€œThese buildings had a useful nationalist symbolism with which to bind people to the [Khmer Rouge] regime, while at the same time being temporally distinct from a living culture marked for destructionโ€ (source: The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. Robert Bevan).

    3) The dancing girls are deities. There are more than 1,796 depictions of apsaras (dancing nymphs). These celestial dancing girls are characters from Indian mythology and, the story goes, were used by the gods to seduce mythological demons, heroes, and ascetics. If the girl is not dancing, she is called a devata.

    4) Average income in Cambodia is around $3 USD per day. Please keep this in mind as children and adults swarm towards you at the entrance of the Angkor temples trying to sell you postcards, artwork, textiles. Donโ€™t get irritated. Think about how it is possible to have such an imbalance of income in the world.

  32. says: Jenn

    Great post, sounds like you had an amazing time and there are some killer tips in the comments! My boyfriend and I visited Angkor Wat and got so lucky with the weather, it was a little over cast and not too hot so we were able to spend the whole day there.

    Our TIP would be:
    Hire a private tuk tuk for the day, I think it was only about $15 USD and this makes getting to and from the temples easy as well as getting from temple to temple!

    We so many amazing shots and put together a nice photo essay! – http://www.whoneedsmaps.com/angkor-wat-pictures

    Thanks for sharing all your tips guys, I wish we had found this before we left ๐Ÿ˜‰

  33. says: Loic

    I am glad I’ve read your articles before I travel to Cambodia. I leave in 4 days and I can’t wait now!

    Merci pour les astuces sur tes visites au Cambodge et Angkor wat ๐Ÿ™‚

    Quelle est ta prochaine destination?

  34. says: Nick

    We’re in Siem Reap right now and thankfully found this article ๐Ÿ™‚ We will definitely take all the advice both in the article and the comments section. Thanks.

  35. Hey, just wanted to say that we’re in Siem Reap now and your guide is the most useful one that I’ve come across! Thanks for the great post! Looking forward to seeing the temples over the next few days.

  36. says: Frederic

    I’m in Siem Reap,it is very very sad, almost of all young Cambodian are junky, taking ice. I do know about the rest of Cambodia but if it the same….

  37. says: TravelGal

    Thanks for your post, its helpful for travellers. Thought of cycling at first, but made alot of sense now to take a driver.

  38. Thanks so much for this! I’ll be there in a few days and this is super helpful!! Previous temple visits such as Ayyuthaya have indeed proven to be quite confusing as there are so many, so this is a good start! Looking forward to it!

  39. says: Tony

    Nice tips! We’re headed there in April for our first time. I’ve added your list of tips to our group’s resource materials =) Thanks!

  40. says: MountainMan

    I got to visit Angkor Wat and 2 other temples when I visited Cambodia last summer, I spent several hours there, and I could have been there all day easily. So amazing!

  41. says: Victoria

    I randomly found this post and so glad I did! I’m going to SE Asia next month and just wanted to let you know how helpful and informative this post was. Many thanks!

  42. says: edith

    do you know of a local expert on Ankor? we are heading to Cambodia at the end of the month and would like to have an expert on the matter. We are from the chicago archaeological Society.
    Thank you

    Edith

    1. says: Audrey

      Hi Edith, I don’t personally know any experts, but I know it’s possible to hire a local English-speaking guide to take you through the ruins and explain the meaning behind the structures you are visiting. This is all very easy to arrange once you arrive in Siem Reap, either through a tourism office or through your hotel directly.

  43. says: Maddie

    I’m going to Siem Reap in a month and I’m currently planning my itinerary. Just curious, do you guys cover the driver/guide’s meals? :$ This is my first trip outside the Philippines and I’m travelling solo, on a budget, and I would like to plan my expenses ahead of time. Thanks in advance!

    1. says: Audrey

      Hi Maddie, since we were only out between 5-9 a.m. (it was way too hot when we visited!), we didn’t stay out long enough to eat any meals. You generally pay your driver a set rate for the day, but I suppose you could treat him to a meal if you wanted to.

  44. says: Filippo G

    Hi Audrey, great suggestion. Just a quick tip. Beside the driver or tuc tuc do you recommand a guide or do the tour by yourself?
    Thanks, Filippo.

  45. says: Robert Kelly

    We were in Angkor a second time this January, after a 2014 visit. The major difference this time was the addition of our 6 month old baby boy. It was relatively easy travelling with him; we just had to temper our ambitions for each day. No more than 3-4 hours out at the temples. And a car not tuktuks.

    The only thing I disagree with is not renting bikes. We felt a big part of the Angkor experience was taking it in slowly and also enjoying the surrounding forests. At least one non-ambitious day on a bike is recommended.

    I also recommend picking up as many books as you can in Angkor. There are some real hidden treasures even in the main temples and also understanding how the temples are built truly adds to the enjoyment.

  46. says: Owen

    Absolutely concur with you about the bicycles โ€“ it’s recently excessively hot and too far, making it impossible to cycle out to the sanctuaries. We had a 3-day pass, as well, and we enjoyed that we could utilise it more than 7 days, which implied we went to a few sanctuaries on the day.

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