Your ultimate guide to the Angkor Wat temples of Cambodia
Post updated: 13/09/2019 | Looking for the ultimate guide to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples? From how to avoid the crowds to which temples to see, whether you should take a tour or do it solo, plus where to stay in Siem Reap and how to get around, we’ve got you covered.
We're pretty sure that the ancient city of Angkor Wat needs no introduction, given the pride of place it occupies on most travellers to Southeast Asia’s bucket lists.
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve scrolled past it on Instagram, seen it on the Cambodian flag, or wandered past the stalls selling fridge magnets, guidebooks, t-shirts, and mugs with the beloved 5-towered building emblazoned across the front: nothing will ever prepare you for the moment you see the Angkor Wat temples in the flesh.
The temple is striking from a distance and even more stunning up close; a gateway to an ancient world and the heart and soul of the country for many Cambodian people.
It’s also one of the world’s most popular tourist spots — Angkor attracts over two million visitors every year, the majority between November - February! — and the whole complex is huge, which means that sometimes it can be both mesmerising and overwhelming all at once for a first-time traveller.
That’s exactly why we’ve put together this ultimate guide to the Angkor Wat temples, full of all the essential Angkor Wat travel information you could need, plus our best travel tips, photography advice, how to choose a tour, and where to stay nearby.
Whether you’re visiting on a flying one-day visit or planning to spend a week exploring every nook and cranny of this ancient Kingdom, here’s how to most of your visit to Angkor Wat.
everything you need to know before visiting the ANGKOR WAT temples
Angkor Wat temples: fast facts
Built | 12th century
Purpose | Ancient city and temple complex
Religion | Hindu initially, then Buddhist
Location | Siem Reap, Cambodia
Size | 162 hectares
Best time to visit | November - February
Recommended visit length | 2-3 days
A brief history of the Angkor Wat temples
Before we get into the nitty gritty of our guide to Angkor Wat, here's a brief overview.
Located in the Siem Reap province of Cambodia, this UNESCO World Heritage site was once the epicentre of the city of Angkor; sprawling capital city of the powerful Khmer empire that ruled Southeast Asia between 802 - 1431. At a time when London only had 18,000 inhabitants, as many as 750,000 people may have called Angkor home and the city sprawled across an area larger than Paris does today. It was the most impressive, advanced city in the world at the time.
So… what happened?
One theory suggests that the powerful Kingdom of Ayutthaya (Thailand) to the north defeated the Empire and sacked Angkor after a seven-month-long siege.
Another posits that a change in religious heart from Hinduism to the more peaceful and egalitarian Buddhism might have prompted the downfall, while modern-day laser research has uncovered evidence that suggests either catastrophic flooding or a failing in the water networks contributed.
Either way, at some point the city of Angkor was all but abandoned by its residents, before being totally reclaimed by the jungle surrounding it.
European explorers ‘rediscovered’ the Angkor Wat temples (some small local communities did still live in and around the temples), in both the 15th and 19th centuries, before extensive restoration in the twentieth century saw Angkor Wat finally reopen for tourists from around the world to explore.
Today, Angkor Wat rules in the tourism stakes with over 2 million visitors walking the marble and sandstones steps yearly, admiring the vast breathtaking structures. Angkor Wat temple is also still used by Buddhist monks today!
WHY VISIT ANGKOR WAT?
When you witness the Angkor Wat archaeological zone for the first time, you’ll be struck by the sheer size, scale and diversity of each structure. The complex is massive!
Then, as you start exploring, you’ll realise how brilliantly intricate and well-preserved it is.
This ancient Khmer Empire temple city is home to some of the most remarkable architectural accomplishments of the ancient world, and it’s literally like stepping straight into an Indiana Jones movie.
As the world’s largest sacred building, the Angkor Wat temples are UNESCO-protected as a site of Outstanding Universal Value, and quite simply, are a marvel.
Formerly protected by dense jungle, the temples are now covered by humans exploring every piece of the three main temples, Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame) like ants.
It can at times be a little overwhelming (especially in the heat!) yet the sheer beauty and historical significance of the area makes it all worth it.
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Where is Angkor Wat?
The entire Angkor Wat temple complex measures around 162.6 hectares and is located in north-western Cambodia, in the Krong Siem Reap province.
The complex is about six kilometres north of the lively town of Siem Reap — popular with travellers and locals alike, and considered to be the gateway to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME of year TO VISIT ANGKOR WAT?
Cambodia is in the tropical zone, which means it’s pretty warm all-year-round — but you will have to contend with wet season at various points in the year.
The complex is open and accessible every day of the year, but the best time to visit Angkor Wat is during the drier, cooler season between November and March.
Be aware that this is also peak tourist season, so expect to share your explorations with some very large crowds. We visited in January and it was absolutely packed.
If crowds aren't your thing, time your visit to Angkor Wat at the tail ends of the season instead, or alternatively plan to come here between June and October when the weather is hot and a little rainy, but the crowds much, much thinner.
When is the best time of day to visit Angkor Wat?
The best time to explore Angkor Wat itself is very early, right after sunrise. There’ll be less tourists in the complex, and you’ll also get the added benefit of avoiding the stifling heat and having better light for photography. The park is open between 5:00am and 18:00pm each day.
Obviously, a sunrise at Angkor Wat is a pretty iconic travel moment and photo, so if you're planning to experience this while you’re there, we’d recommend getting there at 5am on the dot to try and claim your position.
Given that this is the number one thing to do at Angkor Wat, expect to find yourself in the midst of a sort of mosh pit and only being able to watch it through the lens of someone else’s phone - especially around the famous left lake - as hundreds of (loud) tourists jostle each other for 'the shot’.
If you’re not so keen on the photography side of things, either watch the sunrise from a more comfortable spot, or head straight into the main complex to explore by yourself before the rest of the crowds catch up again.
There are also plenty of other temples within the Angkor archaeological zone which are best viewed at various points in the day; keep reading to see which of these you should visit, and when, below!
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HOW TO EXPLORE ANGKOR WAT: GUIDED TOUR OR SOLO?
Of course, it’s totally possible to explore the Angkor archaeological park solo; there are plenty of guidebooks available that break down each temple and ruin. But take it from two people who decided on the rookie route and didn’t organise a guided tour of the complex: visit Angkor Wat with a guide.
There’s just so much to take in around the complex and without a local expert it's far too easy to miss the important sites and historical facts. We kind of felt like we missed out a little, as the majority of what we saw went straight over our heads.
If you want to understand the Khmer civilisation beyond just traipsing around ruins, it’s far more rewarding to book a tour guide (an official one, please - make sure they're authorised and wearing official lanyards and licenses) who can explain the site to you.
Alternatively, if you're visiting the park on multiple days, or you only want to get the inside word on Angkor Wat itself, just hire a guide for the main temple, then go and explore the other sites by yourself.
Plus, taking a local guide is a brilliant way of supporting the local economy, as well as encouraging locals to remain invested in the upkeep of their heritage sites - which is what every good traveller should want to be a part of!
Angkor Wat tours we recommend
If you’re keen to book your tour before you arrive in Siem Reap, we recommend the following options (note that none of these include your Angkor pass, which will need to be purchased separately):
Angkor Wat Full-Day Sunrise Tour | You’ll get a good sunrise spot at Angkor Wat before spending the rest of the day temple hopping around Angkor Thom city, Bayon temple, and Ta Prohm with a small group and your professional guide.
Full-day Angkor Wat temples bicycle tour | Skip the crowds and instead enjoy a leisurely cycle around the quieter laneways of the Angkor archaeological park, including Angkor Wat, Bayon and the elephant terrace, Angkor Thom, and some of the lesser known ruins. Also includes traditional lunch.
BOOK | full-day Angkor Wat temples bike tour here.
Three-day comprehensive Angkor Wat temples tour | This one’s for the true temple buffs out there; a guided private tour that takes in the key highlights, as well as temples way off the beaten track. It also includes traditional lunch stops, and visits to Tonle Sap (the floating market), as well as some other Siem Reap highlights.
BOOK | 3-day Angkor Wat tour here
HOW TO TRAVEL AROUND ANGKOR WAT
If you're not joining a guided tour (or only using one at the main Angkor site), the easiest way to explore the temples of Angkor Wat is by hiring a Tuk Tuk or Moto-taxi for the day.
They can cost anywhere between $20-$30 USD depending on where you want to go and what you want to do. Add a few more dollars if you’re heading out for an early start to watch the sunrise.
It’s a good idea to ask your tuk-tuk driver for advice as to what temples to visit; they are extremely knowledgeable and may just find you a little ‘off the beaten track’ temple which you can have all to yourself.
Otherwise, hire a bicycle or e-bike and explore for yourself. Walking isn’t really an option here as the temples are huge, the distance between each is vast, and the sun is searingly hot.
BONUS TIP | You’ll generally find that most guides and tuktuk drivers follow the same clockwise route around the temple circuit, which means that you’ll bump into the same groups of tourists at all the same temples, generally all at the same time. Go against the crowd and ask your tuktuk driver to visit the temples backwards (or completely out of order!) for a far less crowded, and way more enjoyable experience.
WHICH ANGKOR WAT TEMPLES SHOULD YOU VISIT?
There are over a thousand temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, with plenty still being unearthed every year - so unless you’re a very keen archaeologist, you’re obviously not going to be able to see them all.
That said, here are a few of the temples and sites we think you should visit during your time here:
| ANGKOR WAT |
Obviously! Angkor Wat is the prized temple and namesake of the Angkor Park, and it’s a seriously impressive ancient site.
Full of imposing structures, intricately carved bas-reliefs and thousands of beautifully preserved asparas (female deities), it’s a true feast for the eyes and you could lose yourself for hours taking it all in.
| BAYON TEMPLE |
Bayon temple is at the heart of the Angkor Thom city ruins, and is probably the most attractive of all the temple sites. Best known for its 216 distinctive smiling face carvings, it’s believed to be the mesmerising state temple of Jayavarman VII (Cambodia’s most revered King).
In addition to the impressive faces, it’s also adorned with 1.2km of bas-reliefs with more than 11,000 figures. There are three levels; the first two are rectangular with a third, circular floor above, and many a Banyan tree (the tree under which Buddha was said to gain enlightenment) scattered around the property. Great for early morning or late afternoon photography!
Not far from Bayon is the Baphuon temple; a pyramid-shaped site said to be one of the most beautiful and unique temples in Angkor Thom at the time, but sadly hasn’t survived much of the ravages of time since it was built in the 11th century.
| ELEPHANT TERRACE |
A 1000-foot terrace of elephants near Bayon. It was formerly used as a giant viewing stand during public ceremonies, royal ceremonies, and so on. Many lions decorate this enormous path as well.
These days, it’s surrounded by camera-wielding tourists, and we found it to be one of the busiest sites in the whole complex. We suggest visiting late or early to avoid the crowds, which can get seriously overwhelming.
| TA PROHM TEMPLE |
Ta Prohm, made famous by the Tomb Raider movie being filmed there, is one of the most visually stunning and popular in the whole complex. Over time, silk cotton trees and huge vines have woven their way through the various ancient cracks and now threaten to reclaim the temple altogether.
Although some of the more iconic trees growing from the ruins have been removed to help to protect the temple from collapse, it’s still a beautiful, otherworldly sight to see. You’ll want to miss the crowds which overrun the place (not helped by the one-direction path you all have to walk), so arrive early.
| PREAH KHAN |
Our favourite temple largely due to the lack of crowds, Preah Khan is a former Buddhist university and one of the largest sites in the Angkor temple complex.
Largely unrestored, it’s very similar to Ta Prohm and has many trees growing around the ruins and mossy stones left laying around.
| PRE RUP |
Pre Rup was once at the center of the Angkor Thom city, and is fashioned in a very similar way to the main Angkor Wat temple. Climb the steep steps up to the three tiers of the pyramid for a sweet view of the area.
It’s also a pretty good spot for sunrise photography without the crazy large crowds of the main Angkor wat temple - although if you decide to head here at sunset, expect to share your spot with hundreds of others!
| BANTEAY SREI |
Despite being about 20km from the main Angkor temple, Banteay Srei is worth a visit for a number of reasons; one being the unique red sandstone that sets it apart from the other temples, the second being its miniature scale and thousands of tiny female deity carvings.
Its delicate nature has led it to be nicknamed the ‘lady temple’, ‘citadel of women’ and ‘citadel of beauty’, and it’s totally different to the other temples in the Angkor complex.
Visit in the early morning or late afternoon as there isn’t much shade, and the changing light will enhance the deep colour of the red sandstone.
| SRAH SRANG |
Not so much a temple as a stunning lake once used as a bathing area, the 10th-century Srah Srang reservoir is a serene, romantic spot to relax at, surrounding by greenery and views out over the tranquil water.
If you’re feeling templed out but are still in the mood for an epic sunrise, this is your place (hint: wait for the sun to create reflections on the water!).
| PHNOM BAKHENG |
Phnom Bakheng is super popular as a sunset spot, thanks to its position on a hill overlooking Angkor Wat in the distance.
For photography enthusiasts, this is a great spot to get a different perspective on the main temple (bring a decent zoom lens!), and make sure you’re there as early as possible as only 300 people are allowed in to the site after 5:30pm.
On a misty morning, this could also be a beautiful, moody place to watch sunrise over Angkor Wat from!
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OUR ITINERARY FOR EXPLORING THE ANGKOR WAT TEMPLES
Based on our own explorations, the below itinerary is what we’d suggest seeing - customise it as much as you wish based on your own preferences!
| ONE DAY Angkor Wat temples itinerary |
If you really do only have one day to explore Angkor Wat, we’d recommend doing the standard 10-mile loop called the “small circuit”, which takes in the top three temple sites of Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm within the ancient former city of Angkor Thom.
The order in which you do these really depends on your priorities of exploration. If you're a bit of a photography buff, you’ll probably want to see the famous Angkor Wat sunrise from the lake in front of the temple.
The left lake (the most famous view) fills up with thousands of tourists quickly, but our tip would be to head to the right and shoot from there - or simply give up and get into the temple before the hordes descend there too..!
From there, head across the moat and through the entrance to Angkor Thom, where Bayon, the Elephant Terrace, and Baphuon (amongst others) are all located, before making your way as quickly as possible to Ta Prohm. You’ll want to get here before the crowds do, as the restoration works mean that you’re kind of ferried along in a one-direction walkway with everyone else, a little like a conveyor belt!
If you get through your sightseeing quickly or you’re just fed up with the crowds, head to Preah Khan instead which has very similar vibes to Ta Prohm.
Also, if you’re not too fussed by the Angkor Wat sunrise, ask your tuk tuk driver to flip your itinerary backwards, and you’ll avoid the largest part of the crowd everywhere you go!
| TWO - THREE DAY Angkor Wat Itinerary |
Could you see Angkor Wat in one day? Yes, but barely.
It’s our opinion that you can only really get a feel for how incredible the ancient kingdom was by spending a few more days amongst the ruins.
For those that have the multi-day pass, you could slow down your sightseeing from day one and save Ta Prohm for today (go early to beat the rush!) instead of rushing through it in one day.
Otherwise, we’d also recommend heading out to Banteay Srei (25km from the main sites) for the morning and exploring this super unique, delicately decorated red sandstone temple and surrounds.
On the way back into Siem Reap from Banteay Srei, you’ll pass Srah Srang lake and the East Mebon temple, both of which are worthy of exploring. For the afternoon, head to Pre Rup for some beautiful sunset views - but be ready for plenty of other tourists to be there too.
The following day, you could either start your day at Phnom Bakheng if you’re keen for some misty morning photography, or end it there for sunset views over the main temple.
For the rest of the day, spend your time exploring the lesser-known temples like Neak Pean (“entwined serpents”) with its boardwalk entry over marshland, Ta Som, or Preah Khan (if you didn’t make it there on the first day!), before finishing up with some sunset views within the park.
| SEVEN + DAY Angkor Wat itinerary |
Seven days at Angkor? The temple world is your oyster! Opt to take a private tour, split up your sightseeing with some of the other things to do around Siem Reap, and enjoy as many temples as you wish, at the pace you want to see them at.
Map of Angkor Wat temple itinerary locations
ANGKOR WAT TICKETS: How much do tickets to Angkor Wat cost?
There are three ticket options for Angkor Wat which cater for how many days you want to spend in the park. Unlike when we visited, the ticket counters now also accept almost every credit card except for American Express.
Entry prices increased significantly in 2017 — the downside to the complex being managed by a private, for-profit organisation that keeps a large portion of the incoming revenue — and have now been raised to the slightly extortionate entrance fees listed:
One day ticket | $37 USD. Great if you're short on time, but we highly recommend against this as you need to be spending more than one day here!
Three day ticket | $62 USD. This was our choice (and would be again!). It gives you enough flexibility to really explore and appreciate the temples without running around like a mad person.
Seven day ticket | $72 USD. Perfect if you're spending a decent amount of time in Siem Reap and want to see the historical precinct thoroughly (but perhaps not all in one go), this ticket allows you to come and go as you please over seven days.
Angkor Wat tickets: how to buy your entrance pass
You can only purchase entrance tickets to the Angkor Archaeological Park from the Angkor Ticket Office (Angkor Enterprise); those purchased anywhere else are invalid.
We’d recommend organising your tickets for the following day from 5pm the evening before you want to enter. Trying to sort out a ticket at sunrise / early morning when everyone else is there is guaranteed to be a frustrating, annoying process.
You’ll also need to visit the office in person as your picture will be digitally printed onto your ticket.
NOTE | Always carry your ticket with you, as it’s common to have these checked again by security guards at the entrance of certain ruins.
Location | Apsara Rd, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia (map)
Tips for visiting Angkor Wat - including responsible travel tips
Dress appropriately | This is a religious site that's still used for that purpose to this day, and as such, you really should be dressed appropriately or expect to be denied access in certain areas too.
That means knees and shoulders covered — ladies, please stop wearing short shorts here! — and don't wear any clothing with images of Buddha or Ganesha on it as this is actually super offensive here. Overall, just being mindful that you're in a foreign, more conservative country is the key.
Guards are stationed at entrances to certain sites, and they will prevent you from going in if you’re unsuitably dressed.
Bring lots of water | The heat here is oppressive, especially after walking and climbing each complex.
There’s no need to buy bottled water either; invest in a reusable water filtration / purification bottle (we use The Grayl), and you can drink the water anywhere you are. Such an easy way to cut down on your plastic consumption!
BUY | The Grayl water purification and filtration system
Wear comfortable shoes | Lots of walking will be done, often over slippery surfaces and uneven stairs, so a decent pair of shoes definitely won’t go astray here. We also saw quite a few dead snake skins floating about, so even more reason to have proper sneakers on, at least.
Hire a local guide | We already mentioned this above, but hiring an official local guide goes a long way to supporting the local economy and commitment to maintaining and restoring the ruins.
Avoid the crowds | Overtourism is a real issue for the complex; try visiting outside of peak season and times, and travel in a different direction to most tourists to lessen your impact.
Don’t ride the elephants | Unfortunately, there are still elephant rides operating outside the main Angkor Wat complex. No ride is an ethical ride; please just don’t do it. Read our guide to being an animal-friendly traveller here
Food and drink | You can’t buy food within the Angkor wat complex, but there are food stalls around the outside. That said, we’d recommend skipping them unless you’re keen to pay 4-5 times the price you’d normally pay around Siem Reap.
Either bring lots of snacks with you for the day, or ask your tuktuk driver to take you to the less expensive stalls (the tuktuk drivers tend to eat at some of the stalls a short walk away from the complex).
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WHERE TO STAY IN SIEM REAP, the gateway to Angkor Wat
The closest accommodation to Angkor Wat is in the lively town of Siem Reap; Cambodia's backpacker paradise-cum-creative arts hub-cum-luxury travel hotspot.
The city is just 15 minutes by tuktuk from the temple entrance gates, and is home to plenty of accommodation options ranging from backpacker right through to 5-star chic hotels.
Depending on what kind of vibe you're looking for, we’d recommend staying close enough to Pub Street (Siem Reap’s tourist / party hub) to walk in for lunch or dinner, but far enough away that you’re not kept up all night by the thumping music and partygoers.
Hostels in Siem Reap
One Stop Hostel | We stayed at One Stop Hostel and really enjoyed its laid-back, chilled out vibe. Rooms were clean and comfy, and the common area was perfect for a few games of cards with new friends. One Stop also runs free Khmer Language classes, provides most toiletries, and you can book your Angkor Wat tours at the front desk too.
Cost: singles from £4 | privates from £12.
Onederz Hostel | Onederz Hostel is right next to the night market and action of pub street, with a modern, clean, and lively vibe. There are two pools and the common area is also super chilled with board games, and staff run plenty of rooftop cinema nights and pool parties for guests.
Cost: dorms from £6.35 | Privates from £23
ECO-FRIENDLY ACCOMMODATION IN SIEM REAP
You guys know we love a hotel that also cares about the environment and local communities (remember when we stayed at Tri Hotel in Sri Lanka?), and in recent years Siem Reap has seen some amazing new sustainably-minded, eco hotels burst onto the scene, with everything from supreme luxury to budget-friendly options.
Babel Siem Reap Guesthouse | Backpacking and sustainable living needn’t be mutually exclusive; Babel Siem Reap Guesthouse is the perfect choice for those on a budget who don’t want to sacrifice on reducing their overall footprint.
Rooms are beautifully designed with eco-initiatives, they serve a vegan-friendly menu, run education and training programs for staff, and also have a zero-waste bulk shop onsite if you need to restock any of your essential travel kit (bamboo toothbrushes, etc!).
Cost: Prices start $27 USD.
BOOK | Check current prices and availability here
AIRBNB IN SIEM REAP
Airbnb wasn't really a thing in Cambodia during our visit to Siem Reap in 2016, but it sure has taken off since. Prices vary, although they do tend to be a bit more expensive than hostels.
Here are our top recommendations - and don’t forget to use our discount code for up to £36 / $45 off your first booking:
Veayo Studio | Incredibly modern, industrial designed apartment about 5 minutes away from Pub Street. They have a full kitchen so you can cook while there, and a free tuk tuk pick up service from the airport.
Cost: prices start $30 USD.
BOOK | Check prices and availability here
Nika’s Residence | Brand new apartment about 15 minute walk from Pub Street. Comfortable, modern, with its own kitchen area and ensuite bathroom. They also offer massages and room service food delivery.
Cost: Prices start £8.
BOOK | Check prices and availability here
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Have you visited the Angkor Wat temples and surrounds? What was your highlight? Share your stories in the comments below!