In the first part of this guide, Ankit and I made no secret of the fact that we were underwhelmed by the temples of Angkor. We made a few mistakes along the way (you can read about them in part one), which led to us having a pretty average experience, so we decided to put this guide together in the hope that you will have a better time when visiting. As we stressed in our earlier post, Angkor is a must-see, so here’s how to do it well.
An Overview Of Angkor
Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. The whole site stretches over 400km2 and contains various remains (up to a whooping 1000 temples) of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, which ruled over much of the region from the 9th to the 15th century. Included is the Temple of Angkor Wat (that’s where all the iconic photos of the sun rising behind the silhouettes of the towers are taken), Bayon Temple, and other popular sites such as Ta Prohm, which was made famous when a scene from Tomb Raider was filmed there.
The whole site stretches over 400km2 and contains various remains (up to a whooping 1000 temples) of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, which ruled over much of the region from the 9th to the 15th century.
How Do I Explore The Temples?
There are two main ways to see the temples:
1) You hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day who will whizz you around the complex or
2) You can see them as part of a group tour.
Being independent travellers, we opted for the first option. Most guesthouses will have their own contacts whom you can book and utilise. The going rate seems to be anything between $14 – $16 for the day to see the main temples and the ones nearby. Other temples, such as the pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srei, are further away so it can cost anything between $20 – $25 to be taken there.
The archeological complex is a 20-minute drive away from Siem Reap, which is where all the hotels are located. Some people opt to rent bicycles in order to cycle themselves around, but unless you’re extremely fit and used to riding long distances in ridiculous heat, we would not recommend this option. You will get extremely tired, dehydrated and pissed off (well, at least I would).
Can I Rent A Motorcycle And Explore The Site Myself?
Unfortunately, no. This used to be an option, but foreigners can no longer rent motorbikes in Siem Reap, so the only viable option is renting a tuk-tuk driver for the day.
How Much Does It Cost and How Do I Get Tickets?
There are a number of passes you can opt for:
One day for $20
Three days (one week validity) for $40
Seven days (one month validity) for $60
Due to the sheer scale of the place, we opted for the three-day pass. Sure, you can do all the main attractions in one day, but you’ll be rushing from temple to temple without having the time to enjoy the experience. So we suggest you take the three-day pass, but consider taking it slow i.e. explore the temples for the first few hours of the morning, and use the rest of the day to relax and enjoy one of the many great cafés in Siem Reap.
Note: tickets are available at the main ticket sales booth. Your tuk-tuk driver will know where to take you. The complex opens at 5am and most temples close at 6pm. Carry your ticket with you at all times, as they’re checked whenever you arrive at a new temple.
Our Favourite Temples
Everyone winds up having favourite Angkor temples. Ours were:
Banteay Kdei – also known as ‘A Citadel of Chambers,’ this temple had been occupied by monks at various intervals until the 1960s. I think the main reason why we loved it so much was that we practically had the place to ourselves for the majority of the time, which helped us to take some amazing shots and really appreciate the place. This is in contrast to our experience of the famous Ta Prohm – more commonly known as the Tomb Raider temple. And it was raided alright – raided by truckloads of tour group tourists. Groan.
Bantaey Kdei was quiet, and also had a Buddha sculpture complete with Buddhist flags and loads of offerings. It’s a really great place to enjoy some peaceful reflection.
Neak Pean – This temple is located on an artificial island, so you have to walk down a long pier which is surrounded by a reservoir in order to get to it. The walk there was the main highlight! Now I’m not sure if we lucked out, or if it’s always like this, but the views on the way there were out of this world. The still reservoir was reflecting the view of the sky and the big fluffy clouds, giving images such as this:
This was definitely the highlight of our time in Angkor.
Bayon – Bayon is a richly decorated temple that has multiple serene faces on most of the towers, jutting out of the stonework. It really is a marvel to see and we spent loads of time there snapping pictures at different angles, getting creative with our photography. Scholars believe that the faces on the temples are representations of Jayavarman VII – the king who built Angkor Thom (where Bayon is located) and who is considered to be greatest king of Cambodia.
Ta Som – Ta Som was another favourite of ours. It even has trees that have overrun the ruins like at Ta Prohm, only here you can actually enjoy it more because it’s much quieter.
Consider getting a guide
One of the reasons we didn’t enjoy Angkor as much as we had hoped is because after a while all the temples started to look the same. We didn’t get a guide because we seldom do, but this was the one time that we shouldn’t have hesitated. A good guide will be able to explain the differences between all the monuments, give you good facts and figures, and make the whole experience come to life.
No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll quickly realise just how hot it gets. We recommend getting there as the sun comes up every single day to make sure you can see as much as possible before the heat becomes unbearable. You can then spend lunchtime back in Siem Reap and have a siesta.
Another advantage of starting early is that you’ll get to miss some of the crowds before they start arriving in their masses.
Pick your favourite temple and visit it first
If I were to choose my top tip out of them all, this would be it – pick the temple that intrigues you the most and set out to visit it first thing in the morning on your first day. This is what we tried to do on the recommendation of other travel bloggers, but unfortunately our driver wasn’t cooperative and took us to some other crappy temple instead; by the time we got to Ta Prohm, the place was full of other tourists and it completely ruined our experience.
If you get there as the sun is coming up, you’re 99.9% likely to have the place to yourself as all the crowds will still be at Angkor Wat witnessing the (overrated) sunrise. The first temple you see stays with you – make sure it’s a good one!
See Angkor Wat at sunrise, but don’t go with high expectations
Everyone wants to see Angkor Wat at sunrise. I mean, who doesn’t want to take an iconic photo of the silhouette of the famous towers as the sun majestically rises behind them. Only problem is, it’s near impossible to get a good shot these days because of the amount of tourists who also want to do the same – we were genuinely shocked by the number of people who were there for sunrise! We ended up finding a quiet spot outside the grounds of Angkor Wat and getting some decent snaps. If you go inside, though, you’re more than likely going to end up with photos of the back of people’s heads.
Head back to town in time for lunch
If you have the time, do this: get a three-day pass, make a list of the temples you want to see, and divide them across the three days. Get up early, see your favourite first, and make sure you’re done with the rest of them by midday. It’s too hot to wander around after this time, so it’s best to head back to Siem Reap for a good lunch and a dip in the pool of your hotel if you’re lucky enough to have one!
You can eat lunch in Angkor but a) the food is expensive for what it is and b) it’s edible at best.
Get a hotel with a pool
One of our readers, Jane, left this very helpful comment on our previous post:
“(Get a) hotel with a swimming pool (and I realise this is a problem if you’re doing long-term or real budget travel), and do the temples in the morning and pool in the afternoon. The heat is a killer, as you mentioned! We were lucky that someone we knew who had experienced the Siem Reap heat had recommended finding a place with a swimming pool before we left.”
Jane is spot on. The heat is unbearable, so it’s great to be able to take a dip in an ice-cold pool once you’re back at your hotel. Even if you’re on a budget, you can find some hotels that have pools for as little as $25 a night.
Best Time Of Year To Visit
We visited during peak season, which runs from November until March; the weather during this time is dry and sunny. From April until May the weather is hot and humid, whereas June until September is the rainy season. We can definitely recommend December as a good month – still hot, but not hot enough to completely hinder your experience.
Where To Stay
We stayed at White Villa in Siem Reap for $25 a night (we managed to get this down to $22 when we extended our stay). The hotel is new and has a guesthouse feel to it. The rooms are a decent size, clean, have lovely furniture, a TV, dressing table with a hairdryer (a first for a room at this kind of rate!), free water and tea/coffee facility in the room, fridge, A/C, hot shower with good pressure, and a comfortable bed.
The staff are also extremely lovely but don’t use their laundry service (one of our t-shirts went missing, although to be fair to them they gave us a free night’s stay because of it!). Breakfast is included and is good enough (eggs made to your preference, unlimited toast, tea/coffee, juice, fruit platter).
The best way to book is through their website.
Do you have any tips you’d like to add?