When planning your trip to Cambodia, Angkor Wat will undoubtedly be at the top of your list for places to include on the itinerary. Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples are the most visited place in Cambodia - in fact they're probably the main reason for most people even coming to the country! The temple is so significant that it appears on the Cambodian national flag and on Riel banknotes.
Angkor Wat and the other ancient temples of the archaeological complex have been important holy sites for over 1000 years. Originally built to worship the Hindu god Shiva the temples range in age from the 10th - 15th centuries. The most famous temple, Angkor Wat (literally City of Temples) was built to worship Vishnu in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, before being replaced by King Jayavarman VII's Angkor Thom as the capital of the Khmer Empire. The temples flipped between Hindusiam and Buddhism over the centuries depending on the current king's preference (you'll see damaged and destroyed Buddhist carvings on the temple walls), and they are still attended by worhippers to this day. Today, the Ankorian temples are Buddhist and during your trip to Angkor Wat and the other sites you might see Buddhist monks and nuns visiting the temples, shrines with Buddhist statues draped in cloth and flowers and burning incense sticks.
Personally, watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat's towers has been very high on our bucket list for a long time and needs to be on yours. To make your days (because you really need more than one day here!) at this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site as easy as possible, we've put together 9 essential tips for visiting Angkor Wat.
What is the dress code for Angkor Wat?
Yes it's hot, but you'll need to leave the vests and short shorts in your hotel - like many other temples and shrines you'll visit in Cambodia, Angkor Wat is a holy place and requires respectful dress. Both men and women will need to cover knees and shoulders, and that's with a t-shirt, not a shawl. The staff checking tickets will enforce the dress code and simply turn you away if you're not dressed appropriately - we saw a woman be refused entry to Baphuon because she was in a vest.
Our top tips for what to wear at Angkor Wat:
To stay cool, I'd recommend a floaty cotton maxi dress, or shorts that go below the knee with a t-shirt, or a vest with a button up shirt worn open over it. Or now would be the perfect time to wear those loose fitting temple pants on sale everywhere!! David wore light cotton trekking combats with a shirt one day, and a t-shirt with long shorts the next. And don't forget your sun hat!!
Not a dress code tip, just a word of advice - don't wear white shoes! Much of the ground surrounding the Angkor temples is sandy and dusty, and any white shoes you wear will get trashed by the end of the day! You also don't want to wear flipflops or any shoes that will be difficult to climb steep temple steps in, you'll end up losing one or scuffing a toe end. Ouch! We'd recommend darker coloured trainers that you don't mind getting dusty, or a closed toe walking sandal.
Top tips for buying Angor Wat tickets
You have 2 options for buying tickets for Angkor Wat: in person, or online. Bear in mind that the only official website for tickets is THIS ONE - any tickets bought through third parties will not be accepted.
There are 3 kinds of tickets for Angkor Wat:
1 day pass $37
3 day pass $62
7 day pass $72
As you can see, the tickets get better value the more days you pay for. There's no way you can have an enjoyable visit to Angkor Wat if you try to cram it all into one day, so we'd recommend buying the 3 day pass. Even if you only use it for 2 days, it's better value than 2 single tickets. Bear in mind that multiday tickets don't need to be used on consecutive dates - the 3 days pass is valid for 3 visits within 10 days from issue date and the 1 week pass can be used 7 times within a month.
Buying tickets in person at the Angkor Wat ticket office:
If you're heading to Angkor Wat early for a sunrise tour, the ticket desks open at 5am. We arrived at 4:40 to and it was pretty quiet - we were able to wait at a vacant counter, ready to buy our tickets as soon as they opened the till. By 5am it was very busy, so we'd recommend getting picked up from your hotel no later than 4:30am to get in the queue nice and early.
You can pay for your Angkor pass by card or in US Dollars, and the person behind the counter will use a webcam to snap your photo to print on your pass. Be prepared to laugh at your sleepy face - those cameras aren't the most flattering at the best of times, let alone after an early alarm! I've stuck ours on the fridge for posterity. Once you've got your pass you're good to go!
NB: Check sunrise times
When we visited in February, sunrise was at about 6:15ish, and we were in position on the wall outside Angkor Wat by 5:20. However, in summer months, sunrise can be as early as 5:30, which doesn't give you much time to buy your tickets and get to the temple - if you're visiting Angkor Wat in June/July we'd recommend buying your 3 day pass the night before (the ticket office is open until 17:30pm). Even if you're only visiting for one day, if you buy your ticket after 16:45 the night before then it will be valid for the following day and you can head straight to the checkpoint outside the complex in the morning.
Buying your Angkor Pass online
If you'd like to avoid queueing altogether, you can now buy your Angkor tickets online in advance. As before, only tickets bought on the official Angkor Wat ticket website will be accepted. Click the green "buy tickets" button, top right on the website, where you'll need to register your details and upload a photo before paying for the pass. It's pretty straight forward but make sure your photo is taken in good light against a plain background, or you might keep getting the "no face detected" error. You can buy tickets online up to 30 days in advance.
Don't even think about trying to get in without a ticket
Seriously, why even try? Tickets are very strictly checked in Angkor Wat - there are staff at the entrance to every temple, check points throughout the complex that your tuk tuk will need to stop at, and even guards patrolling the temples who may ask to see your ticket. If you're caught without a ticket you could be fined up to $600, and if you lose your ticket you'll need to buy a new one! Guard it with your life - we'd recommend bringing a lanyard for your ticket as you'll be showing it multiple times per day anyway. If you have a paper ticket, staff will clip a hole at the first temple you visit each day to keep track of how many times you've come to the complex. If you have an online ticket saved on your phone, they will scan the QR code.
Whether you buy the ticket at the counter or online, it will have your photo printed on it. You are not allowed to pass on or resell your ticket, and people caught doing this will be fined.
Angkor Wat Opening times
Angkor Wat, Srassrang, Pre Rup and Phnom Bakheng all open at 5am for sunrise viewing, but all the other temples are closed until 7:30am.
Pre Rup and Phnom Bakheng also stay open until 19:00 for sunset, all the other temples including Angkor Wat close at 17:30.
How to get around Angkor Wat Archaeological Park
The Angkor Wat complex is huge. Seriously massive - the temples are spread out over ACRES, some more than a kilometre apart from each other. This combined with the blazing Cambodian sun means that absolutely can't spend the day visiting Angkor Wat on foot.
By tuk tuk
Most people hire a tuk tuk driver for the day. Expect to pay around $20 for the day, depending on whether you are opting to do the small or big circuits, and a sunrise start will add a few more dollars as well. Your driver will wait for you at each site while you explore, and will advise you if he will be at a different exit to where he drops you off - some of the temples are very large so it makes sense to exit out of a different gate rather than retracing your steps back to the front.
These motorbike driven chariots are actually called remorques locally, they look very different to the dinky auto-rickshaws that we've seen in Thailand and India (although we saw these everywhere in Phnom Penh).
If you walk anywhere in Siem Reap (especially around Pub Street) you will be approached by tuk tuk drivers asking if you want to go to the temples the next day. They all know the complex backwards as this is how they earn the vast majority of their fees! Some will have laminated maps indicating the routes they offer, but if you have a particular temple or order you'd like to do, you can negotiate a price for the day you want to have. We asked our driver to drop us at the APOPO HeroRATS on the way back into town after visiting the temples, and he waited for us before taking us back to our hotel (we have a blog with more about the HeroRATS plus 10 other awesome things to do in Siem Reap apart from Angkor Wat). Your driver will pick you up from your hotel and drop you back off, and take you to the ticket office if needed.
You can also ask your hotel to help you find a driver, they will have trusted contacts to book for you
If you're feeling hardcore (or budget strapped), you can hire a bicycle from Siem Reap and cycle around the Angkor Wat temples. The roads are paved and flat, but the heat is pretty unbearable by 10am so you'll be pretty frazzled by the end of the day. We'd recommend sticking with a tuk tuk.
By tour van
If you're visiting Angkor Wat as part of an organised tour group, you'll most likely be temple hopping in an airconditioned van. While this might sound luxurious, we preferred the idea of a more private, flexible experience with our own driver, rather than following a group's timetable all day.
Do I need a guide at Angkor Wat?
One question you might be asking is do I need a guide to visit Angkor Wat? We did a day with and a day without, and loved both. Yes you'll save money by doing the sites without a guide (expect to pay $30 - $45 for a guide for the day), but you'll potentially miss lots of hidden gems and get templed out much quicker if you're wandering aimlessly, unsure of what you're looking at. There aren't really any information boards around the Angkor site, so if you're interested in history, a guide will definitely help you to learn more about the temples. We hired a guide for the small circle, and did the big circuit the following day independently with a driver. By day 2 we had got a good sense of what the carvings on the temples meant and spent a more relaxed pace wandering around some of the further out temples by ourselves.
The Angkor Wat complex is enormous and potentially very overwhelming. We wanted to have a guide for the most famous sites like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm to give us the historical context to better understand what we were looking at, to show us the details we might have missed if we were wandering around by ourselves, and to help us dodge the crowds! Our guide mixed up the order of the temples we visited compared to the typical tourist route - for example, most buses do Ankor Thom's Bayon in the morning after Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm in the afternoon - we did them the other way round which means we had a much more chilled experience.
Time to plug our guide!
We booked our guide Oun from WithLocals.com, a company that allows you to arrange and book private tours and experiences with local people in the destination you're visiting! We'll link Oun's profile here so you can check his availability because he really was wonderful. Not only is he a bundle of energy and an encyclopaedia of knowledge, Oun is a licenced guide with the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism, speaks brilliant English and is a wedding photographer to boot, which means he was able to offer some great tips for using my new DSLR, and took some gorgeous photos of us using his own camera too! He specialises in historical and photography tours, which was exactly what we were looking for.
We are so glad we spent the money on having someone show us around - Oun kept us on a good pace to make sure we fitted everything in without ever feeling like we were rushing - we could have easily lost 4 hours at Angkor Wat alone if left to our own devices, so Oun's targeted but not rushed approach was perfect. He knew some amazing places to take photos, pointed out tons of hidden details we would never have known to look for (like a carving that looked suspiciously like a dinosaur) and filled us in with fantastic historical context about the Angkorian Kings and the religious fluctuations of the temples.
He also escorted us to the ticket office and made sure that we were on time to be at the front of the queue, made buying our tickets really straight forward and had us in, out and in position well before sunrise. Perfection!
Our booking also included our tuk tuk driver, who we liked so much that we rebooked him for the big circuit the following day.
You can also book private and group tours through companies like Get Your Guide, and your hotel will probably be able to arrange a guide for you as well.
Don't skip sunrise at Angkor Wat!
Sitting in the darkness as the stars faded and the skies turned from black, to hazy pink, to fiery orange, with the magnificent Angkor Wat temple reflecting in the moat was one of the highlights of our month long trip. It's arguably the most famous sunrise in the world and such a special thing to witness. Even though you've heard horror stories about jostling crowds, please rest assured that a beautiful serene sunrise at Angkor Wat is totally achievable. We've written a complete guide to a stress free sunrise at Angkor Wat , which includes lots of top tips like where to watch it at the temple itself (hint - it's NOT the instafamous ponds!), the easiest way to get your tickets and some other gorgeous spots around the archaeological park where you can also enjoy the sunrise.
Don't feed the monkeys
As you walk around the temples, especially Angkor Thom and the Baphuon, you'll see groups of monkeys hanging around. While they look cute and make for some fun Jungle Book style photos of monkeys playing in ruins, sadly after being fed by tourists for years (why do people do this???), they're very bold and can be aggressive if you get too close. If you have any food or drink visible, they'll attempt to grab it. We saw monkeys drinking out of coke bottles and drink cans that they'd pilfered which was so sad - human food and drink is so bad for wild animals - and we also saw one dragging a sunglasses case, so keep an eye on your valuables and give the monkeys their space!
Check out the less famous temples and reverse your route to dodge the crowds.
As we said earlier when talking about our guide Oun, one of the most genius things he did on our tour was to flip the order that we visited the temples to give us a better chance of avoiding the crowds. For example, most tours will do Angkor Wat and the Baphuon first before heading to Ta Prohm in the afternoon, but we did Ta Prohm immediately after Angkor Wat and had it almost to ourselves! This meant we could take some great photos of those famous Tomb Raider tree roots taking over the temple walls and really enjoy the mysterious ruins without queuing behind tons of other travellers.
Don't make the mistake of thinking only the most famous temples are worth visiting! The Angkor Wat archaeological complex is vast, and all of the temples are special. On the Grand Circuit, we fell in love with East Mebon with its steep steps and elephant statues, Neak Poan, surrounded by coiled serpents and ponds and accessed by a long walkway across a vast lake and Preah Khan, one of our absolute favourites. This huge complex was once a Buddhist University and was used by King Jayavarman VII as a temporary residence while the capital city of Angkor Thom was being built. Like a much larger, more intact Ta Prohm, Preah Khan has long corridors and beautiful carvings with some really impressive tree roots sprawling over the walls. For another hidden gem, head right to the back of Ta Som temple complex and walk through the east gate, you'll find a hidden gem: a magnificent smiling face, similar to the gates of Angkor Thom, entwined in two strangler fig trees.
What to bring to Angkor Wat
Hat - It might sound obvious but taking a hat to visit the temples is so important. Cambodia is close to the equator and the sun is brutal. It's blazingly hot before 10am and most of the temple sites are very exposed with little shade. Protect yourself from heatstroke with a wide brimmed hat and you'll enjoy your day so much more!
Sun cream - equally important - you'll be outside exploring the temples for at least 8 hours in the hot sun and will burn to a crisp very quickly without factor 50! If you're not visiting early for sunrise and starting your visit at 9/10am then you'll experience even more of the midday sun. Slap it on while you wait for sunrise or before you leave your hotel and bring it with you on your tour so you can reapply as needed. Your tuk tuk driver will be waiting with the vehicle all day so anything you don't want to take into each temple with you (obviously take all valuables!) can be let with him.
Water - also essential for a hot, exposed day, you need lots of water to keep yourself hydrated and motivated as you explore. While our driver had bottles in a cool bag that he kept giving to us, which was a lovely surprise, cut down on single use plastic with a steel insulated bottle. I used this 1 litre bottle by Lifestyl and was so impressed, it kept my water ice cold for well over 8 hours!
Camera and spare batteries - The Angkor Wat Archaeological Park is one of the most photogenic places we've ever visited. From the jaw dropping scale of the temples to the intricate carvings and tree roots sprawled down some of the walls, you're going to be taking a lot of photos. Make sure everything is fully charged and ready to go, with spare batteries and memory cards. The last thing you want is to run out of space or battery half way through your day!
Save this blog for future planning!