Angkor Wat, the mystical jungle temple complex in Siem Reap Cambodia is on practically everyone’s travel buck list. And for good reason- it’s a stunning site of national and worldwide significance. Beautiful old temples, amazing sculptures, incredible landscapes, quiet spots for meditation, it’s religious importance… just to name a few reasons why the Angkor Wat temples NEED to be on your bucket list. Last month I was lucky enough to tick this off my own bucket list! I was able to walk the red earth paths to the temples that so many before me had tread, to run my hand along stone that had been hauled, carved and built centuries ago and to feel the dusty dry afternoon breeze in my hair as I flew along the road in the back of my tuk-tuk. Everything that I had read about Angkor Wat gave me the impression that there was only one correct way to do the temples- with a specific order and time- and that if you didn’t do it that way then you would be missing out. Yet when I got there I discovered that it wasn’t true. Every visit and situation can be unique and different. Today I’m going to share with you my top tips about how to get the most out of your visit, so that when you visit the Angkor Wat Temple complex yourself you can have a positive and fulfilling experience that’s exactly what you wanted to do.
Tip No #1- Don’t be afraid to miss sunrise.
Most people will be able to recognise Angkor Wat from photographs. It looks stunning! Especially at sunrise. The gorgeous mystical glow of the morning sun, rising up over those temples iconic towers. It’s a perfect photo opportunity and one that majority of visitors take. But just because everyone else goes to sunrise it doesn’t mean that you have to. Unfortunately to get that precious shot it will not be quiet, peaceful experience. You will be standing in the dark with thousands of others and when the sun does rise, the quiet morning will be overpowered with sound of camera shutters. Personally the thought of waking up at 4am and venturing out in the dark, was not very appealing. I knew that if I did go to the sunrise I would be exhausted and over it within hours. Many people will feel the same, that starting so early will mean they exhaust quickly. I found that by having a decent sleep and getting to the temples around 8am, rather than 5am – I was able to fully enjoy and sustain my experience there. And that the crowds around the temple had thinned out by mid morning which is always a bonus.
Tip No #2 Before you head to the Angkor Wat Temples, first stop off at the Angkor Panorama Museum.
I was recommended this museum by some fellow travellers that I met in Singapore who had just been to Siem Reap. They suggested going on my final day to see the Panorama painting for which this museum was constructed. However when I went there on my final day I wished that I had visited there prior to starting the temples. Here you can gain an appreciation of the temples, their history and significance, as well a wealth of information to assist you in planning your ideal temple tour. This is knowledge that is beneficial to know before you start exploring. This museum is open till 9pm most nights, so it would be a fun evening activity to do before you hit the temples in the morning.
Tip No #3 – You don’t have to do it all in one day.
Angkor Wat is not simply one temple that you can knock over in a day. It’s a sprawling Archeological park filled with multiple ruins and temples. It would be impossible to see all the sites in one day and get a true appreciation for them. Don’t even bother. If you only have one day then it’s best to carefully select the top few sights that you want to see, rather than scramble to see many. I chatted to a few visitors who had started their day at 4am and were trying to cram as many sites in as possible to their one day schedule. When we met at 11am they were worn out, over it, generally hating on life, and looked like they were getting nothing out of the experience except ticking temples of a list. That’s not the experience I want for you! If you only have time for one day at the temples and think you can handle it – then go for it my friend! But if you do have a few extra days up your sleeve then I would highly suggest spending a few more days and taking the temples at a slower pace. You can purchase passes for 1-day (USD20), 3-day (USD40), or 7-day (USD60). I was there for 4 days and spent 2-3 days exploring the temples and thought it was JUST enough time to see everything I wanted.
Tip No#4 – Hire a driver.
The Archeological park is situated about a 20 minute drive from Siem Reap, and the park itself is a sprawling complex. Although you can easily hire a bicycle and ride around, this is a hot and exhausting process. Hire a driver- either an air conditioned car or, as I did, a tuk tuk driver. You can hire drivers for a full day and they can take you around the park, and they will wait for you whilst you enjoy the temples. Don’t waste your energy getting to and around the park, waste it exploring every corner of the temples. Believe me- the temples are enough of a work out!
Tip No # 5 You don’t have to see Angkor Wat first.
There are so many other amazing temples to choose from, like Bayon temple with the iconic faces, or Ta Prohm which you’ll instantly recognise from Tomb Raider as the temple that the jungle is reclaiming. Most people who watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat will automatically walk over the bridge to explore the complex. Meaning that there will be thousands of people there at the same time. Now I’m not saying that you’ll have the temple all to yourself if you go later (Angkor Wat is always full of visitors) but the smaller temples might be quieter first thing in the morning. Read- better change of photos without hordes of people!
Tip No #6 Know your limits.
Continuing on from Tip no #3 – Cambodia is generally always warm weather wise and the heat at Angkor Wat Temples is unavoidable. There is little shade available at the park so you will be walking around in direct sunlight in warm conditions. It’s important to stay hydrated and to take it easy. If you begin to feel tired, or overwhelmed, then it’s perfectly okay to find a quiet shady spot to rest, or to return to your accommodation and then return in the late afternoon. You are only going to take in the sites if you have the energy and the brain space to do so.
Tip No #7 Skip Phnom Bakheng for sunset.
This is the most popular place to go to watch the sunset and one that most tours and drivers will suggest. If you were wanting to see the sunset here, you need to get there hours in advance to secure your spot as they only allow a few hundred people up there at a time. Also getting up there involves the steep climb. Note that the sun doesn’t actually set over Angkor Wat, but the view over the surrounding countryside is beautiful. My suggestion would be to do as the locals do, skip the cues, pack a picnic and sit by the river bank looking out over Angkor Wat. Here you’ll notice the sun slip away and the be replaced with a misty blue purple light. You’ll watch the thousands of tourists pile out of the temple at 5.30pm, and suddenly notice that the temple is empty. The silence is deafening. The temple is quiet, at peace, powerful. This was the most spiritual experience that I had during my visit.
Tip No #8 Respect that this is a religious site.
All the Angkor Wat temples at the park are spiritual, sacred religious sites and should be treated accordingly. Yes you will notice packs of loud, boisterous and under dressed tourists who just want a selfie to impress their friends back home. Don’t be one of those people. Enjoy the reverence of the space. Be quiet. Pray. Meditate. Dress appropriately wearing long pants and a long top. Experience wonder and awe that a site like this exists. Give way to people praying or to local monks. Realise that you are lucky to be there, and your experience will be richer for it.
How ever you decide to do Angkor Wat Temples and whatever you decide to see I’m positive that you will love it. It’s one of the most treasured religious sites on earth, and it’s a privilege to be able to go there. It was absolutely worth the pilgrimage.