Angkor Wat is absolutely a must see attraction in South East Asia. Many tourists travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap for a day just to see this amazing wonder of the world. However, Angkor Wat isn’t the only temple you should visit. The City of Angkor contains dozens of amazing temples, each of which tells their own story of the Khmer empire. We visited 20 temples and sites over two days, and each had something new and unique to explore. During this post we’ll outline the must see spots, and some tips on the best ways and times to see them.
When you arrive in Siem Reap and are all checked into your accommodation, head out to the main streets to find a tuk tuk driver for your Angkor Wat adventure. The Temples of Angkor are about a 20 min tuk tuk drive north of Siem Reap, and you’ll need a drive between most of the temples as well. The tuk tuk drivers are accustomed to being booked for the whole day for a flat rate, though you should book a day in advance. We managed to book a younger guy for $17 US for the small loop, and $25 for the big loop including Banteay Srei (we’ll explain the loops later!). Split between 4 of us it $10.50 US each for two days of exploring amazing temples. We only booked one day at first, just in case our driver wasn’t good, but after a day with Nah we decided to book him for the second day as well. Our driver, Nah, was super chill and was always on time. He would nap while we explored the temples and allowed us to create our own route through the area. We ended up tipping him $5 at the end because he made our two days very easy. You can book more experienced drivers for more money that act as guides and give you information on the temples during the drives in between but we bought ourselves a book for $1 and Devon acted as our guide.
There is also the option of renting a bike to explore the temples, but after walking all day through the temples we don’t know how anybody would be able to hop on a bike to head back home. You also will not be able to see as much in a day as we were able to in a tuk tuk. It was also ridiculously hot, and the breeze during the tuk tuk rides revived us before we entered the next hot temple.
Speaking of the heat and walking, you won’t want to bring much with you. A water bottle, camera and some money for lunch and water are pretty much all you need. Guys are good to wear shorts that cover their knees and t-shirts (avoid tanks). Girls will need to wear pants or sarongs and t-shirts (no crop tops or tank tops!). Elephant pants are the obvious choice as they are very light. To get into the inner temple of Angkor Wat girls need sarongs or long skirts and guys will need pants. We tackled the temples in flip flops, but some of the climbs are pretty steep at some temples and real shoes would have been helpful. Otherwise leave all the extras at home; you won’t want to be carrying it all around, and leaving it in the tuk tuk is a little risky. Nah was great and trustworthy but he was often sleeping.
You’ll also need to decide how many days you want to spend exploring the temples. We opted for two days, one to tackle the small loop and one to tackle the big loop. They were very long days however (9.5 hours the first day, and 7 hours the second day) and if you have the time it might be more enjoyable to spread it out over three days. Before you enter the area on the first day you’ll need to buy a temple pass.
They go for $20 for one day, $40 for three days and $60 for a week pass (all USD). Ticket prices went up on Feb 1st 2017, they are now $37 for one day, $62 for three days and $72 for a week. You can spread the 3 day pass over a week, and the week pass over a month. The passes have your name and picture on them, so no chance of sharing with a friend. You need to keep your pass on you at all times while in the area.
Once you’ve booked your tuk tuk, and gathered your camera and water bottle it’s time to figure out your route! Check out our tips on planning your tour, as well as our own two day route below, which includes more than 20 of the most popular and coolest temples.
Tips for Your Temple Tour
- It gets really hot! Plan on going in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat.
- Go counterclockwise! Most organized tours take you clockwise starting with Angkor Wat at sunrise. To avoid the crowds, start at Angkor Wat for the sunrise then go the opposite direction, and leave actually exploring Angkor Wat for last. We’re also big believers in leaving best for last, and we found going counterclockwise built from small temples to larger ones, which allowed the smaller ones to still be exciting.
- Angkor Wat is a great place for sunrise as the main gate faces east. Make sure to get up bright and early to witness the spectacle.
- Most of the other temples face east. To get the best pictures you’ll want the sun at your back, so that also validates the morning visits.
- If you only have one day, tackle the small loop, Ta Prohm is a must see.
- Phnom Bakeng is a great place to see the sunset, but only a limited amount of people are allowed up on the temple at one time. You’ll need to arrive at around 4pm if you want a spot on the top.
- Restaurants in the area are relatively expensive; try to grab a sandwich from a kart if you find one.
- Avoid the local vendors unless you absolutely want water or whatever they’re selling. They’re super annoying, and will follow you/try to sell you things forever.
Day 1 – Small Loop
We started our day with a 4:45am pickup from our hotel by our trusty tuk tuk driver Nah. Our hotel offered free breakfast and we arranged to have them pack it up for us so we could eat it on the tuk tuk ride to the temples (Check out where we stayed here) . After a short stop to buy our temple passes we arrived at Angkor Wat at 5:15am. Angkor Wat is a very popular spot to watch the sun rise, as it is not only the biggest temple, but also one of the only temples that faces west instead of east, so the sun rises behind it. We hung out across the moat at the main entrance as the sun rose, then walked through the main gate to the inner yard to get some awesome pictures of Angkor Wat being lit up for the first time that day by a pink and peach coloured sky. It was a one of a kind experience!
After that we strayed from the main tourist route to avoid the crowds. Most people visit Angkor Wat right away after they witness the sunrise, but we decided to head back out to our tuk tuk and drive to Prasat Kravan, a small temple east of Angkor Wat. This route also took us counter clockwise around the small loop, whereas most of the tourist groups go clockwise. If you’ve been following our blog for a little while you’ve probably noticed we don’t like crowds or following the normal route, and that we like saving the best for last, and this plan satisfied all three of those criteria.
This was a small temple, and after seeing the other temples we’d barely consider it a temple at all. There were some cool carvings inside the two rooms, but the main excitement of this temples came from it being the first one we explored. We were also the only ones there, which proved our choice of route right so far.
This was our second temple, and it was a pretty cool one. It was very much in ruins, and since we were the only ones there again we were really able to take it all in. It’s crazy to see how the jungle can take over such massive human structures. Across the road from the temple was Sra Srang, a massive man made pool which is cool to see.
Onto one of our personal favourites, Ta Prohm, otherwise known as the Tomb Raider temple. This temple has massive jungle trees growing all through the ruins, and giant root systems spanning stone walls. This temple gets very busy later in the day, but at that point in the morning, there were very few tourists which contributed to the otherworldly and slightly creepy vibe the temple gave off. To see such massive trees perched atop 15 ft walls and growing through the roofs of rooms was absolutely bizarre and amazing at the same time. We stopped for lunch after this one in a little market across from the main entrance. The restaurants there are fairly expensive for Cambodian standards, but we managed to find a kart that was selling super tasty sandwiches for $1.50 US. You can find cold water pretty much everywhere for $1/big bottle but the vendors here are relentless. Don’t approach them unless you need to buy what they’re selling unless you like being harassed and followed around forever.
This was next on our list, and was a smaller temple built like a mountain or pyramid. The climb up to the top was insanely steep, so be prepared. The temple was very blocky and had 5 small rooms at the top. The view from the top was pretty sweet, and it was fun to wander around up high looking at the statues.
Thommanon and Cheu Say Tevoda
After that we visited two sister temples Thommanon and Cheu Say Tevoda. The two temples were on the smaller side, and were very similar but were also both very intricate. Really cool carvings above the doors and designs in the rooms of both of them. It’s worth it to visit both, and easy as they are just across the road from one another.
Then you head into the Ancient City, or Angkor Thom, through the Victory Gate. Of the four gates into the Ancient city, the eastern gate is the most extravagant and well kept. Leading up to the gate the road is flanked by small warrior statues lined up one after another. The gate itself displays a face that is a common theme among the temples in the Ancient City. Once through the gate we headed to Elephant Terrace (the only spot on the map not labelled) which, as the name implies, is a stone terrace held up by some very cool elephant statues.
Up until now we’ve had to drive between each temple, but we were able to walk between the next few, so we had Nah meet us at Bauphon (refer to the map above if you’re getting confused!). From the Elephant Terrace we walked west to check out Phimeanakas. This is a smaller pyramid-like temple which we were not allowed to climb. Legend has it that this is where the king would go to sleep with his mistresses.
From Phimeanakas we headed over to Baphuon, where we encountered our first real annoying crowd. We had to wait a bit to explore the top as some people were really slow on the steep stairs. This temple was one of the bigger ones, and very fun to explore. It’s also known as the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world.Back in the day it was falling apart so much that to restore it they had to remove all of the blocks from the temple, and then put them back in a more stable way. Unfortunately once they removed all the blocks, the Khmer Rouge genocide forced the restoration to be abandoned and throughout those terrible years the plans were lost. This left a massive jigsaw puzzle for the restorers after things got back to normal, without any real direction to go off of. 500,000 bricks and 16 years of work now has the temple (almost) completely restored and open to the public.
We met up with Nah again for the short drive to Bayon. It was another larger temple and one of the more famous ones due to the over 200 smiling faces staring at you from every tower. The temple is incredibly well preserved, and fairly unique compared to many of the other temples. The faces are really cool and kind of creepy, and make exploring the temple really fun.
The last temple of the day was Angkor Wat, and it lived up to the wait. The largest religious structure in the world was spectacularly well maintained and we spent a long time exploring the halls and chambers. Exquisite murals covered the walls and amazing carvings could be found in every room.We donned our pants and skirts to visit the inner level at the base of the infamous lotus flower towers and it was spectacular. The whole structure was amazing, and thinking about how it was made so long ago was mind blowing. Really take your time to soak in this monument; it truly is one of the great wonders of the world.
Day 2 – Big Loop
On our second day of temple hunting we grabbed breakfast at 10am and were picked up by Nah around 11am. We tackled the Big Loop this time, so instead of heading north past the west side of Sra Srang, we head east and skirted around the outside of the pool and headed for Pre Rup. There were less temples on this route than on the Small Loop, but they were farther apart so it took longer to go from temple to temple.
This was another pyramid-like temple. A steep climb led to some great views from the top. The temple was in partial ruin, with some of the outer walls missing and the tops of the towers somewhat lopsided. A lot to explore and see!
Once we finished up at Pre Rup we headed to Banteay Srei. This temple is not on either loop, and is a 35 min drive north of the main group of temples (you can see the branch off route near East Baray on the map). We had read that it had absolutely spectacular carvings and that it was a must see, so we decided to spend the extra money and time to see it. We were definitely not disappointed. Banteay Srei is very flat with small chapels within a walled area, so not impressive in size. The incredibly detailed carvings and sculptures are what draws people to this remote temple. The fact that the carvings have been so well maintained is amazing. We marvelled at the detail for a while then grabbed some lunch in the market near the parking lot.
We jumped in the tuk tuk for the ride back to East Mebon (East Baray on the map, pretty sure the name is interchangeable). It was very similar to Pre Rup, except that it had awesome elephant statues on the corners of the temple. If you need to save some time, skip Pre Rup and go to East Mebon, East Mebon’s elephant statues make it the better of the two
Ta Som was the next temple we visited. It was similar to Ta Prohm in that it had been left to the jungle with trees growing through walls and throughout the temple. These temples are really cool because there is a dense canopy above you and you really feel like you’re at an ancient temple. Make sure to go all the way through to the east gate as there is an awesome tree growing around the gate entrance archway.
Preah Neak (or Neak Pean on the map) is a small tower temple in the middle of the lake. Nah parked the tuk tuk on the lakes shore and we walked along a boardwalk to the temple in the middle. You don’t go inside this one, you just observe it from the outside. There’s a set of pools surrounding the tower and a cool horse statue as well. Honestly the walk to this temple is cooler than the actual structure, but it’s all pretty interesting to see.
This was a sprawled out temple covering a vast area, but none of it built up higher than a one story building. We crawled through small doorways and explored the countless nooks and crannies of the seemingly endless temple. It seemed like a very compact city, with a bunch of different rooms and hallways, though the majority was missing roofs. The main gate is also pretty cool, with giant statues of ancient creatures and gods flanking either side, and a line of soldiers holding back a serpent bordering the bridge over what used to be a moat.
Our final temple was Phnom Bakeng, the very popular sunset spot. The temple is perched on the only hill in the area, and offers spectacular views of the sun setting over the Temples of Angkor. Unfortunately we arrived too late to actually climb up the temple, but we settled for watching the sunset from the hillside. Our serene sunset wasn’t so peaceful as we were crowded by noisy tourists risking their dignity to get a good picture, but we tried to make the best of it. Either way it was a great finish to an awesome two days spent exploring some of the most revered ancient buildings in the world.
We know this post is a long one but we wanted to give you as much information as possible! If you have any questions or would like some advice planning your route, don’t hesitate to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!