Visiting Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, might just be the best trip you’ll ever do. It can also be confusing. Here is a list of easy Angkor Wat travel tips for seeing the sunrise, sunset and everything in between.
Angkor Wat sunrise
“Should we get up to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat?” I asked my husband, Mark, as we (meaning me) were trying to organize our itinerary now that we’d arrived in Siem Reap.
“No,” he said, looking as if he couldn’t think of a worse way to ruin a morning. I understood. I generally avoid sunrise tours like the plague. In fact, I avoid them more than the plague as they seem much more likely to jump out at you when you’re travelling than any rat-bearing illness.
Should you see the sunrise at Angkor Wat?
It seems as if every iconic bucket list trip like Angkor Wat has a must-see sunrise spot waiting to grab you when you least expect it, leaving you – if you don’t do it – to face the looks of devastation when other travellers eagerly ask if you crawled out of bed to see the sun raise its glowing head over (insert famous sunrise spot here).
So. Here is the first question you need to ask yourself when you arrive in Siem Reap: Should you get up to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat?
The answer is yes.
Why you need to see the sunrise
While we avoided it right up until the day we were flying out, at the last minute Mark insisted on a sunrise Angkor Wat excursion knowing that if we didn’t, I would blame him forever. (He was right, even though I didn’t want to get up either.) So yes, by all means, get up at 4:30 a.m. to get there in the dark. You will be joining every other tourist on the planet (and probably a few aliens, too), but good things will happen.
- You will see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
- You will not suffer from FOMO (which I recently learned means Fear of Missing Out) for the rest of your life.
- You will not ruin your marriage by blaming your husband for your YIMO AIAYF (words I just invented that mean Yes I Missed Out and It’s All Your Fault).
How to see the Angkor Wat sunrise
Before you see the sunrise you need a ticket, and let’s face it, 5:00 a.m. is not the time to be queuing up in a ticket line. So if possible, get it the afternoon before.
Bonus money-saving Angkor Wat travel tip:
If you wait until 4:45 pm to buy your ticket for the next day, you can then go straight to watch the sunset at the temples for free. Whoot!
How do you buy tickets to see Angkor Wat?
Here’s the drill. You need to buy a pass before you visit Angkor Archaeological Park because the ticket office is not at the park and it’s not in central Siem Reap. It’s somewhere in between and down a road to the right. You can buy an Angkor Pass for 1 day, 3 days or 1 week. Ticket prices have recently gone up (nearly doubled!) and now cost:
- Angkor Day pass: $37 USD
- Angkor 3-day pass: $62 USD
- Angkor 1 week pass: $72 USD
Can you pay for your Angkor Wat entrance ticket by credit card? No. You need cash. There is an ATM at the ticket office.
Is Angkor Wat in Siem Reap? Not exactly. It’s about 4 km away.
What is Siem Reap like? Unlike my vision of Angkor Wat being remote atmospheric ruins in the untamed jungle, surrounded by nothing but monkeys, gibbons and a few isolated luxury hotels, Siem Reap, the gateway to the temples, is a vibrant city full of restaurants, bars, markets and hotels. Who knew?
This brings me to two important Angkor Wat travel tips:
- Do not take Cambodian riel out at the ATM. You don’t need it. There are approximately 4000 riel to a dollar, so if you do, you’ll be carrying around millions of riel and probably need a separate suitcase just for your cash. You can use US dollars for everything.
- Easy calculation for Cambodian riel. Take away four zeros, divide what’s left by half. (It’s not precise but good enough.)
- If you’re not sure how long you’ll be in Siem Reap buy the longest pass you might need. We liked it so much we spent 6 days there instead of 3, and because of our last minute decision to see the sunrise we had to buy an extra day ticket.
How to get around Angkor
Since the park is so large, walking won’t do you much good – though be forewarned, you’ll be doing plenty of walking within the temples and terraces. You can get there from Siem Reap by car, tuk tuk or bicycle.
Going by tuk tuk is, to my mind, absolutely the best way because it’s so much fun. By car you’re too removed, and with a bike you have to contend with the traffic getting there – though once you get to the park it would be lovely.
Trust your tuk tuk driver
Tuk tuk drivers know the drill. It costs around $15 or $16 US dollars for half a day and $20 or $21 for a full day. They know where to buy tickets, where to take you (even when you don’t know where to go) and will patiently wait for you while you trip around the various temples – and, importantly, somehow always seem to be able to spot you out of a crowd. But just in case, take note of your pick up spot plus their tuk tuk number.
We used 3 different tuk tuk drivers, and all were fine. They’re everywhere in Siem Reap, so you can pick one you like. Obviously if they try to overcharge you, avoid them. Know however, that they will probably want you to visit a high end artisanal souvenir shop. What the heck. Go ahead. You don’t have to buy. Or you can just say no.
Best place to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat
The best spot for sunrise viewing is front of Angkor Wat Temple. Expect crowds. From where the tuk tuk drops you, walk across the boardwalk over the moat and turn left. Photos are prettiest in front of the pond, but you’ll have to jostle for space. People recommend taking a flashlight but we didn’t bother.
The crazy thing is that once it was light tons of people left, but we wandered around the temple, came back and the sun was rising spectacularly over the temple and I got the best shots of all. My advice? Linger.
Travel tip: If your hotel comes with breakfast you can get it to go and picnic there.
Before you go, Angkor Wat facts you need to know
Visiting Angkor Wat does not mean visiting Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world, is only one temple in the vast 400-square-km Angkor Archeological Park, a site which is full of fantastical temples, terraces and moats, monkeys and jungle.
The Big Three temples you cannot miss are Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Brief history of the Angkor temples: Situated in northwest Cambodia, the temples at Angkor were built during the Golden Age of the mighty Khmer Empire, constructed between the 9th and 13th centuries. Earlier Hindu temples gave way to Buddhism over the years, and some temples are still used by Buddhists today.
Angkor Thom, just north of Angkor Wat, is an entire ancient city with Bayon, the famous Face Temple, smack in the centre of it. For more info visit my Bayon Temple article. At one time Angkor Thom was the largest city in the world, with more than one million inhabitants.
Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm is the overgrown temple known as the Indiana Jones Temple or the Tomb Raider Temple because it featured in the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom movie. Ta Prohm is 1) crowded and 2) very atmospheric with strangler fig roots slowly squeezing the life out of the shored-up stone walls.
How to avoid crowds
Crowd avoidance at Angkor is vital, though sometimes you’ll collide head on with a million tour groups no matter what you do. When we visited the temple of Angkor Wat at lunch hour, when the heat is the worst and most of the tour groups are having lunch, it was practically deserted. The downside is that for photography, the colours are a bit washed out.
Possibility of a visit
Do not try to avoid the crowds at a jam-packed temple like Ta Prohm by going the opposite way of the signs that say ‘Possibility of a Visit’ – if you do you’ll end up battling the masses to get through narrow doorways and up tricky steps the whole time. We speak from experience. I blame my husband.
You might, however, want to do the Angkor Wat Circle Tour the opposite way. Many travellers recommend this as a good crowd-avoidance strategy.
What is the Angkor Wat Small Circle Tour?
Most Angkor travel guides recommend this popular circuit around Angkor, which generally moves clockwise, stops at the top sights and starts at Angkor Wat. Because Mark and I never manage to do anything right, and because we had more time than most, our tours were piecemeal. Sometimes we’d visit one temple, come back, lie by the pool, then when it was cooler in the later afternoon we’d head out again for another temple or two and the sunset.
The best time to see Angkor Wat
Absolutely our favourite touring time was from about 3 or 4 p.m. onwards when the light is better and the heat is less intense. Plus, then you’re there for sunset.
Don’t stick to the top sights
I have a lot of favourite moments at Angkor, and most of them involve visiting sights that were off the beaten track. One of the most important Angkor Wat travel tips I can give you is to stray beyond the Big Three.
One standout was a late afternoon duo of Preah Kahn, the Sacred Sword Temple, which is just a bit further out and wonderfully jungle-y and full of endless corridors. Also, there were no crowds.
Then we whipped over to the delicate Neak Prean, a tiny gem of a temple surrounded by mystical looking water.
Travel tip: Preah Kahn and Neak Prean are generally included in what is known as the Large Circle Tour.
Where to see the sunset at Ankgor Wat – and where not to
There are two places where everyone goes to watch the sunset. Phnom Bakheng, a temple mountain, and Pre Rup, a temple probably used for cremations.
However, as Mark said, “What’s the point?” because from the temples you’re watching the sunset fall over the jungle with a gazillion other sunset seekers, but what we wanted to do was to see the light fall over the temples themselves, and have them seem all mysterious and glowing.
Sunset Angkor Wat travel tips: The park actually has an Angkor sunset finder to help you find that perfect spot.
Our favourite accidental sunset moments were:
- On the causeway that crosses the moat to Angkor Thom, a sunset destination we stumbled on by accident. Why you should love the causeway: Because the statues along it are devas (gods) and asuras (demons) who are, according to Hindu mythology, Churning the Ocean of Milk.
- We also loved sunset at the boardwalk at Neak Prean as the surrounding lake turned peach gold. (Actually, I loved it. Mark was either suffering from temple fatigue or doesn’t appreciate a good sunset.)
Pre Rup, a sundown downer
Our least favourite sunset moment was at Pre Rup, where we went specifically to see the sunset. Lesson learned: Embrace the accidental at Angkor. It trumps the traditional way to tour Angkor Wat (almost) every time. (Okay, only some of the time. Whatever.)
Sunset Angkor Wat travel tips: Most temples close at 5:30 but to feed those sunset hungry tourists, Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup are open until 7.
Don’t miss what we missed
If you’re staying longer than a day, try to get out to Banteay Srei. Carved from rock with a pinkish hue, it’s supposed to be the most delicately and finely-crafted temple of all.
Instead of Banteay Srei we went to see the Rolous Temples. Some of the earliest-built temples at Angkor, they’re about 45 minutes away by tuk tuk. We enjoyed them a lot. I especially loved the petite Preah Ko, the Sacred Cow Temple, with its intricate plasterwork and intimate lost-in-the-jungle feel – but I really regret not seeing Banteay Srei (and will blame Mark for the YIMO AIAYF for the rest of our marriage, even though – as I did all the trip planning it wasn’t entirely his fault).
Final Angkor Wat travel tips
Siem Reap is hot. It’s so so hot. Bring a hat, sunglasses and water. Make the most of the cooler late afternoons.
Obscure shoe tip: Wear runners not sandals. (I know, I know. Fashion crime.) Here’s why. Your feet will sweat. You will be walking through paths of red dust. Sweat and red dust in sandals doesn’t feel good.
Angkor Wat Hours: Generally the temples are open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The ticket office closes at 5:30. Both Angkor Wat and Srah Srang are open at 5:00 a.m. for that all important sunrise.
What is Srah Srang? Known as the Royal Bathing Pool, it’s a large pond and also a popular Angkor destination for sunrises.
Where to stay at Angkor Wat
A lot of the hotels are a ways out of Siem Reap centre. We stayed at the luxury Park Hyatt Siem Reap, which is smack in the centre so very handy for restaurants and shopping and very sophisticated. It’s not cheap.
We also stayed at the Borei Angkor Privilege Floor, which is not central, not as luxe or as pricey, but has a lovely pool area. Food, however, is atrociously expensive. In fact, the food was cheaper at the Hyatt, and the food at the Hyatt is excellent.
If you like colonial hotels, the top of the line would be Raffles. If you can’t afford Raffles, the Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa looked lovely too.
There are so many hotels in Siem Reap, so you’ll find something for every budget. I’m a Booking.com affiliate so you can check out hotels in the box below.
Places to eat in Siem Reap
For some food-related Angkor Wat travel tips visit my where to eat in Siem Reap article.
Getting to Siem Reap
Siem Reap is an hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City, which is where we flew from. Many take the bus but we didn’t want to spend the time. If you book early enough you can get great deals with Vietnam Airlines. Typically, we booked last minute and paid more than we should have.
Getting a visa for Cambodia
You can get your visa at the airport for USD $30. Important note: They don’t take credit card, although they do take just about any currency in cash. Luckily we had enough Canadian dollars.
Bring an extra passport photo with you for the visa.
Should you get a guide for Angkor Wat or do a tour? Well, you probably should, but we didn’t. All we had was a pretty skimpy section in a guidebook, so I was desperately googling temples every night and trying to eavesdrop on other people’s tours. The longer you’re at Angkor, the more you want to know. If you decide you want one, your hotel should be able to set you up.
So venture forth, my Angkor-loving friend. And may the sunrise (or sunset) be with you.