Angkor, an ancient megacity hearkening back to the Khmer empire still inspires us today. Holding around 1 million people at the height of its glory, Angkor is remembered today as a crumbling temple complexes hidden in the jungle and begging to be explored.
With over 2 million visitors a year, Angkor is an amazing place to discover and well worth the money, time, and sweat it takes to uncover its beauty. There are many wonderful “what to expect” blog posts out there already, many of which we planned our trip with. But there were a few pieces of information that we gleaned along the way and wanted to pass on to others. So here we go.
- The archeological park is huge. You can’t walk there from Siem Reap, and I wouldn’t really recommend biking there and back unless you’re an experienced cyclist. Also, you can’t walk around the park–one of the complexes is a mile wide (Angkor Thom) and most ruins are between two and four kilometers apart. We found that the best option was a tuktuk driver that stayed with us all day (we paid 17 USD, including sunrise, perhaps a little much. Drivers usually charge an extra 5 USD for sunrise).
- If you want to avoid the crowds, skip the Angkor Wat sunrise photo op and see the morning from somewhere else, perhaps Srah Srang, the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom, or anywhere else your driver or guide suggests. Although sunrise is around 6:30, some of the more famous temples don’t open until 7:30 or 8, so just be mindful about which places you go first to beat the crowds. Angkor Wat has a steady stream of people all day (except during lunchtime), so as long as you are visiting the other sights before 8:30 or 9 am, you won’t be bumping into to many people.
- If you’ve bought the one-day pass (20 USD), it’s best to be more strategic about the places you want to visit. Have in mind what you want to see (because you can’t see it all-it’s like trying to see Yosemite in one day). Jordan loved the crumbling, intricate smaller temples, like Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm where you can get lost among the tumbling columns. I preferred the jungle temples with trees and vines cascading over the remaining walls, like Ta Prohm, Ta Som, Preah Khan. Lovers of heights and grandeur will probably prefer Bayon, Angkor Wat, and parts of Angkor Thom.
- You’re not handed a map at the entrance of the park, so come with one downloaded on a phone or printed off. While few maps show the dirt paths tuktuks and cyclists take, a map is a great way to indicate to your driver where you want to go next (especially if he doesn’t understand English). Jordan likes this map and this map.
- We showed up at the park at 5:15 am, bought our tickets, and then convinced our tuktuk driver to take us somewhere more secluded, around less people. Sunrise wasn’t until 6:31 am, so we sat at the edge of Srah Srang until sunrise, took photos until 6:45, then moved on to the nearest open temple. It was both of our opinions that we really could’ve slept for 30 more minutes and arrived at the park at 5:45 without any problems. The hurry-hurry-hurry attitude is to beat everyone else at Angkor Wat for sunrise. But if you’re not going there, don’t worry so much about getting into the park as quickly as possible.
- When hiring a tuktuk driver, it may be best to arrange one through your hotel or hostel. We decided the cheaper-do-it-yourself method of getting just a driver, not a guide, was best for us (and at the end of the day we were still happy with that decisions), but we did book our tuktuk driver on the street. Through an odd turn of events, he passed off the engagement to a friend of a friend, and we were stuck with a tuktuk driver who didn’t speak English and didn’t know his way around Angkor. I think somehow we got the only driver in Siem Reap that didn’t know the park well. That did put a damper on our experience because we requested a couple of places that he didn’t know of–or at least didn’t understand the English request.
- Once there, confronted with the scope of the park, it is easy to summon up determination to see everything you possibly can in one day because you paid for the experience. I started the day that way. By noon I was exhausted and sweaty. We decided that we had seen the most important things to us and left. The temples we visited are still discrete and unique in our minds rather than muddling together from seeing too much. We were there to enjoy Angkor, we said, not to push our way through it, and if leaving a few hours earlier than planned meant we left with a sweeter taste in our mouths, then that was better. So plan your day to maximize your time, but also listen to your bodies and don’t feel guilt over anything you do or don’t do. This is supposed to be fun! Our itinerary:
- 5:15 Bought tickets, entered park
- 5:30 Parked at Srah Srang and waited for sunrise
- 6:40 Visited Angkor Thom
- 7:30 Went to Bayon
- 8:00 Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame)
- 9:00 Breakfast outside Ta Prohm
- 9:30 Explored Bantaey Kdei
- 10:45 Arrived at Angkor Wat
- 11:45 Ate lunch inside Angkor Wat
- 12:30 Drove home
While there are so many more worthy things to see, that’s about all we have energy for (and anything else would’ve caused communication problems). Our two regrets? Not visiting Ta Som or Preah Khan and not exploring Angkor Thom longer. If we’d been able to communicate we wanted to visit Preah Khan and/or Ta Som, we would’ve stayed longer. But we saw some gorgeous sights and really enjoyed the experience, so no big complaints here.
Good luck on your trip! And, of course, brings lots of water and sunscreen, and don’t forget to cover your shoulders and knees at the active temples sites.
For anyone that’s been before, what do you suggest?