How to do the Temples of Angkor


How to do the Temples of Angkor

Arriving as an independent traveller into Siem Reap can be a little overwhelming when it comes to visiting all the temples of Angkor.

I mean, well, there’s so many off them, where do you start?

A little pre-planning can go a long way, it can help you to get the most out of your stay and help you to avoid the mega-crowds that seem to descend on some of the temples.

On my first visit to Angkor in 2008 we arrived unprepared into Siem Reap bus station, got taken to an unfriendly hotel by the pushy tuk-tuk driver who picked us up and had to flee the hotel at some ungodly time the following morning to avoid him taking us around the temples.

We picked up a quiet driver from the side of the road later that day, after we checked in to a better hotel, and he took us around the temples over the next three days. It was incredible but exhausting, we totally got templed-out.

In March 2013 we arrived far more savvy. We’d booked our lovely budget accommodation through Hostelworld and joined our friends Jayne and Vaughan who were also staying there.

I could see by how much Siem Reap had grown that things were going to be a lot busier in the temples. The Lonely Planet had notes on the best ways to avoid the masses, I had a map, I’d been before, I set to work.

We decided to stay for a week, take our time exploring the temples and have plenty of time in between to relax.

Map by Stefan Fussan

Map by Stefan Fussan

A 3 day itinerary, with chill out days.

Here is my itinerary, it’s based on buying a 3 day Angkor Pass, $40, that allows you to enter the Angkor Archaeological Park on any three days in a seven-day period. 

The cost of hire a tuk-tuk driver, for the main temples and the Grand Tour circuit should be somewhere in the region of $15 to $25 per day depending on your negotiating skills.

This is just the itinerary we did, by all means mix and match or use it as a framework for your own plans.

Day 1

The Grand Tour Circuit. Tuk-tuk was booked to pick us up at 7am, we booked our driver through the hotel as Jayne and Vaughan highly recommended him. He charged us $22 for the day which worked out at $5.50 each for the 4 of us.

I would recommend an earlier start, head out at 5 am and catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat {see below} before you head on to Preah Khan, saving exploring Angkor Wat for another day. The more sunrises you do, the better the chance of a stunning photo!

Alternatively you could set off just after 6am and you’d miss the sunrise rush of traffic and you’d get to the first temple for first light.

By the time we had bought our 3 day Passes at the entrance to the park then tuk-tukked round to Preah Khan is was already pushing 8am.

  • Preah Khan had been one of my favourite temples in 08, we’d arrived just after sunrise and had it to ourselves, this time round it was pretty busy with tourists, had we arrived there around 6.45- 7am I think it would have been much quieter. I love its endless corridors and it is beautiful bathed in early morning light.
  • Neak Poan. Next along the Grand Circuit is this small lake temple.
  • Ta Som is a lovely little temple which feels lost in the jungle and has a cool Ficus tree overwhelming one of the entrance towers.
  • You could now visit East Mebon and Pre Rup which are further around the circuit. We opted to miss them out so we could visit them another day at sunset.
  • Ta Prohm, Tomb Raider temple. Towering halls, crumbling walls and mighty tree roots, this is the ancient jungle temple of your imagination. Well it was, I personally found it a little too spick and span on this return trip. I had magical memories of this temple and it was the only one I wish I’d not revisited. Parts of it are being restored and it was also rather busy with tour groups. This could be an alternative to visit first, as early as you can. It’s surrounded by jungle so you wouldn’t benefit much photographically from the dawn light but you might get to enjoy this atmospheric temple without the crowds.
  • A slight double-back will take you to Banteay Kdei, a fantastic walled monastery with a ruined and jumbled interior. Much quieter than Ta Prohm and wonderfully atmospheric, lots of lengthy corridors and doorways aplenty.
  • Sra Srang is just across the road from Banteay Kdei, a Baray {reservoir} with stone steps, guarded by lion statues, leading down to the water. A peaceful place to watch the sun set should you choose to.


Day 2

Have a day off, explore Siem Reap. There are plenty of great places to eat, drink and relax, go shopping, buy souvenirs.


Day 3

Let’s get out of town and see some outlying treasures. Hire a tuk-tuk to pick you up fairly early, we used our hotel guy again, he may have been more expensive than picking one off the street but he was friendly and reliable, we paid $50 shared by the 4 of us for this day of templing.

All the temples below are included on the Angkor Pass, you could also visit Beng Mealea temple on this trip into the countryside but that isn’t included and costs $5. We visited it separately a different day {see below}.

  • Kbal Spean, this isn’t a temple, it’s much more earthly than that. 45 Km north of Siem Reap, beyond a 45 minute walk through some tangled forest lies a carved river bed of hundreds of linga while Hindu carvings decorate the waterfall. Kbal Spean is a telling insight into the ancient reverence to water, this site was clearly sacred to the ancient Khmers and is fascinating to visit. The lower bit of the river can be swum during the wet season. It closes at 3pm so best visited first.
  • The exquisite Banteay Srei, is a short drive from Kbal Spean. The carvings and detail on this compact red temple are so fine and beautiful it is believed that only women could have created it with their small hands, its name translates as the Citadel of Women. Unmissable and unlike any other temple in the park.
  • Cambodian Landmine Museum. From the delicate beauty of Banteay Srei nearby we were confronted with the realities of war at this small museum. It was founded by the remarkable Aki Ra, he is an ex-child soldier who used his knowledge of laying land mines, as a child for the Khmer Rouge, to clear them, defusing them by hand, working one by one to rid Cambodia of this lingering evil. The museum is eye-opening and despite its subject matter, it is a positive experience and it also houses a facility for caring for the child victims of land mines. Well worth the $3 entrance fee.
  • Angkor Wat. It was about 4pm when we got back to the main temple area, our tuk-tuk driver took us to Angkor Wat and we followed the crowds along the walkway to the temple. The late afternoon light was illuminating the temple in the most sublime way, yes it was busy but the light was just too good to miss. After exploring the temple and all its magnificent carvings we wandered around the grounds and found a quiet corner to sit and wait for the sun to set, contemplating our day.
Day 4

Have a non-temple day, if your accommodation doesn’t have a pool and you fancy a relaxing dip, well deserved after all that tomb raiding, then you could try Kanell, a restaurant in Siem Reap that has a swimming pool. The pool is free to use, and towels provided, so long as you spend $5 per person on food/drink and is set at the back of a lovely garden. It’s a great place to while away a few hours, have a dip and meal plus there are sun loungers around the pool.

Quite a few hotels in Siem Reap also offer the use of their pools for a fee, we also used the lovely pool {$2 including a towel} at Golden Banana {a gay-friendly hotel} as it was right next door to where our friend lived. 

Day 5

Last day of the 3 day Angkor Pass. Set your alarms early, it’s another sunrise day! You could hire a tuk-tuk again or you could do as we did and hire bicycles, take advantage of cycling in the cool dark morning and have the freedom to stop when and wherever you like. We hired nice Giant mountain bikes for $5 each the night before, again through our hotel, and set off at 5am following morning.

Angkor Wat is about a 40 minute ride from Siem Reap and the road is very flat, if you don’t fancy the ride back it’s worth noting that you can get two people and two bicycles in a tuk-tuk.

Take a head torch to light your way there, take a hat, water, sunscreen and sunglasses for the ride back.

  • Angkor Wat. If you are cycling you want to be setting off around 5 am, don’t forget to take water with you. It will be a cool ride in the darkness, head torches are ideal. There is plenty of traffic on the road, all heading in the same direction. Lock your bikes up somewhere out front of the entrance, you’ll be told where. Pick your spot, we stayed on the road to watch the sun rise from afar but you could head inside if you wished. Our sunrise was overcast unfortunately!
  • Angkor Thom. As soon as the sun has popped up and you have your photos reclaim your bike and peddle off to Bayon, in the heart of Angkor Thom. At a round 6.30 am it should be pretty quiet and free from the tour groups but they soon start pouring in after 7 am. Use that peaceful half hour or so to explore and marvel at the enigmatic smiles of the stone faces surrounding you. Wander the exterior of Bayon to admire the vast carved murals around the outer walls.

Spend the rest of the morning exploring the rest of Angkor Thom with your bicycle:

  • Baphuon, this huge ‘Mount Meru’ temple, within the walls on Angkor Thom, has a long raised causeway leading up to it.
  • Phimeanakas is the Royal Palace and is surrounded by decorated terraces and pools.
  • The Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. Wonderful carvings on these stone terraces, the Terrace of The Leper King is interesting in that it was constructed with two walls, the inner of which was never designed to be seen. You can now wander through this corridor to view the hidden carvings.
  • Baksei Chamkrong is a small temple of the road between Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, it worth a quick photo stop before you cycle back.

How To Do Angkor Temples

Be warned, this will be a hot peddle back to town, make sure to stock up on water from the vendors around the temples.

Hire a tuk-tuk to watch the sunset later in the day, we hired a different guy as ours was booked out. Cost will depend on where you go.

  • We chose Pre Rup as its red brick construction looks wonderful in the golden glow on sunset. We hoped to visit East Mebon too but we hadn’t left early enough. We climbed to the top of Pre Rup, along with a lot of other people and sat and waited for the sun to set over the jungle around us.

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Still hankering after more temples but your Pass has expired?

If you didn’t visit Beng Mealea on day 3 you could visit it now as it has its own entrance fee..

When we first arrived in Siem Reap Jayne and Vaughan had booked a minibus to visit Beng Mealea, a temple 40 km, hour and a half drive to the east of Angkor Wat. This temple isn’t included in the Angkor Pass and has its own admission charge of $5 meaning we could visit it without having to start the Pass. 

Beng Mealea could be included in a trip to Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean {see above} to save transport costs but you need the Angkor Pass for those sights.
Six of us shared the cost of the minibus out to Beng Mealea, $11 each, it was a comfortable air-conditioned ride.

I’d not visited Beng Mealea on the first trip, it was a fabulous jumble of stones and it felt remote and lost in the jungle. There were a few tour groups but they were easy to lose.

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Tips for exploring the temples:

As well as pre-planning the temples it is worth noting the temple rules recommendations.

These guidelines not only safeguard the ancient buildings and carvings from tourist damage but also remind the visitor that the temples are religious monuments that are sacred to the Buddhist population of Cambodia.

Incense wafting through the passages and be-ribboned Buddhas reveal that the temples are still used to this day and it is inappropriate to visit them dressed as if you are going to the beach.

  • Wear Appropriate Clothing

Be a considerate traveller and cover up, think long loose trousers and instead of skimpy shorts and it’s a good idea to cover your shoulders, this applies to the guys too. Lara Croft was tomb raiding in offensive gear!

You’ll see plenty of tourists dressed inappropriately but you may also see them being refused entry into some of the temples unless they cover up. 

  • Don’t Touch The Carvings they may look wonderfully tactile but your sweaty, greasy hands can cause irreparable damage.

Other things to note

  • Beware of Land Mines. Try not to wander off the path, you don’t want to stumble on a land mine. This is especially true in the countryside around the outer temples, in particular around Kbal Spean.
  • Riding Elephants is Unnecessary and Cruel. It may look majestic, something to tick off the bucket list, but these intelligent creatures are being cruelly exploited for tourism. It takes a lot of ‘crushing’ to control an elephant, this starts at a young age when they are taken from their mother and beaten and starved into submission. World Nomads have a good post on why you shouldn’t ride an elephant here.These sociable animals are also being poached from the wild to feed the tourist industry’s growing demand for elephant rides in Asia.

I think that just about covers it! I hope you find this post useful or at least inspiring. If I have missed anything please don’t hesitate to contact me in the comments bit below, I’m no expert on Cambodian culture, ancient Khmer history or Siem Reap, I’m simply a passionate traveller and I’ll do my best to help.

Keep exploring:

Sublime Smiles and Long Corridors: Angkor Thom and Preah Khan. Those enigmatic faces of Bayon!

Banteay Srei and The River Of A Thousand Linga The most beautiful temple of all and the river where it all began.

Beng Mealea: Jungle Temple This Angkor temple still feels lost in the jungle.

Angkor Wat The most famous temple of all! Probably!

How To Travel By Train From Siem Reap to Bangkok. The slow, cheap and wonderful train to Thailand. 

Do you have any tips and advice for visiting the Temples of Angkor?

By Rachel A Davis   Follow on Bloglovin