Angkor Wat in a day – say what?! Surely not – after all, Angkor Wat is the biggest religious monument in the world, built in the 12th century and spans over 162 hectares. Plus, it’s crawling with tourists and vehicles – how could you possibly see it all in a day?
Well. Technically, you can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see the best of Angkor Wat in a day – or even less, as we did. If you are planning a visit to Cambodia and really want to see Lonely Planet’s #1 voted tourist attraction in the world, but you aren’t exactly a big ‘ancient temples and history buff’ – then this guide is for you. If you’re short on time, or short on funds, then this guide is also for you.
This is my second visit to the famed monument, visiting for the first time in November 2012 – peak season – and again just recently in April 2016 – non-peak season. There were pros and cons to both visits, which I’ll mention throughout this post. For now, let’s get started!
1. Sunrise at Angkor Wat
First things first – Angkor Wat is actually the name of only ONE of the temples in the complex – the most famous, most well preserved and the one whose image appears every – on the Cambodian flag, on their currency and every souvenir shirt you’ll come across. The temple complex – all 162 hectares of it, is known as Angkor Archaeological Park, but that’s obviously a mouthful and why it’s commonly just referred to as ‘Angkor Wat’.
Regardless, Angkor Wat is the temple everyone has come to see and is where you want to start your day. On of my most memorable moments when we visited in 2012, was arriving in complete darkness – around 5.00AM in the morning, being led to the edge of the pool of water in front of the temples and being told to wait. Slowly but surely, as the night sky began to grow lighter, we saw ever so faintly the towers come into view – it was a completely magical moment. It took over an hour for the magnificence of the temple to come into full view.
On our visit last month – well, we arrived at 5.00AM – and already, we could see everything. There was no element of surprise, no towers coming into view as the night turned into day – the sun wasn’t up, but the sky was light. Whilst still obviously impressive, it wasn’t as magical as that element of surprise we’d experienced on our first visit. The reason? Visiting at a different time of year. April is the summer period – it gets lighter earlier, hotter quicker, and is much drier. The fabulous pools that cast the reflection of the temple and the morning skies were almost absent in April in comparison to November.
2. Explore Angkor Wat
Once the crowds have begun to disperse (after the sun is up), this is when you want to explore Angkor Wat. Most other visitors leave to visit other temples, leaving you in relative peace to explore the extensive complex. This is also the coolest part of the day, and Angkor Wat has very little shade to keep cool so it’s well worth taking advantage of this.
Walk along the avenue, take in the libraries and the inner pools, and be sure to queue up to access the upper level of Angkor Wat, where you’ll be greeted with incredible views in each direction over the temple grounds. Be sure to keep an eye out for the stunning carvings through the temple, including the Aspara dancers and the bas-reliefs on the temple walls spanning 800 metres long and depicting historic events and mythological stories.
3. Grab Breakfast
Before moving onto the next stop, this is the time to grab breakfast – if you haven’t bought along any food for the day. Exit the main Angkor Wat temple grounds and eat at the restaurants opposite – they are somewhat cheaper than the stalls located right next to the reflection pool. You can eat anything from fried rice or noodles to eggs and bacon. The fresh baguettes are SO good!
4. Angkor Thom, via the South Gate
Angkor Thom houses many temples of Angkor, and you must enter via the south gate. The Victory gate at the end of the causeway is reason alone to stop for a photo. Either side of the entrance, are a line of Devas and a line of Asura – Hindu mythological beings which you can basically refer to as the ‘good and evil’. Most have lost their heads over time, and you can tell which ones have been replaced over time.
5. Bayon Temple
Bayon Temple is one of the newest temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, but having been exposed to the elements over the centuries is not as well preserved as Angkor Wat. Still, it is one of the most well known within the park, famous for it’s smiling stone faces, of which there are over 200. This temple gets quite busy and can get a lot of traffic so it’s well worth giving it the extra time to explore both the inner and outer galleries so you too can have a moment of serenity – and perhaps capture a shot with no one in it!
6. Baphuon Temple
Just nearby Bayon Temple is Baphuon Temple, a three tiered structure spanning 120 metres by 100 metres and 34 metres tall. It has a very different look to the other temples, being quite a large solid structure. The views are meant to be incredible from the top, but it was insanely hot when we arrived so we chose not to do it.
7. Terrace of Elephants
The terrace of elephants, just outside of Baphuon Temple stands 350 metres and was used as a platform where the King would view his returning armies, and for public ceremonies. Unfortunately it was under renovation in April, but it’s well worth seeing – the carvings are incredible.
8. Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm is one of the most incredible temples at the Angkor Archaeological Park, and for good reason. It is largely unpreserved, and over the centuries it has become at one with the jungle surrounding it. Stones have fallen and have been unmoved, tree roots have grown over the walls, coiling around doorways – it is completely eerie, and totally cool. The temple was used as one of the locations in the film of Tomb Raider (hence why you’ll often hear it referred to as ‘Tomb Raider’ Temple) – hence the influx in visitors. Restoration work has largely been to introduce walking platforms and barriers to keep visitors at bay and prevent any damage. I recall that our visit in 2012 was an epic mess, because people were everywhere, clambering all over it and walking in every which way. It was much more civilised in 2016 due to the suggested routes and the platforms in place – there will still plenty of visitors, but it was somewhat more orderly.
9. Srah Srang
Srah Srang was our last stop on our day exploring Angkor Wat – I hadn’t visited the last time and after seeing pictures of the beautiful reservoir I just had to stop by. Unfortunately, as it was summer – this had pretty much dried up and we left disappointed. This is definitely a stop only worth seeing if you visit in non-peak season.
So there you have it! Angkor Wat in a day – or less! We completed all these stops from 5.00AM through til 2.00PM. Whilst we didn’t spend hours at each one exploring every nook and cranny (you certainly can if you’re really interested in ancient temples and Khmer history), we still took our time, saw what we wanted to see and paused for breaks to escape the heat. Angkor Wat is definitely one of the most incredible sights you will visit in your travels, but if you’re anything like me – it can be very easy to get templed out quickly. This guide is short and sweet, capturing all the highlights – allowing you to experience the majesty of Angkor Wat in a day!
- How much does it cost to visit Angkor Wat?
You can buy a one day visitor pass for $20 USD. You can purchase this easily on the morning of your visit, as your driver can make a stop at the ticketing office for you. This is a brand new, MASSIVE building (more than 30 ticket desks and a large carpark) located on the way to the Angkor Archaeological Park.
- What’s the best way to get around Angkor Wat?
Tourists are not permitted to drive themselves around the park. There are three options for getting around:
Motorcycle: If you’re exploring solo, and a bit of a daredevil (I’d never get on the back of a bike in Cambodia but your call!) then this is the cheapest way to get around the park.
Tuk Tuk: Good if you’re still on a budget and visiting with others, a tuk tuk driver will take you around the sighs in a ride a tad more comfortable than a bike.
Car and Driver: A car with air-conditioning is THE way to go if you’re visiting in the summer months – jumping into the cold comfort of a vehicle in between temples is such a luxury! Most cars are equipped to take several passengers so this could be well worth shelling out for if you want the comfort.
- Do I need a guide?
It depends. You’ll find that most tuk tuk drivers and others have a basic knowledge of the temples. If you’re really interested in the history of the temples and the architecture and Khmer culture, then taking a guide with you to explore the temples is the way to go. Otherwise, you can always go it solo with a guidebook – the Lonely Planet Cambodia book has a whole chapter on the temples.
- What should I wear to the temples?
Remember, Angkor Wat is a sacred, religious site – so its important to dress appropriately. You’ll see plenty of people getting around in shorts and singlets and whilst you won’t be ‘told off’ for wearing something like this, a) it’s disrespectful, and b) you won’t be permitted to enter certain areas if you aren’t dressed appropriately.
A long skirt or hippie pants are the way to go, with a t-shirt that covers your arms and isn’t too tight. Wear a hat and sunglasses, and you’ll be fine.
- What’s the best time of year to visit?
This is a tricky one, having visited in both peak and non-peak season. Peak season is November – February, when the weather is at its coolest. The main thing I remember from our visit in 2012 was the swarming crowds of people. It was NUTS.
There were substantially less people when we visited in April 2016 – the fact I actually got moments to take photos with no one in them was testament to this. But. It was SO hot. Unbelievably so. I drank four litres of water in our 8 hour visit, where the temperature hit 42 degrees celsius by mid-morning. We had to take frequent breaks in whatever shade we could find as it was just so hot – and being that sweaty is never a good look.
I don’t cope too well with heat like that, but I also can’t cope with insane crowds – so you’re better off picking the lesser of two evils and working with that!
Have you visited the temples of Angkor Wat? What was your favourite temple to visit? Share your stories in the comments below!