I have been to the Angkor Wat twice and the first visit was with a group of friends. Located in the city of Siem Reap in Cambodia, Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dubbed as the world's biggest religious monument.
The temple is truly breathtaking, with its intricately carved spires and impressive stone carving on the wall. As the biggest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat is massive and exploring the temples for a day is just not possible. In fact, we were not able to explore the entire complex on my first visit with friends and this is why I decided to go back on a solo trip.
Being a popular tourist attraction in Southeast Asia, Angkor Wat is always packed with tourists and it can be a bit overwhelming to explore especially if you don't come prepared. So if you're heading to Angkor Wat for the first time, I would like to share some tips to help make your trip as smooth and hassle-free as possible.
When to Go
We happen to visit the Angkor Wat on a wet season, which is very unfortunate because it rained really hard on the day we are scheduled to visit the temple for a sunrise tour. This is why it's very important to research the weather when planning a trip.
The wet season in Cambodia is between the months of May and October, while the dry season is from November until April. Cambodia's hottest months are from March until May, with temperatures averaging around 29°C.
The heat can get very oppressive during this time so it's better to avoid visiting during these months. We went there in September, which is also not ideal because it's the rainy season. I went back on the following year, in the middle of June, which I believe is the most ideal time to visit. The weather is cooler and the roads are less dusty. Surprisingly, it's not too crowded unlike when I first visited with friends.
How Long To Stay
The main attraction in Siem Reap is the Angkor Wat and tourists would usually go there to explore the entire complex. From Siem Reap, they would either head to Bangkok, which is only an 8-hour drive away, or to Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh. Yet, the Angkor temple complex is not just one temple. The Angkor Wat is just one of the many temples that are scattered in a massive land area so you definitely cannot explore the entire complex for only a day.
Aside from the Angkor Wat, some other well-known temples are the Bayon, Ta Phrom, and Angkor Thom. If you want to explore each and every single temple, I would suggest getting a multi-day pass. On my second visit, I stayed in Siem Reap for four days and got a 3-day pass for the Angkor Wat complex. I was able to explore all the temples, including some outer temples that don't get a lot of visitors.
How to Explore the Temples
The temple complex is a bit overwhelming to explore especially if it's your first time. If you're not comfortable with exploring the entire complex by yourself and figuring out which temples to see and how to get there, I would highly recommend booking a tour with a guide.
On my first visit with friends, our hotel booked us a tour package. It cost us $60 for a one-day tour with an English-speaking guide and two tuk-tuks. Since there's four of us, we paid $15 each. This does not include the entrance ticket, which costs $37 each. Yes, it's a bit pricey, but given our limited time, I believe it's the best option for us. Plus, the guide is very knowledgeable and fluent in English, so we really learned a lot.
On my second visit, I hired a motorbike with a driver who took me around the temples for three days. You also have the option to rent a bike and pedal yourself around the temple complex, but it would be too tiring, not to mention confusing since some of the temples are a bit far-off.
What To See
If your time in Siem Reap is limited, here are some of the temples that I would suggest you visit:
- Angkor Wat – this is the jewel of the entire Angkor complex and the most beautiful of all temples. It's the largest in the entire complex and surrounded by a moat on all sides. The temple features a 2,600-feet of bas-reliefs, which I find really impressive. I just can't imagine how they managed to erect a temple as huge as this during the 12th century.
- Angkor Thom & Bayon Temple – Angkor Thom is also a popular temple in the entire complex, sitting in an area of 9 square km. In the middle of the Angkor Thom is the Bayon Temple, home to some of the most impressive stone carvings. The Bayon temple looks at its best in the early morning, just after sunrise. It consists of three levels, and the first 2 levels are rectangular shaped, while the 3rd is circular.
- Bantaey Srei – Bantaey Srei is among the smaller temples, and is about an hour away from the main temple complex. Yet, it's very popular and is one of the most visited temples since it's the only temple that's made from pink sandstone and boasts the most intricate carvings.
- Ta Phrom – this temple is famous for the gigantic roots that reclaimed its ruins. This is also where Angelina Jolie's famous film was shot, the Tomb Raider. The massive roots enveloping the temple is a truly spectacular sight, although this place tends to get crowded with tourists lining up to have their photo taken in front of the famous Tomb Raider site.
- Ta Som – this temple has an almost similar structure and style as Ta Phrom. In fact, it's like its little brother. There's also a massive tree that grows at the top of the eastern section of the temple, which is, unfortunately, destroying the structure.
- Elephant Terrace – this is another fascinating structure within the temple complex that comprises of a 1,000-foot terrace of elephants. It used to be a viewing stand during the early days, where the public would sit around during royal ceremonies and other events.
Even if you are hiring a guide, it's a good idea to do a bit of research on the temples beforehand so you will know which temples are worth a visit. Sometimes, you may need to ask your guide to take you elsewhere since they are so used to tourists wanting to see the same temples. Aside from visiting some of the most popular temples in the complex, I asked my driver to take me to the quieter and less touristy temples of Preah Palilay, Pre Rup, and Ta Nei.
Other Things to Do
With the many temples I've seen during my four days in Siem Reap, I admit I got a bit “templed out”, that I decided to do some other things other than exploring the temples. Here are some of the things I would suggest that you do just in case you have ample time in Siem Reap:
- Visit the landmine museum – the museum is near the Bantaey Sri temple, so I asked my driver to drop by on our way back to the town, which I'm glad I did because this museum is a favourite of mine. It tells the story of the 4 to 6 million landmines in Cambodia and how it impacts the country's painful past. Reading the harrowing stories is a somewhat depressing experience, but it's one of those experiences that I will never forget in my life.
- Hangout at the pub street – Pub Street is like Siem Reap's version of the Khao San Road in Bangkok. It's lined with several bars and restaurants, and a great place to experience the nightlife scene of Siem Reap while meeting fellow travellers and enjoying a bottle of beer.
- Witness a cultural show – I happen to watch the Apsara Show hosted by my hotel, which comes with a local buffet dinner. It's a cultural dance show that showcases Cambodia's culture, tradition, and history. If you want to experience a bit of Cambodian culture, then I would highly recommend watching the show.
Angkor Wat is a truly remarkable place to visit and something that you should see at least once in your life. Whether you're visiting alone or with a group of friends, I do hope this guide can help you in preparing for your trip.
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