The ULTIMATE "How to" Guide for the Angkor Wat Temple Complex

It is generally agreed upon that Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of (if not the) top travel destinations in the entire world. 

Casual.

I couldn't really comprehend exactly what Angkor Wat was before I actually visited. I couldn't grasp the big picture.  

So, it is a temple. Wait, no, it's a whole bunch of temples.... but wait, Angkor Wat is just one temple? But it's also the whole place? Oh, you don't stay there? Where is Siem Reap? Wait, you need multiple days and a driver? But I thought it was just a temple?!?

This is why I created this guide filled with tips for making the most of your trip to Angkor and Siem Reap. This guide may be long, but it truly covers everything you need to know. 

 ANGKOR WAT

ANGKOR WAT

Well folks, after three days in the blistering heat of Siem Reap, practically on the verge of a heatstroke...I am on the other side of the experience.  

I am here to tell you about it....

THE MOST CONFUSING PART:

People mistakenly use the name "Angkor Wat" to refer to both one specific temple, and the entire Angkor Temple Complex.  

The 400 acre Angkor Temple Complex boats around 50 different temples, of which Angkor Wat is just one.  Because Angkor Wat the largest, and most famous temple, people use the name to refer to the entire area. 

The compound is actually called the "Angkor Temple Complex."  

This makes sense - in Khmer (the language of Cambodia), Angkor means "capital."  This area was once the capital of the Khmer Empire, and the Angkor Temple Complex is the area where the temples for the capital were built.  

 BANTEAY SREY

BANTEAY SREY

So, in summary:

Angkor: the capital of the Khmer Empire (at least for a little bit), also the Khmer word for capital
Angkor Wat: one (very famous) temple
Angkor Temple Complex: the entire temple complex for the ancient capital of Angkor, containing around 50 different temples, one of which is named Angkor Wat 

THE HISTORY

In the years between 900-1200AD, when the temples of Angkor were being constructed, Cambodia was yet to be Cambodia.  The entire area was part of the vast Khmear Empire, which, at its peak, controlled Cambodia and sections of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. 

The empire was founded by Jayavarman II, who conquered the area and named himself God King of in 802.  The empire's "golden age" began in the early 12th century, under the rule of Suryavarman II, who began the construction of the Angkor Wat temple.  

Under the subsequent rulers, the empire flourished.  Many of the temples in the Angkor Temple Complex were built during this time . 

There were many different rulers that commissioned these temples, each picking a different style. Additionally, some rulers practiced brahmanism (early Hinduism), and some Buddhism.  This is why statues and motifs referring to both religions can be found in Angkor. 

"Hindu influenced Buddhism" would later become the dominant religion of Cambodia.

 TA PROHM,  ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX  , SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

TA PROHM, ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX, SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

THE LOGISTICS

Alright, now that we have established the difference between Angkor and Angkor Wat, it is time to get down to the tourist nitty gritty.

SIEM REAP

The Angkor Temple Complex is basically ancient Disneyland.  It is a gigantic park with many different attractions (temples), and you need a pass to get in.  The park is open from sunrise to sunset, so no, you don't spend the night there.

Siem Reap is an awesome town about 5 kilometers outside of the complex.  This is where everyone stays.  It's overflowing with hotels, restaurants, and shops.  It is very easy to find a place to stay within your budget, although the city is a bit more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia. 

When you get overheated and templed-out for the day, it is very easy to find a restaurant or cafe to hangout in.  

 STREET FOOD IN SIEM REAP

STREET FOOD IN SIEM REAP

GETTING TO SIEM REAP:

Don't worry about it. All roads in Cambodia lead to Siem Reap.  You can book a bus online, or from any hostel, hotel, or travel agency. There is also an international airport if you prefer to fly.  Flights from Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) are possible. 

GETTING IN TO ANGKOR: 

To enter the Angkor Temple Complex, you need a ticket, and it needs to be purchased from the official ticket control office because they print your picture on the ticket.  1 day ($37), 3 days ($62), or 1 week ($72) passes are available for purchase. 

The park spans over 400 acres, with roads connecting the different temples.  Jungle and ponds cover the rest.  Restaurants and shops are scattered throughout. 

MAKING A PLAN:

There is a lot to see, and it is very spread out.  To see everything you will need several days, and a mode of transportation other than your own two feet.

For convenience's sake, the tourism gods created two "loops" around the complex.  

These loops hit different temples, and are what most people use to organize their days inside of the park.  

There is the "small loop," which is (wait for it) smaller, and hits the most famous and impressive temples. The "big loop" goes further out into the park, hitting some of the less famous, but still impressive temples on the grounds. 

There are also many temples outside of the two loops.  Most are not preserved and in ruins.  

Banteay Srei (a temple) is an additional 30 to 50 kilometers outside of main complex grounds, but is worth the hike. 

 TUK TUK RIDE

TUK TUK RIDE

GETTING AROUND:

There are 5 main ways people get around the Angkor Temple Complex: bike, motorbike, tuk tuk, tour bus and car. No one walks. Here are my opinions on all of them.....

BIKE: I love to bike, but there are some factors to consider when using it as a way to get around Angkor.

Simply walking (and climbing) the temples is very exhausting.  I can't imagine also biking between temples. Riding in the tuk tuk with the wind in my face was the only reason I had the energy to continue exploring. Additionally, Angkor is a 5 kilometer ride away from Siem Reap, which is where you would rent the bike.

I advise to bike only if you are very fit, accustomed to exercising in heat, and/or are only going a short distance. COST - $1-2 dollars for the day

MOTORBIKE:

Assuming you know how to drive a motorbike, I think it is the best way for 1-2 people to get around Angkor Wat. It is a very fast, and motorbike rentals in SE Asia are very cheap. When a traffic jams happen, you can weave around them.  I unfortunately do not know how to drive a motorbike, so I couldn't use this option. COST - $5-6 a day. 
EDIT: Apparently, the tuk tuk cartel didn't like this option, and it is now very common for cops inside of the park to ask to see your Cambodian license if you are riding a bike in the park.  If you don't have the documentation, they will take your bike.  Proceed with caution. Try to get a mototaxi if you are alone. 

TUK TUK: What most people use.  They are not cheap, but it's a good way to get around. Any driver the city will be happy to take you, but it is important to find one that won't rip you off. Ask your hostel or hotel to help you find a driver. If you have people with you, it is easy to split the cost to make the experience cheaper.

COST- $15 small loop, $20 for big loop, $20 out to far temples, $25 for far temples and big loop.

CAR: I mean, this would be ideal: cruising around Angkor in air conditioning, getting tips from a private guide. Unfortunately, we are not all made of money.  You could probably arrange this online (trip advisor?) or through your hotel, you ritzy bastard. 

TOUR BUS: No. 

 BANTEAY KDEI

BANTEAY KDEI

THE TEMPLES

This post is getting too long. For technical information and a comprehensive list, look here

HOW I THINK YOU SHOULD DO IT:

Time to get controversial: Do I really think you need more than 1 day in the Angkor Temple Complex?  

Well... even though Lonely Planet literally called spending just one day in Angkor blasphemy...I disagree. One expertly planned day is sufficient. 

If you choose to stay more than one day, that's fine.  There is certainly more than enough to see. I would suggest starting with the further out temples. These temples are less impressive.  Don't get me wrong - they are great, but they are no Bayon or Angkor Wat. 

The small loop shows off the most impressive temples, and if you do it first, every other temple will pale in comparison.  I started with the small loop.... and yeah, the next two days were pretty lackluster.

THE GAL-IVANTER LOOP:

Get your ticket the night before (after 4:45pm at the park).  This ticket will get you in for the sunset that night.  If you're already there, have your tuk tuk take you up to the touristy "sunset hill."

Start very early the next day. Aim to leave your hotel/hostel by 6am, especially if you still need to get your ticket.   Most people start by watching the sunrise from Angkor Wat temple, I don't care much for sunrises.  Personally, I think your time is better spent getting to one of the further out temples first.  

Banteay Srey(1) is a perfect first temple.  By arriving early you will beat the busses of tourists that arrive at 9 am and ruin the place. 

 BANTEAY SREI, ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX, SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

BANTEAY SREI, ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX, SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

On your way back, stop by Pre Rup(2).   This temple is the tallest I visited, and has really well preserved elephants.  I was a bit temple-jaded when I made it there, but if it had been my second temple, I would have been wowed. 

After this, begin the small loop.  Start at Angkor Wat (3).  Again, this is pretty controversial, but I don't think you need to go inside.  As far as temples go, the inside of Angkor Wat is... fine.  It's the outside that people talk about.  

Find the reflective pool, ooo, ahh, take your picture, and go.  There are better things to see with your time. 

 ANGKOR WAT,  ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX  , SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

ANGKOR WAT, ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX, SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

At this point, I reckon you are going to need a break. There are plenty of cafes and stalls by Angkor Wat. Find one that strikes your fancy and get a coffee or water. 

After, head to Angkor Thom (4).  Angkor Thom is a huge, walled in area. Ask your tuk tuk to take you around the big sights.  It has many different terraces and temples within it.  You could spend a lot of time here, but the highlight is easy: Bayon (5), my favorite temple in the entire complex.

Bayon is like an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple - but better, because it is real.  Tiny passages, jungle covered walls, wild animals... save your energy for this guy, because it truly is as good as it gets.

 BAYON,  ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX  , SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

BAYON, ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX, SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

Finish with Ta Prohm (6)- the jungle temple.  Trees have invaded many of Angkor's temples, but none so dramatic as Ta Prohm, which was featured in Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. However, for the best tree invasion I saw in any temple, get to the far end of Ta Som .  Worth the diversion if you have the energy and time.

At any point when you are hungry, stop to enjoy a picnic lunch (which you bring). 

There you have it: a perfect day at the Angkor Temple Complex, seeing only the best and most important temples.  

I basically just gave you a cheat sheet to Angkor.  

Now, this is a very full day.  Yes, it would be better to do in 2.   However, I think you should power through the heat and pull it off in one (part of the reason you start so early).  They do not sell two day passes to Angkor.  To save money and time, you might as well just try to fit the experience into one day.  If you don't care about time and money, divide this over 2 days for maximum comfort. 

 TA SOM,  ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX  , SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

TA SOM, ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX, SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - M.QUIGLEY

The Gal-ivanter loop:
(1) Banteay Srey
(2) Pre Rup
(3) Angkor Wat
(4) Angkor Thom
(5) Bayon
(6) Ta Prohm
BONUS TREE: Ta Som (far end)

TIPS

BRING A PACKED LUNCH: food is expensive inside, and eating a bagel in the ruins of Ta Prohm was a peak moment of my life.  There are a lot of places to have nice picnics. 
BRING AS MUCH WATER AS YOU CAN CARRY
WEAR TANK TOP AND COVER YOUR SHOULDER INSIDE OF TEMPLES: so you can remove it outside of the temples to cool off.  Pants are nice because they protect your legs from sunburn.
WEAR HEADPHONES TO DISSUADE TOUTING: it is how I get people to stop asking me to buy stuff
PODCASTS IF YOU ARE ALONE
IF YOU ARE TIRED, TAKE A BREAK

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WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION

Before you visit Angkor, consider visiting the Angkor National Museum.  It does a good job at explaining the history of the Khmer Empire, a lot of the symbolism in the temples, and gives context to the different temples.  I felt a lot more informed when in Angkor because of the museum.  

Otherwise, I used my Lonely Planet book for information, and these two blog posts (post and post).

PHEW. That was almost as exhausting as a day at the temples.  Thanks for reading and, as always, feel free to email me with any questions: madeline@thegal-ivanter.com 

Enjoy your time at the 7th wonder of the world.... I have a lot more Southeast Asia posts here. 

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<Backpacking Tips

HAPPY GALLIVANTING!

Information from wikipedia and the Angkor National Museum