If you just follow the crowds, you may end up annoyed and frustrated. Our need-to-know guide will help you make the most of your Angkor experience.
The ruins of the Angkor temples, built from the 9th to 15th centuries, are a must-see. At its height in the 13th century, the city of Angkor is estimated to have had a million residents, and the kingdom covered almost all of Southeast Asia, making it that era’s largest civilization. UNESCO named the Angkor Archaeological Park, situated just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, a World Heritage Site for good reason. The key to enjoying it, though, is escaping the crowds.
Can I see the highlights in one day?
Yes, but barely. It will be a whirlwind, but in one day you can see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (though probably not have time to climb to the temple’s top tier afterward), photograph Bayon temple’s faces, and see trees “growing” out of a temple like Ta Prohm. You will miss out on the magic of Angkor though, as you won’t have time to escape the crowds, explore, and get a (little) lost.
If you buy your ticket at 5 p.m. the day before, you can enter the park to watch the sunset as well as get an early start the day for which your ticket is valid. As of publishing, a one-day ticket to Angkor costs $37 US.
Will I get more out of the three- or seven-day pass?
Absolutely. The $62 three-day pass, valid for 10 days, allows you to see more temples (including less crowded ones), plus have time to actually explore. For $74–not even twice the single-day price–you can buy a ticket valid for seven visits in one month. It pays for itself on the fourth visit, and you’ll have time to revisit your favorite temples. You’ll also have time to take much-needed breaks to recover from the heat and temple fatigue.
What are the rules?
You must follow the Code of Conduct printed on your ticket, including how you dress. Angkor is a religious site and you could be barred from entry, asked to leave, fined, or even arrested for disrespectful behavior.
Tourists often make the mistake of not dressing conservatively enough. This will result in a tuk-tuk ride to a shop for you to buy a coverup. Both men and women need to have knees and shoulders covered. Sometimes a woman wearing a tank top may be allowed in if she covers her shoulders with a scarf. Please don’t cheat and remove it just because staff may not be near. Not only it is disrespectful and offensive to Buddhists, but you may be caught by non-uniformed staff. It’s unlikely, but you could have your ticket confiscated.
How do I get to Angkor?
Most people choose a tuk-tuk, though you can get an air-conditioned car and driver, rent an e-bike, or a ride a regular bike. The road to Angkor is flat, and stretches of it are shaded. But most people find they need to conserve their energy for climbing temples in the heat. The road can be dusty (cover your camera), so those very sensitive to dust might want a scarf or a car.
Tuktuk prices are negotiable, largely depending on the distance you want to go. If you just plan to go to one or two temples, you can likely save a few dollars. Expect $15 for the Small Circuit tour, with a premium if you want to see sunrise, sunset, or both. Tuk-tuks from higher-end hotels will charge $20, but this includes water and cloths kept icy cold underneath your seat and, if you ask, a lunchtime trip back to town. The Grand Circuit will be $20 or $25, as will the trip to Banteay Srei.
Should I bother with sunrise at Angkor Wat?
Probably not. Photographs of early-morning Angkor Wat, with purple or orange skies reflected in the lotus pond, are beautiful, but your chances of replicating them are slim. Photos with the sun rising directly over the temple are taken near the spring or autumn equinox (March 21 or September 21). There are always throngs of tourists crowding around the ponds blocking the shot you want. They also talk—even yell—endlessly, ruining what should be a magically serene experience.
Go if you must, but you’ll need to have your ticket purchased in advance. The gates open at 5 a.m. It takes about 20 minutes to get there from Siem Reap, plus the time to have your ticket punched at the vehicle checkpoint.
If you’re one of the first in line, you might get one of the prime spots on the edge of the pond. You might be able to ward off a latecomer from standing in front of you, too.
What about the sunset temples?
Skipping them isn’t a bad idea either. Crowds also throng at Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup to watch the sunset. You will be elbow to elbow in an annoying crowd. You can see temples in the distance, but not in a way that will really show up in your photos. Note that to see the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, you must be at the temple at the top of the hill by 5:30 p.m. to enter. Only 300 people are allowed up, so arrive early or you may not be allowed to enter at all.
Counterpoint: Sometimes the throngs are worth it for truly incredible sights, and sunrise/set at Angkor Wat could definitely be considered one of them. If you go, put your camera down and really witness the spectacle.
What's the best one-day tour?
If you truly only have one day to see some of the most magnificent ruins in the world, Angkor’s top three temples are Bayon, Angkor Wat, and Ta Prohm. This is called the Small Circuit.
See Bayon first. About an hour after sunrise, the golden sun will beautifully highlight many of the 216 faces atop the temple. Next visit Angkor Wat. Go straight to the second tier at the back left corner and see how long the line is. Only 100 people at a time are allowed to climb to the top tier, and you will need to wait in line. Queues are shortest around 1 p.m. Explore the rest of the temple, time permitting, as you make your way back to the entrance.
Known as the “Tomb Raider” temple, Ta Prohm has trees growing out of temple walls. Light conditions don’t matter as much here as at Bayon, so it’s ok to leave it to last. You could reverse the order if you wish, but most of the faces at the top of Bayon are in shadow by about 4 p.m.
I only have one day; what are the insider tips?
Bayon and Angkor Wat are unique. Though crowded, they can’t be missed. After Bayon, glance at mountainous Bauphon, though you probably won’t have time to climb it. If you’re quick, look at the Elephant Terrace and walk through the semi-secret passageway at the Terrace of the Leper King. Then go to Angkor Wat; wear a hat for the midday walk on the 1,150-foot long causeway.
Yes, Ta Prohm was in Tomb Raider and it looks like the trees are growing out of the temple walls. But the temple’s massive restoration work and popularity mean some areas are blocked off and you must follow a very set path. You’ll feel like a crowded sheep.
Instead, go to Preah Khan. It combines many of the best temple features all in one spot. Trees on walls? Check. Intricate carvings? Check. A layout where you can get (a little) lost and not see another tourist for a few minutes? Check. Forest and a moat? Check, check.
What's best for day one of a three-day tour?
Start with Bayon, the temple with the faces of what some think is King Jayavarman VII. Early morning or late afternoon horizontal light on the top tier is magnificent for photos. Morning crowds are slightly smaller than afternoon crowds.
Then take your time exploring the rest of the temples within Angkor Thom, the ancient city enclosed by a moat. Don’t miss the mountain temple of Baphuon. Walk along the top of the Elephant Terrace. At the Terrace of the Leper King, at the far end of Angkor Thom, find the semi-secret passageway and walk between the walls back to the center of the Elephant Terrace.
Spend the rest of the day at Angkor Wat, timing your visit to the top tier for around 1 p.m. to avoid crowds. Admire the bas-relief on the first tier, and the empty pools and carvings above. Don’t linger in the long building near the entrance bridge; save your time and energy for the more spectacular main temple and one or two of the libraries near it.
What's best for day two or a three-day tour?
Start with Preah Khan. It’s one of the largest temples areas, so you’ll want at least two hours here. It’s possible to get a little lost and feel a sense of exploration and discovery. Don’t just explore inside the temple. Take the time to walk through the grounds and into the forest, plus see the outside walls with Garuda statues on at least three of the moat crossings. Admire the baray (water reservoir) to the east.
Most visitors enter at the west gate and exit through the east, though sometimes the north. Sometimes your tuk-tuk driver wants to stay at the gate where he dropped you off; say no. Specify exactly which gate where you’ll meet. Don’t worry, Google Maps will show you where you are.
Next go to Neak Pean, accessible via a long boardwalk through a picturesque baray when filled with water. Continue clockwise along the Grand Circuit. You likely won’t have time for all the temples, but be sure to leave time for Ta Prohm at the end.
What's best for day three of a three-day tour?
It takes about 45 minutes by tuk-tuk to get out to Banteay Srei, the red sandstone temple with extremely intricate carvings. The breeze from your moving tuk-tuk should keep you cool enough, though those sensitive to dust might prefer a car. Known as the “pink temple,” Banteay Srei is small but stunning. It’s busiest after breakfast and after lunch, prettiest in the early morning and late afternoon. On the far side of the temple, follow the path to the right for a lookout onto a field often picturesquely dotted with water buffalo.
Visit the medium-sized Banteay Samre temple on the way. If you have time, climb the 633 steps to the ruins atop Phnom Bok. You’ll likely have it to yourself. There’s a longer path through the shade too. If you’re quick, stop to see the ancient elephant enclosure at Krol Romeas.
You might want to add Kbal Spean, eight miles further north of Banteay Srei. It’s called the River of 1000 Lingas, otherwise known as penises. The phallic statues are mostly underwater and there’s a nice waterfall here.
What should I see with a seven-day ticket?
The Angkor park has 292 temples, 72 of them classified as “major.” With the seven-day ticket, you will have time to see many of the key ones and revisit your favorites in different light to vary your photos.
Take a full day to explore all the temples in Angkor Thom. Walking through the forest and around the back of temples will reveal treasures, such as the huge reclining Buddha at Bauphon or the trees growing out of Prasat Preah Palilay.
See several temples where the trees are taking over, not just Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, but also Ta Som (go all the way to the end to the tree-covered gate) and Banteay Kdei (it’s only had minimal restoration; look for the “hall of dancing girls”). The ponds surrounding Neak Pean make for interesting photos, and the walk there across the boardwalk over the huge baray is beautiful. East Mebon has huge elephant statues. Visit Pre Rup and Bakheng Hill at any time other than sunset.
Have a picnic beside Srah Srang, the Royal Bathing Pool. Cambodians will join you in the late afternoon. Wander through the grounds of Angkor Wat and sit beside the moat. See the mostly ignored temples northwest of Angkor Thom. The Roluos Group, a 45-minute tuk-tuk ride southeast of Siem Reap, was built earlier than the other Angkor temples; seeing them increases your understanding of how Angkor evolved.
What about the extra-cost temples?
Bang Mealea, Koh Ker, and Phnom Kulen each have a separate entrance fee costing $5, $10 and $20, respectively, though a regular Angkor ticket isn’t needed.
Bang Mealea has had hardly any trees removed, so it’s easier to imagine how Henri Mouhot, one of the first westerners here, saw the temples in 1860. Koh Ker, also forested, is an ancient city about 75 miles from Siem Reap. Almost 200 different ruins have been found here, but only about two dozen are accessible to tourists.
The sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen has a reclining Buddha (take off your shoes and hat to climb the stairs). At the top of a waterfall is the treed Prasat Krol Romeas temple. Huge stone animals guard Phnom Kulen. Prasat Rong Chen is the first mountain-temple built in Angkor.
How can I avoid the crowds?
Accept the fact that some of your time at the temples will be crowded; more than two million people visit Angkor every year. The busiest periods in Siem Reap are the Christmas break in late December and early January, and the week of lunar new year in January or February. The secret to avoiding the crowds is buying a three- or seven-day pass. You’ll have the time to visit the less popular (and therefore less crowded) temples, plus time to explore the quiet back corners of the more popular places.
How can I make the crowds more tolerable?
Take breaks, including finding a few minutes of quiet at the busier temples. Though not everyone else will be practicing it, try to set an example. Talk quietly. Those traveling in groups should especially take care not to shout at group members. Refuse any guide who shouts or uses amplification. If your group is that large, insist on the guide speaking into a transmitter and the group wearing headphones to hear him or her.
Be aware of people trying to take pictures and try not to walk into their photos. When you’re the photographer, try to be quick. If you’re in the photo, be even quicker. You’re preventing everyone else from getting their photo while you pose. Please don’t take the cheesy photos where you carefully position yourself so it looks like you’re nose-to-nose with a Bayon face. It’s too crowded and there are too many other people trying to take photos. Don’t forget this is a religious site.
What about pickpockets and touts?
Sellers will shout at you to buy their cold drink, painting, or scarf, and sometimes follow you as you walk away. Don’t buy from anyone who shouts; you’re only encouraging the behavior. Say “no thanks” once and ignore anyone who pesters you. Saying “maybe later” only encourages the pestering. Let sellers save their energy for serious buyers.
People offering incense and blessings within the temples are entrepreneurs. The young “monk” is not actually a monk, and the money you give him will not go to temple upkeep. However, a cut will go to the temple staff for letting him operate his business.
Pickpockets are known to work Angkor’s crowded temples. Keep any valuables in inside pockets and know that the innocent bump might not be so innocent.
What about the cute kids selling stuff?
Kids will try to get you to buy a (counterfeit) Angkor book, postcards, tissues, or bracelets. They’ll follow you for a while after you say no. They may tell you it’s to make money for a school uniform or books. No matter how sad the story, never buy from a child. Never give a child money or even a gift like candy or a book. You’re just trapping them into a cycle of poverty.
Child protection NGOs such as ThinkChildSafe.org explain that anything that encourages begging or parents keeping their kids out of school does more long-term harm than short-term good. Know that many Cambodian kids are employed by hierarchical cartels that profit from child labor.
If you want to help kids, the best thing you can do is donate cash to a reputable charity. ConCERT—Cambodia’s Connecting Communities, Environment, and Responsible Tourism NGO—will happily advise you. They’re in Siem Reap near the Old Market on Street 09.
Should I ride the elephants?
You’ll see elephants near Bayon temple in the morning and taking tourists up the hill to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. Riding elephants is cruel. Several of the Angkor elephants have collapsed due to heat exhaustion. The nature of the howdah seat on their back hurts their spines. Young elephants are beaten so they will submit to human commands.
If tourists stop paying money to ride elephants, their mahouts may realize that an ethical experience, for example where tourists help bathe elephants, is a better way for the animals to earn their expensive upkeep and live the remainder of their days.
Do I need a guide?
That depends on what you like to know when you experience historical places. You will learn a lot about history and the artistry of the temples from a guide. Details on how Khmer architects struggled with the arch (though Rome had already perfected it) are fascinating, as is the Khmer mastery of water and irrigation. Plus a guide will take you to places like Angkor Wat’s Hall of Echoes, the “stegosaurus” at Ta Prohm, and the bas-relief of a circus at Bayon, which you might not otherwise discover. However, exploring the less-crowded temples on your own, perhaps pretending you’re Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, is magical.
If you do want a guide, best to book from your hotel. If anyone offers to show you around at the temples, either say no or get a crystal clear agreement on the price before you start.
Do you have any photo tips?
You’ll likely take more photos than you plan, so bring extra batteries and memory cards. Get used to the fact that at some temples it will be impossible to avoid having people in your shots. It’s not necessarily bad; they do help show the scale of the temples.
You likely won’t have enough room to set up a tripod at busy spots like Angkor Wat at sunrise. A monopod is better. A monopod will help in the dim interiors of temples too. A wide-angle and a zoom will help bring variety to your photos.
The light at Angkor can be tricky. Midday light can wash out photos, but this is a good time of day to take close-ups of carvings and other details. The warm light cast after sunrise and before sunset is gorgeous, but the light can move faster than expected on different layers of temples, leaving your planned shot in shadow.
Though their saffron robes are stunning against the grey temple walls, never photograph a monk without his permission. As you would at home, never photograph anyone without their consent, especially children without a parent’s approval. People are not tourist attractions.
Can I get lunch and a snack?
Yes. Owners of drink stands and small outdoor restaurants throughout the park would be very grateful for your business. Vendors also sell cut pineapple and mango. They’re delicious, but sticky (bring a couple wet wipes). Avoiding establishments where the staff yell out “cold drink”, “pineapple” or “noodles” might help future visitors walk by hassle-free.
If you need air conditioning or western food, the Blue Pumpkin’s Angkor Café is near Angkor Wat. Know that it relies on its name and location and many complain of poor service and the overpriced menu. Nearby Chez Sophea & Matthieu has a better reputation, though it’s also pricey.
If you’ve got a tuk-tuk from a higher end hotel, the price likely includes a trip back to Siem Reap for lunch. You could go back to your hotel, but to avoid much of Siem Reap’s traffic, consider a restaurant on the north side of town. Upscale Mie Café, near Street 60, is fabulous.
There's so much garbage ... how can I help?
Do everything you can to reduce Cambodia’s garbage problem. Avoid buying bottled drinks in the Angkor park. Instead, have a vendor chop the top of a chilled young coconut for you (ideally bring a bamboo straw from Siem Reap so you don’t have to use plastic). Coke, water, and a young coconut each cost $1, so why buy something you can get at home? Coconut water will refresh you better in the heat too.
Look for the “Refill Not Landfill” refillable aluminum water bottles in Siem Reap. Some hotels will give them to their guests, and your Section A ticket to the Phare Circus includes one. Fill it in town for free at about two dozen sites.
What do I do when I'm templed out?
Almost everyone gets a little temple fatigue, so build in time for relaxing at your pool, seeing Siem Reap, shopping, and getting a massage. Do not miss The Phare Cambodian Circus; buy tickets in advance from December to March. Phare is a heartwarming show of original music, spectacular acrobatics, low-budget special effects, and Cambodian history. It will have you laughing, cheering, and maybe crying a little too.
Visit some of Siem Reap’s excellent restaurants, including one of the training restaurants like Marum. Shop for souvenirs, but look for fair trade shopping like the Made in Cambodia Market. Goods sold in most markets are often mislabeled imports from China or Vietnam.
What time of year should I visit?
December and January are cool (by Cambodian standards, days will still be in the mid-80s), but the Christmas holiday period is very crowded. Lunar new year, usually in January or February, is also busy, with travelers from both China and Vietnam taking advantage of time off work to see Angkor.
The heat and humidity in April and May make temple touring difficult, though you’ll avoid crowds (except at busy Khmer New Year in mid-April). The monsoon arrives in May or June and stays until October. Some roads may be impassable and mosquitoes are likely.
Weather- and crowd management-wise, it’s best to visit Angkor in late February (so long as it’s at least a week past lunar new year) and March. Late November and early December are good as well.
How do I get to Siem Reap?
Flying into Siem Reap International Airport is the most popular. There are flights from all over the region, with the cheapest prices generally from Bangkok.
Most visitors purchase a visa on arrival. A tourist visa is granted for 30 days and can be extended once for another 30 days. Bring a passport-sized photo and $30 US cash. Your passport needs to have at least one empty page and be valid for six months beyond your date of entry into Cambodia. You may be asked to provide proof of onward travel and of sufficient funds for your stay. Most hotels will pick you up at the airport for free.
Buses from elsewhere in Cambodia and from a few international cities are available too. You can travel up the Mekong into the Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap by boat from Phnom Penh.