Angkor Wat Travel Guide by Last Baht
Angkor Wat: ancient temple city, UNESCO site, bucket list item, wonder of the world. The price of tickets to the world-famous Angkor Wat nearly doubled in 2017, a new complication for world travelers on a budget. Make the most out of a one-day pass by seeing only the best of Angkor's most magical and unforgettable sites both on and off the beaten path.
Angkor Wat Historical Park
A Bit of History
In the year 802, a local Hindu prince named Jayavarman unified the dozens of local warlords and minor princes throughout what is now Cambodia, eastern Thailand, and western Vietnam, and was crowned Deva Raja, the “Universal Monarch” with unlimited authority to command armies and workers.
The reign of King Jayavaraman is steeped in myth and legend, and in fact, the first references to this possibly mythical ruler occur on artifacts dating from two centuries after the end of his reign. Nevertheless, the Angkor Empire began to flourish during this time, at the beginning of the ninth century. Under the rule of an absolute God-King, the Khmer constructed Angkor, the capital city of the Angkor Empire, located near present-day Siem Reap, Cambodia. In just a few centuries, at the height of its power, the city of Angkor covered over a thousand square kilometers and was home to over a million inhabitants. Recent satellite surveys of the ruins of the Angkor Empire by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America show that between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
Getting There and Around
You can see Angkor Wat by motorbike, hired car, or tuk-tuk. Renting a motorbike from your guesthouse is probably the cheapest way to get around, but the Historical Park complex is massive, and it's easy to get lost or turned around. If you are short on time and really don't want to miss the top sites, hiring a driver is the most reliable way to get around. You can arrange this through your hotel or guesthouse the day before you want to visit the historical park.
When to go
You can visit Angkor Wat at any time of the year, but if you are going to be visiting during the monsoon season (around May-November) be prepared for the chance of rain.
Tickets to the Angkor Wat Historical Park, although worth the cost, are a bit pricey for a traveler on a budget. A price increase in 2017 nearly doubled the ticket price, so if you are on a tight budget, pick up a one-day pass and hit up these top sites on a one-day whirlwind tour. Tickets can be bought as you arrive at Angkor Wat Historical Park.
1 Day - $37
3 Day - $62
7 Day - $72
Angkor Historical Park in a One-Day Visit
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Wake up at 4:30am to begin your adventure long before the sun begins to rise. Meet your driver and head to Angkor Wat in the dark. Try to find a good spot to stand or sit to watch as the sun rises directly behind the famous Khmer-style spires of Angkor Wat. It's crowded, but for good reason: watching the sun rise behind Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious monument, and one of Southeast Asia's most magical experiences.
As soon as the sun is up, the crowds disperse, heading back to their hotels for breakfast or off to other temples in the historical park, and once it's light, Angkor Wat really isn't that crowded. Head inside the cool, dark hallways of the legendary temple city and get up close to the intricate carvings and amazingly detailed architecture.
monks at Angkor Wat
Inside, pay special attention to the intricate and incredibly well-preserved carvings of Hindu mythology and cosmology. Although constructed as a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is now an important Buddhist site as well, and it's common to see saffron-robed Theravada monks walking through the stone passages of the ancient complex.
Angkor Wat in the morning
By now, you might be starting to feel hungry. Outside the complex are a wide selection of local vendors selling fairly cheap Cambodian dishes, and just across the moat is a branch of the delicious Blue Pumpkin Cafe, where you can order a nice breakfast and cup of fine Khmer coffee before continuing your adventure.
Angkor Thom and the Bayon
The next stop is Angkor Thom, the "Great City", the best known site in the Historical Park after Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom was the largest of the Khmer cities, and the capital of the Khmer Empire through the 17th century. Angkor Thom is probably best known these days as a location from the 2001 Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider film.
Angkor Thom's most impressive feature is the Bayon, the ancient temple sitting right at the center of Angkor Thom. Bayon is decorated in spires carved into giant, serene faces. Unlike most of the Angkor temples, Bayon is Buddhist, and not Hindu. Bayon was the last State Temple of the Khmer Empire, constructed after the empire's official conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism.
Other features of note include the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants, but the Bayon temple is really the most extraordinary part of the Angkor Thom complex. Visitors can even climb up to the upper levels of the temple to get a closer view of the carved faces.
Before Angkor Thom was abandoned during the fall of the Khmer Empire around 1600, it is believed to have supported a population of somewhere around 150,000, just a bit smaller than that of London at the time.
Visiting Ta Phrom feels like discovering a wonderful secret hidden deep in the jungle. While Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have been partially restored, Ta Prohm still looks very much the same as it did when re-discovered by 19th century French explorers. Ta Prohm, a 12th century Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, is overgrown with the roots of a gnarled jungle tree.
Ta Prohm may be significantly smaller than either Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom, but it's incredibly atmospheric and beautiful.
The "Monastery of Kings" was a dedicated Buddhist temple, one of the very few Buddhist temples in the predominantly Hindu Khmer Empire, though few Buddhist carvings remain. A theory suggests that Hindu priests may have destroyed some of the temple's more overtly Buddhist features after the death of the king. Regardless, it's one of the most incredible and highly-recommended sites in the entire Historical Park.
Off the beaten track is the Kbal Spean, which means "Bridge Head", a sacred waterfall and archaeological site northeast of Angkor Wat.
The riverbed is covered in intricate carvings depicting scenes and figures from Hindu mythology, and is surrounded by dense jungle. It's a moderately tough 2km and fairly steep hike through a jungle trail to reach the waterfall, so be sure you are wearing appropriate footwear and carry water if you want to visit Kbal Spean!
Today, only Cambodians are allowed to swim in the sacred pool beneath the waterfall. You might see local people having a picnic along the banks. Foreigners, though, are not allowed to bathe or swim in the natural pool.
A bit far out, but absolutely worth the trip, Beng Mealea is one of the most incredible sites surrounding Siem Reap. This temple is located about 40 km away from the other main sites, which takes some time by tuk-tuk, but the trek is worth it.
This small temple is entirely un-restored, and exploring the ruins will make you feel like Indiana Jones. Entry to Beng Mealea is not included with the Angkor Wat Historical Park pass, but only costs $5 or so to hire the park ranger for a private guided tour through the crumbling ruins. When I first visited, I arrived near dusk, and the ranger guided us along by flashlight through the dark temple interior, bats chirping overhead.
Be careful on the slippery moss-covered stones! The ground is not completely stable, so move slowly and carefully through the ancient ruin. In my opinion, this is probably the coolest site in Siem Reap!
Hire a tuk-tuk driver for one of the two "circuit" tours to hit all the most popular sites.
The Small Circuit
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, Banteay Kdei, and a number of smaller but still interesting ruins in a comprehensive loop of the park's most famous sites. Good for a one-day visit.
The Grand Circuit
Small Circuit plus Preah Khan, Preah Neak Pean, among other smaller and less-known sites. The Grand Circuit is much longer, and is recommended only if you have enough time or interest in the less famous and popular historical sites. Usually requires two or more days to complete.
Other Great Activities in Siem Reap
Where to Next
Koh Rong Island