Angkor Background: Angkor is a proudly a UNESCO World Heritage site and was built from the 9th to the 15th century. The most famous temples include Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the Bayon Temple. Angkor is found in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap and is the largest religious monument in the world.
With DJ Snake’s “Turn Down For What” song taking the world by storm, it was difficult to refrain from cracking jokes throughout our visit, but it kept our spirits high as we braved the 4am journey to the ancient ruins of Angkor.
And the rumors are true. It’s pretty damn cool.
Angkor is also famous for being the backdrop to Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider. As a personal hero of mine, it warmed my heart to know that Angelina fake-killed bad guys on the same ground that I was walking on. I will admit that it was a bit confusing for us (due to the terrible guide we were with) to understand the history behind the the ruins and how to distinguish between them. I suggest that you GOOGLE it (because you obviously have internet access) if you’d like to know more about the cultural and historical significance of Angkor.
If you plan on going to Angkor Wat, the “thing to do” is to witness the sunrise or the sunset at the main temple… but I’m going to advise you to do neither. We woke up at 4am to see the sunrise, but the place was littered with trash, tourists, and vendors begging for you to buy things. People will tell you that you can see the reflection of Angkor in the pond water… but they don’t tell you that you’ll also see the trash bags and rubbish floating in the reflection as well. What was EVEN MORE DISAPPOINTING was the fact that the sunrise was behind the temple, thus, casting the sunlight on the crowd instead of the temple so all of our pictures turned out really dark with little detail.
Overall it was pretty disappointing.
However, you should wake up at 5am and still hit all of the temples as early as possible because as soon as it hits noon, it will either be:
A) Ridiculously Hot or B) Ridiculously Packed
A fellow traveler and I gave up before the last temple around 2pm as we were “all templed out” and were rapidly approaching a potential heatstroke. Our tour guide was clearly unhappy with us and took revenge by telling our tuk tuk driver to drive somewhere COMPLETELY different than where our hotel was, but jokes on him because we still only paid the previously agreed $5 USD.
NOTICE: Ladies, be sure to cover your shoulders and knees or you won’t be allowed into a few of the temples because that’s just how they roll. OR if The Man is cramping your style, bring a shirt to change into at a later point and continue to take your clothing on and off throughout the day. That’s what I did. Sun’s out, guns out ya’ll.
You can either reach Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples via tuk tuk or bicycle. If you choose to travel via tuk tuk, be sure to rent your driver for the day and don’t pay him till the END of your day trip. It should cost you $15-$20 USD for the day, depending on your haggling skills. You can also rent a bicycle for $2-$3 USD a day, but be sure to have a plan about navigation so you won’t get lost.
There are seriously TOO MANY TEMPLES to deal with and they’re all fan-freaking-tastic. A complete guide to all of the temples can be found here. I went to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banteay Kdei (I think), Beng Melea, Preah Khan, Roluos Group, and Ta Prohm…. I think. They all tend to blend together after waking up at 4am so I suggest that you only hit the highlights and then head home before 4pm and enjoy a relaxing $6 USD massage.
After all the temples that I have every seen in Asia, the Angkor Temples are BY FAR my favorite and most memorable experience… yet. Even though Cambodia isn’t completely a tourist trap yet… yet. These local folks have already gotten ahead of their competition by positioning themselves to earn a ton of money off of tourists with nothing better to do with their dollar… such as myself.
That being said, Angkor Wat is the only archeological complex of its kind and that makes it pretty spectacular. It sets itself apart from a lot of the other temples around Cambodia and further afield in South East Asia, so by that distinction alone, Angkor Wat is worth visiting. After all, it is one of THE things to do in Cambodia for a reason!
So, one of the biggest downsides to visiting Angkor Wat is the price point. It’s one of the more expensive excursions in Cambodia and if you’re on a shoestring budget, it can be a lot to swallow – especially if you’ve already checked out temples in the area.
At the moment, if you buy direct from official Angkor Wat sites or from the ticket office itself, the prices are $37 for the one-day pass, $62 for the three-day, and $72 for the seven-day pass. Obviously, if you buy through an agent or third party, I’ve seen three-day passes for as much as $107 dollars through agents, so you’re definitely going to want to buy direct.
It’s important to know that the passes include the whole temple complex, so there are plenty of places to explore and if you buy one of the multi-day passes you can gain access to Ta Prohm and Bayon Temple as well. So, if you’re wanting to hit up a ton of amazing and varied temples during your trip, a multi-day pass might be a lot more cost-effective for you.
Avoid the group schedule:
There’s no getting around it, the crowds at Angkor Wat are insane. It’s one of the busiest sights I’ve ever been to, even though I went super early. The complex is pretty big but there are some key spots that are ideal for getting photos of the reflective pools and of the sunrise coming over the temples. These areas get blocked up pretty quickly, and honestly, one of the better places to get your Instagram and TikTok content is from Angkor Hill where you can get panoramic content from a higher viewpoint.
Also, if you’re on a multi-day or multi-location ticket you can avoid crowds by leaving Angkor Wat until last. You may miss the sunrise shot, but the crowds will be a lot less later in the day and you might get some different sunset shots that’ll set you apart online. If you are doing this, remember to leave it as late as possible because the heat is pretty insane and there isn’t a ton of shade available.
You can’t mention Angkor Wat without mentioning the band of monkeys that call it home. There are about 60 little scamps that run around taking bananas off tourists and generally being photogenic rascals. They tend to be comfortable around humans as they’re surrounded by crowds all day, but they are wild animals and you don’t want to get too close.
Keep your belongings close to you as things have gone missing around the monkeys and try not to panic if they get closer to you. It’s likely they’re just curious about what food you might have on you and want to investigate. Honestly, these monkeys are going to end up in the vast majority of your Angkor Wat photos – just embrace them!
First and foremost, this amazing archeological site is a sacred place. You need to be respectful of the place and the people around you. You may see some people praying or meditating – leave them be and don’t disturb them. Also, make sure you cover your arms and knees as a sign of respect – you might not be let in otherwise.
The other thing that you need to consider is being mindful of the site itself. It’s an ancient place and it’s been well-preserved so far without tourists clambering all over it and touching parts that they’re not supposed to. If you can’t see a sign and you’re not sure whether you’re allowed in an area or you’re allowed to touch a section, it’s best to assume that you can’t. It’s always the safest way and ensures Angkor Wat stays spectacular for years to come.
Take your trash with you:
So, I’ve mentioned that there is quite a lot of rubbish and pollution around Angkor Wat which was both surprising and disappointing. As with any popular tourist attraction, the amount of visitors means that trash cans are often overflowing as staff struggles to keep up with the cleaning demand. With this in mind, it might be a good idea to take your trash with you until you can dispose of it properly. Propping your trash on top of an already overflowing trash can is not a great idea.
Be a better global citizen and take your trash with you. Better still, bring reusable water bottles and waste-free snacks like fruit or nuts in paper bags. It’s a lot more sustainable and eco-friendly which is always a huge plus.
Alternatives to Angkor Wat:
If you’re not feeling the crowds or the cost of Angkor Wat, there are plenty of great alternatives across Cambodia.
Beng Mealea is a super cool alternative to Angkor Wat because a lot of people think it was built around the same time. It’s normally pretty quiet as it’s a lesser-known temple, and that means you tend to have more time and space to enjoy it.
This particular temple is also a lot smaller than Angkor Wat so if you’re short on time or aren’t sure if you’re going to enjoy a full day at a temple, Beng Mealea is a good compromise. Also, if you have an adventurous spirit, the mystery of Beng Mealea is enticing. No one knows the specific history of Beng Mealea and the whole place is overgrown with greenery. It looks spectacular and wild and feels like a very special place.
If you’re interested in more modern history, the Preah Vihear temple that’s located on the Thai-Cambodian border was the subject of bloody conflict as recently as 2011. Architecturally, it’s a stunning Hindu temple, that’s actually older than Angkor Wat, being built in the 9th Century. As it’s up in the mountains, you can get spectacular views of both Cambodia and Thailand. It’s a beautiful alternative that combines modern and ancient history and gives you the best of both worlds. As it’s on the border, it’s an ideal day trip if you’re traveling onwards to Thailand after finishing up the Cambodian leg of your trip.
So, is Angkor Wat worth visiting? In short, yes it’s still a spectacular archeological site and one of THE things to do in Cambodia. I just think you have to be prepared for the reality of the crowds, the trash, and the monkeys. Of course, as the only temple complex of its kind or its size, Angkor Wat is a historical and cultural marvel. Follow my advice about visiting either super early or late in the day, keep yourself covered up, and be prepared for litter and you won’t come away as disappointed as I did.
Obviously, there are tons of great temples all around Cambodia that you can visit instead if you’re not great with crowds or want to stay off the beaten path. I loved visiting Cambodia, but honestly, by the end, I was completely templed out! I get why some people say they start to blend together in your mind! I’d pick one of two for your trip and don’t overdo it, or make sure they’re completely different like Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear for example. It’s worth visiting Angkor Wat, but just do it with an open mind and expect the hordes of tourists.
Sunday 26th of March 2023
Never saw any monkeys on three-day visit; only trash was one cigarette butt and stall holders are not permitted within the temple grounds and did not hassle us.
Saturday 25th of March 2023
Yes, you are right on point with Angkor Wat visit. I spent day in and out of these beautiful Temples. Busy, but we'll worth it???? Heading back to Phuket TravelingFrogman Full-time World Traveler
D. R. Nettar
Friday 23rd of December 2022
Just returned from Angkor Wat. It was great. We agree with your suggestion to start early and finish by 4 pm and came back for a nice massage. Read your article only today. The morning sunrise was disappointing and less than spectacular. Did not like Cambodian coffee. Prefer American or Cappucino. Food was ok. Massage and people of Cambodia were great