Here’s a complete guide to the stunning UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat, located in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Read on to discover the best itineraries, how to get there, and how to see all the major sites, and how you can best avoid the tourists and the heat to see Angkor Wat at its best.
The Angkor Wat Cambodian Temple Site
When the sun rises over the Angkor Wat temple site the mystical nature of this famous Cambodian Temple, the largest religious monument in the world, becomes immediately apparent.
Located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, over 2.6 million visitors arrive every year to see this UNESCO World Heritage site. In the Khmer language, Angor Wat translates to “temple or capital city” and the remains of the complex are located about 5 miles north of Siem Reap.
Spread over 400 acres, the temple complex of Angkor Wat is believed to be the only religious monument that is on a national flag (see the Cambodian flag below).
Originally a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer people during the 12th century on the order of King Suryavarman II. It was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and intended to be his mausoleum but by the end of the century, it had become a Buddhist temple.
It took decades to build Angkor Wat, but many Buddhists believe the construction of this ancient temple was ordered by the God Indra and it was built in one night.
Over the centuries the temple fell into disrepair through lack of use and was “rediscovered” by a French explorer Henri Mouhot in the 1840s. Although the temple was of course never actually lost to the Khmer, Mouhot was the first to write in a European language about the incredible wonder he had stumbled across.
The most famous temple here gave the site its name. Angkor Wat is a Buddhist temple within the site that is still in use for the rituals of Theravada Buddhism. There are 300 temples within the complex in various states of ruin some of which have been used for Hollywood films like “Tomb Raider”.
Angkor Wat was the capital of the Khmer Empire and together the temples, roads, bridges, lakes, and reservoirs create sacred Buddhist geography that extended for hundreds of miles into mainland Southeast Asia.
The best way to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is on a modern and efficient bus. The Giant Ibis line changes drivers every four hours and has an impressive safety record, new buses, wifi, and air-con. Check out reviews and prices How to Get to Siem Reap
The best place to stay to see Angkor Wat is in Siem Reap which is about 5 miles from the Angkor Archeological Park.
Flights to Siem Reap are limited, and there are no direct flights to Cambodia from North America, Australia, Europe, or South Africa. If your destination is, Cambodia you will need to find a connecting flight from an airport located in East or Southeast Asia. Singapore is the easiest hub for a hop over to Cambodia.
Don’t forget to apply for a visa before you visit Cambodia. Visas are available at the International Airports of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh but getting a visa on a land border will probably require more than you anticipate as bribes are known to make the process faster and there are some fake visa scams operating.
As a tourist, you can obtain an E-Visa before traveling or you should apply at a Cambodian Embassy or Consulate for your visa.
From Siem Reap to Angkor Wat
The best way to get to the Angkor Wat complex is by tuk-tuk, you could also bike there but in the Cambodian heat and humidity, it can be an exhausting journey.
A tuk-tuk will cost around $25-30 that will be a full day and guided tour of the major temples of the site.
If a tuk-tuk is not your thing, it’s also possible to get there in a car and travel between the larger areas of the site in a car. If that sounds like you, then up to three people can hire a car and driver for a full day on this 5-star reviewed and inexpensive private chauffered tour.
What is the best time to see Angkor Wat?
The best time to visit Cambodia is from November to February but these are also the peak season for tourists and you may find it is just too busy for you.
At this time of year, the weather is dry and cooler but many photographers prefer to visit in the rainy season. During the rainy season, the grasses are greener and the temples glisten in the sun providing incredible photographs.
Many visitors recommend visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise and these tours are available at an extra cost from the local Tuk Tuk guides. If you really want to explore the majesty of the Archeological park you will need at least 3 days to see the major sites you could spend 7 days there and you still won’t see the entire complex.
Read on for a tip about how to get two visits from your one-day ticket and see the sunset and sunrise at the park.
Getting tickets to Angkor Archaeological Park
There are three levels of tickets to visit Angkor Wat. If you want to so the small circuit and see the main three temples you will only need a one-day ticket which costs $37. To see the main highlights buy a 3-day ticket for $62 and if you plan to spend 7 days in Angkor a ticket will cost $72.
Angkor Wat One Day Itinerary: the Small Circuit
The Angkor Wat Archeological Park has two “circuits.” The Small Circuit makes for an essential one-day visit because it goes to the heart of the Temple site and sees the main monuments.
The Small Circuit consists of the Temples of Angkot Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. The map below shows you the small circuit.
TIP: Your Angkor Wat Archeological Park ticket gives you entry to the Park from 5 pm the evening BEFORE the date of your ticket. This means you can grab a tuk-tuk and join the hundreds of people watching the sunset at Phnom Bakheng.
Then the next morning, you can get up early to see the sunrise over the lake at Angkor Wat Temple.
Angkor Wat 2 Day Itinerary and Longer: the Grand Circuit
A two-day Angkor Wat itinerary will allow you to see a sunrise and a sunset as well as take the Grand Circuit.
In addition to the three temples on the Small Circuit – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, the Grand Circuit includes Preah Khan, East Mebon, Re Rup, and Neak Pean. Neak Pean’s can be reached via a long wooden boardwalk over the reservoir in the complex.
Angkor Wat Archaeological Park Rules
There are very strict rules for entering the Park, including a dress code. Keep in mind all the time that this is a sacred site for many, so be on your best behavior.
- The main rule at Angkor is that you must be wearing appropriate clothing. This includes long pants or shorts that cover your knees, shirts, or blouses that cover your shoulders but no short skirts, shorts, tank tops, or revealing clothing.
- Do not touch the temples or any carvings, do not climb on them or try to remove stones or other items from the site.
- Be polite. The park is full of things to see and photography and plenty of visitors so don’t be rude and watch where you are walking and don’t get in the way of other folks trying to take pictures.
- No smoking or drinking alcohol on the site. There are cafes available around the area if you need to take a break.
- Be respectful of the monks, ask before you take their photo, and don’t touch or stand too close to them. Women and girls cannot touch monks.
- Be careful and read the signs – if it says no entry don’t enter. Many of these ancient buildings can be dangerous so take care.
- While there are waste bins around Angkor Wat they can be difficult to find so take an extra bag with you for your garbage and take it back with you.
- Angkor Archaeological Park is massive and you can read here the sites that are a must-see. Remember you can take a tuk-tuk between the temples if you are short on time.
Angkor Wat Temple
The temple that gives the site its name this temple is sacred to the Cambodians and unlike the rest of the park was never left to ruin and has been in use since it was first built.
Famous for the bas reliefs and carvings around the temple and the sheer magnificence of the structure which depicts mythological stories and historical events. These carvings include the heavenly apsaras or nymphs carved into the stone of the structure each with a different hairdo.
There was damage to these carvings during some of the restorations with chemicals in the 1980s but teams are now bringing them back and restoring them.
Like most significant Hindu monuments, Angkor wat represents Mount Meru, the center of the universe and its architectural features rise in tiers above the earth into the heavens. Above the moat, the walls, and the three galleries are five buildings that are known as a quincunx because of their relationship to one another. You probably don’t realize that you are already familiar with the quincunx pattern – the dots representing the number 5 on a dice are in the shape of a quincunx! This is an architecturally stunning and globally significant building and is still used as a religious center.
Ta Som Temple
This is a small unrestored temple. Ta Som is a single-level shrine and has been left for the jungle to reclaim. It still boasts wonderful bas reliefs but the fig trees are now intertwined and the jungle is breaking down this ancient stone temple.
Ta Som was built in the late 1100s for the Khmer King, King Jayavarman VII. It is a single structure surrounded by three walls.
It is meant to be entered from the east. It is being restored and funded by the World Monuments Fund.
The Bayon Temple
The Bayon has been featured in thousands of photos of the site with its massive stone faces smiling at the crowds of visitors.
For many visitors, it is the favorite of all the Angkor temples. It is estimated that at one time there were over 200 of these carvings adorning the temple.
Located in the heart of Angkor Wat this temple is an interesting mix of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Archaeologists believe it once had 49 or 54 towers but today 40 have been restored.
It is the state temple of King Jayavarman VII and was a Mahayanist Temple. Cambodia is now a Theravada Buddhist country and over time the Theravada Buddhist Kings made changes to the Temple.
The Baphuon is called the mountain temple. It is a three-tiered temple built for the god Shiva. The tiers mean that there are many steep stairs and terraces to climb to the top.
Built around 1150, attempts have been made to restore the temple but since there is no map or plan of it archaeologists have been unable to calculate the exact location of where the stones fit to do a full restoration.
This small but wonderful temple means the “Citadel of the Women” but is often just known as the “Pink Temple.”
It was built in 967 CE and is an important temple because of the intricate and detailed stone carvings which are believed to be among the most elaborate in the world.
UNESCO describes Banteay Srei as an “indisputable artistic masterpiece” (along with Angkor Wat and the Bayon).
In Khmer, this means the “Citadel of Monks’ Cells” which is a Buddhist temple. It is smaller than Bayon and has two concentric galleries with towers.
Banteay Kdei was built with sandstone and had at one time Buddhist carvings that have been defaced.
In 2002 archaeologists discovered sandstone fragments of Buddhist statues and metal pieces within the building’s galleries and are working to restore them for public display.
This was the ancient capital of Angkor built by the Khmer King in 1177 it is also the last major city of the Khmer Empire.
Some of the more unusual figures carved at Angkor Thom are the depictions of animals like pigs, water buffaloes, snakes, and so on, not the usual mystical or mythical creatures depicted elsewhere at Angkor Wat.
Ta Keo is believed to be the first building at Angkor that is made entirely of sandstone and it is a mystery as to why the building was never finished. It’s steep staircases on each side of the pyramid take you up 5 floors and terraces with a variety of unfinished carvings.
Ta Prohm was built to be a university and monastery and constructed around the same time as Angkor Thom.
This location is a photographer’s dream with the jungle growing into and knitting the building together. Ta Prohm has become famous worldwide as the location for Tomb Raider.
Preah Khan in Khmer means “Royal Sword” and this temple was built by the 12th century King to honor his father. Close to Ta Prohm, it has been left virtually unrestored. The work undertaken at Preah Khan focuses on stabilizing and maintaining the building and ensuring further deterioration doesn’t take place.
Originally the site was surrounded by a moat and the area covers over 140 acres. There are 72 garudas depicted on the outer walls. The Garuda is a sacred symbol in Buddism, Jainism, and Hinduism and is depicted as a bird-like creature. Preah Khan is surrounded by a moat that enclosed the 240 acres of the temple grounds.
The Elephant Terrace is famous for its carved statues of elephants and their riders (mahouts) the terrace is 350 meters long and 14 meters wide. It is from here that the royal family watched parades and the royal games.
Lake Tonlé Sap
Believed to be the starting point for the building of Angkor this lake is the largest in south-eastern Asia. You may have heard of the sight of fish falling from the sky? Well, it is here at Lake Tonlé Sap that this occurs.
During the rainy season, the lake is ten times its average size of 2590 square kilometers but during the dry season, the lake evaporates back to that average size, and the fish fall from the trees where they got stuck during the rainy season.
Archaeologists believe it was the rich nature of the fishing grounds that made the people settle at Angkor Wat.
In recent years Angkor Wat has seen the New Year Festival held within the grounds. Songkran (Khmer New Year) is a 3 day festival with rituals and celebrations that include offering thanks to the Buddha, alms to the needy, games, and blessings from the Monks. If you do want to participate be prepared for huge crowds and lots of traffic but it is a fantastic time to observe and participate in Cambodian culture.
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