HOW MANY DAYS?
It’s not easy deciding how many days to spend in Angkor Wat. Typically, one day doesn’t feel like enough time, unless you really exhaust yourself, and three is a bit too much. Annoyingly, you have three ticket options. A one-day ticket costs $37, three days cost $62 and seven days cost $72 (prices updated in February 2017). Once you’ve activated your Angkor pass, it will expire within the number of days it’s valid for, which means you have to go back on consecutive days to make full use of it. For passes over one day, they take your photograph and incorporate it into the pass, so only you can use it.
How long you need will also depend on your chosen method of transport. Since the small circuit is 17 km, the big one 26 km, and highlights like Banteay Srei almost 40 km away, most people opt for a tuk tuk. It costs about $16 for half a day (5 to 8 hours) and about $30 for a full day (up to 10 hours). If you don’t have anyone to split the tuk tuk cost with, you could rent a motorbike (with driver) for around $8 a day or hire a bike for about $1 and take it slowly.
Most tour companies will advise that you spend your first day on the small circuit, starting with sunrise at Angkor Wat itself. The small circuit takes in some of the most-loved temples like Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei. It also includes some ornate terraces and bridges, but you might need to ask your tuk tuk driver in advance if you want him to stop at these. A half-day small circuit with sunrise at Angkor by tuk tuk will have you back at your accommodation between 10 am and midday.
On day two, it’s definitely possible to see the remaining temples from the big circuit (i.e., Preah Khan, Preah Neak Pean, East Mebon and monuments like Ta Som and Preah Rup), in addition to outlying Banteay Srei in about six hours. Either leave late morning and finish with a sunset, or leave early, see how you get on and, if you’re done earlier than expected, ask your driver to take you back into town for a few hours, returning for the sunset later.
Of course, if you have limited time and excessive stamina, you could probably see all of the main temples from both circuits as well as Banteay Srei in one day, starting with sunrise and staying until dusk. It would be a tough day for both you and your tuk tuk driver, but it would save park fees and free up more time to explore Siem Reap and it’s other attractions.
The route you choose to take pretty much determines which temples you see, but to help you decide, a few of the most impressive temples – aside from Angkor Wat itself – are listed below.
One of the main stops on the small circuit, Ta Prohm shot to fame as a filming location for the movie Tomb Raider. The reason this temple is so awesome is that it was never fully restored after it was discovered. Instead, the monstrous branches and buttress roots that had enveloped most of the structures remain in place. Reminiscent of the ents from Lord of the Rings, these huge trees only serve to add mystery to an already fascinating temple complex.
Also on the small circuit, and the centre piece to the Angkor Thom complex, Bayon is most memorable for the many imposing mythical faces that adorn its walls. This is a great place to come at sunset, when the sun illuminates the stone’s detail in a warm orange glow.
Usually one of the final stops of the big circuit, Neak Pean is not, in itself, very impressive. Located on an artificial island, it’s the beautiful boardwalk entranceway that makes this a must see. While you probably won’t need more than a few minutes to look around, it’s also interesting to note that this temple was built for medical purposes. Four connected pools represent the four elements and, it was said in ancient times, if you bathed in them all it would cure disease.
Although it’s a bit of a mission to get to (and not on either circuit), this temple is one of the most intricate and ornate in the whole of Angkor. It’s largely built of red sandstone and looks especially colourful in the rainy season when green algae tends to take hold. It’s situated on peaceful land, with footpaths and viewpoints surrounding it. You could combine a trip here with a visit to the nearby Cambodia Landmine Museum.
CATCHING THE SUNRISE
The night before you aim to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, check with your accommodation or a local tour provider what time you should set off. This will depend on what time sunrise is, whether or not you’ve already purchased your ticket, and how fast you’re able to walk the short stretch from the moat to the best viewing spot. If you’re determined to be at the front of the crowds, set off 10 or 15 minutes earlier than the time they tell you. As a rough guide, setting off at 4:45 for a 6:20 sunrise worked for us.
For the best viewing spot, follow the crowds along the central walkway and turn left at the lake just before Angkor Wat, then walk as far as you can towards the refreshment shacks until you reach the corner of the lake. This view is uninterrupted by trees. Don’t be tempted to go off for a coffee or hot chocolate – partly because you’ll quickly lose your spot, but also because they’re really unpalatable.
Finally, don’t be put off by a really cloudy sky. Typically, there will be a period of time when it feels quite light before the sun has started to emerge. Hoards of people may leave in the misguided belief that they won’t get to see anything. All it takes is a small break in the clouds for the silhouette of Angkor Wat and its reflection to be swathed in intense orange.
Police officers will often try to supplement their wages by showing you around and then asking for tips. If you’re approached by one and you’re not interested in their tour guide services, politely tell them you’d like to explore by yourself. At Wat Prohm, it might be worth a few dollars – agreed in advance – to have someone show you the highlights. There’s a chamber that echoes, a face hidden among the tree roots and some famous scenes from Tomb Raider that you could easily miss otherwise.
Small children may approach you asking where you’re from, and then produce your local currency from their pockets. They ask to exchange it for dollars or riel and then give you a really poor exchange rate. Even if you’re keen to make the exchange, supporting this scam makes it more likely that these children will be sent out by their parents to hassle tourists every day, which lessens their chances of a good education and brighter future.
While officially, the dress code is similar to other Asian temples, it’s not as strongly enforced. People certainly get by with their shoulders on show, but this doesn’t mean you should be disrespectful and join them. Long trousers/skirts and tops/scarfs that cover the shoulders are ideal. It does get stuffy and humid, but at least if you’re taking a tuk tuk you’ll have intermittent bursts of refreshing wind to cool you down.
WHERE TO STAY IN SIEM REAP
For a really great place to stay in Siem Reap, check out either Mad Monkey or its nearby sister hotel Naga. They’re both really big on sustainable tourism and their restaurants have an amazing selection of well-priced food. Mad Monkey has a swimming pool and a roof top ‘beach’ bar complete with imported sand and it’s your best bet if you like to party and mingle. If you’re looking for a bit more peace and quiet, you can stay at Naga and still use Mad Monkey for its facilities.