I’ve visited the temples of Angkor on both of my previous trips in 2002 and 2007 and each time spent at least three days seeing as much as possible. This time, I only spent one day revisiting three of the most popular just to take photos. In all, I’ve seen sixteen temples which is only a fraction of the ones open to tourists, but below are my tips to make seeing the temples as easy as possible.
What to see:
A lot of people ask if they can “see Angkor Wat in a day.” The quick answer is yes and no. Angkor Wat itself is is a single large temple complex (some say the largest religious building in the world), but the area which makes up Angkor Archaeological Park refers to a huge ancient city covering about 230 square miles comprising many different temples and was once home to almost a million people. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
So, while you can see the main temple of Angkor Wat in a day, you’ll miss out on so many others by limiting your visit. And while I believe that spending only one day in Siem Reap seeing the temples should be avoided, the reality is, if you only have one day, the three I saw in a day on this trip (Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm) offer a great mix of different styles in Khmer history and are certainly an acceptable option rather than not seeing them at all.
With a minimum of three days you can see most of the major temples, some of the “minor” temples, and a few others which are a little further afield like Banteay Srei. If you have a week, I highly recommend Baeng Melea which is my favorite temple but about a 2 hour drive from Siem Reap (admission here is $5 and not included with Angkor temple pass).
Admission: Temple passes are currently $20 for one day, $40 for 3 days (in one week), and $60 for 7 days (valid for use within 30 days). The ability to use the 3 and 7 day passes within a longer time frame is still relatively new and it’s always a good idea to verify you are getting the correct type of pass when you buy it (rumor has it they still offer the old passes which are only good for 3 and 7 days consecutively). You no longer need to bring a photo, they take your picture there when they issue the pass. By the way, don’t think you can just sneak in. There are people asking for your passes every step of the way and if you are caught without one, it’s a $100 fine on the spot.
The temples can be seen on your own, as part of a tour, or with a private guide. If you can, I would avoid the bus tours and large tour groups. If you are on your own, or with a guide, you can wait until the big groups pass for better photos and you won’t be tied to their schedule.
If you go on your own, I highly recommend taking a good guidebook (see my list of books below) with you so you at least have an idea of what you are seeing. Why travel halfway around the world and not have a clue?
I’m of the opinion that having a private guide has a lot of benefits and for this reason, I’ve gone to the temples with a guide every time. A good guide will know the best time to day to visit each temple, when to avoid bus loads of tourists, and when to catch the best light. They know the history of every nook and cranny of each temple and hopefully, by spending time talking to them you can get some personal insight to present day Cambodian life as well.
Be up front with your guide about what you want to see and how you want to see it. Many guides will go into history overload (this is how they are trained) but if it’s just too much information, politely let them know. If you want to focus on photography, take a break in the middle of the day (this is common because of the heat), or go straight through (fewer tourists around mid-day), make sure you communicate your preferences.
The current cost for a private licensed guide is around $30 a day. Having a private guide may sound like a luxury to the budget traveler, but if split among 4 people, the cost is really minimal and can make the difference between a mediocre and/or confusing experience and an excellent one. It’s always good to have a personal recommendation and I can highly recommend both Ponheary and Dara Ly as guides to the temples (email LyPonheary(at)yahoo.com to contact them). You can also find guides by searching message boards or asking at your hotel or guest house for a recommendation.
Transportation: There are a few optionsfor getting to and from the temples; you can rent a bike (personally, I think it’s usually too hot for it), hire a tuk tuk (about $15 a day), or hire a private car and driver (about $30/day). Trips outside of Siem Reap will cost more; to Banteay Srei add $10 and to Baeng Melea add $25
I like having a car and driver for two reasons; distances are a bit far for tuk tuks out in the elements (hot sun and/or torrential rain) and having a car with A/C and cold water in the trunk is a blessing when you are drenched with sweat after climbing to the top of Angkor Wat. Trust me on this. If you want to rent a bike, there are plenty of places in town which will rent them for a few dollars a day. Many guesthouses rent them as well. Tuk tuk drivers can take you around, but legally cannot take you (as a guide) inside the temples so you’ll be on your own with them.
Clothing & Weather Keep covered, the sun is unrelenting and hot most of the time. Bring a hat and sunscreen. Please remember that some of the sites are still working Buddhist temples (Angkor Wat is) so try to dress in a respectful manner. Wear sturdy shoes as you’ll be climbing many steps and over uneven stones. And for God’s sake, don’t be like the woman pictured left and wear high heels, they damage the stones! You would not believe how many tourists do this.
As for the weather, I’ve been there in July, October and December. While it’s alwayshot there, December is decidedly cooler and drier. July is the rainy season and we had rain and overcast skies almost every day, but usually it was only in the afternoon. October was the end of the rainy season and while it was hot, and we had a few thunderstorms, it wasn’t that bad. I say, go when ever it is most convenient.
Books: If you’re really interested in the temples, it’s always a good idea to have some guide books as resources. I like to be able to refer back to them after touring because I know I’m not going to remember all the details. A good guide book can also help you determine which temples you want to see in advance.
The books I’ve used are listed below and comments refer only to the sections about the temples in each one. Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples-Dawn Rooney’s well respected book is all about the temples and only that. This is one of the most comprehensive guides to the temples and if you’re looking for extra detail this is where you’ll find it. Lonely Planet Cambodia 2010: I downloaded this to my Kindle and was really impressed by all the detail and diagrams on all the different temples both large and small. Good for details on far away temples too. They also have a National Geographic Traveler: Cambodia-Includes color photos, maps and diagrams of most of the temples. Because of all the photos, I think this is a very nice book to help you decide where you’d want to go. Frommer’s Cambodia and Laos:-No photos and only one diagram (Angkor Wat) with not a ton of detail on the temples. Nice that they include a list of “Guidelines for Visiting” which includes “Don’t wear high heels.” Moon Cambodia (Moon Handbooks)-This one has ok details on the temples including some photos (in b&w) and diagrams, but just didn’t wow me.
Shopping at the Temples;
Please, please, please do not buy postcards or trinkets from the kids selling them outside the temples. I know this sounds cold hearted, but these kids need to be in school, not working. Their parents send them out to make money, and as long as they are earning, there is no incentive for them to go to school. If you want to buy souvenirs, try shopping to support a cause at Artisans d’ Angkor or the Little Angel Orphanage which has a Leather Carving workshop near Preah Ko Temple. You can also find plenty of inexpensive souvenirs in the Old Market in the center of Siem Reap, or at the Night Market.
In closing, no matter how you decide to do it, just make sure to go and go soon. More and more tourists visit every year and Siem Reap is rapidly changing as is the access to the temples. Areas which were once free to roam are becoming increasingly closed off (for their protection). Sites are more crowded than ever. So go as soon as possible; the temples and the ruins are simply incredible and well worth the time and the effort it takes to get to Cambodia.