Angkor: Practical Tips For Visiting The Ancient City

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

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While you can certainly spend as much time exploring the areas around Siem Reap as you’d like, it’s certainly possible to experience at least a taste of the UNESCO site at Angkor on a shorter trip. We planned our itinerary such that we had an evening and then a full day exploring the Angkor Archaeological Park.

Yes, I know that’s a fast trip but like with many things, there’s no outer bound on the amount of time you can spend. On my last trip to Siem Reap my husband and I spent four full days hiking and photographing temples, and despite getting extreme “ruins fatigue” we felt like we’d barely scratched the surface.

Planning your trip to Angkor

The “right” amount of time to spend will certainly vary based on your group, so I’d suggest looking at some books or videos ahead of time to get a sense of which temples you might find most interesting, how many you’ll want to visit (I feel like no more than three or four a day makes for a better trip), and what distances are involved. This will help you determine how many days you’ll want to spend in Angkor, and thus how much time you’ll need in Siem Reap.

My preference is to start early in the morning, return to the hotel for a late breakfast and enjoy some other activities in town, then return to the temples in the late afternoon. Siem Reap is incredibly humid, so even days that aren’t scorchingly hot will still be muggy and draining, so breaking the day up works well for me.

While I’m hardly an expert, this is a trip I’ve made twice now. Based on those experiences, I thought I’d share a few general tips for getting the most out of a visit to Angkor.

Tickets to the Angkor complex

There’s no reason not to purchase your tickets to Angkor directly. I’m sure there are packages and tours that will offer to include your tickets and charge you extra, but you’ll still have to stop at the Angkor Enterprise office to buy your Angkor Pass, as foreign visitors have to show a passport to purchase a ticket to the Angkor Archaeological Park.

This ticket office is new since I was last in Cambodia, and the cashiers in the large building were efficient and helpful. You can pay in USD if the credit card machines aren’t working (foreign credit cards are accepted, and ATMs are on-site). The ticket office is open from 5AM to 5:30PM every day, and current ticket prices for visiting Angkor are as follows:

  • 1 day — $37 USD
  • 3 days (valid over a 10-day period) — $62 USD
  • 7 days (valid over a 30-day period) — $72 USD

With all the passes, you can enter and exit the archaeological area as many times on a given day as you’d like.


Evening in Ta Prhom

I’d also recommend getting your tickets the night before you intend to use them. This is particularly valuable on a short trip, or for those who don’t think they’ll want to do 3+ days of temples. The Angkor Enterprise office is open until 5:30PM, and tickets purchased after 5PM can be used that day, and the following day. Most temples close at 5:30PM as well, so you may not have time for an extensive visit, but Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup, which both have incredible sunset views, are open until 7PM.

Guides

You really don’t need a guide to enjoy a visit to Angkor, and you definitely don’t need to be on an organized tour.

On my last trip to Siem Reap we hired a driver for three days, and had a fabulous time visiting more remote and uncrowded areas. Some advance research, a good book, or even an audio tour can all provide you with enough detail to understand what you’re seeing beyond “cool piles of rocks”.


Though the ruins themselves are certainly atmospheric!

For this trip I arranged for a guide (through the Park Hyatt concierge) with the expectation that a reputable guide would be able to answer my mom’s questions about the history and technology of the ancient Khmer city, and would take some of the pressure of me. There’s also something to be said in a place like Siem Reap of hiring one tout to keep the other touts at a distance.

Sounds great in theory, but the guide was a disaster. There are so many fascinating stories and details about what was one of largest and most advanced pre-Industrial civilizations, and he knew none of them (or at least wasn’t able to communicate them).

Take the example of King Jayavarman VII, who came to power after ousting Cham invaders in an epic naval battle on the Tonle Sap, and built 102 hospitals (where advanced surgeries were performed using techniques and medicines they’d learned and adapted from a complex trading network), along with reservoirs, rest houses, and other public works, in addition to the temples at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, before building a new city center surrounding the Bayon at Angkor Thom, and partly inspired the eventual national conversion to Buddhism which played no small part in the eventual decline of the Angkor Empire (as Buddhism is not inherently compatible with absolute monarchy).

One of many bas-reliefs showcasing battles and other history of the Khmer Empire

Our guide summed him up as:

“Built by King #7, who was a very good king. Cared for the people.”

Which he repeated about ninety times. That and:

“See? Has the face of Buddha. Buddha is for compassion.”

One of the 200 faces of Lokesvara at the Bayon

Combined with the fact that he explicitly ignored our requests to go to less crowded temples, and argued with us about every little thing (even restroom breaks!), it just made for a truly unpleasant day.

So if you think you’ll want an expert to guide you around the UNESCO site, I’d recommend researching on TripAdvisor or similar to find someone with a knowledge level appropriate to your interests.

Transportation

If you arrange for a guide, they will likely have a driver they want to work with, and will probably inflate the price by a few dollars. On balance I tend to feel like this is fine, as paying maybe $5-$10 more to avoid conversations about stopping at certain shops or restaurants is well worth it to me. But you still shouldn’t pay more than ~$35 for a car and driver for the day, or maybe $45 for a van.

If you book your own transportation, you’ll pay less. The taxi driver taking you from the airport to your hotel will offer to drive you during your time in Angkor, and if you like the driver and vehicle you may as well book it. If you’re going to the “main” temples Angkor, expect to pay ~$25 for a standard taxi car, maybe $35 at most for a van. If you want to go out to some of the more remote temples, the price could double, so having a plan ahead of time for which sites you want to visit will help in the negotiating process.

As an alternative, you can book a tuk tuk for the day for between $15-$25, depending on your negotiating skills and the knowledge level of your driver. Someone who speaks great English, for example, can command a higher price, and knows it. If you go below that (which is certainly possible), you could risk getting ditched for someone who will pay better.

In all cases, drivers and guides will be loyal to your anticipated tip. Be sure to plan for that as well, and be clear about your expectations in terms of timing, locations, and so forth before you set out.

Avoiding crowds at Angkor Wat

If you want to have the classic experience of seeing the sunrise behind the silhouetted turrets of Angkor Wat, I can’t help you. There are going to be thousands of other people arriving in tour busses to take the same washed-out selfies before breakfast, so it’s just going to be crowded.

Plan on it.

Alternatively, if you want to visit in the pre-dawn hours in relative tranquility, ask your driver to take you to the back gate.

There’s unlikely to be many other people there, and you can explore the Eastern side of the complex without much chaos. Even as you make your way to the center of the ancient city, there won’t be many (or in our case any other visitors), which makes examining the sculptures and reliefs much more pleasant.

And you’ll still have the opportunity to see the sunrise.

Even better, the sun will be behind you as you approach the central temple, which makes for some lovely lighting.

And you’ll get there long before anyone who was watching the sunrise from the Western gate, so won’t have to wait in endless queues to climb to the upper levels.

I’ve also visited Angkor Wat in the evening, which was a similarly lovely and uncrowded experience. In that case you’ll want to enter from the West, and have your driver meet you on the Eastern side — that way the sun will be to your back as you meander through the city, which is much more pleasant than squinting in the heat.

Overall thoughts

I still can’t believe how developed Siem Reap has become, but if there is a plus side, it’s that visiting independently is pretty easy. Be sure to do a bit of research ahead of time, so that you know which temples you want to see (or which experiences you definitely want to avoid), and be upfront about those things when arranging drivers or guides.

What other suggestions do you have for visiting the Angkor complex?

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Comments
  1. Great article. I would encourage people to branch away from chain hotels and look at some of the boutiques in town. The Golden Temple properties are a great value with a ton of stuff added in. I paid something like $80 a night last year for a great room, RT airport transfers, 2 60 minute massages, free happy hour, free breakfast, and some other free stuff I am forgetting. Siem Reap is the cheapest place I have ever vacationed to, with happy hour beers at a bar regularly going for $.50 on Pub Street.
    Your article has stoked my interest to go back……..

  2. Mr. Limpeng Khun was our guide for 5 days and made our trip a truly wonderful experience. I’ve referred friends and family over the years and always heard the same back. You can reach him at [email protected] or (855) 99 48 54 81.

  3. did some research prior to going last year and found this guide and he was fantastic. Sounds like he’s kind of “the guy” to use for a guide to temples. It made a busy day an incredible experience, he knew all of the quiet and secret ways/places. I’m just not a fan of asking the hotel for a guide, never seems to be well vetted. http://www.aboutangkorcambodia.com/

  4. There are so many temples in Siem Reap and its surrounding area. I would recommend visit Angkor Wat last. While it’s the grandest/most famous building in this complex, I would say it’s the least pleasurable experience due to crowd and size.

  5. I am so drawn to this archeological site I used a photo depicting the iconic main Angkor Wat Temple as the header image of my new travel blog (yes, I do now have one, although I have not yet posted much on it, and will do so only very sparingly and selectively, on a part-time basis):

    http://bit.ly/2JFte6y

    It is interesting to note that whereas in my blog header photo of the Temple, taken 5 years ago, the front is lined with lush green trees, the 4th photo from last in this post of approximately the same view looks rather barren, with no green trees. It could simply be that the views are not the same…

  6. The guide advice is excellent. We had an OK guide for our trip of 5 days. He was very co-operative about visiting smaller outer temples – or temples less travelled. He would constantly check his reference books – which initially I found annoying. Shouldn’t he know everything? But later appreciated, as I would prefer to get correct information than the slightly warped facts that you can sometimes get from guides who have been doing it for years.

    I was shocked how developed Siem Reap was in 2005 when we went, and then there were only two major hotels (Raffles and a Le Meridian) and an Aman resort. But everywhere you went in the town, there were vast blocks with signs announcing the imminent construction of an up-market chain hotel. Looks like they all got built!

    I second the advice about smaller boutique hotels. We stayed at the Foreign Correspondents Club, (formally the French Governor’s residence) which was new at the time. Its then 30 odd rooms in the middle of the town made for a very pleasant stay, especially as our room opened onto the pool. Looks like the hotel has had a refurb and expansion, now with 80 odd rooms!

    My final tip is to visit Banteay Srei, – built of red sandstone – it’s often referred to as the ‘red temple’. The sandstone allows very high-quality fine carvings. Also, visit any of the temples that are undergoing archeological investigation – they can be fascinating, and sometimes, the archeologists on site will engage with you (well they did in 2005)

  7. I was in Siem Reap in November and through my hotel there was a fixed rate for tuktuks of $14. Then we had the driver for the entire day, driving us between the different sites and temples.

    Seems like they are ripping of tourists of high end hotels if you were quoted $15-25.

  8. @ Ole — It would be in the $25 range if you wanted to go out to places like Banteay Srei, but ~$15 (or $14) for the close-in temples sounds correct.

  9. @ DCS — I felt like there was less foliage on this trip as well, but thought it might be because we were there at the tail end of the dry(ish) season?

  10. I found no need of a guide, but definitely wanted a car and driver for the day. The air con was sorely needed!

    I was a contrarian and went mid-day. I don’t recommend it but the crowds evaporated at lunch time!

  11. @Tiffany — You’re absolutely right. My photo was taken the first week of January, which would be at the very beginning of the dry season, whereas yours would have been taken at the tail end of the season, as you said.

  12. I was there in late Oct 2015 and stayed at a wonderful boutique hotel. It was in heart of town with fantastic pool and excellent restaurant. At last minute we asked them to arrange tuk tuk tour for two days. There were three if us so charge was $40 per day and well worth it. We were unprepared for how large the ruins are. We were taken to several smaller temples and all were fantastic and quiet. The main temple was my least favorite because of crowds and noise. I personally don’t like a talkative guide and our guy was perfect. I prefer just to experience the ruins in the moment without prejudice of any history. I won’t remember any of it and I can read about it on the flight home. It was an add-on to 10 days in Vietnam and was my favorite. BTW, they actually prefer US dollars and and I rolled in with a wad of Cambodian currency I got in Hong Kong…silly me.

  13. @Jon – Yep, I used Mr. Hann as well. 3 days tour, he was the best. Judging by some of these photos, I wonder if Tiffany had used him on the first trip and knew where to go and more importantly WHEN….

    On an aside, seems pretty ridiculous to overpay to stay at the Park Hyatt and cheap out by just getting any old guide. You’re going to Siem Reap for only one reason, spend the money to hire a top rate guide and save some cash by staying at a lesser hotel than the Park Hyatt.

    /rant

  14. Excellent article; thank you Tiffany! – although I am sorry to learn about the unprofessional guide. next time you visit the Kingdom of Cambodia I might suggest going on a bicycle tour, such as Grasshopper Tours, that will enable visits the outer temples of Angkor as well as to walk along the vast walls of Angkor Wat herself (around her vast moat). Happy and Safe travels

  15. @Tiffany – thanks for another fantastic, info-filled installment! I’ve bookmarked this post for our future trip. Your photos are really excellent and glad to see that you’ve found the wonder of Golden Hour.

    @DCS & Tiffany – best time to go to avoid both rain and heat? Is that January?

  16. Tiffany, Following in your footsteps and headed to sunrise at Angkor in an hour! Thanks for the tips.

  17. @Tiffany – I found this very helpful, thanks. One thinks that by staying at at least a name brand (let alone an upscale) hotel that you’re sorta paying to avoid poor experiences, especially ones as bad as the tour guide you had.

    And thanks for the other commenters on suggesting tour guides. In the end, it’s word of mouth that always gives the best information.

  18. Thank you for your very informative article – I am planning a trip with my husband – thinking 4 days Seam Reap, 2 days Battambang and 2 Phnom Phen – any suggestions and advice especially getting between places – don’t want to fly.
    With thanks
    Lara

  19. I am so sorry about your guide. I had a guide with a small group of people and he was awesome. Knew a lot about history, when to go to what temples, what temples to avoid etc. Even though there was a group he managed to divide us well at times for different things.
    Because of that I always recommend people hire a guide because I learned and did so much more than if I was on my own. I will redo that recommendation to hire the guide I hired!

  20. @ Lara — Well, we flew, because with limited time I just didn’t want to spend it all in the car. Keep in mind that while distances are short, roads are not direct, so the 78 miles from Siem Reap to Battambang will take ~4 hours by bus or private taxi, or ~8 hours by boat. From there to Phnom Penh is another 5-6 hours by car, so you may want to consider adding some time onto your trip.

  21. Tiffany, fabulous and useful article especially because my wife and I will be in Siem Reap next January for the first time. Your caution about a guide is well taken but a good guide can make a trip although many of these people concoct tales. Thank you!

  22. The first time I went, we stayed in a nice boutique hotel. Since then, I have returned to Siem Reap five times, and stayed in home-stays. They are what I recommend to sample the culture and to get to know the area through the eyes of the locals.

  23. Tiffany, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the quotes from the guide … you hit the nail right on the head because those two sentences were almost ALL he said in Angkor that morning. Walking through the east gate of Angkor Wat before dawn was a wonderful experience; it was so quiet and definitely had the “holiness” feel that a religious site should exude. I was so happy we took the time to wait in the small(ish) queue to climb up into the central temple, because as my sister said on our way up, “We’re both in our 60’s! We have to climb up NOW, ’cause neither one of us will be physically able to do this if we ever come back.” There are many, many, many stairs inside (walk up 3-4 steps, walk 3-5 steps across a stone platform, walk down 3-4 steps; walk 15-20 steps across the “hall” and start over again, all around the huge square.) But the inside is beautiful, especially if one finds the huge golden Buddha in the center. The entrance and exit stairs are incredibly steep; I heard they were built that way to give the appearance to the masses of the priests “rising to heaven” … which calls for this quote from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”:

    There’s a feeling I get
    When I look to the west
    And my spirit is crying for leaving.
    In my thoughts I have seen
    Rings of smoke through the trees
    And the voices of those who stand looking.

    I loved it, Tiffany. THANK YOU. (the Mama)

  24. Very good post! Several people who suggested to stay in a small non-chain property is so true. After playing the numbers numerous ways, we stayed at the Golden Temple Residence which at various times was #1 on Tripadvisor. It was such a nice place and a great value. I hired a guide that again, I found on Tripadvisor. We paid $75/day for the guide, who spoke perfect English, and was also our driver. He had a very nice Toyota Highlander with very good A/C. We saw everything I had researched, and then some.

    Tiffany, what did your family think of their trip? I am curious of likes and dislikes?

  25. GREAT ARTICLE! You really do know your history! I myself would love to learn more about the history of the Angkor Empire before I visit. You seem to be well documented on the richness of this ancient empire. What book would you recommend I get? Or where did you learn about all of this , kings, advancements, etc….? I’d really appreciate it if you could you email me your answer to my email.

    Congrats on your blog! Keep on writing! 😀

  26. @Tiffany

    I’m being quoted $240 from a respectable guide for a 2 day tour including Banteay Srei. Does not include Angkor ticket. Driver is included. Is this price fairly in line?

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