The temples of Angkor form an enormous complex that dwarves the nearby town of Siem Reap. Deciding on where to spend your time can be tricky. Here is my 3 day itinerary for Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, which takes in the highlights in a sensible order, as well as a few tips to help you plan and survive your visit!
I’ve chosen 3 days because, unless you are seriously into your ancient history or architecture this is enough time to see the highlights and explore a little further. Or, as my husband puts in his own, inimitable Northern way: “that’s enough Boring Old Shit for me”. Quite.
Before you go
Visiting the complex
Most Siem Reap tuk tuk drivers will very gladly take you around the Angkor complex, and you won’t be short of offers for a driver the moment you arrive. The going rate for the Grand and Little circuits is around $15 per day; further afield should be around $20. We took a couple of tuk tuks in Siem Reap before we went to Angkor and asked the nicest of those drivers if he would take us the next day. He actually sent his nephew (maybe he didn’t like us?) who was also lovely.
Another option for the Grand and Small loops would be to hire bikes; the Grand and Small loops are fairly flat and – depending on your fitness – could be pleasant to cycle round. For the less actively inclined, there are also electric bikes for hire, which cost around $10. We saw a few people using these and they looked like a great idea, although we didn’t try them ourselves.
Tickets can be picked up easily on the first morning of your visit or the night before (the park closes at 6pm but the ticket office may close earlier) if you take a tuk tuk down there; there is a separate window each for single, three day and week long passes. Just go to the appropriately labelled window (the centre of the left hand side, from what I remember). Three day tickets are $40 and can be used on non-consecutive days. They are non-transferrable (and have your photo on them!), so make sure you have them with you at all times – don’t lose them! Queues move quite quickly – we were in and out in ten minutes, but it’s sensible to factor in a bit of time on Day One. The park opens at 5:00am, but there may be a dawn scrum for tickets, so perhaps try and do your dawn visit on a day once you have purchased your tickets.
The Angkor complex consists of temples of great national and spiritual importance to the Khmers: dress appropriately. To go inside the actual temples you will need shoulders covered and legs covered to at least your knees. Scarves aren’t permitted and staff do check, so you’ll need to cover up properly; the old “sling a pashmina over” trick won’t work here I’m afraid! Happily, every temple has the ubiquitous stalls selling t-shirts and standard elephant-print baggy cotton traveller pants should you need appropriate (if slightly overpriced) attire.
The temples of Angkor are in various states of (dis)repair and there are some steep and uneven steps to the top, assuming you want unrestricted access to each one you visit. Wear sensible shoes with good sole grip; hiking shoes or trainers paired with sweat-wicking socks are sensible options.
I wore cropped cotton trousers, a t-shirt and my trusty Salomon trail runners which was fine.
What to bring
As little as possible, as you’ll be lugging it around with you or leaving it in the tuk tuk! We brought:
- Some money (enough for cold drinks and lunch – which can be expensive. Expect to pay around $7 per person for lunch. A refreshing coconut costs around $1)
- Lots of water
- Factor 30 – 50 sunscreen and a hat (if you can rock one. Alas, I cannot).
- Map and guide book – most tuk tuk drivers can provide a map; we also ripped the relevant pages from our Lonely Planet guide (I may have whispered a small apology to the book as I tore out the pages – anyone else a bit weird about damaging guide books?!) rather than lug the whole thing with us.
A word about the vendors
Unsurprisingly, a massive tourist attraction like Angkor has its fair share of vendors selling everything from scarves to photo prints to coconuts at every single temple. We found a polite smile and saying “Otay, akun” (“no, thank you”) was enough.
At Angkor Wat there are also non-uniformed “freelance tour guides” hanging around the entrance who will take you round. They are essentially local guys who have memorised facts about Angkor Wat and then recite them back to you for the next hour and a half… We wouldn’t particularly recommend them (especially given their opening price is $20!!) – it’s a bit like having a talking head follow you around – and because he was spouting memorised facts we couldn’t really ask questions about anything that interested us. Buy a guidebook (also available for $2 from any good temple-entrance retailer!) instead or have a read on Wikipedia before you come.
There are plenty of children selling bracelets and fridge magnets around all of the temples; we follow the guidance of NGO Childsafe and don’t buy from children (or give to child beggars). It can be tough to say “no”, especially as the kids are often more persistent than the adults! It also isn’t a great idea to give sweets in lieu of buying something – it creates jealousy and isn’t very good for young teeth! If you really want to give something to child sellers, we did see one girl who had been given a polaroid portrait of herself that a tourist had presumably taken on their camera and then given to her – she kept it in a special wallet and clearly treasured the photo, which we thought was a lovely idea although might cost a fortune in film!
Planning your 3 day itinerary
- Take an hour or two to look at a map before your visit and consider where you want to go. Tuk tuk drivers know the standard routes perfectly well, but if you want to skip any or start at a specific point it’s worth mentioning this and pointing it out on a map before you set off.
- Presumably you’ll be staying in or around Siem Reap; it’s worth building in at least one “rest day” between visits rather than trying to do your 3 day itinerary for Angkor Wat consecutively. The heat is exhausting and you’ll avoid “temple fatigue” if you take a day to do something else in between. The Angkor National Museum is an interesting background into the temples and well worth a visit to complement your trip. Or just lounge by the pool and read a book. I won’t judge you.
- Pick your Siem Reap accommodation carefully. Going back to a dingy room after a hot and busy day is depressing. We chose to stay at the V & A villa just outside town and highly recommend it; prices are reasonable, it has a lovely pool, the food is very good and the rooms are bright and airy – perfect for recovering between your temple hopping! The lovely owners are an absolutely mine of information about Angkor and can also give you information on getting as far off the beaten Temple Trail as you care to go. They can also put you in touch with very good tuk tuk drivers to take you round if you wish.
- Consider timings. The temples of Angkor reward the early riser. Even if you aren’t fussed about seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat, aim to be at the complex by 7:30am at the latest. Earlier if you can. The temples look so much better in the softer light of early morning/ late afternoon, and you should be able to avoid the heat of the day if you do most of your sightseeing early doors. The complex is always busy, but at this time you’ll beat the tour buses and the aggravating noisy tour groups!
- A quick word on Angkor Wat itself… It is a huge complex popular with independent visitors and tour groups. It is also an almighty sun trap. Do not attempt it in the heat of the day!
I’ve split the itinerary into the classic Small and Grand loop, plus a day further afield in the middle. You could mix up days one and three and reverse them, if you prefer.
Day One: the Grand Loop
Confusingly, the Grand Loop has less temples than the Smaller Loop, and so takes less time. I’ve suggested a reverse route here which might avoid the worst of the crowds. If you can, Neak Pean would be amazing in the soft light of very early in the morning (great for photos too), so see if your driver will start there and then go back to Pre Rup to continue.
Starting point: Pre Rup. This temple was commissioned by the Khmer King Rajendravarman over 1,000 years ago and is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
From here, head back in time seven years to East Mebon, which honours the parents of Rajendravarman and is best known for the relatively well-preserved elephant statues watching out from the corners of the temple.
Next stop is the slightly newer Ta Som, which is being captured by strangler figs and makes for some great photographs.
If you didn’t make it as your first stop, next is the serene Neak Pean. Reach the temple (which sits on a man-made island) by crossing a rickety boardwalk over an eerie, tree-filled lake.
The last temple on the Grand Loop is Preah Khan – a huge complex of atmospheric corridors (if you can ignore the selfie sticks…), sunny terraces and Greek-esque columns.
Assuming a 7am start time, and depending on how quickly you explore each temple, you should be finished by about 11:30am/12Noon. The afternoon is free to relax by the pool, or you could arrange a visit to the floating villages or Roluos Group of temples if you aren’t too tired!
Day Two: further afield
Day Two of your 3 day Angkor Wat itinerary heads away from the main group. First stop is Kbal Spean – a river with carvings and ancient Linga statues laid into the rocks that form the riverbed. Kbal Spean is about a 2km uphill hike, so good footwear is particularly important! Turn left when you reach the river to walk alongside the carvings and head to a small waterfall and bathing pool – don’t forget a towel! It’s worth noting that Khmers are pretty modest when it comes to bathing, so if you want to swim bring a sarong to help you blend in.
Once you’ve dried off, head to Banteay Srei – one of my favourite temples in the Angkor park. Famously carved out of pink-hued stone, the intricacy of the carvings on this temple were said to be so detailed they could only be carved by the delicate hands of women – hence the name “the Temple of Women”.
If you want to visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum (more about this in an upcoming post), then this is easily added to your route today.
This route should take you from about 8:30am to 5pm, depending on how fast you hike 2km and spend at each site, as there is a fair amount of driving involved. If you are heading back through the park at around sunset, Pre Rup looks beautiful in the golden afternoon sun and is well worth a second stop. If you are planning to see Angkor Wat at sunrise you could also ask your driver to make a final stop at Angkor for a first sunset viewing before tomorrow.
Day Three: the Small Loop
Despite its diminutive name, we found the Small Circuit to be one the most intense of our three days at Angkor Wat. Either order will work for this route, so choose depending on where you want to be early morning. Whilst Ta Phrom is beautiful in the afternoon light, heading here early morning should skip a lot of the crowds.
This route could be comfortably explored on bikes, if you are inclined to do so.
Start early for your meeting with Angkor Wat – up to you if that means sunrise but it’s sensible to be in the park by about 7:30am if not. Angkor Wat is literally the symbol of Cambodia, and with good reason. This huge, and well preserved, complex starts with a walk over a man made lake. No mean feat given the temple was built over 1,000 years ago! Unusually for Hindu temples, Angkor Wat is west facing and is dedicated to the god Vishnu. Take your time to meander among the walkways and admire the carvings – many are taken from Hindu epic tales – before heading up to the temple itself.
After spending a good couple of hours at Angkor Wat, your next stop is the imposing South Gate of Angkor Thom. Be sure to hop out of your tuk tuk before you go through so you can admire the demon and guardian god carvings, as well as the ancient city gates. Angkor Thom isn’t a temple per se, but rather an ancient city with a number of temples inside it.
Your first stop will be the magnificent Bayon temple – famous for its towers and carved faces, which look out in all directions. Whilst the upper levels of the temple have the towers and the faces, don’t neglect the cool and quiet dark corridors underneath – they are a welcome relief after the crowds of Angkor Wat.
Once you’ve completed your exploration, walk over to Baphuon, which has been painstakingly restored from near collapse – including a subtle but visible reclining Buddha if you walk around to the back of the complex.
Just before you head for a well deserved lunch, walk through the Royal Palace area, which includes the Terrace of the Leper King. Opposite here are restaurants where you can stop for a well deserved drink, some lunch and a rest in the shade during the heat of the day. If you fancy a walk the area behind the Royal Palace area is shaded and quite interesting for a potter.
If you are enjoying Angkor Thom, and are doing well for time, there are other sites on the East side of Angkor Thom (behind the restaurants) to explore as well. If not, jump back in your tuk tuk and head through the East Gate.
Make a quick stop at Spean Thma – an ancient Khmer bridge – for a moment and a photo before heading to the temple-mountain Ta Keo for some serious stair climbing (it’s best not to attempt this too close to the midday heat!). Built entirely of sandstone, it was commissioned by Jayavarman V – the heir to King Rajendravarman II, who commissioned Pre Rup.
As the day draws to a close, head to your final stop – the mysterious and fascinating Ta Phrom. Ta Phrom is another enormous complex (well worth at least an hours visit) which has been maintained in almost the condition it was found in, and is preserved as the forest battles to claim the temple for its own. The doorways have huge tree roots growing around them, the carvings have moss growing out of them and enormous, ancient tree trunks loom from the centre of even more ancient chambers. My absolute favourite.
(If you still have some time, or energy, remaining then you could also stop at Banteay Kdei; we opted to spend more time at Ta Phrom but that was down to our personal preference).
So there you have it! Your three day itinerary for Angkor Wat and beyond! A little planning and preparation will make for a fantastic time – we hope you enjoy it!