Angkor Wat Cambodia, a Comprehensive Siem Reap Travel Guide

Angkor Wat Cambodia, a Comprehensive Siem Reap Travel Guide

Although Cambodia is a part of my heritage, it is not the reason that ignited my interest of Angkor Wat. First, and foremost, I am very fond of history. Visiting historical sites around the world has always been the main reason for my travels. I love the thought of being able to walk through a time machine -step into another life, another world, another existence. So fascinating. To actually take a step that leads you back to 802 CE.  

For other travellers of Cambodia, their fascination is more obvious, it the undeniably iconic Angkor Wat, built by the Khmer Empire. This ancient archaeological park is now one of the most visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world, attracting more than 2 million fascinated visitors each year. Angkor houses many large and smaller temples, each as unique and historically packed as the next.

With so many temples to explore, how do you go about exploring it all? 

To fully understand Angkor, without feeling disconnected and lost while you’re standing there staring at ‘stone’, albeit beautifully, and intricately carved stone, understand a bit about Angkor’s background. The Kingdom, the Khmer people, their religion, and how it’s all connected.

What is Angkor, and Angkor Wat?

Built between roughly A.D. 1113 and 1150, and encompassing an area of about 400 km², Angkor Wat, is roughly translated to ‘City of Temple’. It is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and represents the architectural pinnacle of the Khmer empire.

Its 65 meters central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of wall enclosure, recreating the image of Mount Meru -a legendary place in Hindu mythology said to be the home of the god laying just beyond the Himalayas.

Many people refer to the whole Angkor complex as ‘Angkor Wat’, but technically, that only refers to one temple. ‘Angkor’ is loosely translated to Empire, or City, and refers to the entire 400 km² complex, the site of the oldest civilisation in Southeast Asia, the Khmer Empire. It is primarily temples, but the Khmer Empire used to be a city that housed more than 750,000 people.

Where would you find the
historic temple of Angkor Wat?

The city where the temple was built, Angkor, is located in modern-day Cambodia and was once the capital of the Khmer Empire. This city contains hundreds of temples and may have a population of over 1 million people. It was easily the largest city in the world at its peak.

The main temples are a close car ride from Siem Reap, which has its own international airport with connections from  Southeast Asia’s main hubs. If you are in the Capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, the temples of Angkor are a five to six-hour trip by car.

Angkor Wat Religion

 9th century – 12th century
Hinduism (ShivaismVishnuism)
The early Khmer kings worshipped Shiva, the god of regeneration and destruction. Each temple built was dedicated to a particular Hindu divinity. Later, in the 12th century, Suryavarman II venerated the god Vishnu, a deity often depicted as a protector. To show his devotion, he installed a statue of the god in Angkor Wat’s central tower, and another devotion, a remarkable relief, southeast of the temple. It depicts a chapter in the Hindu story of creation known as the ‘churning of the sea milk’.

End of 12th century:
Mahayana Buddhism
King Jaya-varman VII, a Buddhist of the Mahayana school ascended the throne in 1181 and made radical changes —constructing a new capital city, named Angkor Thom, a Buddhist temple currently known as Bayon, and many monasteries filled with statues of Buddha throughout the Angkor region (instead of Hindu gods). The concept of ‘God King’ was removed, replaced by the Buddhist ‘Englightened Being’, and ‘Lord Who Looks Down’.

Mahayana Buddhism, a later version of Buddha’s teachings was spread throughout Southeast Asia, and the Khmer Empire, placing a greater importance on the Bodhisattvas. Quasi-divine beings who would delay their nirvana to help others attain it. The main Bodhisattva is Avalokitesh-vara or Lokes-vara, was carved at Angkor Thom. The ‘face tower’ was constructed to show the religion’s four sublime states of mind –Compassion, Kindness, Equanimity, and Sympathetic Joy.

Middle 13th century
Brief reversal to Hinduism (Shivaism)
In 1243, when King Jaya-varman VIII ascended the throne, he proceeded to a systematic defacing of Buddhist sculptures in the temple, crudely altering them into Hindu images. The crude altering is visible at Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm.

End of 13th century
Theravada Buddhism
Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka was introduced in 1295 by King Sindra. It became more prominent in the royal court, and the local people, thus becoming the dominant religion in Cambodia today. Unlike Mahayana, the teaching of Theravada Buddhism taught people to seek self their own enlightenment, to abandon worldly desires, and to acquire merits by giving food to monks —making donations to pagodas and worshiping the Buddha. With this teaching, the attitudes of the people towards its Hindu gods and god-king changed, leading to the gradual weakening of the Khmer empire, and it’s eventual collapse in the first half of 15th century. Today, Angkor is a pilgrimage site for many Buddhist Monks. They are often seen in the Angkor complex adorning orange robes, while strolling around Angkor amid other tourists.

Neak Ta
Neak Ta is omnipresent guardian spirits of the land and water that populates the supernatural world of the Cambodian countryside. They are not just a kind of simple spirit, but rather a phenomenon or energy force that protects a village community. In Cambodia, they are revered everywhere, along with Buddhism.

Every village, pagoda and house have their own Neak Ta residing in a beautifully decorated little shrine, where people come to make offerings and pray. Neak Ta shrines usually contain small collections of natural or man-made objects such as old stones, wooden carvings, human-like figures and other objects that represent land and spirit elements. Uniquely Cambodian, the energy force or guardian spirit of Neak Ta, unites the community with its earth and water and symbolises the link between the people and the fertility of their land and their ancestors before them. Neak Ta does not fall within the Buddhist precepts. It is believed to belong to an ‘outside realm’, but lives alongside Buddhism in Cambodia –like Buddhism, it does not tolerate unsuitable conduct within the grounds, such as offensive language or act. Neak Ta shrines can often be found in the northeast corner of the grounds of a pagoda.

Things to Consider When
Planning Your Trip to Cambodia Angkor Wat

The Best Time to Visit Angkor Wat

Between November and March, there’s low rainfall, and reliable sunshine but with those perks comes higher prices and heavier crowds. Considered dry season, the ‘greeneries’, are not as lush, and the air can get dusty due to the dry earth.  The ‘green season’ or ‘wet season’ (June-October) offers lighter crowds, lower prices and lush photogenic landscapes. Explore early to avoid afternoon showers.

Angkor Wat Sunrise or Sunset Viewing

Watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is the most common choice, and one I highly recommend, but it does require waking up around 4:00 am. If waking up early isn’t your thing, you could watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng instead. However, the latter option is very crowded. But there is some good news recently. The hill at Phnom Bakheng became so popular over the recent year that the management team at Angkor, concerned about damage to the temple there, are restricting the maximum amount of visitors to 300 at a time. It’s an improvement, but still quite a lot of people.

“The authority has also arranged places for tourists to see the sunset on the hill without going up to the temple”. There is an option for tourist to see the sunset at Angkor on a hand-propelled gondola on the moat of Angkor Thom, accompanied with drinks. A great option for those wanting a calming retreat after a long day of temple trekking.

The first time I saw Angkor Wat was during the wet season in July, as the sun was rising on a warm morning. It was absolutely gorgeous, completely surreal, and a bit sad –I didn’t have a camera at the time. Although the experience is worth every effort I placed to wake up insanely early, there are some other things you need to be aware of.

There’s always a crowd in Angkor Wat, no matter the time of day.

You will feel like guided sheep, from buying your ticket to walking into the temple. Find parking will be a hassle, even for Tuk-Tuk drivers. But as soon as you find a spot, and is able to relax, a street food vendor will inevitably come up to you and tell you to come eat breakfast at their restaurant.

Whether you choose sunrise, sunset, or you’re superman/woman wanting to do both in one day, be sure you give yourself enough time, because there will be lots of people wanting to do the exact same thing.

It’ll all be worth it!

What to Bring to Angkor Wat

Bring a hat. Always. Bring enough water (at least 1.5 litres of water per person), sunscreen, and some light snacks with you. It is insanely hot in Cambodia and if you don’t protect yourself you will burn your skin (I’ve burned my skin, and my skin isn’t fair), or pass out from dehydration. Temple exploration is extremely exhausting, exaggerated by the heat, so it’s wise to take a little break now and then. If you don’t want to carry too much food or water, among the popular temples, there are many little shops that provide food and water –they accept both USD and Riel.

Cambodia has Type A, Type C, and Type G electrical outlets, so bring the right power adapters for all your devices. North American voltage is 110 – 120V. Electrical voltage in Cambodia is 230V and the standard frequency is 50Hz. See here for more information.

Be sure to dress appropriately for the temples by covering your shoulders and knees. Cambodia is still a deeply conservative Country, and especially in Angkor, you need to dress appropriately as it is a Buddhist temple.

Watch out for this lil fella who loves bananas, and any fruits or snacks not secured away in backpacks. A tourist got her plastic bag ripped right off her shoulder by this lil one. I feel a little bad for her, but not too much (plastic bags create so many wastes in Cambodia). FYI, there’s a LOT of this lil fellas in Cambodia.

How to Tour Angkor Wat

There are many tours you can book ahead online if you take the time to do your research, or read a blog post on recommended tours. However, if you’re an adventurous person who likes to go by the flow of the day, you will still have the chance to book tours on the street of Siem Reap. When you first arrive in Siem Reap, you’ll be bombarded with drivers offering many different types of temple excursions. You can book a tour simply walking around Siem Reap, and accepting one of these drivers’ offer. A few word of advice if you chose this path:

Be patient. Take your time to walk around and compare prices.

Bargain, you’re in Asia. Even though I’m Cambodian, they’ve tried to rip me off a couple of time. I had to walk away for them to shoot me an offer I’ll take.

Rely on your first instinct. Use your gut to determine if the person is trustworthy.

You can also book a tour through your hotel or guest house. In which case, they will often recommend trustworthy tuk-tuk drivers, along with quoting a day cost.

There are multiple ways to travel around Angkor: by tuk-tuk, hired taxi, bicycle and motorbike, many of which you can book by speaking to your guesthouse staff. The two main options that I prefer for getting around Angkor are tuk-tuks and bikes.

I love biking, but don’t forget that this is a HUGE complex, and you will be walking around a lot inside each temple you choose to visit. If you have a whole week excursion, consider biking, but for a 3-day pass or more, I highly recommend a tuk-tuk because of how much energy you’ll be exerting just walking around the temples. If you’re staying at a hotel, they will offer you tours which will cost you a good amount of money, so if you’re like me, and want to spend the money on the local economy, and save at the same time, step out of the hotel, and walk the street.

Most tuk-tuk will accept $15-20 per day for your Angkor excursion, and you decide when and where you want to go, for the whole day. I always find one tuk-tuk driver that I trust and build a relationship with him for the whole week that I’m there. He’ll be the only one I hire. I find that this way, they always give great recommendations (mine lowered his daily fee as a bonus). I remember asking my tuk-tuk driver what he recommends, and he said, “Wherever the crowd’s not going.” I agree, whatever temples are popular during that time of the day, just go to the least popular one.

If you choose to bike, there are plenty of options for bike rentals in Siem Reap. I recommend The White Bicycles, a non-profit that helps fund clean water, and education. And at $2/day, it’s a steal. If you’re planning to bike, plan your route in advance and be sure to bring a really good map. It’s fun to get lost, but not in a complex this large, on a hot and sunny day!

Romantic  Couple Options: There’s an option to get an aerial view of Angkor Wat via helicopter or static hot air balloon. The helicopter starts at around $90 USD for an 8 minute flight. I’ve been to Cambodia many times, but never with my boyfriend. When we do have the opportunity to go together, I’m taking this option during the sunset, after a hard day of exploration.

Tip: Save money, don’t book a tour. Avoid the crowds.

With more than a million tourists visiting Angkor Wat each year, it is inevitably crowded, no matter which tour you take. And large or popular tour groups tend to follow similar timetables. In my experience, it is better to avoid tours if you want to avoid crowds. Book a tuk-tuk driver with your guest house, or someone off the street, and set your alarm to wake you before dawn. The Angkor complex is so much more serene when there are fewer visitors and temperature and humidity are at their lowest. Arrive at the temples when doors open at 5:00 am.

After sunrise, most tourists and tour groups head back to their hotels for breakfast (I know, it doesn’t make sense). Don’t follow the crowd, instead, pack up some snacks and water so you can stay out until 9:00 am, when the temples are remarkably peaceful. After a fun, and secluded exploration, return to your hotel for a late breakfast, before heading back to the most popular temples at noon. Angkor Wat, or Angkor Thom would be a good option as most tourists are having lunch during that time. Afternoons are best spent at the smaller temples. At dusk, head to the East Mebon or Pre Rup, to witness the brown stonework turn fiery red at sunset. Or like I’ve mentioned above, do the opposite of the crowds. Your tuk-tuk driver would know where the crowds will be at, at whatever time of the day.

Get a private guide instead

If you don’t know your Khmer Empire history, a well-educated guide could fully explain many things to you. The differences between each temple, their history and significance. Full details about the Khmer civilisation, from its ambitious beginning, its influence in many parts of Southeast Asia, to its inevitable demise. As well as current Cambodian culture, and religion, and how everything is connected. I know while travelling, we’re all on a budget, but it’s well worth it to get a guide. You need to bring context into what you’re seeing, feeling, and experiencing, or throughout the whole trip, you will feel disconnected.

Get creative with photos

The first time I went to Angkor Wat, many years ago before Angelina Jolie made Ta Prohm popular, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the crowds. There weren’t any. The second time, the whole Angkor Archeological Park was crawling with people, pushing their way through to get the best selfie or the best shot. Needless to say, I moved through the main temples quickly because a) I had already seen them b) I was playing the shoving game (so annoying, I almost started playing the biting game) and c) It’s frustrating trying to get photos of the temple, only to have a crowd of people in said photo.

So my advice is, get creative. Try different angles. If you see the crowd all in one location, go the opposite direction and play with different angles. Mess with editing tools. For example, turn lacklustre photos into black and white classic pieces, and most of all, try to be patient.

Buying your tickets for Angkor Wat

The ticket office is open from 5:00 am to 5:30 pm, but any tickets sold after 5:00 pm are for the following day. Rather than making the ticket office as the first stop at 5:00 am, I recommend you make a separate trip out to the office the evening before your Angkor complex excursions as it gets busy there.

No matter when you head to the ticket office, be sure you bring your passport and cash. Recently, ticket prices have doubled in price as of February of this year, from $22 to $37 for a single day pass. Three-day tickets rose from $40 to $62, and week-long tickets rose from $60 to $72. Price quoted are in US dollars. Sharing a pass or not purchasing a pass is not an option. Your picture will be printed on your ticket, and there are multiple ticket checkpoints.

Get Travel Insurance

Honestly, the first time I went to Cambodia, I didn’t buy travel insurance. I didn’t think I would need it. I wasn’t going to drink regular water, but coconut water instead as suggested by everyone. I wasn’t going to use ice or drink anything with crushed ice in it. My stomach bacteria isn’t as powerful as my cousins who were born and raised in Cambodia, apparently. I basically thought I took all precautions I need to avoid any precarious outcomes. I thought wrong. I don’t know what I ate, or drank, but I came down with a major case of diarrhoea and stomach pain that really affected my travel activities. It was non-stop for 2 days and got me really scared. My mum actually had to take me to the local hospital near Takeo and paid for a check up. Long story short, they medicated me and my travel activities were cut short for only 2-3 days. And, a gecko dropped on me from the ceiling when I was in the hospital bed which made me scream, and got laughs from my cousins. Who thinks geckos dropping on you is the norm, and shouldn’t have solicited such a screaming reaction.

Anyways, after that experience, I now understand how important it is to have travel insurance. The fact is, you never know what can happen. It’s one of those things that you hope you never have to use, but in the off chance that you do require it, it’s a blessing. That peace of mind. If you’re only doing a layover in South-east Asia, I don’t really recommend getting travel insurance, or if you’re only travelling there for 3 days. But if you’re planning on staying more than a week, I think it is a necessity. But then again, It really is up to you. Do you need that peace of mind? Or will you chance it? In Cambodia, I think it’s a good idea, especially if you’re planning on exploring Angkor.  Many of those ancient steps are steep and uneven, and not exactly accident-proof.

I buy travel insurance from World Nomads because of their no hassle policy. It’s also great to know that almost all long-term travellers I know recommend it. Personally, I think they’re the best in the industry. To learn more about travel insurance, read this simple guide to travel insurance, with many links for you to continue your research.

Maps of Angkor Wat

 

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Summary
Angkor Wat Cambodia, a Comprehensive Siem Reap Travel Guide
Article Name
Angkor Wat Cambodia, a Comprehensive Siem Reap Travel Guide
Description
Angkor Wat Cambodia. a comprehensive travel guide toAngkor Wat religion and info you need to know before exploring Angkor Wat, with tips to enjoy less crowds.
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A Travel Diary
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42 Comments

  1. Very interesting, Yuen 🙂 didn’t know much of this about Angkor.

  2. This is very exciting travel guidance to Cambodia trip experience with family trips. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for this detailed guide. The tips were all very helpful most especially for tourists who are travelling the first time in Angkor Wat. I appreciate your effort of making this post as informative as possible.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words! I’m glad you found the post informative 🙂 I hope it does help if you ever plan a trip to Angkor Wat.

  4. What a thorough guide. We have debated heading to Cambodia with the kids so this guide might come in handy for us in the near future. Thank you for taking the time to put all the details together.

  5. We are hoping to go here on our upcoming trip to Asia. I love the maps you included, it makes planning way easier

    1. Awesome! I hope you have a great trip. You will love it there 🙂

  6. Angkor is so picturesque and stunning! Your travel guide is very detailed and helpful!

  7. These photos have to be some of the prettiest I have seen today!

  8. Cambodia really seems like a great destination and this is a very useful post, Voeun!

    1. Thank you! It really is a great country to visit and explore if you have the opportunity.

  9. I loved your first picture in skirt as well as the picture of sunrise. Its beautiful. The post is too detailed and informative. I felt you covered up everything – what a tourist or traveller should actually know. Cambodia is on my list and wanna explore it soon. Keep all these points in mind. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I gasped when I saw your skirt because it’s the same skirt that I bought when I went to Cambodia and wore when I made the Angkor Wat tour. Your guide is comprehensive indeed, some information I didn’t even know until now. Cambodia is one of the best places I have ever been to. That country is special to me. I agree with the private guide, I got one myself and I learned so much from him.

    1. Wow! My sister and I both bought it. I still have it and wear it around the house 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to read the guide and glad to hear there’s information on there that you haven’t know even though you’ve been there! Yup. Private guides are a must for in depth knowledge, especially if you havent done your research on the country you’re exploring.

  11. Angkor Wat is one of the treasures of Cambodia. It is a must see place when you visit the country. It depicts much of Cambodia’s culture. I love how you captured Angkor Wat during sunset and how did the structure was mirrored by the water.

  12. Wish I had been able to read this before I went to Angkor it is such a good piece! So informative and will give anyone heading there a good basis of info before they arrive

  13. I’ve heard wonderful thing things from friends who have visited Cambodia. Your photos captured the culture and natural beauty amazingly.
    XO, MJ
    http://www.lush-fab-glam.com

  14. This looks like my kind of place to visit! I’m all for how beautiful this is and I haven’t never been to Cambodia so it would be an adventure regardless!

  15. You weren’t kidding about this guide! It’s awesome and it has everything that I need to know. Cambodia has always been on my bucket list! I wish to see it soon.

  16. I would love to see this in person. I’ve always wanted to visit Cambodia and see the temples. I enjoyed reading and learning more about it in this post!

  17. It sounds like a beautiful place to go visit one day. I love the quality of the pictures you took, so beautiful.

  18. Thank you for bringing us into your trip. I have a friend from Cambodia and she always spoke about how beautiful it was, but these pictures are just breath-taking. <3

  19. How absolutely beautiful! Love this post of yours, bookmarking for future reference!

  20. This looks like a beautiful place to visit. If I ever make a trip, I will be sure to plan using your guide!

  21. Cambodia sounds like a fabulous place. Would love to visit one day.

  22. what an in depth review. its so cool & your pics are so scenic!

    XOXO // Check out my latest post if you like 😉
    SINCERELY OPHELIA | CELINE TRIO REVIEW

  23. You have so many different amazing photographs here. I can understand that it would be very different after it became a tourist hotspot versus when you went the first time.

  24. So many interesting places to visit! I’ve never considered going to Cambodia, but I think your post just convinced me!

  25. This looks like an amazing place to explore. I have always wanted to go see Cambodia in person.

  26. I have never been to Cambodia but you sold me at the history recap. Those who know me understand what a massive history nerd I am so it was interesting reading about its history!

  27. Looks so beautiful! Thank you for all the pictures. I bet watching the sun rise or set is a real treat!

  28. I would love to get an aerial view of Angkor Wat! Such beautiful sights!

  29. That temple is amazing. I love reading your travel posts, you make me feel like I’m there. Beautiful photographs. OK, I would like to skip the monkeys!

    1. Thank you for enjoying my travel posts. The monkeys in Angkor usually tries to avoid people. It’s just not a good idea to carry food in a plastic bag, you’re creating waste, and well, the monkey can scent the food. But if you’re eating at a food stall or restaurant, you wouldn’t see any. They usually avoid people.

  30. Oh wow, your photos are really lovely. I’d enjoy checking this out. My kids would love to see the monkeys.

    1. They’re cute but super mischievous! We went to a secluded temple somewhere near Takeo and I was told by my uncle to bring some bananas to feed the monkey. SO the first thing I did when we got to the temple was feed the monkey that happens to reside there along with the monks. My sister on the other hand forgot, so after finishing my banana, they went and ran up on her. Four of them were on her should and head. She was so in shock she started running around silently, waving her arms everywhere. The monk actually had to come and shoo them off of her. They weren’t biting or anything like that, but it was scary non-the less.

  31. This post is very interesting and reminds me of my trip in Cambodia! I remember visiting Angkor wat couples of years ago and it was truly amazing!

    1. It really is. Historical structures are just absolutely breathtaking, the scale, the manpower, the vision.

  32. This is such helpful information for people planning on visiting the area! I would love to visit someday.

    1. If you’re ever planning a trip to South-east Asia, definitely put Cambodia on your to go list.Hopefully, you’re able to travel soon 🙂

  33. These are fantastic tips! I went to Cambodia years ago during wet season, so I had it to myself besides the school kids. I hired a private guide and it was the BEST decision I made. I hired Thy Angkor and he was so knowledgable and he made each meal/excursion to the temple so enjoyable. There is something special about going with an insider and having a private tour!

    1. Lucky! The wet season is the best time to avoid the crowd and get those beautiful lush photography, and sunrise. The sky always seem to be more colourful after the rain. Every time I had the opportunity to go, it ended up being in the dry season with the red dust and the crowds. I really do need to go during the wet season. I completely agree with you on the private guide. It’s personal, you get to ask him/her whatever question pops into your head without having to fight the crowd for attention. Now before exploring anything while traveling, I always research for possible personal guides.

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