I’d put a lot of pressure on this moment. I’d been waiting for years for it to arrive. And now here I was, standing in the dark outside Angkor Wat, waiting for the sun to rise enough to give me my first glimpse of this iconic temple.
Sure, I was packed in with about a thousand other people all waiting for the same thing, but it was still cool.
After about 30 minutes, it happened. As far as sunrises go, it wasn’t the most spectacular, but it did serve its purpose. Angkor Wat was now fully visible, its oft-photographed reflection on display in the two ponds flanking its central walkway.
Seeing something in person, after seeing it online, in books, and on tv so many times, is a unique experience. You know what it looks like, what to expect, but when you’re actually there it’s completely different…but still remarkably familiar.
At Angkor Wat, sunrise is just the beginning, as hours of exploration await. Many people (myself included) arrive not really understanding what, exactly, Angkor Wat is. I don’t mean the details of the structure itself, the history, the symbolism, its role in the Khmer empire (and, to be honest, that’s all still pretty fuzzy).
What I mean is that Angkor Wat itself is just the tip of the Angkor iceberg. If you’re there, you haven’t just purchased a ticket to visit this one temple, you’ve purchased a ticket to explore over 400 square kilometers of ancient city, including dozens of temples.
How To Get Started
So let’s take a step back for a minute and cover the logistics of this pre-dawn arrival.
Angkor Wat is located near Siem Reap, Cambodia, a town well-suited for tourists of every budget. There are backpacker accommodations and dirt cheap happy hours aplenty, and there are big, fancy hotels and air conditioned buses to shuttle you around if you have a bit more cash to spend.
However you decide to visit the Angkor complex (I recommend going by tuk-tuk), you’ll want to schedule it the day before. You can either book through your hotel or hostel, or find a tuk-tuk driver you like and hire him for the following day. Since you’ll be starting very early, there won’t be many drivers just waiting around for a fare; you’ll need to have a pick up time pre-arranged (around 5am works well). The price should be around $15-20.
This is just for a driver. If you also want a knowledgeable guide who can give you info about the sites you are seeing, you’ll need to book that separately. I prefer to enjoy places like this on my own, as I’m really not that interested in the complex history (which pretty much goes in one ear and out the other anyway), so I did not hire a guide. If you don’t get one in advance, there are a few roaming around the complex that you can pick up along the way. Guidebooks will also have a basic overview, which was enough for me.
Some people choose to bicycle through Angkor Wat. While this seems like a romantic notion, allowing you full flexibility to see and do whatever you want, keep in mind that you will need to cover extensive distances in very hot weather. It’s seven kilometers just to get from Siem Reap to the main gate, not counting the detour to the ticket office. And remember you’ll need to get back again in the evening. The inner loop through the temples is 17km, 26km for the outer loop. If you do choose this option, take a hat, wear sunscreen, and remember to stay hydrated.
The first thing you need to do is go to the ticket office and buy your entry ticket. The office is a little ways outside of town and opens at 5:30am. It will be packed with all the other tourists trying to get to the sunrise, but luckily there’s a pretty efficient system in place for moving things along.
You’ll have three tickets options: $20 for one day, $40 for three days (to be used anytime within a week), and $60 for seven days (to be used anytime within a month). Whichever option you choose, do not lose your ticket! You will have to show it multiple times throughout the day, including at the main gate to the Angkor complex and at every temple you visit.
I recommend getting the three day ticket. One day is barely enough to see even just the highlights and you will likely feel rushed. You’ve come all this way, you want to make the most of it. Even if you only use two days, you don’t lose out financially and get to skip waiting in the ticket line on the second day. If you really love history or architecture, or are looking to get professional photographs of the temples, the seven day option might be better for you. It’s overkill for the average tourist though.
Once you have your ticket, you’ll jump back in your ride of choice and head to the main gates, and then onward to Angkor Wat. Your driver will wait for you in the parking lot, so you’ll be on your own to follow the crowds towards the temple and choose your viewing spot for the sunrise. Most people head to the edge of one of the two ponds located on either side of the main walkway so they get a view of the iconic reflection as well.
Some may say that getting up early and dealing with the massive crowd of people ruin the sunrise experience. I get that. But I still recommend doing it. Because even when the sunrise is not spectacular there’s something special about the temple emerging from the darkness, like a curtain being slowly lifted to reveal the star of the show. When the sun is just peaking over the horizon, you begin to see the outline of the complex, a moody silhouette flanked by palm trees. As the sun moves higher, more and more details begin to reveal themselves. And finally the sun breaks above the trees, sitting low in the sky behind the temple, creating a halo glow around it. This slow reveal is very different that just walking up and seeing everything at once. It’s a personal choice, of course, but I say ‘do it!’ And then immediately bail.
Bail! Get out! Or rather, don’t go in. As I said, the crowds at sunrise are insane and once they get their postcard-perfect photograph all those people are going to pour into the temple to explore the inside of Angkor Wat. If you stick around, you will forever be part of the massive tourist blob that moves around from one temple to the next.
Get your photograph and head back to the parking lot to find your tuk-tuk driver. Move on to the next temple, which you will almost definitely have entirely (or almost entirely) to yourself. You’ll spend the rest of the day one step ahead of everyone else and can finish up back at Angkor Wat in the afternoon.
Which Temples to See
There are dozens of temples to see within the Angkor complex. There are two main routes, an inner loop and an outer loop, as well as some temples a bit further afield (about 45 minutes away). All drivers will be familiar with the ‘standard’ highlights along these routes, but if you want to see a particular site or take a more unique path, you’ll need to communicate that to your driver.
I didn’t do a ton of research before I arrived, putting perhaps a bit too much trust in my driver. I followed along with the brief overview found in my free city guidebook, but I did miss one or two places along the way. Based on what I saw, here are my top recommendations:
Angkor Wat – Obviously. But again, save this for later in the day so you can avoid crowds at the other temples.
Bayon – Famous for the 216 giant faces carved into 54 gothic towers. This was the first major site I visited after sunrise and I had the place entirely to myself (at least for a while). It’s magical in the morning light and there are tons of hidden corridors and towers to explore.
Ta Prohm – Famous for its role in Angelina Jolie’s ‘Tomb Raider.’ This is one of the great ‘jungle taking over the temple’ temples with giant trees twisting their roots and branches around the crumbling structure.
Preah Khan – Part of the outer loop and also featuring many giant trees taking over the temple.
This is not to say that you should skip the other temples. You definitely shouldn’t! Many of them were very cool and offer great opportunities to explore. Also, I didn’t visit any of the outlying temples, but I’ve heard that they are worth a look if you have the time and budget to see them (tuk-tuk drivers will charge extra to visit these temples, even if you already agreed on a daily price).
There are plenty of places to buy food and drinks as you visit the temples. There are snack shops and souvenir stalls outside all the main hotspots and you will be bombarded with requests to buy something. Alternatively, you could pack a picnic and enjoy lunch under one of the many shady trees.
Other Tips, Tricks, and Suggestions
Don’t feed the monkeys! It’s very unhealthy for monkeys to eat human food. The availability of this food, whether intentionally provided or carelessly left unguarded for the monkeys to steal, also changes their natural behavior patterns and increases aggression towards humans. Once primates become accustomed to being provided with ‘treats’ they begin to expect it and take offense at being denied, which can manifest into bites and scratches. This close contact, especially if it does involve food, increases the risk of disease transmission, which goes both ways (you can make them sick and they can make you sick).
Also, don’t try to interact with them (even without food). Don’t try to touch them. Don’t try to get super close so you can get a photo with them. And absolutely never try to pick them up. Monkeys are wild animals. They are not your neighbor’s cute kitten. Appreciate them from a distance but leave plenty of space between you and them.
Don’t lose your tuk-tuk. In the excitement of arriving at a new temple, you might find yourself jumping out of your tuk-tuk and rushing towards the entrance, excited to see what’s on the other side of those walls. But when you come back out and are faced with a sea of tuk-tuks that all look pretty much the same, you’ll wish you had paid a bit more attention as to where you parked.
When you get out of your tuk-tuk, take a minute to look for identifying characteristics of where you are in the overall layout of the parking area. Also look for unique characteristics of your ride and/or your driver so you can find them later (for example, my first tuk-tuk was white while most others are darker in color, my second tuk-tuk had a pink umbrella hanging from the roof).
Dress appropriately. Yes, it’s hot, but this is a temple complex, which means temple rules apply. Make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. If you forget though, there are plenty of places to buy something more appropriate before you enter.
Be respectful of people taking pics. Everyone is trying to get great photos. Aim for a bit of extra situational awareness while you’re here so you avoid 1) walking in front of someone taking a photo, 2) standing in one place for way too long when it’s obvious people are waiting to photograph whatever is behind you without you ruining their shot (this also applies to standing in doorways), and 3) taking so long to take your own photo that you make other people wait a ridiculous amount of time for you (I waited nearly five minutes for some lady taking her ‘casual’ look-at-me-strolling-through-temples photos as a crowd built up waiting to pass by).
Be respectful in general. Again, this is a temple and temple etiquette applies. Don’t shout or talk loudly; save the PDAs with your significant other for later; keep your clothes on (there’s apparently a trend of trying to get nude photos inside Angkor Wat…don’t do it); and be mindful of your poses (I know that yoga posing all over the place is ‘cool’ now, but also be mindful that putting your feet on temple walls as you try to get that handstand just right could be considered rude).
If Angkor Wat is Not on Your List of Place to See, Put it There!
Angkor Wat is a world wonder that should not be missed. No matter your age, fitness level, or budget, a visit is within your reach. If you’re concerned about the hot weather (which is legit), aim for a visit between November and March when it’s a bit cooler and drier. Not ready to try this on your own? Go with an organized tour. They’ll arrange everything and be there to help you every step of the way.
However you decide to see it, a visit to Angkor Wat is sure to be an awe-inspiring experience.