With over 1,000 temples (so far) discovered within the Angkor Archaeological Park there’s no way you can see everything during just one trip. However, with some careful planning – and a good guide – it’s not that hard to put together an itinerary that will allow you to visit some of the park’s most iconic temples as well as head a little off the beaten track.
The entrance fee to Angkor Wat
To enter Angkor Archaeological Park you need to buy an admission pass known as an Angkor Pass, which can be bought as either one-day, three-day or seven day passes. At the time of writing these cost US$37, $62, and $72 respectively, having recently had a price hike which came into force in February 2017.
Although many people think you have to use the passes on consecutive days this is actually not the case, and I personally feel you get much more from your experience (yes, it is possible to get temple fatigue!) if you break up your trips.
With a three-day pass allowing you to break up your visits over three non-consecutive days in a one week period and a seven-day pass allowing you to spread your seven days over a month, you’ve got more than enough time to see the best of Angkor as well as giving yourself time to explore everything else Siem Reap has to offer and even have the occasional day of R&R by the pool…
For those visiting Cambodia on the average holiday trip of 10-14 days, I recommend buying a three-day pass and spreading your tours over a week. This is what Justin and I did, basing ourselves in Siem Reap for seven days after a three-night break in Phnom Penh.
The different ways to travel around the temples of Angkor Wat (and beyond)
Depending on how you like to travel, there are many ways to get around the Angkor Archaeological Park. Some hire bikes and motos to get around on their own but be aware that this is actually illegal in Siem Reap although this law is often ignored. This costs around $10 but also be warned that road signs are rare at best and it wouldn’t take a lot to get lost. The majority of people choose to hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day to ferry them around, which costs around $15-20 per day.
For a more luxurious experience you can also hire a car – with air conditioning – for a little more money. Due to my health, which is affected by heat, this gave me the chance to rest my legs between temple visits and is a much more relaxing, and cooling, way to tour. Our driver, Vantha, charged $30 a day for this service, and I’d highly recommend him.
Do keep in mind that drivers are there just to take you from place to place and if you’d like a guide to take you around the temple complexes this will come at an extra price.
Many non-official guides loiter around the temple entrances, but for the best experience I recommend booking an official guide in advance. With great English and highly educated, they provide amazing insights into the history, bringing what is sometimes just a ‘pile of stones’ alive! They share with you so many tiny things you’d otherwise miss and also throw in some hilarious anecdotes – for example, there are stone carvings of exactly 2,000 ladies around Angkor War, and yet only one is smiling!
At a small charge of $35 a day for a guide, I think this is money well spent. You can source one yourself, but it can be easier to ask your driver to arrange this for you. Vantha did this for us at no extra cost, using trusted guides he knows offer high quality tours.
A three-day itinerary for seeing the best of the temples of Angkor
Angkor tour guides offer a wide range of temple tour itineraries and it can be overwhelming when you first start looking into your options, so let us take the hard work off your hands.
We (well, mainly Justin) spent hours researching tour itineraries, talking to several guides and also fellow bloggers who’ve visited Angkor Wat and its environs on multiple occasions. Off the back of this work, we think this three-day itinerary is the best way for those on vacation to see Angkor’s most beautiful temple complexes.
Angkor guide – Day one
Most of our itinerary is actually the reverse of those tour guides usually offer. This gives you a much better opportunity of missing the crowds and getting to enjoy a more peaceful walk around the temples.
Start day one at Ta Promh. Now often known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, this was used as a filming site for the first of the Angelina Jolie/Lara movies. Overgrown and slowly falling to ruin as trees grow around, through and over the temples, it’s beautiful in its own special way.
Ta Promh houses a mausoleum to an ancient king’s mother and although now only small holes remain thanks to looting, you can look up and imagine how it would have sparkled when those holes were filled with – literally – thousands of jewels.
Next travel to Bapuon, where you’ll be greeted with tranquil pools once used for baptism. You can climb part of this temple, but at time of writing restoration work is underway so sections are closed to the public. Once behind the temple be sure to look back and you’ll see a giant statue of dead Buddha, which was added later when the locals converted from Hindu to Buddhism.
Angkor Thom and Bayon
From here move onto Angkor Thom and Bayon, where you’ll walk across an amazing ancient bridge where the gods and devils are churning the sea of milk to create heaven and earth.
Bayon temple is where very impressive four-sided Brahma heads abound. Be prepared for steps galore at this many-levelled temple and also get your first introduction to the beautiful naga: statues of which you’ll see throughout your time in the Angkor Archaeological Park.
The Elephant and Leper King Terraces
It’s now time to visit the Elephant Terrace and Leper King Terrace, with their amazing stone carvings. Look closely at the Leper King Terrace and you’ll be able to see examples of ancient sports such as wrestling, acrobatics and even a form of polo! This is where the king would come to watch sporting displays…
Finally, end your day at Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument. As you arrive the crowds are starting to grow smaller, allowing you to see more of one of the world’s wonders without having to squeeze past masses of Chinese tourists getting changed to take their own special photo shoots (yes, it’s a real thing, one lady had a selection of evening dresses to change into as she posed at the top of the temple!).
Cross the moat and then enter the complex and get your first real glimpse of Angkor Wat, still a way away, with a long path to cross before heading into the temple ‘proper’. As you head in look around the entrance and you may spot bullet holes. Believe it or not Angkor Wat was used as a garrison during the era of the Khmer Rouge and the temple sadly became used for target practice!
Set over three massive levels, slowly explore each area before moving onto the next. So as not to damage the temple, only 100 visitors are allowed up to the top level at any given time, so be prepared to wait if you wish to head up to the summit of Angkor Wat – which is a steep climb of stairs at a 45 degree angle. When busy, expect a wait of 90+ minutes. If you choose to go higher though you’ll be rewarded with amazing views, which you can sit and enjoy as you recover!
Sunrise or sunset at Angkor Wat?
Many people choose to flip this tour so they can experience sunrise at Angkor Wat, so if this is something you really want to do (and are happy to get picked up at 5am) then follow this itinerary upside down. But for those, like me, who prefer their sleep and didn’t want to bustle with hundred of other tourists for that ‘perfect’ sunrise photo, this is a great way to start your trip to Angkor Archaeological Park.
Angkor guide – Day two
Consider this the ‘grand tour’ day – You’re going to pack a lot in, so be warned!
Pre Rup and Banteray Srei
Start your day off at the oh so photogenic Pre Rup, with its imposing brick towers before travelling over to the unique Banteray Srei, the Lady Temple, which is made of pink sandstone.
Small in comparison to many of the other temples, this is because there was only a limited amount of this stone available, perhaps this is why it wasn’t discovered until 1914!
Then it’s on to Ta Som, a semi-ruined temple reminiscent of a miniature Ta Promh. This is part of a complex of temples built around a manmade lake, which houses a water temple in its centre.
Called Neak Prean, this temple is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful in the entire park. To get to the site you have to follow a narrow path across the beautiful, still lake. This leads to the temple island, which was once used as a hospital by monks and priests. Visitors would stand under the statues of one of four animals to be blessed, or drink the water for good health. The whole area has an aura of peacefulness that leaves you feeling relaxed and at peace yourself.
Next head over to Preah Khan, often much quieter than many of the temples, the complex is actually bigger than that of Ta Promh even though the temple itself is smaller. At its height it was a Buddhist university and city!
There’s a lot to see here, so make sure to give it some time, as you don’t want to miss things like the beautiful king’s library and hall of dancers. Simply put, it’s a great way to end your day.
Angkor guide – Day three
Possibly the most exciting of all the tours, day three sees you heading away from the crowds and taking a 2 ½-3 hour journey to the far north to a vast array of temples that hardly see any tourists.
You’ll end up feeling like explorers discovering these sites for the very first time, and it wasn’t until late in the day that we actually saw anyone other than locals! In this area you’ll see warning signs for landmines as the government is still working to clear those left by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s. However, as long as you stay in the temples sites and don’t go heading into the jungle you’re perfectly safe.
It’s a long journey but well worth it when you arrive, even if you have to pay a separate fee to visit these sites. Entry to the Koh Ker complex will cost you $10 each, but for this you’ll have the chance to explore a myriad of small and unique temples.
Whereas the bigger southern temples have a lot of restoration work underway, many in the north lay unrestored and reclaimed by nature. This, however, adds to your feeling of exploration and it’s a joy to wander through the ruins with only the birds, an occasional squirrel and perhaps a curious local child or two to keep you company.
Prasat Pram and Prasat Damrei
Highlights for us included the three towers of Prasat Pram, and the elephant temple of Prasat Damrei, but basically keep your eyes peeled for the tens of temples that you’ll pass on either side of the road and if something catches your eye then ask your driver to pull over and start exploring!
A visit to Koh Ker itself shouldn’t be missed too. A temple that wouldn’t look out of place in South America, it looks like no other in Cambodia, more Aztec than anything else. Climb to its summit if you dare, but keep travelling beyond the main temple to visit the entire complex with tumbledown structures that are still intact enough for you to imagine walking down ancient pathways.
Another long drive will take you to Beng Malea (entrance fee $15), which after the peace of the morning can be a shock to the system. A favourite of Chinese tourists, this site is often busy all day long. Even if you feel cheated that you have to share this experience with others (first world problems!) you’ll be sucked into this beauty as you feel like you’re on a real-life treasure hunt, having to clamber over rocks to make your way in, and then wander along raised pathways over the piles of rubble, collapsed walls and crumbling buildings around and below you. Left in the state it was discovered, trees have smashed their way through ancient walls and lush, green moss hides magnificent sculptures from prying eyes.
After such an amazing day you’ll be buzzing on your journey home, knowing that you’ve experienced something very special.
So there you have it, my guide to the best way to explore the temples of Angkor (and beyond). Please be warned, this is not a definitive guide to ALL the temples and complex, but my guide to how best to spend a three-day pass if you’ve never visited before.
I hope this answers any questions you had regarding a visit to Angkor Wat and the Angkor Archaeological Park, but if there’s anything else you’d like to know please ask me in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer you!
For those that have visited already, what do you think to our itinerary? Is there any advice or tips you’d like to share with fellow travellers? Again, please do feel free to add your own helpful hints in our comments section!