The Temples of Angkor are among the most fascinating and increasingly popular destinations in Southeast Asia. The excursion is more than worth it, but there are a few things you should know before arriving in Siem Reap.
1. There’s a lot more than just Angkor Wat.
While Angkor Wat is the most famous and certainly among the most beautiful, there are more than 1,000 Temples of Angkor. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries, both a fully functional city and a religious site.
The temples were constructed in the 12th century, and today make up the largest historical religious site in the world. If all you do is snap a sunrise selfie at Angkor Wat, you’re missing out on a lot.
2. Start early, and pack for multiple days of adventure.
I could spend a month exploring Angkor and still not feel like I’ve seen it all. At about 400 square kilometers, Angkor is impossible to experience in one day. Tickets are available in 1-day, 3-day, and 7-day options, and I encourage you to spend at least three days there.
Arriving early morning puts you ahead of the crowds and offers an opportunity to snap photos without having to spend five minutes figuring out how to frame out that line of tourists causing a traffic jam on the staircase. It also makes it much easier to plot out what you want to see over the course of your visit, as you’ll get a feel for how spread out the temples are and which ones are must-dos and which ones are maybes.
On a side note, you may feel “templed out” afterward. If other temple sites are part of your Southeast Asia travel plans, it’s best to space them out a bit (unless you’re a fanatic, in which case the 7-day pass is right up your alley).
3. Don’t throw away your ticket.
Multi-day tickets will be checked each time you re-enter the property. Replacing it means waiting in line and probably paying again unless your negotiation skills are on par with that of a defense lawyer. It’s best to just keep the ticket on you at all times.
4. Hire a local tuk-tuk driver instead of a tour operator.
I cannot emphasize this point enough. Ditch the tour bus, group package, and any other option that requires you to base your plans on other people’s timeframe and needs. Take your group in one tuk-tuk and have the driver shuttle you to the places your crew wants to see.
Also, the drivers know the area. They can make recommendations on the best times to visit specific temples and speed right by that giant tour bus, saving precious time.
One thing I found to be true in Cambodia, even more so than other Southeast Asian countries, is that drivers are eager to work with you for multiple days, maybe even your entire stay, as opposed to having to flag a ride each time. This provides a chance to get to know them, and equally as important, for them to get to know you. It didn’t take long for our driver to learn that my wife and I valued his opinion above that of the guidebook, resulting in more than one unexpected temple stop that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen or alternative entry point that we would never have heard about otherwise.
5. Skip sunrise at the main temple.
For real. It’s crowded. While breathtakingly beautiful, it’s hardly the only perfect sunrise spot in the complex. We shared our desire to view the sunrise at Angkor Wat with our driver, and he insisted that we instead take a twenty-minute hike up a path he knew about to an often-overlooked temple. We nearly had the place to ourselves, and it ended up being the most memorable sunrise experience of my life.
6. Angkor is inhabited by local villagers to this day.
Some residents have lineage dating back to Angkor’s heyday, with rice farming being a main source of livelihood for the many villages spread throughout the Angkor region. Respecting the residents, their villages, and customs is incredibly important. Treating historic sites with disrespect — being loud, drunk, obnoxious, or demanding — is in itself a shameful practice. Here, it’s not just shameful and disrespectful, it’s downright disgusting.
7. Hosting your own personal photo shoot is to be avoided, as well.
Of course, photos are part of the experience and part of the journey. But in my time at Angkor, I encountered a number of tourist groups occupying an entrance or popular area for far longer than appropriate, simply because each member had to get the perfect selfie followed by the perfect couples’ photo followed by the stoic shot followed by the standalone. Don’t be that group.
8. Bringing food and water is a good idea.
Another perk to hiring a local tuk-tuk driver –- on day two, he showed up with a cooler full of beer and water (which we reimbursed him for). We brought our own food to add to the mix and ended up perfectly satiated the entire day.
The temples are removed from central Siem Reap. It’s possible to buy food and water from local vendors on site, but much easier to bring your own.
9. Be ready to walk. A lot.
There were no elevators in the 12th century, and there certainly are none there now. The full experience requires a good deal of walking and stair climbing. Don’t whine — this is one of the most incredible experiences anywhere in the world. Going a bit deeper might just put you beyond the reaches of that busload of tourists that just pulled up and make the experience that much more memorable. You’ll encounter staircases, long paths to enter and exit temples, plus all of the walking around inside each one.
Additionally, many of the popular temples are far apart and require driving in between. This often leads to a number of impulse stops to check out other temples on the way, maybe buy a refreshment or hit the restroom. Be ready for a full day.
10. Bring a guidebook, even if traveling with a guide.
There’s simply so much knowledge to take in that it’s overwhelming without having a reference at your fingertips. Each temple has a story.
There are plenty of hawkers selling guidebooks onsite if you forget to plan ahead. Just be ready for a long chat if you’re feeling indecisive, as they aren’t keen on taking “no” for an answer.