The tuk-tuk bumbled through the forest in Siem Reap as Tom and I enjoyed the Cambodian air conditioning, the breeze, at 5:45 am headed towards Angkor Wat for sunrise. It wasn’t until we arrived in Siem Reap that I realized how little I actually knew about the man made wonder, or rather wonders, of Angkor. It has always been hovering high on the bucket list, but I couldn’t have told you a year ago that Angkor Wat is just one of the 11 remaining structures at the Angkor Archeological Park still standing and dating back to the 9th century. A quick google search can answer all these lingering questions, but what’s magical about Angkor is that its beauty can be appreciated even if you haven’t read up on the difference between Khmer and Bayon architecture. It’s accessible even for long awaited travelers who know nothing about the Hindu Gods protecting the temples or the significance of the four cardinal faces at Angkor Thom. It’s breathtaking no matter your level of interest or understanding.
We structured our journey through the Angkor Archeological Park as a self-guided tour. Prepared with a self-guided tour book for Angkor and our own friendly tuk-tuk driver, we ambitiously set out for exploring the park in one day— sunrise to sunset. We uncovered a great bit of what not to do and discovered which sites were the most recognizable, the most overrun by the forest, and the least touristy. Find our highlights of the day in the park and how you can structure your own meaningful visit to Angkor, Cambodia the cheapest way possible without dishing out money at a tour agency.
What Is Angkor?
Angkor is the northern province of Siem Reap in Cambodia. It was, for centuries, the center of the Khmer Kingdom constructed in the highest level of ingenuity to sustain its people for centuries. UNESCO states that “With impressive monuments, several different ancient urban plans, and large water reservoirs, the site is a unique concentration of features testifying to an exceptional civilization.” The archaeological park’s 400 sq kilometers outline an impressive progression of history and a hierarchy of reigning kings from both the Hindu to the Buddhist faith. The kingdom was run by kings of both faiths at different times, which accounts for the construction of statues from both religions. The park is protected by the UNESCO foundation and found on the list of seven wonders of the old world.
What Sites Make Up The Archeological Park?
Ta Prohm is the quintessential picture of Angkor with robust trees dividing the temple, uprooting its foundation. The temple was abandoned after the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, left in the care of mother nature. The city of Ta Prohm was founded as a Buddhist Monastery and university. The perimeter was home to more than 12,000 people according to historians. The temple is well visited and cited. Bear in mind that as of 2017 they are reconstructing part of the temple, but the famous corners such as the Tomb Raider Tree, are still visible.
Angkor Wat is the most well known and the largest of the temples that is a city in itself. Everything from the structural peaks of the temple, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru in the Hindu religion, to the 600 meters of carved narrative along the outer walls, give visitors a glimpse of the sophistication in which the civilization was founded and functioned within. It’s the world’s largest religious monument covering some 200 hectares within the moat.
Angkor Thom is recognized as the temple of faces. It was the capital of the former Khmer Empire. It’s a conglomerate of faces ranging from kings to gods. The temple is meticulously congested with detailed stone carvings. The entrances to Angkor Thom are particularly worth investigating. Passing under the stone archways you'll notice the long trunk elephants guarding either side.
Preah Khan is a temple but further believed to be a Buddhist university built in dedication of king Jayavarman VII’s father. Historians speculate that the structure was built on the site of a major battle reclaiming Angkor from the invading Chams. It’s long halls and archways are fun to explore and imagine what education must have been like centuries earlier. There's a massive tree rooted at the back entrance to the university that is quiet and less touristy than Ta Prohm.
Ta Som was built at the end of the 12th century during the reign of the Buddhist King. Little is known about its true purpose, but both outer entrances of Ta Som are “good examples of well-preserved towers depicting Avalokitesvara (the bodhisattva of compassion).” There’s a beautiful ficus tree that has roots framing the entrance. It makes for a catching picture and it's less crowded than Ta Prohm, so you can easily get a picture without anyone in the background.
Neak Pean is a Buddhist temple built on an artificial island. The long boardwalk over the old reservoir makes it a peaceful journey to the temple. It’s noted uniquely for its circular construction and the serpent carvings around the base of the temple.
East Mebon was built in the early 10th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is known for its exceptional sculptures such as the 2 meter high free standing elephants.
Srah Srang is a man-made lake that later became the royal bath when Jayavarman VII modified the west end by adding the “laterite” landing. It’s often visited and recommended as a beautiful place to view the sunrise.
Phnom Bakheng was built in the 9th century, before Angkor Wat, and was believed to be the principal temple of the Angkor religion. It features both Hindu and Buddhist elements and is surrounded by a moat that jets out in all cardinal directions. This is the most popular sunset destination in the park.
Pre Rub is a Hindu temple. It’s name meaning “turn the body,” reflects the Cambodian belief that ashes should be ritually rotated after death. Comparatively modern, the temple’s brick structure creates a reddish tone that is highlighted in the early morning and late afternoon sun.
Ta Keo is the unfinished mountain temple. It’s riddled with Hindi meanings and visitors can climb the steep staircase to the top for a wonderful view.
Kut Isvara is a very small brick temple, hardly recognizable due to the wild grass overtaking the small structure.
Banteay Kdei a Buddhist temple on the edges of the Srah Srang lake.
Ta Nei is a temple for Buddha built in the late 12th century. It’s the smaller version of Ta Prohm, the iconic jungle temple, except it’s less touristy and off the track a bit.
Thommanon is a single towered temple facing east that features intricate shaivite carvings along the walls in honor of the Hindu god Shiva.
The Two Circuits
Drivers, tour companies, and blogs alike advertise two different circuits in which visitors can explore sites in the archeological park. Depending on the source, the listed stops along the circuit may vary, but for the most part, they’ll hit the stops mentioned below. It’s advised that each circuit is one day, but if you’re limited on time then it’s best to do the research and figure out which circuit is best for what you want.
Grand Circuit 26km
Preah Neak Pean
*The grand circuit features Preach Khan which is a fantastic exploration of history and architecture through what was thought to be a university. The circuit is good for stopping at the lesser known sites and circling around the archeological park. It includes a stop at Phnom Bakheng which is a great place to watch the sunset.
Small Circuit 17 km
Chau Say Tevoda
*Popular as a one-day excursion it's a fascinating exploration of the history and architecture over the centuries of the Khmer Empire. This circuit stops at Angkor Wat as well as the most iconic stop of Ta Prohm — the jungle temple. This circuit is good if you want the most iconic sites as well as that quintessential snapshots.
Ways Around the Park
There are several different options for exploring the park ranging from dirt cheap to affordable. We opted for a tuk-tuk which, for our demands of comfort, was the cheapest option between two of us.
HIRE A TUK TUK
A popular option is to visit by tuk-tuk in which you can rent a driver for the day. Tuk-tuk drivers can be arranged through tour agencies, through the hostels, or by negotiating directly with the drivers on the street. Their services range anywhere from $15—$30 depending on the circuit, whether you go sunset to sunrise, and your negotiating skills. We found our driver through the restaurant and homestay next to our hostel, Siem Reap Pub Hostel, who had a friend that did tuk-tuk tours. We paid $18 for the two of us to hire a driver to do the grand circuit, from sunrise to sunset, and we tipped him an extra $5 for taking us to Ta Prohm for photos on top of the grand circuit.
HIRE A BICYCLE
Another more organic option to seeing Angkor is by renting bicycles to pedal around the park. It’s a fun way to explore the grounds and because the park is relatively flat, it’s not as strenuous as you would imagine. The heat and distances in between sites, however, are brutal factors when touring by bicycle. This option does allow you the freedom to stop wherever. You certainly earn your stripes in biking to each temple, but it does limit the number of things you can see in one day and the time you spend at each stop. Bikes cost anywhere from $2—$12 for a day rental.
HIRE A CAR
Some visitors pre-book a car and driver through third party websites for a decent price. A driver with an air-conditioned car for the day can run anywhere from $20 to $50 depending on the type of car, which circuit you choose, and whether you choose to specifically have an English speaking guide. Please note that the English speaking guide is different than the Park guides at the entrance of Angkor Wat. Unless specified, the English speaking guide as a driver isn’t going to escort you through the temples explaining each carving. They do however have guides, mainly parked outside the entrance of Angkor Wat before you cross the bridge. These guides will have an official badge and they will guide tours throughout the day.
HIRE AN ELECTRIC BIKE
You can rent an electric bike in Siem Reap to explore the temples. They’re not motor bikes, but push bikes with a motor. This less taxing option would be a fun way to explore the grounds on your own terms at your own pace. They are not illegal to rent to tourists because they’re considered bicycles, not motorbikes. They only cost about $10 for a full day rental. E-bike guided tours,, however, cost around $70 so definitely do your research.
What's The Rugged Budget?
The Added On Expenses:
Sit down meal $6 - $10
Take away bites $2 - $4
Ice cold large water $1
English speaking park guide $35/day
Angkor guide book $5
Buses from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap are $9 and it takes roughly five hours.
Buses from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap are $25 and take roughly 13 hours
Things To Know Before Hand
You can only buy entrance passes at the official ticket office. You can not buy them online. Any sites offering them online is probably a scam. The official office takes a picture of each visitor and prints it on the entry pass. The ticket office opens at 5 am and closes at 5:30 pm so you’ll have plenty of time to purchase a park pass in the morning and get a good spot for sunrise.
If you purchase an entrance pass after 5 pm, you can use the pass that evening to get a sunset spot and enjoy the park before it closes at 6 pm all included in your one day pass, valid for the following day.
It is a religious site so, despite the heat, cover up those legs and shoulders. The local vendors must make a killing off the tourists that flood to Angkor dressed for the heat in Western wear. Luckily you can buy a scarf to cover up, because most guides, park officials, and locals will not permit tourists to enter sites without covering up. There are signs indicating the appropriate clothing at all the major sites.
It is illegal in Siem Reap for tourists to be driving motorbikes without a Cambodian License. This ban passed in 2005. Though many places will still rent them, keep in mind it becomes your trouble and responsibility if the local police pull you over and impound the bike. Along the road to Angkor, there is a checkpoint in which officials check for tickets and this seems like the point in which one would most likely be busted for renting a bike without a Cambodian license.