PHOTO BY FLASH PARKER
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
Before you set off to Angkor Wat, use this guide to plan your trip.
The Cambodian flag is a true representation of what's important to the country. The red represents the bravery of the Khmer people, while the blue stands for the liberty, cooperation, and brotherhood administered by the king. However, the most striking part of the flag—and, really, the symbol most important to all of Cambodia—is the depiction of Angkor Wat centered on the national emblem for all to see.
Starting in 1927 with the opening of the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, the French established neighboring Siem Reap as Angkor Wat’s tourist hub through the early half of the 1900s. The UNESCO World Heritage site is Cambodia’s most famous landmark, largest tourist attraction, and defining symbol of the Khmer people. Although Cambodia suffered through the bloody dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s and 80s, a time in which every recognizable facet of Cambodian society was stripped away, the Khmer Rouge’s monstrous dictator Pol Pot believed in preserving the historic landmark as a sign of what the Khmer people were capable of, both in the past and moving forward.
Tourism became essentially non-existent during the Khmer Rouge era, but Siem Reap has since rebounded and has evolved into a highly westernized tourist town, equipped with plenty of bars and restaurants serving every variety of european and american food, along with luxury hotels of all degrees. Once you’ve arrived in Siem Reap, there are endless options for enjoying your experience at the Angkor Wat park. Here's how we like to do it.
Regardless of your budget or taste when it comes to hotels, there are options for every price point in neighboring Siem Reap. For those looking to live the life of luxury, the Park Hyatt and Sofitel are both excellent options, conveniently located just a few miles from the Angkor Wat park. Conversely, Siem Reap has a vast number of hostels and guesthouses catering to backpackers and those simply looking for a place to lay their heads after a long day of touring the temples. Most of these are located closer to the central part of the city, located between seven and eight miles from the park.
For those looking for a quieter atmosphere, Kochi-Ke Boutique Dormitory has beds starting at only $5 with the option to splurge on a $6 air-conditioned room. Conversely, if you’re looking to party in Siem Reap, as most of the backpacker set certainly are, then The Mad Monkey is definitely for you. As with all places to stay in Siem Reap, hotels and hostels can help arrange everything from private bus tours of the park to simply renting you a motorbike or bicycle and handing you a map. That choice is up to you.
Although Angkor Wat is a short tuk-tuk, bicycle, scooter, or bus ride away, it’s important to remember that the park is not located in Siem Reap itself. Depending on your preferred method of travel, you can rent a scooter for $15 a day, a bicycle for anywhere from $2-$5, a bus ticket for $20-25, or a tuk-tuk for $10-15. Both the Cambodian riel (roughly 4000 riel to 1 USD) and the American dollar are accepted everywhere and tuk-tuk rides are easy to negotiate. Keep in mind that the Angkor Wat park is massive and the sites aren’t always a walkable distance apart. Hiring a scooter, bicycle, or tuk-tuk for the day allows for more freedom to see the temples at your own speed, while a bus tour might be the most efficient way to see the park with a short time frame.
Angkor Wat is open from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily and the famed sunrise over the Angkor Wat temple, the park’s namesake, is one of the most stunning moments you can experience while visiting the site. Depending on how much time you have, the park offers one-entry passes for $20, three-entry passes, which must be used over the course of a week, for $40, or seven-entry passes, which must be used over the course of 30 days, for $60. Angkor Wat is a lot to take in, sometimes it’s best to spread it out if you have time.
Again, the Angkor Wat park is absolutely massive. Tallying up at over 400 square km, you could spend weeks exploring every single accessible acre of land within the park’s confines, but unless you’re Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, that seems unlikely. For visitors on an extreme time crunch, one can see the majority of the park’s highlights in one day, from sunrise to sunset. However, 12 hours of exploring temples is a lot to take in, so we suggest not rushing it if you don't have to. If you’re looking to really take your time, the three-day option might be the most relaxed. Our take: spend two days at Angkor Wat, one for the Petit Circuit and one for the Grand Circuit.
The Petit Circuit includes the Angkor Wat temple itself, along with Angkor Thom, which includes the famed Bayon complex, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider, and Banteay Kdei. This route in itself can take up almost an entire day and if you suffer from temple overload syndrome, this might suit you well for day one.
The Grand Circuit then includes the entire Petit Circuit, along with a smaller ring of sites including Preah Khan, the island temple of Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup. Assuming you’re refreshed after a long day of taking in the Petit Circuit, coupled with enjoying a few indigenous beverages along Siem Reap’s backpacker haven Pub Street, the Grand Circuit is a good option for a second day of gingerly taking in Angkor Wat as a whole.
Little known fact: there are an estimated 100,000 people living within the Angkor Wat park itself. With those people come restaurants and stalls selling mostly khmer-style food and western snacks. Although you’re welcome to bring a picnic to enjoy while exploring, you can find a decent meal at one of the many village restaurants that dot Angkor Wat’s landscape for $10 or less. Additionally, there are a ton of street vendors along the sides of the roads to and from the park in case you’re looking for a quick meal on the go for under $3.
Depending on what kind of day you’re planning to have at Angkor Wat, there are definitely some essentials to bring along with you. The first, and most important, is a good supply of water. Cambodia is incredibly humid and due to the sunrise happening before 6 a.m. for most of the year, it gets very warm, very quickly. You can buy bottles of water in the park as well if you run out, but it doesn’t hurt to stock up before embarking for the day. Additionally, sunscreen is definitely a good ally while exploring the ruins.
Although the park is mostly flat, there are lots of steps to climb at various temples so make sure to wear comfortable shoes. Lastly, security guards are very serious about everyone dressing respectfully when visiting the holiest areas of the temple complex. For the most part, you can dress however you feel most comfortable, but both men and women are asked to wear shawls over bare shoulders or around their waists if their legs aren’t covered below the knee. And of course, make sure that camera of yours is charged, it has a big few days in-store.
>>Next: Unexpected Cambodia
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