A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful Khmer city of Angkor, in Cambodia. It was obviously a must-see during our trip to Southeast Asia. Even if the site is famous for its mass tourism, it is impossible to miss this enigmatic and fabulous place during a trip to Cambodia. This article presents you everything you need to know to visit Angkor and the surrounding city: a summary of the history of the site, how to go to the temples of Angkor, practical information (passes, different tours and prices). Finally, I’ll present you the different possibilities you have to visit Angkor. I’ll finish with some personal and very useful advice to know before visiting this city, testimony of the power of the Khmer Empire back then. If you want to feel like you’re Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider in the middle of old stones, then it is the ideal place for you! Come on, here are the essentials to plan your trip and visit these famous temples of Angkor.
Even if it is clearly a tourist destination par excellence, it’s still a very beautiful discovery for my taste. It is one of these fascinating sites in Asia, just like Ha Long Bay, the Taj Mahal, or the Great Wall of China.
The city of Angkor represents a Cambodian archaeological site composed of hundreds of temples, ruins, hydraulic installations of all kinds (basin, channels, reservoirs, dams), lost in the middle of a luxuriant jungle. The city, built between the 9th and 15th centuries, was one of the largest capitals of the Khmer Empire. It covers more than 400 Km². Other more recent theories however advance the idea that the city would have been already well inhabited before the 9th century.
Jayavarman II is the main founder of the Khmer empire, at the beginning of the 9th century. The present site was chosen because of its geographical location, very close to the Tonle Sap lake, useful to have water and food (fish in particular). The fertile plains around the city are also perfect for growing rice.
The first temples, including Preak Ko, were built around 879. Just before the year 1000, other temples were built, such as Phnom Bakheng, Mebon Oriental or Prè Rup. It was around 1130 that Sūryavarman II built the most famous and well-known temple in the Khmer city: Angkor Wat. Many personalities of the time then succeeded from the 12th century. It is at this time that the famous temples of Bayon, Ta Phrom or Preah Khan will be erected. It is the apogee of Angkor.
An alternation of Buddhist and Hindu religion is present between the XIIth and the XIVth century. From that time on, the Khmer city is in decline, mainly due to neighboring wars with the kingdom of Ayutthaya (current Thailand), but also due to the difficult climatic conditions of the time. Several theories suggest that the kingdom lost control of water, which was a real local resource, during a period of drought.
From 1431, the Khmer city is abandoned in favor of the city of Phnom Penh, where the government moves from the 16th century. The current site is listed since 1992 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A part of the income of this gigantic site is given to the preservation of the temples, their renovation and the archaeological excavations still in progress in the area. Archaeologists (thanks to lidar technology) are still finding remains of the ancient city.
As a self-respecting geographer, I have to give some geographical information about the place. Where are the temples of Angkor? These temples are located in the northwest of Cambodia, about 6 km north of the town of Siem Reap. The Khmer city is about ten kilometers away from the Tonle Sap Lake (further south). How to get there?
Let’s get to the heart of the matter: the different possibilities and prices to visit the site. Since my visit to the Khmer city, prices have increased significantly.
In 2018, prices are as follows: $37 for 1 day, $62 for 3 days and $72 for 7 days. In order to have the privilege to visit Angkor, you will have to buy Passes so you can have access to the different temples located within the Khmer city. At the time I visited Angkor (2014), it was still possible to buy the Passes between Siem Reap and Angkor, but this seems to have changed in the last few years. If you are on scooter, ask your guesthouse where the place to buy Passes is located. Otherwise, you can take a Tuk-tuk that will take you there, as it’s located a bit outside the city. The ticket office is open from 5am to 5:30pm.
Important thing to know: the 1/3/7 days passes are actually valid longer than that, respectively 3 days, 7 days and 1 month. This clearly allows you to make the most of your visits and give yourself a “free day” during your 3 days or your week.
We personally opted for the 3-day pass, thinking obviously that one day would be not enough to enjoy the place, and 7 days would surely be a bit too long for us.
Two classical tours are proposed in this great Khmer city. By the way, you do not have to follow these classical tours at all and can make your own itinerary. However, you should know that the two tours include the majority of the temples of the city, except for the remote ones. So not forget to give small tips to the drivers.
The Small Tour (16 Km): This is the option that many tourists choose if they bought the 1-day pass. The tour takes you to the main sites of the Khmer city, starting with the famous Angkor Wat, continuing to Phnom Bakheng, then Angkor Thom (home of the temple of a thousand faces, the Bayon and the terrace of elephants), Ta Keo, Ta Prohm (very famous for its vegetation: its huge trees and its roots, entangled in the stones of the temple). The journey ends with a visit to Banteay Kdei and a return to Angkor Wat for a sunset.
If you are not a big fan of ancient stones and you don’t mind running, this is a possible option.
The big tour (25 Km): This tour, bigger than the small one (strange, isn’t it?!) allows you to discover a whole series of temples a little outside the main part. The beginning is a bit like the small tour but allows you to visit more temples, such as (in order) Preah Khan, Banteasy Prei/Prasat Prei, the Jayatataka pond, Ta Som (splendid), the East Mebon and finally Prasat Leak. The path ends at the temple of Banteay Kdei.
This tour can be done in one day (that’s what we did), but you have to leave very early because of the heat. I’ll tell you more about it below, in my personal tips to visit Angkor.
Depending on your budget, your desires, your motivation, and your ability to withstand the heat, you can choose different types of transportation to visit Angkor and its temples. The most motivated ones could consider taking their time and doing it walking, but distances are long and the heat can be overwhelming, so I’m not sure it is the best solution. Knowing moreover that the first temples of Angkor are located at about 10 km from Siem Reap, where you will probably stay.
This is the option we chose for our 3 days of Angkor visits. It is the most economical way (except walking…) and the one we liked the most. However, you will have to drive the distance every morning between Siem Reap and Angkor, which is a road without much interest. Once there, you are completely autonomous, and you will be able to appreciate freely its splendid landscapes, with the wind and the heat! You should know that the roads are flat over there and I found the rides relatively easily done. In any case, we don’t have any memories of having suffered that much. Taking your time to soak up the sights is really cool on a bike.
You can rent a city bike (1/2$) or a mountain bike for about 5$/day anywhere in Siem Reap. In my opinion, if you have time and don’t mind the heat, bike rides are really ideal for visiting Angkor.
Contrary to what we can see written on some blogs, it is indeed possible to visit Angkor by scooter. However, a recent law has forbidden to rent scooters to tourists in the Siem Reap area. The trick I found is to rent a scooter registered in another area than the one of Siem Reap. This way, you are autonomous, even if I personally didn’t like the idea of riding a noisy machine and polluting a dream setting, hence the choice of a bicycle. It costs about 10$/day, negotiable over several days at 8$/day. You have then to add 2$ of gas/day, to be wide.
This is the easiest solution, that many tourists choose in this busy area. No need to look far as they jump on you as soon as you enter Siem Reap. Even if there are more or less standard rates depending on the number of days or tours you choose, it will depend on how a negotiator you are to have the best final price. Count between 15 and 20$ for the small tour, between 20 and 25$ for the big tour, and between 25 and 35$ for some remote sites of Angkor. These rates are per day and per tuk-tuk.
Tips: make sure you understand what you are planning to visit (tour or temples chosen in advance) – If you choose to take a tuk-tuk for several days, you can negotiate even lower prices. Think about finding other tourists so you can share the price of the ride by 4 or 5 (maximum). – Don’t be fooled into negotiating the number of people, the price is always per tuk-tuk!
The disadvantage is that you will not be able to change the route along the way without negotiation. My vision of things was not really in favor of a motorized vehicle to visit such a beautiful and natural site. However, you should know that it is a possible solution! Yet, we opted for a tuk-tuk on the 4th day, to visit the remote temples of Angkor which are impossible to do by bike…
I was already not a fan of the tuk-tuk idea, so even less of this one. If you are traveling as a big group and you are tired of walking, appreciate air conditioning and comfort, then this solution is surely for you. But in my opinion, you are really missing something if you don’t choose a more local way of transportation. That’s it for the main possibilities to discover the city of Angkor!
As you probably know, the Angkor site is located in the North of Siam Reap city, and most of the tourists go to sleep in the latter to enjoy the temples. Here are some personal recommendations that I had noted when I was there as well as some feedbacks I had from other travelers.
The bamboo House
Located at 2km from the temples by bike, here is a small accommodation famous for its welcome and its breakfast!
Damnak Tormeas Homestay
An establishment close to Angkor Wat, renowned for its hospitality (French speaking).
Andre Boutique Villa
A beautiful establishment located 4km from Angkor Wat, in a very nice natural setting!
The Privilège Floor
A very nice establishment located in the city center, known for its beautiful rooms decorated with care.
Located slightly outside the city, you have some peace and quiet in this house, whose name is firmly established.
Villa Indochine d’Angkor
A very nice and cozy atmosphere in this hotel, located a little away from the crowd in the city center.
A beautiful hotel slightly away from the city, renowned for its hospitality and breakfast!
Shinta Mani Angkor
No one ever find something to complain about here. A beautiful green setting in the heart of downtown Siem Reap.
Located north of the Angkor temples, in a natural setting, you sleep in beautiful tents lost in the middle of the forest, in a quiet place! What a dream!
A few quick words about the weather in the city. Globally, there are many more people during the dry season, which runs roughly from November to February. During this period, rain is rare, and temperatures are a bit cooler.
The rainy season runs from May to September. You have much more chance to have rain (even a big monsoon), and temperatures will also be warmer (normal since it’s summer). On the other hand, you will cross far fewer tourists (but I assure you, there are always some!).
You are free to choose the best period according to your desires, your world trip itinerary or any other thing!
I wrote a complete article about when to go to Cambodia according to the weather, festivals, local vacations, etc.
I give you (randomly, I agree) all my advices to visit the temples of Angkor without any worry and mainly avoiding tourists.
Some common sense first:
- Regarding the dress code, it is forbidden to visit the temples in shorts, short skirt or tank top. Even if it is hot, I advise to wear pants from the beginning of the day and to take your bag a small scarf to cover your shoulders if necessary. Considering the red laterite ground, avoid wearing white…
- Needless to say, temples are fragile. Between the time that has passed for centuries on it and the millions of tourists every year, the city is really put to the test. So, please respect the place by going up on the temples only when you are authorized to do so,
- If you want to take pictures of the monks in the temples, always ask permission,
- The area of Angkor is non-smoking. I say it for the addicts…
- Take your time to enjoy things and opt for the 3 or 7-days pass. The one-day pass is in my opinion way too short to fully enjoy the place. You will only be skimming over things…
- I advise as much as possible to rent a bike for the three days. It is very nice, cheap and ecological,
- Know that you will have to get up early (like, very early) in the morning and be at the temples from the opening (5.30/ 6 a.m). This way, you will already avoid the Asian buses and tour operators who arrive around 8/9 am. Be aware that as soon as the sun rises in the sky, it can get really hot in the temples,
- Don’t hesitate to get lost in the smaller, lesser-known temples, far from the beaten path. Search every corner,
- The sunrise on Angkor Wat can be grandiose but you will not be alone. If the sun is not shining, leave the place quickly to gain some time on the other tourists and go to the next temples,
- Make the most of the hours when tourists are eating. So, plan your meals after 2pm for example. Between 12:00 and 14:00, there are less people, and it is then the opportunity to explore the temples,
- Ask around (other tourists and tuk-tuk) in which direction the tours are usually done and go in the opposite direction. This is what I did on the big loop and I had the opportunity to be alone (or almost) for 2 hours, between 5:30 and 7:30 am. What a pleasure to be able to discover these beauties in a quiet atmosphere, without the noisy crowd,
- Last but not least, don’t forget the temples located outside the city of Angkor, which are a bit off the beaten track. These are really worth a look! Take the time to admire all the bas-relief paintings which are incredibly rich. Go there in a small group of tourists with a tuk-tuk.
I hope that this article has allowed you to know everything about how to visit Angkor. You have now all you need to enjoy a great visit of the city as much as possible. On your side, have you already visited it? What did you think?
The city is one of the jewels of Southeast Asia, like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam or the majestic temples of Bagan in Myanmar, one of the wonders of the world you should see at least once in your life.
Don’t hesitate to go and have a look at the Unesco website about the Angkor temples.
Have a good trip,