The world’s largest religious complex, Cambodia's Angkor Wat (which means “City of Temples”) covers some 500 acres. At one time, 750,000 people were said to live on the site, but it’s been abandoned for centuries.
It was built by a Khmer king in the 12th century as a Hindu temple, and later served as a Buddhist shrine and place of pilgrimage. Its remarkable stone structures -- with spires reaching heavenward and walls lined with bas-reliefs and other artworks -- lie amid the forests near the Cambodian city of Siem Reap.
Visiting Angkor Wat is a top itinerary item for tours to Cambodia, but be prepared for a lot of crowds.
A common misnomer is that Angkor Wat and Angkor are the same thing, when in fact Angkor Wat is just one temple in the enormous ruin city, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, city of Angkor.
Countless temples are strewn throughout the temple complex, and even with several days to spend exploring, it's impossible to see them all. Below we’ve compiled a selection of some of the unmissable temples. You could reasonably see these, plus the crown jewel of Angkor Wat itself, in two days, but if you’re one to prefer taking your time to explore and especially if you enjoy travel photography, you definitely will want more time than that.
The Main Temple of Angkor Wat
The most famous of the Angkor temples, and the one after whom the temple complex is named, Angkor Wat is instantly recognizable. But pictures will not do the temple justice, and the sight of the gigantic towers and sprawling grounds are far more impressive in person. It's worth the effort to make it to the temple by sunrise, to watch the sky change color above the imposing towers. Or better yet, take a ride in a hot air balloon to take in the view from the air.
Built between the years 1130 - 1150, the temple of Angkor Wat is the most famous and well known perhaps because it is still in use today. A Hindu temple designed to represent the home on earth of the gods, its massive scale is truly impressive.
Most historians agree that the temple was used both as a tomb and temple, a fact supported by its western facing carvings and doors, and the bas-reliefs were designed to read in a counterclockwise direction.
To protect this magnificent site, be respectful of areas that are off limits, dress appropriately, and take your time. The many gorgeous carvings along the walls reveal epic stories, myths, and describe a people close to their religion and extremely devoted. Breezing through to check the site off your bucket list will ultimately leave you disappointed and rushed - this is a site which begs to be examined and appreciated for all its historical significance and beauty.
How to Get to Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is actually the large main temple within the ancient city of Angkor, which is what you’ll actually spend more time exploring during your visit. These fascinating ruins became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, though despite valiant and ongoing efforts to keep them in as good shape as possible, a continuously growing influx of tourists have made protection an enormous challenge.
Tours to Angkor Wat typically leave from Siem Reap, which is about a 20 minute drive away. There are several ways you can arrange to see the site, including renting a car, renting a bike or motorized scooter, or going by hired tuk-tuk. Walking is not recommended, only because the heat can be intense, and you’ll be walking by multiple moving vehicles going at different speeds, and some places have very little sidewalk.
Renting a car can provide a nice breather between temples as you enjoy a reprieve in the air conditioning. But if you can stand the heat, the cheaper options are nicer as you have less crowds to deal with as you try to park.
There are 3 different passes you can decide between, once you arrive at Angkor. A Day Pass, A Three Day Pass, and a Week Long Pass. (The US dollar is widely accepted throughout Cambodia).
Forget any illusions you may have about Angkor Wat being empty and devoid of other people. It will definitely be full of other tourists exploring the ruins. Even the much lauded sunrise tour, to be among the first to get to the site, is a deceivingly busy activity. Though you may elect for this opportunity, you won’t necessarily be getting to the site when “no one else is there” which is how some tours sell this experience.
What to Wear for Angkor Wat
To visit the temples of Angkor, appropriate and respectful attire is expected. This includes long pants covering the knee, and covered shoulders. There are guards at each temple entrance (they will require you to show your pass, so they can add a punch to it) and they have been known to refuse entry for improper attire.
One major thing to keep in mind is the heat - particularly considering that you will be wearing conservative attire. Given this, try to find clothing that breathes easily, and doesn’t cling. Avoid cotton and other materials that are absorbent and thick.
High humidity is uncomfortable no matter what so anything you can do to minimize feeling icky is helpful - remember, you’ll be outside for the vast majority of your Angkor Wat tour. Make sure you bring a lot of water, and wear comfortable walking shoes. Exploring Angkor requires extensive, very steep stairs, so you’ll want good shoes, ideally with ankle support.
Cambodia remains fairly warm throughout the year, however there are some differences in wet vs dry seasons. The humidity is the highest during the hot and rainy season, between June and August. This is going to be quite uncomfortable for traveling, especially if you’re not use to humidity. It also coincides with summer in the northern hemisphere, which is one of the busiest travel times of the year, so the crowds will be heavy.
March through May is also quite warm, coming off of the cool season. Temperatures range in the 70s and 80s F, with high, but mostly bearable humidity.
The ideal travel months in terms of weather in Cambodia are November through February. This is the dry season, and you’ll also experience fewer crowds. During this time, temperatures average between high 60s and 70s F, with less humidity.
Temperatures are also cooler between September and November, and it is less humid, but it will most likely be wet and rainy.
Photography Tips for Angkor Wat
The spires, steps, carvings, and countless pathways at Angkor Wat create unbelievable compositions for stunning photographs. Photography enthusiasts, amatuer through to professional will always find something new to capture through the lens at Angkor Wat.
Here are some top tips for getting the best photos out of your Angkor Wat visit:
1. Bring multiple lenses - Angkor is one of those rare destinations that offers incredible variety for the type of photography you want to do. A telephoto lens will help you get up close with the many wall carvings and intricate designs within the temples. While a wide angle will be ideal for capturing the depth and scope of the temples and city.
2. Go on a photography tour - Especially for enthusiastic amateurs looking to bring their photographs to the next level, a photography tour is the perfect avenue to learn. Not only will you be able to visit incredible sights, you’ll have the opportunity to learn from a professional. And in a place like Angkor, where there are so many small walkways, multiple temples, and multiple views, your guide will know all the best places for photographs, including those that are “hidden.”
3. Lens cloth - in humid weather, like that you will experience in Cambodia, lens fogging is common. While this can create an interesting effect, it may not be the one you intend. Bring your camera out of it’s protective bag a good few minutes before you plan to shoot, and have a lens cloth handy throughout the day.
4. Comfortable neck/shoulder strap - Angkor Wat is full of incredible photo opps, and you will quickly get exhausted with pulling your camera out every 5 seconds. It is also typically very humid, and your generic camera strap may get itchy and uncomfortable in the heat. Fashion yourself a personalized lens strap with any kind of durable, soft, water resistant material to help with the burden of carrying your camera all day long.
5. Filters - Especially if you elect to do the popular sunrise tour at Angkor Wat, consider a filter to help display the subtle color and lighting of the sky as effectively as possible.
6. Practice shooting in shadow. Angkor provides a lot of wonderful opportunities for dramatic contrasts and sharp light shafts. Get to know your camera’s manual settings, and possibly practice with an external flash. You won’t want a strong flash, but one used with a diffuser might help bring out details in your shadowy photographs.
7. Bring a monopod - You will be walking around a lot in the hot sun, and a tripod will get cumbersome. And you don’t really need one for Angkor, as you’ll find many places to place your camera to keep it steady, or use a monopod. You’ll definitely want this option for shooting extended exposures in low light, but for the most part, it should suffice rather than a bulky and heavy tripod.
8. There will be people around. Embrace the fact that there will be a lot of crowds. You can pretty easily manage to get some pictures without people that are tight in portrait style, but your wide shots will almost certainly have people in them.
Angkor’s Other Temples
Angkor Wat is the most famous of the Angkor temples, and the one most people initially visit to see. However upon arriving, it may quickly become apparent that there’s so much else to see, and that Angkor is far more expansive than often thought by first time travelers.
The massive stone faces that adorn Bayon temple set it apart from the many temples of Angkor. Take your time exploring the different levels, as there are 214 of these faces to be found. Bayon was built in approximately 1190 AD, a Buddhist temple which incorporates Hindu elements as well.
Take your time as you explore the outer wall of this temples first level. Unique and intricately detailed carvings depict everyday life for the people of the time. As you continue through in a clockwise direction you’ll pass more panels depicting various tasks, important events (such as soldiers going or returning from war), and customs. Certain details seem much unchanged to the way provincial Cambodians live today.
Ta Prohm Temple
Ta Prohm, with its crumbling walls and jungle setting, gives visitors the sense that they have stumbled upon the ruins of a lost city. Gigantic trees entangle themselves among the rocks, and visitors can enjoy exploring and clambering over the massive roots. Some of the best photo opportunities can be found here, as the endlessly fascinating and foreboding theme of nature overcoming man made structures to reclaim the land once again is prevalent. This is also the famous “Tomb Raider Temple” as a famous shot from the entertaining franchise featuring Angelina Jolie took place here.
Built in 1186, Ta Prohm is one of the only Angkor temples to provide inscriptions within the stone walls that give an indication of why it was built, and a record of its inhabitants. It was built in dedication to the mother of Jayavarman VII.
Preah Khan Temple
Ta Prohm can become crowded quickly as it is the more well known of the overgrown temples to see. Preah Khan provides a wonderful alternative where fewer tourists venture. In a similar overgrown style to Ta Prohm, visitors can often enjoy having Preah Khan to themselves and feeling like a true explorer.
This temple, the name of which means “sacred sword” most likely served as the temporary residence of Jayavarman VII while his bigger home was in the process of being built.
Preah Khan was dedicated to over 500 divinites and hosted no less than 18 festivals during the year. While it was active, thousands of people lived and worked here to help maintain the space, as it saw so much buzz and activity.
Prasat Kravan Temple
Though on the smaller end of the Angkor temples, Prasat Kravan packs a punch. Especially when it comes to the beautiful and intricate stone carvings on the walls of its interior. This is a Hindu temple, built in the year 921, unique for the fact that it was not built by or for royalty at the time. It is set apart from the main complex, but it you have extra time during your Angkor exploration, dedicate it to Prasat Kravan.
Phnom Bakheng Temple
Built on a hilltop overlooking the temple complex, Phnom Bakheng is an ideal location from which to watch the sunset. Though make sure you allow enough time to get there early - 4pm is a good bet - as only 300 people are allowed up to the main sunset viewing area at one time. This is strictly enforced for safety as well as preservation. The sunset from this vantage point is well worth it however, so try to calculate it into your Angkor tour.
This was the first temple-mountain built in Angkor, for the ruler Yasovarman I. It has five tiers and seven levels, representing the seven Hindu heavens.