Angkor Wat and Other Temples To See In Cambodia
Angkor Wat is the top tourist attraction in Cambodia. // Janelle Bitker
By Janelle Bitker
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and a must-visit destination on bucket lists everywhere. The temple, along with its surrounding city of ruins, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site: more than 1,000 temples—some reduced to rubble—stretching across 400 square kilometers. You could spend weeks traversing the ancient capital, gazing at remarkably well-preserved, intricate carvings detailing Hindu legends.
But let’s be honest. Most of us don’t have weeks to spend in one archaeological site. We might only have one day. Prices also increased earlier this year—from $20 to $37 for a day, $40 to $62 for three days, and $60 to $72 for one week—making a single-day pass suddenly seem significantly more affordable, especially if you’re traveling with a family. With so much to see, a game plan is in order.
First, some historical context: Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire back in the 9th to 15th centuries. Despite the Khmer Empire’s clearly advanced civilization, nearly all of Angkor was mysteriously abandoned during the 15th century. Today, you’ll see images of Angkor Wat all over the country as a symbol of Cambodia’s grand history and potential.
The temple complex sits about 20 minutes outside Siem Reap, a small city 30 minutes north of Cambodian capital Phnom Penh by plane or 6 hours by bus. It’s well-stocked with hotels suiting all budgets as well as restaurants, bars and spas.
No matter which temples you see, you’ll probably see impressive engravings. // Janelle Bitker
The first major decision you’ll need to make is transportation. While adventure-seekers could rent motorcycles, we recommend a car or tuk-tuk. A car and driver for the day starts at $30, and you’ll appreciate the air-conditioning. A tuk-tuk (a rickshaw attached to a motorcycle) will give you shade but can get really dusty. Still, it’s fun, and more affordable at about $15. Your hotel should be able to arrange either option for you, but make sure you agree on a price upfront with your driver.
Next is, do you want a tour guide? While your tuk-tuk driver might speak English and know the temples, they won’t actually be able to enter any of them with you. An English-speaking guide for a full day should cost $30. Alternatively, you could hire a car with a tour guide as the driver.
Lastly, do you want to witness the sunrise or sunset? Some fly to Siem Reap purely to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. But you have to wake up early—drivers will pick you up as early as 4 a.m.—and fight crowds for your perfect shot. If you choose this route, buy your tickets the day prior, as the ticket office doesn’t open until 5 a.m.
If you start your day at a more leisurely pace, say, 9 a.m., you could enjoy lunch in Siem Reap and make it until sunset. The prime spots are Phnom Bakheng or the more low-key Pre Rup. Warning: only 300 people are let in at Phnom Bakheng at a time, so aim to arrive by 4 p.m.
Either way, here are the temples you must hit, in order:
1. Angkor Wat
But your car driver can (or you can book a car that has a driver who is a tour guide), so that should be mentioned here.
The symmetry of Angkor Wat. // Janelle Bitker
Cambodia’s most renowned site was built by Khmer King Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu in the 12th century. The best preserved of Angkor’s many temples is now the country’s No. 1 tourist attraction. Prepare to question your concept of personal space, regardless of whether you arrive for sunrise. Luckily, the grounds are massive and beautiful. Take your time—it’s called a wonder of the world for a reason.
Bayon’s peaceful faces. // Janelle Bitker
Though not the international household name of Angkor Wat, Bayon holds deep reverence among the Cambodian people. Bayon is the main temple of the walled city Angkor Thom, located north of Angkor Wat. It’s also a Buddhist temple, built roughly 100 years after Angkor Wat, with 54 towers carved into images of the smiling Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. While there are other temples within Angkor Thom, none compare to Bayon—or the other temples on this list, for that matter.
3. Preah Khan
Preah Khan’s corridors seem to go on and on. // Janelle Bitker
This is the least famous of the four recommended sites, but in ways, it’s the most impressive. Located north of Bayon, Preah Khan is one of the largest temples in Angkor, comprised of a maze of corridors that create a hall of mirrors effect. Significantly less crowded than the other temples on this list, you could easily spend two hours exploring Preah Khan alone.
4. Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm is famous for its trees, and rightly so. // Janelle Bitker
Often known as the “Indiana Jones temple,” Ta Prohm sees long, organized lines to take photos at its most popular sections. Brace yourself. Although its design echoes aspects of Preah Khan, Ta Prohm is a must-see because of the astounding way the jungle has taken over. Tangled tree roots cloak entire walls while others rumble through the moss-covered courtyards. The shady greenery makes for a great finale.
Temple tours can be long and exhausting but no matter how tired, you can always look back at the breathtaking views you’ve collected all throughout and end the day with a smile.