Angkor Temples 3-Day Itinerary: Go Beyond Just Angkor Wat!
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3 Days in a Tuk Tuk: Exploring the Ancient Angkor temples
Angkor, Cambodia – surely you’ve heard of it. Temples, jungle, ruins, Tomb Raider filming locations. This word salad comes up often in the travel world, making it nearly impossible to escape the obligation to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding sites. And why not? The vast temple complex embodies the beauty of Khmer architecture, some structures more intact than others, but all are equally mesmerizing. We did our travel duty and didn’t regret it one bit. Our glimpse into Cambodia’s past made use of a three-day visitor’s pass. Not sure if you should visit this famed site, how much time you should invest in temple-hopping, or what to see? Here’s our account of our adventure, with a sample itinerary for a 3-day sightseeing adventure.
Browse this post by topic:
- Siem Reap proper: How to Get in & Where to Stay
- Angkor Tour Day 1
- Angkor Tour Day 2
- Angkor Tour Day 3
- Tips for Sightseeing Like a Pro
Siem Reap: Your Gateway to Angkor Temples and beyond
The best way to explore the Angkor temple complex is to base yourself at Siem Reap, a mid-sized town located in the center-northwest of Cambodia. If you’re already traveling around Southeast Asia, Siem Reap is very easy to get to. You can explore bus connections from major hubs around Cambodia or from Thailand or get in by plane. We came in from Phnom Penh with a bus, which took roughly 6 hours, plus a 2-hour delay thanks to a flat tire which we got in the middle of nowhere. The one-man show that ensued when the driver hunkered down to exchange the massive tire was quite impressive, and I couldn’t even be mad at the delay! And though we arrived much later than expected, we were greeted with a night-time view of the city center.
Lodging in Siem Reap is easy. It’s relatively cheap and there is lots of it. The temples are such a tourist magnet, that there really isn’t much of a low season. However, the high competition still pushes prices down as guesthouses, hotels and hostels all compete for guest. We stayed in Lodestar Hostel, which turned out to be an excellent pick for budget travellers. Recently open, the property has several spacious dorm rooms as well as various double rooms, and there is a small pool in the front yard as well. The pre-booked breakfast was simple but great for the price we paid, prepared fresh until 10 am. The best thing was the accommodating staff, and the owner who was obviously very invested in giving his customers the best experience at his place. Just in the week we spent there, we witnessed several improvements being made to the property.
Solo travellers or those who want to party a bit more should head to Mad Monkey Siem Reap, Lub D, or the Funky Flashpacker. The Onederz Hostel is also a good choice, as it’s located the closest to all the action, just a few steps away from the night market. The Onederz chain can be seen around various spots in Cambodia and typically delivers a nice, minimalist, clean branding, and a good standard. However, they tend to be on the pricier side for a hostel.
Once you’ve gotten yourself situated, getting started with touring the temples is relatively easy. Most – if not all – lodging places will be able to organize a driver and a tour for you. It might be just a tiny bit pricier than getting a driver off the street, but the good thing is that a guesthouse can also organize more specialized tours, including a proper guide or anything else that you might require.
Temple Tours: Wat is Wat
So, to explore the Angkor, Cambodia, you’ll need a way to get around. Lots of people think it’s just this one specific temple (Angkor Wat) – and while this IS probably the most popular and most visited, there are dozens of other sites to see. The entire area of the Angkor temples spans across 400 square meters/4,300 sq feet, with some temples being more than half an hour drive away. Therefore, your best options are to either get a taxi for the entire day (which would be quite pricey) or hire a remorque with a driver for the whole day. The general starting price for a day tour is 15 USD. What is a remorque, you ask? It’s what you get when you combine a motorcycle with a horse-drawn carriage. In literal terms, it’s a motorbike with a 4-seater carriage hitched to the back.
There are hundreds of drivers on the street who will pitch you their services as you walk by. This is one way to get started with a day tour. On the other hand, asking at your guesthouse might be better as the guesthouse probably already has experience and references for a particular driver. You can also browse Facebook for Siem Reap drivers, as many of them have fan pages with helpful reviews or browse a backpacking and travel-related groups on social media for further first-hand references.
Angkor archaeological park Pass: Choose your adventure
To be able to tour the sites, you have to pay an entry ticket and have it with you each day you enter the Angkor Archaeological Park. Being such a high-profile, ancient, and delicate complex, the temples here are actually quite expensive to visit. You’ll have a choice between a 1, 3 and 7-day pass, going for x, y, and z, respectively. You can pay in cash or with certain credit cards (as of October 2018, Mastercard was accepted).
- 1-day pass: $37; valid for until 5 pm on the day of visit
- 3-day pass: $62; valid for 3 day visits within a 10-day period (from date of 1st entry)
- 7-day pass: $72; valid for 7 days within 1 month from the date of 1st entry)
Your driver will take you to the ticket office before you start the tour. It is not located anywhere near the temples, so don’t freak out when you start driving in the other direction. We opted for the 3-day pass, knowing that there is a lot to explore and that cramming all the points of interest in one day would be impossible. It is hot, you need time to travel between sites, not to mention spending lots of time in the actual structures. Additionally, the possibility to distribute multiple visit days within an extended period is excellent.
3-Day Angkor Tour Itinerary: From Big names to smaller sites
Angkor Tour Day 1
We wasted no time in hitting the highlights starting from day 1. The classic ‘touristy’ circuit made sense to start off with, as we thought it might help us gauge the rest of our Angkor tour days and plan them accordingly. Angkor Wat, the most iconic and Insta-famous of the Angkor temples was the first order on the menu. As expected, it was relatively crowded. If you’d like to avoid (or at least minimize) the number of strangers in your pictures, be there right at 8, which is when the park opens. But even so, you will likely not have this place completely to yourself.
Still, it’s a gorgeous temple – there’s absolutely no wonder why it’s so well-visited. You can explore the main walkways or meander through the many side passages and structures. Climbing the actual Angkor Wat temple is also allowed – but keep in mind that it might not be open on certain holidays.
The next stop was the nearby Angkor Thom complex, and the beloved Bayon temple, known for its façade of many faces. The crowds didn’t really let up here either, to no one’s surprise.
As the next stop we picked Ta Prohm. The name might not ring a bell, but movie buffs will probably recognize this structure from countless features, 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider being probably the most famous. This site was probably one of my favorites of the day, along with Banteay Kdei (addressed below).
Ta Prohm’s iconic status stems from the dishevelled and overrun look of the temple. When this structure was uncovered, most of it had been overtaken by the flora of the surrounding jungle. This resulted in a striking struggle between man-made and natural, with the latter clearly dominating. Tree roots taking over entire passages and roofs, collapsed walls and caved-in ceilings – this all creates an exhilarating vibe seen in only a handful of other structures.
Being on the verge of having time for either a total of 3 or 4 temples, we chose to chance it and go for a 4th one since it was still daylight. The ride from Ta Prohm to Banteay Kdei was very short, luckily, – because the temple was about to close. (Typically, Angkor temples close at 4:30 or 5 pm – though at many of them there likely won’t be anyone to stop you.) The good news was that, at this hour, we truly had the place to ourselves. And it was absolutely gorgeous.
Angkor Tour Day 2
After the action-packed first day, we were just about enough motivated to continue exploring the Angkor Archaeological Park. As with the first day, we arranged our stops with the remorque driver the day before. We decided to make our first stop at Preah Khan, a gorgeous structure that took us about 40 minutes to explore. The sister site of Ta Prohm, this one also featured nature taking over man-made efforts – but was also much less crowded.
Neak Pean was our second stop of the day – one that we chose because of its unique position: submerged in water. Getting to the temple involved a 5-minute walk over a marshy lake, which turned out to be one of the most memorable sites for me. The water with random bare trees coming out of the vast surface put an eerie twist to this visit, oddly offset by the sunny blue skies.
The temple itself is, well, pretty much underwater. Still, you can circumnavigate the area and observe the parts of the roof that stick up. Carvings and decoration have their place on pretty much every piece of stone that you’ll see. Stray roosters and chickens wander around the area, which adds to the unique vibe of the place.
The next stop was done a bit in a hurry – it was just too damn hot to take it slow! Despite the heat, Ta Keo was very much worth stopping at. Even despite the climbing of stairs that was involved! Did I say bring lots of water with you?
Angkor Tour Day 3
The last day of our Angkor tour involved the highest amount of driving. We were aiming for the Banteay Srei temple (aka the Lady Temple), which calls for a solid 30 minute drive from the main Angkor complex. If you find yourself wanting to visit something similarly far off, count on your driver quoting you a slightly higher price. But before hitting up Banteay Srei, we stopped at Wat Thmei, which hosts a heartbreaking tribute to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The informative placards will give you enough background information about the effects of the violent regime on that area of Cambodia, while an outdoor altar holds the remnants recovered from some of the mass graves found in the area.
Our second stop was meant to be at APOPO, a ‘museum’ of sorts, which aims to raise awareness and funds for the removal of leftover landmines in the Cambodian countryside. Why is this a place worth seeing? Well, APOPO’s method for removing landmines is very unique. This non-profit organization has been training African Giant Pouched Rats to sniff out the leftover weaponry for nearly two decades, starting in various countries on the African continent, and then moving on to Cambodia. APOPO’s work is truly fascinating, and another amazing thing is that these talented rats can also sniff out tuberculosis. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a multiple-day local holiday, and we didn’t find out that the place was closed until we were standing in front of the gate. I hope you won’t be that unlucky.
Dismayed by our APOPO hiccup, we moved on to the main course of the day: the Lady Temple, a.k.a. Banteay Srei. In case you’re wondering whether the price increase for the driver is justified – it is. The temple was a solid 30-minute drive through the countryside. Perfect time to wind down and take in the picturesque fields and bustling local villages. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) Banteay Srei has a lot more infrastructure around it once you’re there. Thorough informational boards and a visitor’s desk aim to help clueless visitors like us, and there are bathroom facilities as well. The temple itself is well worth the drive. Starts out unimpressive when approaching the front gate but turns into a gorgeous display of Khmer aesthetics and craftsmanship just moments after.
We came here in the late afternoon, and the golden hour didn’t fail to provide some amazing lighting. We took our time here, poking around and playing with the water reflections in the moat.
The way back was just as long, but we had a nice end of Angkor tour ahead of us – a sunset at Phnom Bakheng hill.
Word of advice about Phnom Bakheng: arrive early-ish. The walk from the base, where you’ll get dropped off, to the entry point is a solid 15-20 min meandering walk up a (not too steep) hill. There is a line to get in since there is a limited number of people the structure can ‘hold’, so to speak (we are dealing with centuries-old and protected buildings here). All in all, though, this sunset spot wasn’t as spectacular as I expected, judging the crowds that showed up.
Angkor Tour Tips: How to do Angkor right
It seems like such an easy task: get into a tuk tuk, go to some sites, enjoy the view. But trust me, the hot and humid weather and the overwhelming number of beautiful and interesting things can make each day into a taxing experience. Here are some tips on how to visit the Angkor Archaeological Park without hating your life.
Of course, it’s possible to just set up a tour with any driver you’ll see on the street, but you’ll likely get to have a more personalized approach to building your tour if you take the time and organize something through the hotel you’re staying at. If your hotel’s prices are slightly inflated, simply inquire at another hotel where you deem the prices to be adequate. As of October 2018, the going rate for a normal day tour (small circuit) was $15.
Of course you can organize a proper tour guide to visit Angkor. That’ll probably cost you close to $30 dollars or so. If you’re trying to watch your spending a bit but still want a guided experience for main site of Angkor Wat, you can find a guide directly at the Angkor Wat entry gate, who will quote you a much lower price (as low as $10). Not in the parking lot, not on the way – directly at the entrance. The guys hanging out here know you’ve passed through the gauntlet of several guide offers on the way there and rejected them, so this is their last chance to pitch a good price.
We were very glad we followed our driver’s advice on this – the heat and the humidity were excruciating at times. Plus, it didn’t really cost us much effort to take all those bottles with us – the remorques all have a small storage space under the seats, so you can easily stow stuff away.
Yes, you can buy a few things in front of many bigger temples, but it’ll likely be always the same: some fruit, maybe a corn on the cobb, some ice cream. If you’d like to much on something more substantial, it’s best to bring a lil’ stash with you. Plus, you will save money not buying overpriced things in the Angkor complex. Restaurants within a park are few and far between and they are – you guessed it – overpriced.
We were so glad we did this! Otherwise it would have been too exhausting and, frankly, too much information. Temple fatigue is a real thing, and you don’t want to screw up a once in a lifetime sightseeing visit with a loss of interest. There are plenty of massage places in Siem Reap to try out, delicious food, happy hour deals, happy pizzas, plus a cheap movie theater!
Though wearing short shorts and sleeveless shirts is seen as disrespectful, we saw more than a few people getting away with it. Still, I’d advise to be a bit more sensible about it and put on a long dress or some of those loose harem pants so many tourists rock (yours truly included).
It’s true that you’ll be visiting full structures and ruins. Still, loads of the sites involve quite a bit of time out in the open. Angkor Wat, for instance, has a huge entryway that will give you a solid 15 minutes in the blazing sun. Many other temples require you to climb up to the top where you’ll be completely exposed to the elements. Take our advice to make sure you don’t end up needing that aloe vera sunburn massage afterwards.
Siem Reap and Angkor Temples: Is it worth it?
In short – absolutely! Do yourself a favor and devote at least a couple of days to this magnificent site to give it the time and respect it deserves. Truly a once in a lifetime experience! If you’re archaelogically inclined and would love to explore similar sites, I’d strongly recommend visiting Bagan, Myanmar, which (so far) costs a fraction of the price of Angkor. And if you’re in the area of Inle Lake, Myanmar, a boat tour to Indein Village will also stun you with centuries-old pagodas!