Angkor Wat One Day Guide: The Best of Angkor

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One day in Angkor. Guidebooks recommend spending at least three to get the most out of it.  I chose to do it in one, and a one-day Angkor itinerary, while not optimal, is absolutely possible.

I put together this one-day guide to Angkor for people who appreciate temples, but don’t live and die by them.  I’m not ashamed of admitting that I fall into that category.  While I’m crazy about modern architecture, ancient temples don’t really do it for me.

That being said, Angkor is amazing. Trust me, you’ll be impressed.  But I could only take so much of it.

If you’re only able to spend one day in Angkor, here’s what to see:

Part I: Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

Your one-day ticket gives you access to Angkor from 5:00 PM on the previous day.  Join the masses and go for sunset at Phnom Bakeng.  Your driver will take you right there.

Be aware that much climbing is involved and you’ll be one of hundreds of tourists. But seeing the sun slowly set over the Cambodian countryside is nothing short of divine.

Part II: Sunrise at Angkor Wat

I hope you’re willing to get up at 4:30 AM, because your guide will be picking you up from your guesthouse at 5:00! (You also definitely shouldn’t be doing shots at 2:00 AM at the bar called Angkor WHAT?! the night before, but that’s another story for another time.)

Once you get to Angkor, there will be vendors selling coffee, tea, baguettes and fruit.  Get a cup, if you’re so inclined, and make your way to the lake in front of Angkor Wat.

Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is an incredibly crowded atmosphere as well, but the view is so amazing, you’ll forgive it.

My tip?  Stand behind a short Japanese lady and shoot over her head.

Part III: Explore Angkor Wat

As soon as the sun has illuminated the front of Angkor Wat, it’s time to leave. You’ve already seen the best of the sunrise — seeing the silhouette of Angkor Wat illuminated from behind.

At that point, it’s time to run up to Angkor Wat and explore.  The crowds will be minimal at this time of day, and you’ll get much of the temple to yourself. That makes for great photo opportunities.

Part IV: Explore Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is an ancient city that reached its peak in the 12th century with a population of one million (!!).  Today, the wood and straw homes in which people lived were destroyed by the elements, but the stone temples remain.

There are three main temples in Angkor Thom, and each of them deserve a view:

IV-A: Bayon

Bayon was my favorite temple at Angkor. The 54 faces carved into the rocks are absolutely scintillating, and I love the tidbit that they bear more than a passing resemblance to the visage of megalomaniac King Jayavarman VII.

Come on, wouldn’t you have done the same thing?  It’s good to be the king.

IV-B: Baphuon

This temple is still currently being put back together, which is why you’ll see the yard in front of it covered with mismatched bricks.

For a real thrill, climb the stairs in the back — it’s the steepest, scariest staircase I’ve ever seen.  I’m still shocked I made it down unscathed!  But the feeling of achievement after climbing to the top is pretty unbelievable.

IV-C: The Terrace of Elephants

Back in the day, this terrace was where the king would make proclamations to his audience. Public ceremonies took place.  I love imagining centuries ago when the million citizens of the Khmer empire came out to hear the king speak!

Also — I love the elephant motif that is present throughout the structure!

Part V: Explore Ta Prohm

Feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft?  This is your place. The temples at Ta Prohm are wrapped in centuries-old tree roots and insanely photogenic.

Consequently, this is where the tourist crowds are at their worst. Good luck getting a picture without any other people in it!  Do what I did in the photo above, and find an obscure corner.

Part VI: Extras

Honestly, by this point, you’ll likely be templed out. But if you want more, ask your driver what’s good to see.

The best destinations will cost more money and be a lengthy drive away. Figure out in advance if this is something you’d like to do.  If not, there are plenty of nearby sites, including the lake above.

If you have more than one day, you can see several more temples that were built in starkly different styles from the rest of the major temples of Angkor. If not, rest assured — you’ve seen the major highlights.

Here are a few more tips:

  • Get a driver.  Tourists aren’t permitted to drive themselves.  You can hire a driver with a tuk-tuk or motorbike.  I chose the motorbike, as it’s cheaper and a hell of a lot more fun.
  • The one-day Angkor ticket costs $20. The three-day ticket costs $40.
  • Once you arrive in Siem Reap and get transferred to your guesthouse, your driver will try to be your driver at the temples. Ask him where he’d take you for the day, determine whether he knows his stuff, then take him up on it.  Most Siem Reap drivers know which temples to see. You can find a place to stay in Siem Reap here.
  • Once again, take time to relax and chill. You need to take breaks at Angkor, even if you’re only there for one day.

Above all, if temples aren’t your thing, don’t force yourself to see every last one of them. Travel is about making yourself happy.  Do what makes you happiest.

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53 thoughts on “Angkor Wat One Day Guide: The Best of Angkor”

  1. Skott and Shawna

    Hey Kate – thanks for the itinerary….we, like you, would likely be more of a 1-day Angkor people…I keep envisioning scads of other travellers, and we would likely tire of the crowds pretty quick….this sounds like an excellent plan to see amazing architecture, without going insane!

    1. Skott and Shawna – One point is that if you go to the smaller temples there are few (if any) tourists. It’s only at the main temples that there are lots of tourists. I really think it’s worth taking the time to see some of the smaller, more off-the-beaten path temples, especially Banteay Srea and Banteay Kdei which are outside of the main complex.

  2. Sounds so much like my one day visit when I went…except I missed the sunrise and sunsets and spent the one day temple hopping. If you are inclined to splurge on one out of the way temple, I suggest Banteay Srey, which is filled with amazing, intricate stone carvings. It’s around 40km from Angkor Wat, and I believe it was an extra $10 for my tuk tuk driver. We made a pit stop at Pre Rup on the way there…

    1. Definitely sunrise. It’s unique to Angkor. I’ve seen a lot of great sunsets in my time abroad, many of them in Koh Lanta, so missing the sunset wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

  3. Oh, I loved Angkor Wat! I did the temples in one day too, just enough to hit all the highlights (Bayon was my favorite too!). The only thing is that I wish I had made it to a sunset or sunrise viewing. It looks amazing. Angkor in itself is definitely a sight to see though.

  4. Wow. I had no idea that you could spend 3 days there and that there was so much to see. Great tip about the vendors who sell coffee and baguettes in the early morning. I’d love to go for the sunrise but I can’t function without a little food and caffeine — especially when I know I’ll be walking all day! Also, what’s the deal with the guest house at Siem Reap? Is that what everyone does?

    1. I stayed at Green Village guesthouse. It was a great place — I paid $3 for a private room with shared bathroom, the WiFi was excellent, and they had a great lounge upstairs with 50-cent beers all day.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with your tips! I love ancient architecture–Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples were amazing, but there is such a thing as getting templed out, so unless you are a major history buff, the highlights you listed are the must-sees!

    We got wrangled in to visiting a “waterfall”– after a long ride on a scooter and an even longer hike we got to see a miniscule stream of water flowing over a small rock, but the best part is we got to pay $20 to see the “site”! Make sure you have someone semi-reputable taking you around!!

  6. Whew! I can’t imagine visiting all of that in 1 day. We did all of that over 7 days and never had temple fatigue because we spent half-days and did other activities. If you have the time, it is definitely worth slowing down at Angkor. I wrote about our advice here: http://theroadforks.com/worldtrip/cambodia/avoid_temple_fatigue_at_angkor

    Personally, we thought that the sunrise and sunset were overhyped but that was only our experience – we heard other people say that they got good shots.

  7. This is a great post. I’ll surely bookmark it to peak at when I’m there in the flesh. Love the photos, especially of the elephant trunks.

  8. Above all, if temples aren’t your thing, don’t force yourself to see every last one of them. Travel is about making yourself happy.

    I agree Kate, I was also all templed out in Ayutthaya in Thailand and having a guide who was all over the place didn’t help either. It would have been much nicer to explore by ourselves at a leisurely pace. But I’m a bit shocked to know how expensive a 3 day pass to Angkor Wat is!

  9. kate, i love you blog! and i particularly love this post on angkor. i visited siem reap three years ago and miss it so much. angkor wat was amazing. i just wish i could’ve captured beautiful photos like yours! my only regret.

  10. The sunset/sunrise looks amazing. I think I would definitely sacrifice a bit of sleep to experience those! I’ve never been to Angkor, but these seem like great tips to me!

  11. Hi, great description there!

    Am planning a trip there, but only for the later part of 2013. Just curios, how about sunset? What time would you know? Thanks a bunch!

  12. You can also get a car with driver, it’s not just tuk-tuk. Chill with the AIrCon between temples and hit the next one refreshed.

  13. Hi Kate,
    We just came back from a week at Siem Reap. Amazing Place.
    I read you post and I agree with you. Kind of. The temples you visited are all on the Small Circuit and its pretty exhausting. They’re all big and take hours to explore, are close together (so you don’t get much of a break between temples), and they’re crowded with tourists. We did this tour on the first day and were exhausted.
    But if you get off that well-beaten path you would have enjoyed it more. The 2nd day we did the Grand Circuit and the 3rd day the outlying temples. Much more enjoyable. A heavy post on all this: http://bbqboy.net/ancient-angkor-and-the-top-10-temples-of-angkor-wat-archaeological-park/

    What is amazing is the variety: from temples covered by moss or tree roots, to temple-mountains, to others that look like stone cities rising from the jungle. Really worth a 2nd visit!
    Frank (bbqboy)

  14. Hey Kate thanks you helped me do my project it’s the easiest way ever specially I’m in a hurry because I Passed it late..Thanks a lot

  15. Hi Kate, would you recommend joining a one-day tour or getting a driver to get us around the sites on our own? In the latter, any good drivers to recommend? Thanks!

    1. You’ll be propositioned on the street constantly. You can also book someone through your guesthouse. If you’re on a budget, see if you can team up with other travelers at your guesthouse or hostel.

  16. Hello Kate, thanks for the post and it has been a real help since I am planning out trip to Angkor wat very soon, I was wondering what is the average price for the driver per day? And so, you did have a guide that works also as your driver? Thanks so much and I am getting more excited to this Asia trip after reading your posts!!

  17. Hi Kate, very useful information, thanks for sharing your experience…

    How long would it take to do the tour from 4.30am to Part V: Explore Ta Prohm?
    I’m going for 2 days to Cambodia but I´m not a huge temple Lover

    Thanks

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