Traveling to the Cambodian temple country and discovering the beauty of the unique Angkor temples is an experience that you will never be forgotten.
When talking about Cambodia, what is the most striking image you have in mind?
I bet that most of you will say things like, “This is Angkor Wat, one of the largest and most recognizable religious sites in the world.” But contrary to all of that common thought, Angkor Wat is actually just a temple in Cambodia. The entire temple relic here is called Angkor, a large area of over 1,000 temples of various sizes. Read the article below to learn more about the temples of angkor.
Table of Contents
- 1. Understand
- 2. On the ground
- 3. Itineraries
- 4. When to go and weather
- 5. Planning tools
- 6. Practical information
Angkor Wat is the ultimate expression of Khmer genius – an awe-inspiring temple that is stunning for both its grand scale and its incredible detail.
Angkor Wat – built by Suryavarman II (r 1112–52) – is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The Cambodian god-kings of old each strove to better their ancestors’ structures in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in what is believed to be the world’s largest religious building.
The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. The logistics of such an operation are mind blowing, consuming the labour of thousands. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants, yet it was still not fully completed.
The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia and a source of fierce national pride. Unlike the other Angkor monuments, it was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built.
A visit to Cambodia’s World Heritage Temples of Angkor complex is understandably high on the list for many travellers. Get to know a little about the history, meaning and features of its most renowned and iconic temple, Angkor Wat, then start planning that once-in-a-lifetime trip.
1.2 Planning your trip
- Best time to go: it is possible to visit Angkor Wat at any time of year, but peak season is from November to February, when the weather is dry and cooler, although it’s still hot for most. The best time of day is sunrise when it’s cooler but crowded, or lunchtime when most of the tour groups are in town.
- How long you’ll need: allow plenty of time to take it all in. Plan at least three hours to explore the whole complex, but more like half a day if you want to explore every nook and cranny.
- Opening hours: Angkor Wat opens at 5am for visitors who want to see the sunrise from this iconic spot. The upper level (Bakan Sanctuary) is only open from 7.30am. Angkor Wat closes at 5.30pm.
- Costs: an entry pass to the temples of Angkor costs US$37 for one day, US$62 for three days (which can be used over one week) and US$72 for one week (which can be used over one month).
- Where to stay: Siem Reap is just 7km from Angkor Wat and is the base for exploring the temples.
- Getting around: choose from motos (motorbike taxis) for one person, remork-motos (tuk-tuks) for two, and private cars or minivans for families or small groups. Ecofriendly options include mountain bikes or electric bicycles. Guided tours can also be arranged in Siem Reap.
- For more: check out our video to learn why Lonely Planet voted the Temples of Angkor the world’s number 1 sight.
2. On the ground
On Location with Tomb Raider
Several sequences for the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, were shot around the temples of Angkor. The Cambodia shoot opened at Phnom Bakheng, with Lara looking through binoculars for the mysterious temple. The baddies were already trying to break in through the east gate of Angkor Thom by pulling down a giant (polystyrene!) apsara. Reunited with her custom Land Rover, Lara made a few laps around Bayon before discovering a back way into the temple from Ta Prohm. After battling a living statue and dodging Daniel Craig (aka 007) by diving off the waterfall at Phnom Kulen, she emerged in a floating market in front of Angkor Wat, as you do. She came ashore here before borrowing a mobile phone from a local monk and venturing into the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, where she was healed by the abbot.
The Lost City of Mahendrapravarta
Phnom Kulen hit the headlines in 2013 thanks to the ‘discovery’ of a lost city known in Angkorian times as Mahendraparvata. Using jungle-piercing LIDAR radar technology, the structures of a more extensive archaeological site have been unveiled beneath the jungle canopy. However, it wasn’t quite as dramatic a discovery as initially reported, as Phnom Kulen had long been known as an important archaeological site. The LIDAR research confirmed the size and scale of the ancient city, complete with canals and barays, in the same way NASA satellite imagery had helped identify the size and scale of the greater Angkor hydraulic water system more than a decade earlier. Some new temples and features were identified beneath the jungle, but remain remote and inaccessible due to terrain and the possibility of land mines. An additional LIDAR survey of the entire Kulen plateau was conducted in 2015.
For most people nearby Siem Reap is the base for exploring the temples of Angkor, with an incredible array of accommodation on offer from budget hostels to opulent hotels. There is no accommodation around Angkor as such, although there are some rustic options in the rural districts such Banteay Srei district for those seeking a local experience.
Many of the tour groups buzzing around Angkor head back to Siem Reap for lunch. Stick around the temples to take advantage of the lack of crowds, explore some popular sites and enjoy a local lunch at one of the many stalls. Almost all of the major temples have some sort of nourishment available beyond the walls. Moto and remork-moto drivers often know the best places
- Angkor Cafe
- Khmer Village Restaurant
- Naom Banchok Noodle Stalls
- Natural Vegetable Food Place
- Stoeng Trorcheak Restaurant
2.4 Drinking and nightlife
Water and soft drinks are available throughout the temple area, and many sellers lurk outside the temples, ready to pounce with offers of cold drinks. Sometimes they ask at just the right moment; on other occasions it is the 27th time in an hour that you’ve been approached and you are ready to scream. Try not to – you’ll scare your fellow travellers and lose face with the locals.
Heading north from Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is the first major temple, followed by the walled city of Angkor Thom. To the east and west of this city are two vast former reservoirs, which once helped to feed the huge population; the eastern reservoir is now completely dried up. Further east are temples including Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Pre Rup. North of Angkor Thom is Preah Khan, and way beyond in the northeast, Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, Phnom Kulen and Beng Mealea. To the southeast of Siem Reap is the early Angkorian Roluos group of temples.
3.1 Small Circuit
The 17km Small Circuit begins at Angkor Wat and heads north to Phnom Bakheng, Baksei Chamkrong and Angkor Thom, including the city wall and gates, the Bayon, the Baphuon, the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas, Preah Palilay, the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of Elephants, the Kleangs and Prasat Suor Prat. It exits from Angkor Thom via the Victory Gate in the eastern wall, and continues to Chau Say Tevoda, Thommanon, Spean Thmor and Ta Keo. It then heads northeast of the road to Ta Nei, turns south to Ta Prohm, continues east to Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang, and finally returns to Angkor Wat via Prasat Kravan.
3.2 Big Circuit
The 26km Big Circuit is an extension of the Small Circuit: instead of exiting the walled city of Angkor Thom at the east gate, the Grand Circuit exits at the north gate and continues to Preah Khan and Preah Neak Poan, east to Ta Som, then south via the Eastern Mebon to Pre Rup. From there it heads west and then southwest on its return to Angkor Wat.
3.3 Temples of Angkor in
If you have only one day to visit Angkor, arrive at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise and then stick around to explore the mighty temple while it’s quieter. From there continue to the tree roots of Ta Prohm before breaking for lunch. In the afternoon, explore the temples within the walled city of Angkor Thom and the beauty of the Bayon in the late-afternoon light.
A second day allows you to include some of the big hitters around Angkor. Spend the first morning visiting petite Banteay Srei, with its fabulous carvings; stop at Banteay Samré on the return leg. In the afternoon, visit immense Preah Khan, delicate Preah Neak Poan and the tree roots of Ta Som, before taking in a sunset at Pre Rup.
Three to Five Days
If you have three to five days to explore Angkor, it’s possible to see most of the important sites. One approach is to see as much as possible on the first day or two and then spend the final days combining visits to other sites such as the Roluos temples and Banteay Kdei. Better still is a gradual build-up to the most spectacular monuments. After all, if you see Angkor Wat on the first day, then a temple like Ta Keo just won’t cut it. Another option is a chronological approach, starting with the earliest Angkorian temples and working steadily forwards in time to Angkor Thom, taking stock of the evolution of Khmer architecture and artistry.
It is well worth making the trip to the ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’ at Kbal Spean for the chance to stretch your legs amid natural and human-made splendour, or the remote, vast and overgrown temple of Beng Mealea. Both can be combined with Banteay Srei in one long day.
Those with the time to spend a week at Angkor will be richly rewarded. Not only is it possible to visit all the temples of the region, but a longer stay also allows for non-temple activities, such as relaxing by a pool, indulging in a spa treatment or shopping around Siem Reap. You may also want to throw in some of the more remote sites such as Koh Ker, Prasat Preah Vihear or Banteay Chhmar.
4. When to go and weather
Avoid the sweltering temperatures of March to May.
November to February is the best time of year to travel, but this is no secret, so it coincides with peak season. And peak season really is mountainous in this day and age, with more than two million visitors a year descending on Angkor.
The summer months of July and August can be a surprisingly rewarding time, as the landscape is emerald green, the moats overflowing with water, and the moss and lichen in bright contrast to the grey sandstone.
The Angkor Wat International Half Marathon takes place annually in December, including the option of bicycle rides for those not into running.
5. Planning tools
5.1 Money and costs
riel (r); US dollars (US$) universally accepted
- Budget: Less than US$50
- Cheap guesthouse room: US$5–10
- Local meals and street eats: US$1–3
- Local buses (per 100km): US$2–3
- Midrange: US$50–200
- Air-con hotel room: US$15–50
- Decent local restaurant meal: US$5–10
- Local tour guide per day: US$25–35
- Top End: More than US$200
- Boutique hotel or resort: US$50–500
- Gastronomic meal with drinks: US$25–50
- 4WD rental per day: US$60–120
It’s important to haggle in markets in Cambodia, otherwise the stallholder may ‘shave your head’ (local vernacular for ‘rip you off’). As well as in markets, bargaining is the rule when arranging share taxis and pick-ups, and in some guesthouses. The Khmers are not ruthless hagglers, so a persuasive smile and a little friendly quibbling is usually enough to get a price that’s acceptable to both you and the seller.
ATMs are widely available, including in all major tourist centres and provincial capitals. Credit cards are accepted by many hotels and restaurants in larger cities.
Cambodia’s currency is the riel, abbreviated in our listings to a lower-case ‘r’ written after the sum. Cambodia’s second currency (some would say its first) is the US dollar, which is accepted everywhere and by everyone, though small amounts of change may arrive in riel. Businesses may quote prices in US dollars or riel, but in towns bordering on Thailand in the north and west it is sometimes Thai baht (B).
If three currencies seems a little excessive, perhaps it’s because the Cambodians are making up for lost time: during the Pol Pot era, the country had no currency. The Khmer Rouge abolished money and blew up the National Bank building in Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian riel comes in notes of the following denominations: 100r, 200r, 500r, 1000r, 2000r, 5000r, 10,000r, 20,000r, 50,000r and 100,000r.
Dollar bills with a small tear are unlikely to be accepted by Cambodians, so it’s worth scrutinising the change you are given to make sure you don’t have bad bills.
There are credit-card-compatible ATMs (Visa, MasterCard, JCB, Cirrus) in most major cities. There are also ATMs at the Cham Yeam, Poipet and Bavet borders if arriving by land from Thailand or Vietnam. Machines usually give you the option of withdrawing in US dollars or riel. Single withdrawals of up to US$500 at a time are usually possible, providing your account can handle it. Stay alert when using ATMs late at night.
ANZ Royal Bank has the most extensive network, including ATMs at petrol stations, and popular hotels, restaurants and shops, closely followed by Canadia Bank. Acleda Bank has the widest network of branches in the country, including all provincial capitals, but their ATMs generally only take Visa-affiliated cards. Most ATM withdrawals incur a charge of US$4 to US$5.
The US dollar remains king in Cambodia. Armed with enough cash, you won’t need to visit a bank at all because it is possible to change small amounts of dollars for riel at hotels, restaurants and markets. It is always handy to have about US$10 worth of riel kicking around, as it is good for motos (unmarked motorcycle taxis), remork-motos (tuk tuks) and markets. Pay for something cheap in US dollars and the change comes in riel.
The only other currency that can be useful is Thai baht, mainly in the west of the country. Prices in towns such as Koh Kong, Poipet and Sisophon are often quoted in baht, and even in Battambang it is common.
In the interests of making life as simple as possible when travelling overland, organise a supply of US dollars before arriving in Cambodia. Cash in other major currencies can be changed at banks or markets in major cities. However, most banks tend to offer a poor rate for any non-dollar transaction so it can be better to use moneychangers, which are found in and around every major market.
Western Union and MoneyGram are both represented in Cambodia for fast, if more expensive, money transfers. Western Union is represented by Acleda Bank, and MoneyGram by Canadia Bank.
Top-end hotels, airline offices and upmarket boutiques and restaurants generally accept most major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, JCB and sometimes American Express), but many pass the charges straight on to the customer, meaning an extra 2% to 3% on the bill.
Cash advances on credit cards are available in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Kampot, Battambang, Kompong Cham and other major towns. Most banks advertise a minimum charge of US$5.
Several travel agents and hotels in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap can arrange cash advances for about 5% commission; this can be particularly useful if you get caught short at the weekend.
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
Tipping is not traditionally expected, but in a country as poor as Cambodia, tips can go a long way.
Hotels Not expected outside the fanciest hotels, but 2000r to US$1 per bag plus a small tip for the cleaner will be a nice surprise.
Restaurants A few thousand riel at local restaurants will suffice; at fancier restaurants you might leave 10% on a small bill, 5% on a big bill.
Remorks & Moto Drivers Not expected for short trips, but leave a dollar or two for half-day or full-day rentals if the service was noteworthy.
Temples Most wats have contribution boxes – drop a few thousand riel in at the end of a visit, especially if a monk has shown you around.
Service Charges Many of the upmarket hotels levy a 10% service charge, but this doesn’t always make it to the staff.
In many Cambodian restaurants, change will be returned in some sort of bill holder. If you leave the change there it will often be taken by the restaurant proprietor. If you want to make sure the tip goes to the staff who have served you, leave the tip on the table or give it to the individuals directly. In some places, there may be a communal tip box that is shared by staff.
5.2 Travel with children
Children can live it up in Cambodia, as they are always the centre of attention and almost everybody wants to play with them. This is great news when it comes to babes in arms and little toddlers, as everyone wants to entertain them for a time or babysit while you tuck into a plate of noodles. For the full picture on surviving and thriving on the road, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children, which contains useful advice on how to cope while travelling. There is also a rundown on health precautions for kids and advice on travel during pregnancy.
5.3 Entry and exit formalities
Cambodia has three international gateways for arrival by air – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville – and a healthy selection of land borders with neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Formalities at Cambodia’s international airports are traditionally smoother than at land borders, as the volume of traffic is greater. Crossing at land borders is relatively easy, but immigration officers may try to wangle some extra cash, either for the visa or via some other scam. Anyone without a photo for their visa form will be charged about US$2 at the airport, and around 100B at land borders with Thailand.
Arrival by air is popular for those on a short holiday, as travelling overland to or from Cambodia puts a dent in the time in-country. Travellers on longer trips usually enter and exit by land, as road and river transport is very reasonably priced in Cambodia.
If Cambodia has customs allowances, it is tight-lipped about them. You are entitled to bring into the country a ‘reasonable amount’ of duty-free items. Travellers arriving by air might bear in mind that alcohol and cigarettes are on sale on the streets of Phnom Penh at prices well below duty-free rates – a branded box of 200 cigarettes costs just US$13 and international spirits start as low as US$7 a litre.
Like any other country, Cambodia does not allow travellers to import any weapons, explosives or narcotics – some might say that there are more than enough in the country already.
It is also illegal to take ancient stone sculptures from the Angkor period out of the country.
Not only is a passport essential, it needs to be valid for at least six months or Cambodian immigration will not issue a visa.
It’s also important to make sure that there is plenty of space left in the passport, as a Cambodian visa alone takes up one page.
A one-month tourist visa costs US$30 on arrival and requires one passport-sized photo. Easily extendable business visas are available for US$35.
Most visitors to Cambodia require a one-month tourist visa (US$30). Most nationalities receive this on arrival at Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville airports, and at land borders, but citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Sudan need to make advance arrangements. One passport-sized photo is required and you’ll be ‘fined’ US$2 if you don’t have one. It is also possible to arrange a visa through Cambodian embassies overseas or an online e-visa (US$30, plus a US$7 processing fee) through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mfaic.gov.kh). However, e-visas are only accepted at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports (they are not accepted in Sihanoukville), and at the three main land borders: Poipet/Aranya Prathet and Cham Yeam/Hat Lek (both Thailand) and Bavet/Moc Bai (Vietnam).
Passport holders from Asean member countries do not require a visa to visit Cambodia.
Those seeking work in Cambodia should opt for the business visa (US$35) as it is easily extended for longer periods, including multiple entries and exits. A tourist visa can be extended only once and only for one month, and does not allow for re-entry.
Travellers are sometimes overcharged when crossing at land borders with Thailand, as immigration officials demand payment in baht and round up the figure considerably. Overcharging is also an issue at the Laos border, but not usually at Vietnam borders. Arranging a visa in advance can help avoid overcharging.
Overstaying a visa currently costs US$5 a day.
For visitors continuing to Vietnam, one-month single-entry visas cost US$55 and take two days in Phnom Penh, or just one day via the Vietnamese consulate in Sihanoukville. Most visitors to Laos can obtain a visa on arrival (US$30 to US$42) and most visitors heading to Thailand do not need a visa.
Visa extensions are issued by the large immigration office located directly across the road from Phnom Penh International Airport.
Extensions are easy to arrange, taking just a couple of days. It costs US$45 for one month (for both tourist and business visas), US$75 for three months, US$155 for six months and US$285 for one year (the latter three prices relate to business visas only). It’s pretty straightforward to extend business visas ad infinitum. Travel agencies and some motorbike-rental shops in Phnom Penh can help with arrangements, sometimes at a discounted price.
5.4 Planning tips
Angkor – Unesco World Heritage Site (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668) Information, images and videos on the world’s top temples.
Angkor Ruins (www.angkor-ruins.com) For a great online photographic resource on the temples of Angkor, look no further than this Japanese website with an English version.
6. Practical information
General health is more of a concern in Cambodia than most other parts of Southeast Asia, due to a lack of international-standard medical-treatment facilities, a prevalence of tropical diseases and poor sanitation. Once you venture into rural areas you are very much on your own, although most provincial capitals have a reasonable clinic these days.
If you feel particularly unwell, try to see a doctor rather than visit a hospital; hospitals in rural areas are pretty primitive and diagnosis can be hit and miss. If you fall seriously ill in Cambodia you should head to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, as these are the only places in the country with decent emergency treatment. Pharmacies in the larger towns are remarkably well stocked and you don’t need a prescription to get your hands on anything from antibiotics to antimalarials. Prices are also very reasonable, but do check the expiry date, as some medicine may be out of date.
While the potential dangers can seem quite unnerving, in reality few travellers experience anything more than an upset stomach. Don’t let these warnings make you paranoid.
6.2 Directory information
Dangers & Annoyances
At no point during a visit to Kbal Spean or Phnom Kulen should you leave well-trodden paths, as there may be land mines in the area.
There are several free maps covering Angkor, supported by advertising, which are available at certain hotels, guesthouses and restaurants in town. River Books of Thailand publishes a fold-out Angkor Map, which is one of the more detailed offerings available.
Angkor is now blessed with some of the finest public toilets in Asia. Designed in wooden chalets and complete with amenities such as electronic flush, they wouldn’t be out of place in a fancy hotel. The trouble is that the guardians often choose not to run the generators that power the toilets, meaning it is pretty dark inside the cubicles (but thankfully you can flush manually too!). The toilets are found near most of the major temples. Entrance is free if you show your Angkor pass.
Remember, in remote areas, don’t stray off the path; being seen in a compromising position is infinitely better than stepping on a land mine.