I went to Angkor, World Heritage site and location of dozens of ancient temples renowned for their architecture, carvings, and historical importance, in March of this year. I read up a little on what to expect before I went, but was still tripped up by a few things I discovered on the ground. Here’s my advice for how to visit the temples with minimum fuss and maximum enjoyment. Share your own tips in the comments!
Buy the 7-day pass for $60, if you have a flexible schedule and at least four days in the area. I bought the 3-day pass for $40, intending to use every day in full, but then I stepped outside and almost fainted from the humid heat (we’re talking over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day). If I’d had the 7-day pass I could have done half-days in the mornings and escaped to air conditioning in the afternoons, but as it was I had to push on through the heat. I still didn’t fit in everything I wanted to see, so I had to buy a 1-day pass for $20 for my last trip out there. If I’d spent that $60 upfront, I’d have had more time in the park for the same amount of money.
Bring at least a liter of water to drink and plan to buy at least another liter while at the park. It is 40*C/104*F on a regular basis here.
Bring a bandana or handkerchief. You’ll use it as a sweat rag during the amazingly humid days, and also as a face mask during your tuk-tuk rides on the often dusty roads.
Bring snacks, and a full lunch if you can swing it. Unlike in town, no one’s pulling a food cart all over the parks, and there are just a few places where restaurants are set up. I got hungry climbing up and down the many stairs of the temples, and was glad of the fruit and granola I had in my bag. Of course, your driver will know of the perfect little place to take you when it’s lunchtime, and they all seemed more or less the same to me, so why not say yes and let him have his commission?
Plot your trip ahead of time. If you’re just going for a day and you want to catch sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat and maybe see the Tomb Raider temple, then you’re fine and your tuk-tuk driver will have no trouble getting you to each place with plenty of time. However, if you have more time and want to explore the temples in more depth, work out with your driver ahead of time exactly where you want to go and in what order, and generally at about what time. My driver thought I would take less time than I did at each temple I went to, so he was surprised I couldn’t do his normal itinerary in one day, but I know I take a long time seeing sights, so I wasn’t surprised. I should have communicated better with my driver about timing, though, so that we both knew what to expect.
Bring a proper cardigan or long-sleeved shirt when going to Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng. I had a scarf to cover my shoulders as a sign of respect, which was fine at other temples, but at Angkor Wat and Bakheng I was turned away. I was told I needed to have a proper shirt–because a scarf is too easy to take off? I’m not sure what the reasoning was, but the guards were absolutely strict on this, despite there being no warnings about such rules at the ticket office or anywhere else, and as a result I never got to climb to the very top of Angkor Wat (yep, I planned to do it on my last day there, oops).
Plan more than one sunrise at Angkor Wat, if your schedule and sleepyhead ways can swing it. I only made it to one, and it was gorgeous, but I was torn between staying by the pond with the hundreds of other visitors to see the full sunrise, and scooting into the temple after a few minutes to explore while it was mostly still empty. I ended up doing the latter, and I do not regret that at all, but it would have been nice to have gone another time and just relaxed for sunrise.
Lose your pass. That ticket just cost you at least $20, and they won’t replace it. At nearly every temple I entered, I needed to show my pass before I could climb the steps of the actual temple, so don’t think you only need it at the entrance, either. They take your photo and put it on the pass when you buy the ticket, so there’s no mistaking whose ticket is whose.
Pay attention to guidebooks that say you need a special ticket to get non-consecutive passes. That may have been true in past years, but not anymore. If you buy a 3-day pass, you can use it on any three days in a week, and you can use a 7-day pass any seven days in a month.
Forget to bring or buy a guidebook. There are no helpful placards here, no clear markers next to exhibits of note. You can hire a guide for the day, and I overheard some great guides sharing in-depth information, but I also heard some impenetrable accents and bare-bones introductions to the sites, so the quality of the guides varies and it can get pricey to hire one if you’re on your own. I bought Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, and it proved pretty useful. There’s a lot of history up front and then the sections on specific temples focus more on the architecture. It was last updated in 2003 and there have been improvements to the park since then, so some of the info on what is accessible is outdated. I got the book for $8 at a bookstore in town, and then six different touts tried to sell me the same one for $1 at the park itself. You can go that route, but realize it’s probably an illegal copy so the publisher isn’t getting paid, and of course the tout sees maybe a few pennies of that money.
Stress about getting from Siem Reap to the park. Your guesthouse/hostel/hotel will have tuk-tuk drivers they can call, guaranteed. The only thing you’ll need to do is negotiate price, which you can prepare for by looking online to see what other people have paid in the past. If you’re fancy, you can take an air-conditioned car, but tuk-tuks are much more affordable and perfectly comfortable (see above about a face mask, though). Hopping on the back of a motorcycle is even cheaper, but if you’re fat they might not let you, even if you’ve done this before and you know it’ll be fine. You can also bicycle there, if bicycling in 90% humidity at 100 degree temperatures appeals to you. Pretty decent roads, not sure where you’d lock it up, scary drivers to share the road with, but you do get to set your own pace and schedule.
Try to go against the grain on the prescribed routes in the temples. There are no markers telling you what you’re looking at, as I mentioned, but there are plenty of signs telling you which way to walk once you’re in the temple. These are set up to manage the flow of the crowds, and are really helpful. You can always dart off to the side and come back or take a seat if you need a breather, but try not to turn around and head the opposite way everyone else is going. You’re gumming up the works. Of course, some temples don’t have a prescribed path, so you can hop about all you like there.