A Lightweight’s Guide to the Temples of Angkor

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We’re sightseeing lightweights. It may seem like we do a lot each year but we spend as many days on our laptops or relaxing by the pool as we do out exploring, and one museum or temple a day tends to be our limit. Which is a problem at Cambodia’s Angkor temple complex, an archaeological site that stretches over 400km2 and contains hundreds of temples from the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th century. There are an overwhelming number of ruins to explore and many visitors complain of temple burnout.

We took a laid-back approach to visiting Angkor. We spread our visits out over a week, were done by 10.30am each day, and didn’t stress about trying to see everything.

We aren’t history or archaeology buffs so just focused on wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying whatever we ended up seeing. We weren’t blown away by every temple but we had some magical moments wandering through grand entrances and down ancient passageways, admiring intricate stone carvings in shades of pink and green, and clambering over piles of bricks and tangled tree roots. You can’t help but be impressed by the scale and beauty of Angkor.

These are our tips for lightweights like us to enjoy a trip to Angkor’s temples.

1) Get A Hotel with a Pool

The nearest city to the Angkor temples is Siem Reap, 8km away. Hotels are very competitively priced here and you can find a hotel with a pool for as little as $25 (less if you go for a fan room rather than A/C). We definitely recommend it as it’s a wonderful way to relax after a morning exploring the hot and dusty temples.

We stayed at My Home Villa—the rooms are fairly basic and the WiFi was variable but it had everything else we need (private hot water bathroom, A/C, desk, fridge) plus a pool, free breakfast and airport pickup. You can find many more hotels in Siem Reap here

2) Buy a Three Day Pass

To visit the Angkor temples you have the choice of a one day ($37), three day ($62) or seven day ($72) pass. For lightweights we think a three-day pass is the best option. Technically we could have seen all the temples we visited in one day but it would have been a very long, hot day and not much fun. A seven-day pass (valid for a month) would have been too much for our needs but three days (valid for a week) worked well as we could spread out our visits.

To avoid queues it’s best to buy your pass the day before you want to use it. If you buy it after 5pm you can enter the park for a free sunset and it won’t count towards your three days.

3) Mix Temple and Non Temple Activities

Spending a week in Siem Reap is ideal if you want to explore Angkor at an easy pace. As a three-day pass is valid for a week you can mix your visits up with non-temple activities like lounging by the pool, eating, yoga, horse riding, cooking classes, visits to floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake, and much more. Read more things to do in Siem Reap beyond the temples. 

4) Hire a Tuk Tuk For At Least One Day (And Be Selective)

The temples are spread out and even the nearest one is 8km from Siem Reap so although it’s possible to explore by bicycle, it’s best to hire a tuk tuk (an open sided carriage pulled by a motorbike) for at least one day to save your energy. Unfortunately it’s not possible for foreigners to hire motorbikes in Siem Reap (although it is in the rest of the country). Hiring a car is also an option but a lot more expensive and we liked the breezy ride in the tuk tuk.

Be careful when choosing your tuk tuk driver. We naively assumed that a driver organised by our hotel would be good but he turned out to be very inflexible. He wanted us to do the typical tourist itinerary of the small circuit on day one, the big circuit on day two, and the further away temples on the final day, and was not pleased with our plan to mix and match according to our needs.

Tuk Tuk at Angkor Thom's south gate
Tuk Tuk at Angkor Thom’s south gate

We hired a tuk tuk for buying our tickets and sunset ($6) and for our first full day ($20 including sunrise, $15 without). On the second day we cycled (bike hire $1 a day each) which saved us money and gave us more freedom, and on the third we shared a van with two friends ($65 total) to visit further away temples.

We used the driver Long Kim San who has a tuk tuk which we used to visit the floating village of Kompong Kleang, as well as an air conditioned car and van which we also used. He was reasonably priced, reliable, flexible, and went above and beyond by providing free cold water and giving us some basic information about the temples. He even joined us on our boat tour of the floating village and acted as a tour guide, which he wasn’t being paid for.

5) Don’t Get a Guide

Well, you could, but honestly I don’t think guides work well for sightseeing lightweights. It’s difficult to find one who doesn’t want to bore you to death with every fact and figure they know and I end up so busy trying to concentrate on what they are saying that it stops me from enjoying being in the place. We didn’t need to know the significance of every carving or the date of every temple. We got some basic information from the Lonely Planet guide and were happy with that.

6) Start Early (and Finish Early)

This was the biggest factor in our enjoyment of the temples. Each day we left for the temples at 6am (5am on our sunrise day) and were done by around 10am. In the mornings it’s much cooler and crowds are light before the tour buses arrive around 8 or 8.30am. 7am was a magical time at even the most popular temples like Ta Prohm and Bayon and we were able to enjoy serene moments without anyone else around. By 9am the temples were getting crowded with loud tour groups and the heat was on the rise. We would start the day with the most popular ruins, move on to some quieter ones and then call it quits by mid morning.

You could also have a rest over lunch and return in the late afternoon but 3-4 hours of temples a day was more than enough for these lightweights.

Bayon in early morning
Bayon was almost empty at 7am

7) Lower Your Expectations For Sunset and Sunrise

One of the biggest questions Angkor visitors have is where to watch the sunset and sunrise. Our advice is lower your expectations for both. You could get lucky but for us and many others it can be a non event.

Phnom Bakheng is the major sunset spot which we skipped in favour of Pre Rup which is quieter but still busy and the sunset was disappointing. It’s worth going for sunset after you’ve bought your tickets but wandering around a quiet temple in the glowing light rather than visiting a “sunset spot” might be a more enjoyable experience.

Angkor Wat just after sunrise
Angkor Wat just after sunrise

Angkor Wat, the largest and best preserved of the Angkor temples is the sunrise location. I do think it’s worth going but don’t expect your experience to be like all those amazing photos you’ve seen. For a start you’ll be sharing the sunrise with hundreds of other people so get there early for a good spot—we left Siem Reap at 5am and got a seat on the edge of the pond on the left hand side. The sun never made an appearance but it was nice to see the reflections of Angkor Wat’s towers in the pond. And you never know, you could get lucky.

The advantage of heading there for sunrise is that you can explore Angkor Wat afterwards when it’s not very crowded, although the light wasn’t ideal at this time of day.

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm was fairly quiet when we headed there after sunrise at Angkor Wat

8) Know What You Like

The three most popular temples Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm (the “tree temple” made famous after Tomb Raider was filmed there), and Bayon (known for the faces carved out of its towers) are definitely worth a visit. It’s also a good idea to have an understanding of what you like so you can plan your itinerary accordingly and not feel you have to see them all. Perhaps you like details so you could focus on the temples known for their intricate carvings; we liked the jungle temples where tree roots merged with the ruins for an undiscovered feel.

Our itinerary felt like a good mix of popular temples, the jungle temples we liked most, and some random quieter temples that were close by.

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm, one of the jungle temples we loved
Intricate carvings at Banteay Srei
Intricate carvings at Banteay Srei

9) Head Further Afield

It’s worth spending one day hiring a tuk tuk or car to take you to some of the further away temples (1 hour+ drive) which are quieter than the main complex. We shared an air-conditioned van with our friends Jenny and Tom of Till The Money Runs Out which was quicker and more comfortable than a tuk tuk to visit the intricate pink carvings at Banteay Srei and our favourite, the jungle temple Beng Mealea.

Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei

10) Treat Yourself to Cupcakes

Siem Reap has some excellent restaurants and cafes and after a morning temple hopping you deserve a treat. Our top pick is the beautiful, delicious cupcakes at Blossom Cafe (Update November 2019: Blossom has now closed permanently).

Blossom cupcakes, Siem Reap
Blossom cupcakes

Our 3 Day Itinerary

This is by no means the definitive Angkor itinerary. We skipped many temples but we were satisfied with what we saw and just spending the mornings at the ruins was plenty for us. We spent 9 days in Siem Reap so had a day or two break between each temple day. The approximate times are when we left Siem Reap to when we headed back. The temples in bold are the ones we most recommend.

Day 1 (Tuk tuk, 4.30pm-6.30pm)

Buying tickets and sunset at Pre Rup.

Day 2 (Tuk tuk, 5am-10.30am)

Angkor Wat sunrise, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Ta Som, Preah Khan.

Ta Prohm, Angkor
Ta Prohm
 Banteay Kdei shrine, Angkor
Woman making a blessing at a shrine within the quiet temple Banteay Kdei
Erin and Simon at Ta Som
Us at Ta Som, a quieter mini version of the “tree temple” Ta Prohm
Preah Khan
Passageway in the huge complex Preah Khan

Day 3 (Bicycle, 6am-10.30am)

Angkor Thom including South Gate, Bayon, Phimeanakas, Baphuon, Elephant Terrace, Victory Gate.

Angkor Thom south gate
Angkor Thom south gate
Baphuon, Angkor Thom
View from the Baphuon in the walled city of Angkor Thom

Day 4 (Van, 6am-9.30am)

Banteay Srei, Beng Mealea ($5, not included in pass), and one other temple on the way back.

Banteay Srei door
Banteay Srei door
Beng Mealea, the jungle temple
Beng Mealea, the jungle temple

The temples of Angkor are a place that anyone can enjoy whether you are into history, ruins and temples or not. If you are lightweights like us then the key is to take things at your own pace, don’t feel pressured to see everything, and intersperse temple visits with other activities and plenty of cupcakes.


  1. hi, am from malaysia – aged couple 65/55 – planning to siamreap early april 2016. ur tips were wonderful and hope to follow as much as we can – thank that we found your blog. but how to contact mr Long kim san

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  2. I’m going to Siem Reap at the end of the year and really glad I found your blog – so informative! Definitely don’t want to be ‘templed-out’ so will stretch the visits out. I’m a ‘lightweight’ myself :). I’m also considering a short volunteering stint while I’m there.

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  3. Thanks for the recommendation for Mr. Kim San. Anna and I used him this morning for Angkor Thom and he is wonderful, so much better than any of the drivers our otherwise very nice GH has provided. He will be OUR driver for the duration here. Cheers!

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  4. This is such a helpful post! I’m currently fixing our itinerary and I’ll do take note of your guide. :)

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  5. Your images are just excellent, and creates me want to check out Cambodia earlier that I’ve organized. Wish you will publish some diet as well.

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  6. Great tips! It seems like you did everything right – taking your time, going early in the morning, etc. And I actually agree on skipping the guide. I went to Cambodia on a small group tour, and our guide was licensed to guide at the temples of Angkor, too. I ended up wandering off with some other people, however, because I really just wanted to see and appreciate the temples on my own. Yes, I like history. But you can only hear so much temple history before going insane…

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    • That’s good to know. We always wonder if we would get more out of it with a guide but whenever we have one it’s always overwhelming.

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  7. Just love your photos and your advice seems very sensible. I’ve done a certain amount of travelling around in a tuk tuk, mainly in Thailand, and it can be a mixed bag.

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    • I usually love tuk tuks but the 3 hour return journey we had out to the Kompong Kleang floating village was definitely our limit! We were very dusty by the end.

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      • Glad I just noticed this. Was thinking about doing that one tomorrow or Friday. 3 hours in a tuk tuk in Cambodia in May is pushing my tolerance a bit.

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  8. Great post! I’m a sightweeing lightweight too, so it was great reading your post. I’m planning to travel to Cambodia in mid-October 2014 and will use your blog as a guide. I like reading about your style and pace of travel … mine is pretty similar. Looking forward to your overall article about Cambodia that you mentioned writing. Thanks for all your great writing …

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  9. This was a very good post. I experienced the same thing as you with a tuk-tuk driver unaccustomed to Western individuality. I gave in to his suggestions on days 1 og 2, but chose my own itinerary for the last day. I had basically had enough. Coming there in the rainy season (July) was obviously not a good choice for the higly acclaimed sunrises/sunsets. I went for the first sunset, saw nothing. Consequently I got up later the next three days. The sunset at Pre Rup was magic though. Like your photos!

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  10. Sounds like you guys had a good plan! We did it very similar. Usually started early and finished with the temple by lunch time. As you said there is heaps of other things to see besides temples and our hotel too had a pool so plenty of relaxation time mixed in. I really was too hot to be walking around in the sun all day. Great photos too!

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    • I really don’t know how people do it staying out from sunrise to sunset! They are way more hardcore than us. Sounds like you had a great balance too.

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  11. Totally agree with all of this 100%. I was really worried about getting templed out at Angkor and really didn’t want to make a marathon out of the experience and risk it going unpleasant so we took the same approach: 3-day pass spread out over the course of a week with ample hotel pool time budgeted into every day. The only way we differed is that we planned ahead and rented motorbikes from outside of Siem Reap so that we were able to do self-guided tours of the temples every single day, and I’m glad we did so—it was nice having complete control of our schedule and feeling like we could go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted.

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    • Ooh, what a good idea! We flew into Siem Reap so didn’t have the chance to rent a motorbike elsewhere but we would have loved to explore on our own like that.

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  12. This is great advice, and definitely much more like the way Zab and I would want to see such a huge complex if/when we eventually make it to Cambodia. And of course, I can’t disagree with the cupcake recommendation – they make everything better!

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    • You can’t go wrong with cupcakes, and my god, these ones were so good. It’s worth going to Cambodia just for them!

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  13. Thanks for the great write up. We are just about to start our three days of exploration here and this was extremely useful in helping us decide how to go about it.

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      • Dear Erin
        I’m Kim San
        Thank you so much for your help me jobs ,thanks for you save my families.
        I hope to see you again.
        I wish you and your families are good luck ,good health,happiness,happy happy all the time .

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  14. We can’t wait to see what else you did in Siem Reap! We head there in a few days. Hope you will post some food choices too, as a vegetarian I love your recommendations!

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    • Our Siem Reap post will be out next Thursday. In the meantime Chamkar and Peace Cafe are both great vegetarian restaurants. Sister Srey and New Leaf Book Cafe have some good veggie sandwiches, Dakshins was our favourite Indian, and the upmarket training restaurant Haven has a decent vegetarian selection. And the ice cream at Blue Pumpkin is amazing!

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  15. As always, well written, no fancy words, very intimate, $$$ worth tips… Hope I’ll be able to use all the information you have provided here.

    Good luck with sailing ;)

    Erhan from Turkey

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  16. Ahhhh, your pictures bring back such amazing memories of Angkor. We, too, can get burnt out pretty quickly on the fine details of the history, but just wandering those amazing sites and feeling like you are lost in a time long past was one of our more fantastic experiences in all of our travels.

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    • loved reading your blog!! I am visiting this coming December and I am also looking for temples with a jungle feel. I liked your suggestion of starting the day really early and then shopping/eating later.
      Are you photos shot with HDR? the colors look very popping. Did you bring a tri-pod for these photos?

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