In an effort to make it easier for you to assemble your Angkor itinerary, I have put together a list of all the sights to see and things to do in and around Siem Reap, Cambodia. So get you pen and paper and jot down notes.
Star the map below to have immediate access to the color-coded site markers whenever you open Google Maps.
The temples in Angkor Archeological Park are split into two main sightseeing routes: The Small Circuit and the Big (or Grand) Circuit. Their routes are overlapping, and there are other (smaller) roads or paths to travel within the park. However, the Small Circuit and Big Circuit are standing items, and any tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap will know them.
Major Big Circuit temples are Preah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup plus the royal Srah Srang pool.
Major Small Circuit temples are Ta Prohm (aka Tomb Raider temple), Ta Keo, and Thammanon plus Angkor Thom’s Victory Gate.
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (with Bayon Temple), Phnom Bakheng, and Banteay Kdei are technically on both, the Small and the Big Circuits. So it’s best to talk to your tuk-tuk driver about stopping there or not.
You can easily spend 3 or more hours each in Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom alone. So it’s worth doing those on a separate day from the other circuit temples.
Angkor has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. For more information (including some snazzy video footage) make sure you check out Angkor’s profile on the UNESCO website: whc.unesco.org/en/list/668/.
Many people falsely name the whole assembly of Angkor temples and buildings “Angkor Wat” and will tell you about “The Best Temples to Visit in Angkor Wat.” But Angor Wat — which translates to City Temple — is just one, albeit the largest, of the temples of Angkor. At 162 hectares, it is also the largest religious monument in the World. Visible from afar as you approach the complex from the West are the central tower, Bakan, and the four corner towers surrounding it. This structure is to represent Mount Meru, the sacred five-peaked mountain in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to Hindu god Vishnu but transformed into a Buddhist temple shortly after its construction in the 12th century. One of the most remarkable sights within the galleries are the bas-reliefs, especially the “Churning of the Sea of Milk” with Vishnu in the center. Stand back and imagine how this must have looked to the 12th-century visitor when the temples were covered with red and golden color!
Outside the main complex but still on Angkor Wat island, you’ll find the library buildings, pools, loads of forest, and the dwellings of the present-day monastery‘s monks.
Angkor Wat was never completely abandoned and thus through the centuries remained in better shape than most of the other Angkor temples.
A climb to the top of Bakan requires some standing in line (without shade) and scaling steep stairs but is worth it for the view of the area.
When you’re on Phnom Bakheng (see below), make sure you look to the South-East to get a view of Angkor Wat in the distance.
Angkor Thom, the “Great City” about 1.5 km from Angkor Wat consists of several temples along with ceremonial places used by the Khmer kings.
Bayon is probably the best-known of the Angkor Thom temples and a must-see. The pyramid-shape is adorned with dozens (some say 200) Buddha faces.
Baphuon is an 11th-century temple mountain, read: tiered pyramid. The temple was initially built in honor of Hindu goddess Shiva and with the grand tower in the center would have measured 50 m in height. However, in the 15th century, the temple was rededicated to Buddha and stones from the collapsed tower and top tiers repurposed to construct a giant, 70 m long Reclining Buddha along the western side of the pyramid. It remained unfinished and was partially dissembled in a mid-20th-century effort to restore the initial complex.
Angkor Thom was the king’s primary residence. The Royal Palace complex covered a large part of the Angkor Thom square. However, not much of the royal quarters remains. Phimeanakas is a small temple pyramid to be used by the king. Archeologists assume that it was once topped by a golden crown.
The Terrace of the Elephants is precisely what the name promises: Sitting just outside the Royal Palace, it is a long terrace adorned by elephant carvings and sculptures along the main route through Angkor Thom.
Right next to the Elephant Terrace sits the Terrace of the Leper King (also Palace of the Leper King), named for a sculpture of Hindu god Yama (the god of death), which for some reason in the 15th century reminded people of leprosy (leper). While the sculpture and the outside of the terrace it sits on were unremarkable to me, the interior is one of a kind in the Angkor complex. It consists of two walls: a plain outer one and an inner one covered completely in intricate carvings.
Along the other side of the Angkor Thom main throughway, opposite the Terrace of the Elephants, sit the 12 Prasat Suor Prat towers with the street to the Victory Gate running right between them. It is unknown what exactly they were used for: some say that ropes could be spanned between the towers to allow for high-rope entertainment for the king (that’s what the current name suggests), others say that they were used to settle conflicts.
The North & South Khleangs are two sparsely decorated structures reminiscent of the Angkor libraries sitting behind the Prasar Suor Prat buildings.
As far as I could tell, Angkor Thom is the only one of the moated complexes with more than four gates. Angkor Thom has not only one gate per cardinal direction (North, East, South, West) but an additional Eastern Gate. You can argue about which one is the “additional” one, but the Eastern gates are the magnificent Victory Gate with a colossal four-faced Buddha, and the Gate of the Death, a smaller gate in line with the eastern access to Bayon Temple, hidden in the forest and only accessible by foot/bike.
Phnom Bakheng (Bakheng Hill) is one of the very few natural elevations in Angkor Archeological Park. The temple on its summit was erected in the 9th century for the Hindu goddess Shiva. Massive staircases on all four sides once led up from the bottom of the hill to the temple.
Bakheng might have been the start of the new capital, which moved under King Yasovarman from the area that is today known as Roluos Group.
Those staircases are no longer usable (though still visible). Instead, you have two paths circling the hill. To the left, the Elephant Path is the only place in Angkor where you can ride elephants. I wouldn’t recommend it since the elephants are usually not happy to pick up the job of tourist entertainment. To the right is the “Safety Path.” Along the footpath, a few viewpoints have been designated allowing views of the surrounding lands. Make sure you follow the path to end (past where it crosses the elephant path) to get a different angle on the main temple and to see a centuries-old 2 m long Buddha footprint.
This 12th-century Buddhist temple could be considered a smaller version of Ta Prohm with its cloister-like galleries and the towers arising in their center.
Srah Srang (also Sras Srang) is a rectangular pool that is said to have been the king’s bath. Today, you can see children splash in the refreshing waters.
Spean Thma just outside Angkor Thom’s Victory Gate looks unimpressive (bar for the giant tree on top of it) but is interesting as it is one of the oldest Khmer bridges crossing the Siem Reap River.
Ta Prohm (aka Tomb Raider temple) is easily recognizable from the road by the typical four faced entrance gate. The trees that throne on top of the ruins are impressive; some have been assigned nicknames such as the “Python” for the elaborate shapes of their roots. There are numerous corridors and little bits like a small Buddha face framed by a tree root or the “Stegasaurus” carvings waiting to be explored. But this is one of the most famous temples, and therefore you will always find big tour groups here. Alternatives with similar features but slightly smaller crowds could be Preah Khan or Ta Som; both are part of the Big Circuit.
Ta Keo is one of the oldest temples in Angkor. Dedicated to Hindu goddess Shiva, it was the first temple to be built entirely from sandstone, yet, it remains unfinished because — as the story goes — lightning struck the top, killing workers, and that was seen as a bad omen.
12th-century Thammanon temple stands out for exquisite carvings.
Pre Rup is a 10th-century Hindu temple built from a shining red (orange) stone. The pyramid shape with small pagodas flanked by lion sculptures allows for a quick and easy visit. However, beware of the steep, uneven steps to climb.
One of the most striking features of the Angkor temples is the way they were embedded into water. The moat around Angkor Wat is legendary. But the Mebon temples are a whole new level. They are set in huge pools called Barays. While West Mebon has almost completely vanished (you can catch a good glimpse of it walking up Phnom Bakheng), East Mebon remains accessible. The pool, however, is only visible in the rainy season.
When I visited Angkor, it was Neak Poan (also Neak Pean) that had the “Mebon effect”: To get there, you have to cross about 100 m of water along a small walkway. The water is shallow, and to the left and right you can discover submerged boats and hats that the wind must have blown in. The main remains of Neak Poan are reminiscent of a large fountain in a European castle. The main pool is flanked by four symmetrically aligned side pools, and in its center, a pagoda surrounded by sculptures arises.
Ta Som struck me a bit like a small version of Ta Prohm. It remains largely unrestored. So if you’re looking for these classic “tree-on-ruin” shot, this is a good place to go. To boot, there are four-faced gopuras (gates with four-faced Buddhas) that attract far fewer visitors. Make sure you walk all the way to the other side for a gopura complete with a strangler fig tree that not many people go to.
The name of Preah Khan is derived from “Holy Sword” as the 12th-century temple is dedicated to a major victory King Jayavarman VII achieved over Chams invading from present-day Vietnam. While you won’t find the holy sword there, you can wander in an expanse of ruins that are mostly unrestored and covered in jungle flora. Several of the galleries have not collapsed. So you can get lost in narrow corridors, even climb the second level, find stupas and shrines, and marvel at intricate carvings on the outer walls. There is also a moat, an access path lined with lotus sculptures, and the outer wall remains intact in some areas. If I had to choose, I’d say Preah Khan is my favorite Angkor temple.
There is only one spot for Angkor Wat sunrise pics. And everybody knows it. On the island, to the left of the main sanctuary, you can see dozens and dozens of people congregate to get the best shot. I found that a bit boring and looked for a nice morning angle on Bayon. Unfortunately, without much success.
Check the hours for other temples that open at 5:00 am (see below). They might offer some different sunrise angles.
The go-to spot for sunset is the largest hill in the Angkor Archeological Park, Phnom Bakheng, topped by its pyramid-shaped temple. Note, that the number of visitors to the upper part of the temple is limited to 300 at a time and that visitors will arrive up to an hour before to secure the best places. However, I found that along the “Safety Path” a couple of nice spots allow for excellent views of the sun setting over the West Mebon pool.
Banteay Srei (also Banteay Srey or Banteay Srie) is a 10th-century temple dedicated to Hindu goddess Shiva, located about 25 km northeast of Angkor Archeological Park. The red sandstone of the large complex surrounded by a moat not only looks impressive from a distance but also allows for some very intricate carvings and detailed sculptures that have stood the test of time. There is an agricultural park around the temple with the option to go on a boat ride, walk about, and learn about rice farming techniques.
Roluos Group is about 15 km southeast of Siem Reap, near the town of Roluos. The area used to be the location of a pre-Angkor Khmer capital. The ensemble visible today is comprised of four 9th-century Hindu Temples: Lolei (part of a working Buddhist monastery), tiny Prasat Prei Monti, Preah Ko, and the highlight, Bakong. Bakong is a current Buddhist monastery built from red stone, surrounded by a moat, with monkeys in the trees and continued restoration efforts.
12th-century Beng Mealea is a Hindu temple with some Buddhist depictions, located about 40 km East of Siem Reap, going past Roluos Group and then turning North. The temple is vast with numerous courtyards surrounded by cloisters, but at the same time, only a few restorations efforts have been undertaken. So you see a lot of the site from a raised walkway, and you can still find a few giant trees and vines covering the ground (and the roofs).
Since most of the Siem Reap area is flat, the stone to build the temples was taken from Kulen Mountain, about 60 km Northeast of the city, past Banteay Srei. Kulen is the Khmer name for wild lychees that abound here. This is the holiest of mountains to Cambodians as the independence of Cambodia from Java was declared here. Several sites are waiting to for you:
In the River of 1000 Lingas (also: Kbal Spean), hundreds of Lingas and Yonis were hewn into the riverbed. Linga is the Sanskrit word for penis and Yoni is the vagina. In the typical Cambodian combination of Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, people used to (and still do) come here to ask the gods for a child by pouring water over the Linga into the Yoni.
Phnom Kulen Pagoda (also: Preah Ang Thom) is a Buddhist temple on top of a hill. You walk up a sweeping staircase while old women and small children are begging to the left and right, and vendors are selling strange herbs. The main sight of Kulen Pagoda is the 600-year-old Reclining Buddha hewn from a single rock. From a platform just outside the Buddha’s housing, you also have an excellent view of the surrounding landscape.
Kulen’s two waterfalls are a favorite local destination to cool down in the summer heat. The upper fall is about 5 m high, the lower one about 20 m. You can rent a little cabana to hang out during the day, order grilled chicken and rice or other Khmer favorites, and jump into the water.
As mentioned, most of the rock for the Angkor temples came from the Kulen quarries. So you might be able to find unfinished elephants and other sandstone sculptures hidden in the forest.
In 2013, archeologists discovered a whole city buried in the jungle at the slopes of Phnom Kulen. The city called Mahendraparvata is said to predate Angkor Wat by 300 years. This promises new exciting sites to explore in the future.
Since Kulen National Park is run as a private enterprise, the entrance fee of $20 for foreigners is rather steep. However, shared day tours are available for $35 p.p. and include the entrance fee. Note also, that due to the narrow winding road, you can only drive up the mountain before 11 am and drive down after 12 noon.
Most temples are secured only by a flimsy wooden gate and a few guards. So sneaking in is not impossible but might be considered impolite.
Almost all the temples are included in one ticket and one ticket only. So there is no “only-Angkor-Wat” ticket. The tickets are sold exclusively at the Angkor Enterprise ticketing center, which is about 7 km from Angkor Wat and 5 km from downtown Siem Reap (marked on the map above). Each ticket includes a photo of the ticket holder (so sharing is not possible). When you use your ticket for the first time on a given day, the park staff will punch a hole into the ticket. Expect to show your ticket at least once at every single one of the temples you’re visiting plus when you enter the Archeological Park. I was asked for my ticket upon entering the park at 5 in the morning but not when I came here for New Years after dark. Angkor ticket prices for foreigners are (as of May 2017):
Beng Mealea temple (open from 7:00 am to 5:30 pm) is not part of Angkor and costs $5.
Kulen National Park is also not included and costs $20 to enter.
Cooking classes are a great way to learn more about the intricacies of Cambodian cuisine. Expect to go to the market and taste some Amok, fried rice, and fresh fruit juices.
If you’re looking for refreshment, look no further than the Kulen Waterfalls for a swim and a relaxing day by the water.
Siem Reap River ends in Tonlé Sap, Cambodia’s largest lake. People live along the lake in so-called Floating Villages. While some people still live in large boats, many of the houses these days are set on stilts. You can also take a boat across the Tonlé Sap to Phnom Phen or up the river to Battambang.
Angkor National Museum houses several of the relics found in the Angkor temples. At $12 for an adult, tickets aren’t exactly cheap. But the exhibition might be a good addition to understanding the ancient Khmer.
Phare Circus is run by an NGO that was launched by former Cambodian refugees with the help of the French. Today, the NGO offers education for thousands of students across the country. One of their training branches is circus arts. Students that have gone through the training have gone on to perform with iconic institutions such as the Cirque de Soleil. The Phare Circus in Siem Reap combines traditional Cambodian theater with stunning artistry. Shows are held every night.
Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital is another NGO doing wonderful work beyond Siem Reap. Part of the Angkor ticket price goes toward this hospital that treats children for free. The Swiss founder, Dr. Beat Richner, also plays a cello concert every weekend to collect donations.
Shopping in Siem Reap includes cheap and cheerful t-shirts from the main market but also delicate silk, gemstones, and Khmer ceramics. Keep an eye out for fair trade shops along the river.
Come for the temples and stay for the water games! Every year around April 14th, half of Cambodia flocks to Siem Reap and Angkor to celebrate Khmer New Year. Sonkranta (also Sangkranta, in Thai: Songkran) has a religious basis but has now developed into a three-day party with lots of water splashing, white talcum powder, loud music, and general family fun. Expect hotel prices to rise and long traffic jams every day between Angkor and Siem Reap. But also expect more food markets, free concerts, and a lot of fun (provided you keep your belongings in a water-tight container).
Thanks for reading through this very long post! I hope you enjoyed it and it proves a useful tool for your first visit to Siem Reap and Angkor. Feel free to leave your thoughts, additions, and experiences in the comments. And don’t forget to share this post with the Internets at large and yourself for future reference!