angkor wat cambodia

Three days at Angkor Wat

22 August 2017

Three days at Angkor Wat

The temple complex at Angkor in Cambodia is a unique place on earth. The first remarkable thing is its incredible size – the whole Angkor Archaeological Park covers over 400 square kilometres. Then there's the beauty of the structures, the intricate carvings and the symmetry and balance in the designs.

The temples were grand undertakings of the people of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th century. Over the centuries, some temples were lost in the jungle while others – such as Angkor Wat – remained known to the local people.

It's a special place to have the privilege of visiting. So when you do visit, don't rush it – spend time, get to understand the place. Try to work at least two or three days into your Cambodia itinerary to make the most of it. We definitely suggest taking a guided tour at Angkor – a local guide will have historical information and local knowledge that will add enormously to your appreciation of the site. Most tours of Cambodia will include Angkor Wat tours led by a local Cambodian guide.

Here's our suggestions for how to make the most of your three days at the Angkor temple complex.

Travel to Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the nearest town to Angkor and it is where travellers are based for touring the Angkor temples. The town is around six kilometres from the temples and it has plenty of accommodation, restaurants, cafes and facilities for travellers.

Siem Reap is a 5-6 hour drive from Phnom Penh or a 45 minute flight from Phnom Penh. However you get to Siem Reap, spend your afternoon settling in.

Day 1 – a full day Angkor tour with a guide

For your first visit to Angkor, go with a local guide. This day will give you a great overview of the history of the area. You'll visit the must-see highlights and get yourself oriented.

If it's a clear morning, make an early start and get to Angkor in time to watch the sunrise. It's an iconic sight and, while you wont be on your own (it's a pretty popular activity), you will be mesmerised by the warm orange glow backlighting the spectacular Angkor Wat complex. For the remainder of the day, your guide will take you to the big Angkor highlights including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in the area and the largest temple in the Angkor group – in fact it's thought to be the largest religious monument in the world. A square moat runs around the outside of an outer wall. The temple itself is in the centre, built on a terraced platform rising in galleries to the highest central tower. It is a beautifully balanced temple complex and remarkably well preserved. Seeing it in person will be one of the highlights of your visit.

Angkor Thom (including Bayon)
Angkor Thom is another temple city just 1.7 kilometres from Angkor Wat. The most spectacular part of Angkor Thom is the temple at its heart – the Bayon. Bayon features a series of huge face sculptures that each stand taller than a person. The large faces stare out from stone columns and smaller faces adorn the  smaller towers of the temple – all up, around 200 stone faces stare serenely in all directions.

Ta Prohm
The much-loved temples of Ta Prohm show the power of nature over the achievements of humankind. This beautiful temple complex was abandoned in the 15th century and all but swallowed up by the jungle before it was 're-discovered'. The jungle was cleared back to reveal temples intwined with tree roots. Massive fig and silk-cotton trees had grown up, around and through the temples, creating an incredibly picturesque and atmospheric place.

Day 2 – head out of town for a remote Angkor temple tour

For your second day, consider a day trip out to some of the more remote parts of the archaeological park. The structures and sculptures may be less grand than Angkor Wat, but the lack of crowds and jungle setting will make up for it. Here are a few of the many options for a day trip.

Banteay Srei
The small temples at Banteay Srei are about 35 kilometres north east of Siem Reap. The red sandstone temples are intricately carved and well preserved making this a great destination for up-close inspection of Khmer art. While you're out this side of town, you can also visit the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre.

Beng Mealea
An hour or so drive north east of Siem Reap you'll find the remote temples of Beng Mealea. The temples are surrounded by jungle and are in a state of disrepair, with tree roots growing through temples and scattered stones lying around the site.

Banteay Chhmar
For a big excursion, head 160 kilometres west of Siem Reap to the temples of Banteay Chhmar. This is one of two other temples featuring face towers similar to Bayon. It is set in the jungle, amongst a rubble of fallen temple stones.

Day 3 – At your own pace – temple hop, bike, swim or chill out

Take it at your own pace today. If you want to take full advantage of your time in Siem Reap, head back out to the temples for a slower paced exploration.  If you head to the less popular areas of the complex early in the morning, you'll find them relatively quiet – try Preah Khan or Ta Som. For an active day, jump on a bike to cover some extra ground around the archaeological zone. Or, if you're templed out, spend some time by the pool in Siem Reap, before heading out for a last view of the temples at sunset.

Preah Khan
Preah Khan is just a couple of kilometres north east of Angkor Thom. Reclaimed by jungle but recently restored by the World Monuments Fund, the temple complex cover 138 acres and features large stone garudas, lions standing guard, many passageways and a beautiful two story pavilion.

Ta Som
Ta Som is a relatively small temple complex that is very picturesque. It features a single shrine on one level surrounded by a walled enclosure and some intricate carvings. The temples have been overgrown by trees: some giant tree roots twine through the stonework and the jumble of loose stonework is covered by moss.

Bike tour of Angkor
For a different way to explore the temples, jump on a bike. A bike will allow you to cover a lot of ground and you can see the way the temple cities sprawl across the area. You can hire a bike or join a bike tour of Angkor. Some Cambodia tours will include a bike tour of Angkor in their itinerary, so everything will already be organised for you.

Relax in Siem Reap
If you are all templed out, treat yourself to an afternoon of lazing about town. Relax by the pool, head to a cafe with a book or explore the shops – whatever takes your fancy. If you do stay in town, make sure you get yourself to the temples for a final sunset.

Phnom Bakheng for sunset
Sunset over temples is a great way to farewell this amazing site. Head to the temple of Phnom Bakheng which is located on a hilltop 1.5 kilometres from Angkor Wat. From this vantage point, you'll be able to see the sun sinking across the vast landscape behind Angkor Wat, revealing the true beauty and majesty of this astounding place.

Angkor Wat tours

If you are looking to take a tour of Cambodia, make sure it has two or three days scheduled at Siem Reap. This will give you enough time to explore the temple complex thoroughly. A Cambodia tour that visits Siem Reap will usually include a guided Angkor Wat tour, so you wont need to organise that for yourself. If you have free time in Siem Reap on your Cambodia tour, your guide will be able to help you to organise transport to the temples that are more difficult to access (if that is not included in your tour already).