Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Along with Everyone Else


I think he's watching me
I think he's watching me

Go early, at sunrise. That’s how you avoid the crowds.

This is the only consistent advice I’ve ever heard about visiting Angkor Wat. Suck it up, wake up early and get there for sunrise. I think a better suggestion might be to not visit between Christmas and New Years, at least if crowding is a concern. Because we were in the car at 5am just like what appeared to be thousands of other visitors. Whoopsie.

That is not to say that it was a bad experience, but it was far from a calm, quiet morning in the park. It was chaotic and crowded, but the monuments have stood up well to the elements and remain a spectacular sight, even if filled with lots of other tourists.

Lots and lots of people queued to buy access to the Angkor Wat site
Lots and lots of people queued to buy access to the site
Sunrise over Angkor Wat with a few thousand of my closest friends.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat with a few thousand of my closest friends.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
Sunrise over Angkor Wat

After sunrise we took a short break at one of the cafes adjacent to Angkor Wat to have a noodle soup breakfast and fresh coconut water to steel ourselves for the rest of the day as tourists.

Breakfast at one of the stalls inside the complex before resuming our touristing
Breakfast at one of the stalls inside the complex before resuming our touristing

The main complex at Angkor Wat is the primary draw to the region but it was not my favorite part of the day. It is an incredible structure and the fact that it is in such good condition centuries later in amazing. But, for me, the real win was getting to wander through Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom, mostly because they are not as pristine as Angkor Wat is; they show the effects of time and of nature reclaiming that which it wants, even after the massive clearing & construction efforts from so long ago. Plus, the trees growing right up through the temple ruins just look cool.

I think he's watching me
I think he’s watching me
Inside Ta Prohm, the "Tomb Raider" temple at Angkor Wat
Inside Ta Prohm, the “Tomb Raider” temple at Angkor Wat

The smaller temples are also more open to exploration by visitors, something which probably is not great for their long-term viability but which means that clambering up the ancient steps to see what things used to look like is possible. And that sort of stuff is way more fun than just walking around at ground level.

Steep stairs on some of the temples in the Angkor Wat complex
Steep stairs on some of the temples in the Angkor Wat complex
Some of the many faces at the Bayon temple inside the Angkor Wat complex
Some of the many faces at the Bayon temple inside the Angkor Wat complex
Some of the details of the temple area atop Angkor Wat's main building
Some of the details of the temple area atop Angkor Wat’s main building

We arguably did the tour the lazy way, using a driver with an air conditioned car to move through the park. If that’s cheating then, well, I guess I don’t play fair. I’m sure the tuk tuk option is fine, too. But at the end of our 8 hours out and about we were quite happy to have air conditioning for the drive back into town. Plus he was pretty good at explaining what we should expect to see as we wandered through each of the main sites and being at the other end when we got through.

Columns and carving at the Angkor Wat complex
Columns and carving at the Angkor Wat complex
Angkor Wat from above; the helicopter tour is aweome!
Angkor Wat from above; the helicopter tour is aweome!
Gorgeous light in the morning at Angkor Wat; worth waking up early for
Gorgeous light in the morning at Angkor Wat; worth waking up early for

We had but one day in town to explore the temples on foot. That was probably less than we should have spent to get to see everything. Mostly because we certainly didn’t see everything. But two days is probably wrong, too. After the long day exploring we both agreed that doing that all over again the following day would probably be too much temple time; taking a day off to relax in town in the middle would be a nice way to split things up. And I suppose that our snap decision to see the temples from above on a helicopter tour our second morning in town probably helped, too.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

4 Comments

  1. I just did the same on the morning of June 23rd but had a completely different experience. We used Happy Angkor tour company and had already visited Angkor Wat two days prior, thus we already had our park ticket. The guide & driver picked me up at the hotel at 4:45am, took me to the (back?) entrance where we waited 5-10 minutes with a small group of people, then the officials let us in. We walked briskly to the left side (your “thousand people” picture) and I was literally the 3rd person to get there. My guide told me exactly where to stand at the water’s edge to get the best shooting angle for pictures. He then waited by a tree behind me for a little over an hour while I watched the sunrise and snapped my pictures (and he even came over to take some pictures of me so I would have something better than a selfie). When I turned around to look at the crowd behind me, I’d say it was maybe half as large as your picture. We departed around 6am and they took me back to the hotel for breakfast. They left and came back at 8:30am to pick up my family and we spent the day visiting some less visited temples (Prah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, and Pre Rup). We were very satisfied with Happy Angkor, I’d recommend them to anyone. I will say that the Angkor Wat area appeared significantly more crowded on Friday than on Wednesday when we visited the complex (due to Asian weekend tourists?), so maybe it’s best to go during the middle of the week.

  2. That’s great! A friend of mine (Thom) I think just recently visited Ankgor Thom (although I haven’t had the chance to catch up because I’ve been traveling myself). Would you recommend your driver / tour guide? I thought I was going to get there in March but alas, did not, it is still very high on my list, hopefully before the end of the year (unless of course its at the way end of the year, where I may punt to 2017 based on the experience you share).

    Great post none-the-less… and really, really makes me want to visit it!

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