Breaking Angkor Wat’s Grand Circuit into shorter visits is a great way to see the best of the majestic temple complex. The circuit includes the main temples of Angkor Wat, Preah Khan, and Neak Pean. It also takes in several other famous temples, including Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup.
This guide focuses on the main Grand Circuit temples, but check out more visiting details for the central temple, Angkor Wat.
The grand circuit can be completed in a day or spread over several days if you want to explore temples in more depth. We bought a three-day pass that allowed us to enter the temple complex for five days.
So you can tailor your visit to the Grand Circuit to fit your interests and time frame. This guide gives you an overview of the circuit and tips to make the most of your visit.
Background and History of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is a vast temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman II.
The temple’s intricate carvings and bas-reliefs depict Hindu cosmology and mythology. Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple that was converted over time into a Buddhist temple.
Significance of the Grand Circuit
The Grand Circuit is a series of temples around the city of Angkor Wat. It is a popular tourist attraction because of its well-preserved architecture and historical significance. The temples were built in the 12th and 13th centuries and are some of Cambodia’s most famous tourist destinations.
Planning your Visit to the Grand Circuit
Here are a few things to keep in mind during your visit(s) to the Grand Circuit.
When to Visit
Visit early in the morning, before crowds arrive and the temperature rises. I consider hats and sunglasses a necessity. And think about carrying a sun umbrella or parasol too.
Our tour guide mentioned that in 2019 a couple of thousand people gathered daily for the sunrise at Angkor Wat. But in 2022, only about 300 people per day showed up. However, we opted to sleep in because the weather forecast showed clouds on the days we thought we’d wake early.
But seeing the sunrise over Angkor Wat is a big deal. So schedule it if your weather cooperates.
Official Website: https://www.angkorenterprise.gov.kh/
Open Hours Vary By Temple:
- Angkor Wat and Srah Srang 5:00 am to 5:30 pm (open for sunrise)
- Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup Temple 5:00 am to 7:00 pm (open for sunrise and sunset)
- Other temples are open from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Check with your driver or the official website for up-to-date information about opening times for the temple you’re visiting.
How to Get There
The easiest way to get to Angkor Wat’s Grand Circuit is to walk out of your hotel. You’ll get bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers wanting to show you around. And most hotels offer tours to the villages, so ask at your front desk.
It costs about $20 per day for the driver. He takes you to buy tickets, then to the temple where he’ll wait to drive you to the next site, to lunch, or back to your hotel.
Many tuk-tuk drivers have laminated menus of local attractions. You’ll find them tucked into the roof, so point to one of the pictures if you have a language barrier. Most drivers speak a little English, so you’ll be fine.
Our Favorite Tuk-tuk Drivers
We met two drivers who we worked with our entire time in Siem Reap. Mr. Nhor Chea met us at the bus station on our arrival and took us to our hotel. We liked him so much that we booked him for five days touring the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Then we met Mr. Thet on a short trip to a grocery store. And he later took us out to the Floating Village.
Reach Mr. Chea on What’s App at +855 12 666 545.
Reach Mr. Thet on What’s App at +855 69 419 614.
What To Wear To Visit The Grand Circuit Temples
As with every temple, dress appropriately with knees, bellies, and shoulders covered.
- No tank tops or strapless tops
- No off-the-shoulders or low necklines.
- No crop tops showing the stomach or back.
- No shorts or leggings.
- No mini-skirts.
One morning, I left the hotel in shorts, but Mr. Chea sent me back in to change. I wasn’t even wearing short shorts, but modest Bermuda-length was still not appropriate. Don’t worry if you make it past your tuk-tuk driver but get stopped at the temple entrance because you can buy a wrap-around scarf/skirt from a nearby stall.
While the women’s dress code remains strict, men have fewer clothing restrictions at temples in Cambodia and SE Asia. So Steve wore shorts every day, as did most men.
- Wear a shirt with sleeves (short or long is okay), but no tank tops.
- No disrespectful sayings, images, or slogans on T-shirts
- Preferably no ripped or torn clothing
- Longer shorts are better. To the knees or long pants are best.
Ticket Information For Angkor Wat Archaeological Park:
We don’t suggest buying your tickets online, even though there’s a link on the official website. Instead, your driver will take you to the Ticket Center building. There are maybe 40-50 ticket booths, so it goes quickly.
- Don’t buy tickets from a third party, as they’ll be invalid.
- The Ticket Center is open daily from 5:00 am – 5:30 pm. And tickets purchased after 4:45 pm are valid for entry starting the next day.
- They take your picture and print it on your ticket.
There are three ticket options. Here are the costs, but you can read below for more details:
- 1 Day = $37
- 3 Days = $62 (Entries valid for ~ 9 days)
- 7 Days = $72 (Entries valid for ~ 1 month)
When we visited in November 2022, you got extra days for your purchase. So a one-day ticket allowed you to enter on three separate days. We purchased the three-day ticket and entered the temple complexes over five days.
I don’t know if extra days are standard or only happening since they’re opening up again after Covid-19. But, if you have time, a three-day pass (five entries) was perfect.
Our entry date was 19-11-2022, and our expiry date was 28-11-2022. So we took days off to explore Siem Reap and watch documentaries to learn about Angkor Wat.
Hiring A Guide
We recommend hiring a guide, especially for Angkor Wat. Of course, you can hire guides for each temple individually or work with the same guide for all your visits.
If you hire a guide on-site, choose one in a pink shirt since they have official training. It costs about $20 for Angkor Wat alone.
Tips for an Enjoyable Experience
Here are a few tips for having your best experience at Angkor Wat’s Grand Circuit.
- It’s a good idea to purchase a lanyard to slip your ticket into and easily hang around your neck. We saw several people doing so and wished we’d considered it ahead. You show your ticket at multiple checkpoints, so keeping track of it is essential. We kept our tickets inside our pocket guidebook, but I always worried about losing them.
- Bring a bottle or two of cold water.
- When you get hot, stop and rest. As basic as it sounds, the heat feels overwhelming. So drink water, then relax in the shade.
- We spent 3-5 hours per day visiting temples. Longer days included a lunch break at one of the many nearby restaurants.
Exploring the Grand Circuit
We only made it to some temples in the Grand Circuit. There are too many of them, even with five viewing days. So pick and choose which temples are the most important for your visit.
Image Credit: Angkor-travels.com
The Grand Circuit Route
Here’s a list of the Grand Circuit temples. I’ve tried to place them in driving order.
- Phnom Bakheng
- Baksei Chamkrong
- Western Baray
- Western Mebon
- Preah Khan Temple
- Preah Neak Poan (also spelled Neak Pean)
- Ta Som (also Tom Som)
- Eastern Mebon
- Eastern Baray
- Pre Rup
- Prasat Kravan
- Banteay Prei Temple
- Banteay Samre
The Small Circuit
For your reference, here are the prominent temples in the Small Circuit.
- Angkor Thom
- Baphuon Temple
- Phimeanakas Temple & Royal Palace
- Elephants Terrace
- Leper King Terrace
- Ta Prohm
- Sra Srang
- Chau Say Tevoda
- Ta Keo
- Banteay Kdei
And here’s one more temple that’s a little further from town: Banteay Srei Temple.
What to See and Do at Each Grand Circuit Temple
Since it’s challenging to see EVERYTHING, I’ll focus on just a few Grand Circuit temples. Here you’ll find information about the cultural and historical significance of the temples. Or the don’t-miss Instagram photo spots.
Preah Khan is one of Angkor’s largest complexes, with a literal vaulted corridor maze and unique carvings to explore. We spent about an hour and a half here.
This temple shows the transformation from Hinduism to Buddhism. For example, the eastern entrance has equal-sized door openings, like those found in Mahayana Buddhist temples. But the other cardinal directions pay homage to Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, with successively smaller doors showing Hinduism’s unequal nature.
Thousands of people cared for this vast complex during its prime when it hosted up to 18 significant festivals annually. King Jayavarman VII built Preah Khan, which likely served as his residence, while he built Angkor Thom.
Preah Neak Pean means temple of the Intertwined Nagas (dragons.) This smaller temple is extraordinary. First, you walk down a long boardwalk across a lily pad-filled lake.
Then you come to a square pool with a central monument surrounded by four smaller square pools. The main structure contains a circular “island” with two nagas whose tails intertwine.
King Jayavarman VII built Neak Pean in the 13th century, likely as a sanctuary-type spa area. An inscription at nearby Preah Khan describes Neak Pean as “a magnificent island surrounded by reservoirs where the beauty shines, and visitors can clear their minds of all doubts once they step foot in it.”
Interestingly, the surrounding waters dried up in the 16th century. And it wasn’t until 2007 that restoration work on the ancient canal system brought the water back to Neak Pean.
We spent about a half hour at Neak Pean, most of which was on the boardwalk crossing the lake. The lilypads were beautiful, and we watched fish swimming just beneath the water’s surface.
If you are looking for the perfect Instagram photo spot, look no further than Ta Som. Its most photographed area is at the eastern gateway or gopura, where a giant Bayan tree shows nature’s intense desire to stake its claim.
I’m a fan of the Avatar movie, and during our Cambodia visit, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Avatar 2. The trees in Cambodia remind me so much of those in the movie.
I grew up in Louisiana, where oak trees grow forever, spreading their limbs over roads and fields. But they seem tiny in comparison to the immensity of Bayan trees.
At any rate, the temple remained untouched for centuries until restoration work in the late 1990s made it safe for visitors to return. I love the tops of towers with faces looking towards each direction. These were in as great shape as the ones at Bayon, but they were a little easier to see.
At one time, this temple, dedicated to the Hindu God of death and destruction – Shiva, sat on an island in Eastern Baray. The Baray, or reservoir, was enormous when waters from the Siem Reap River fed it. However, even though you still walk a long pier to reach the temple, the surrounding lands are now dry.
East Mebon is one of the Grand Circuit’s oldest temples, built during King Rajendravaran’s 10th-century reign.
The temple’s base has gigantic stone elephants at each of its four corners. So, of course, I felt the need to walk along the base wall (maybe 8-10 feet tall) to take a selfie with an elephant. I can’t believe we climbed wherever we wanted in these ancient temples with very few restrictions.
We explored East Mebon for an hour, climbing the stairs to the five towers at the top.
Viewing my pictures of Pre Rup, you can tell I grew weary of the constant staircases within Angkor Wat’s Grand Circuit. It’s a d*mn Stairmaster workout. And I’m not even kidding!
Pre Rup is a favorite gathering spot for sunset watch parties. But, of course, you have to climb up those stairs for the best view over the nearby rice fields.
You’ll also find five lotus towers up there, along with carvings over the lintels. But you’ll have to go for yourself if you want close-ups since I clearly stayed lower this time.
Pre Rup means “Turning the Body,” which refers to traditional cremation where the corpse’s outline remains in the cinders. So you’d think that as a past funeral director, I’d want to explore this ancient royal cremation site. But did I mention all the d*mn stairs?
Okay, funny story…
I just showed these pictures to Steve, who laughed because today he’s editing a video of the Grand Circuit. And apparently, the video confirms my doneness with the stairs. 🙂 Once he posts it, I’ll add a link here.
We stopped at this small temple area, much to our driver’s apparent dismay. He thought it too minor for viewing. And from the outside, it looked unimpressive. However, the interior brick carvings looked awesome. So we were glad to stop.
Five brick towers face east in a north-south lineup. Built for Hindu worship in AD 921, it’s the only structure not built by royalty. Instead, the central tower hosts a carving of Vishnu that saw restoration in 1968.
There’s a cosmic form of the eight-armed Vishnu on the back wall, surrounded by worshippers (or guardians?)
See Vishnu taking three gigantic steps to reclaim the world on the left wall.
And then he’s riding a garuda on the right wall. Garudas are Hindu demigods, the king of the birds and primarily seen with Vishnu. The details are stunning.
Check Out These Guidebooks
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We used this pocket guide every day onsite at the temples of Angkor. And we found it invaluable. The National Geographic Traveler book is another one we took to Cambodia and referred to often.
Summary of the Grand Circuit Experience
It’s hot in Cambodia, so you need to drink a lot of water. That’s the first thing to remember when visiting Angkor Wat’s Grand Circuit. It’s easy to underestimate how tired you’ll feel from the heat, especially if you’re coming from a colder climate. Dehydration happens quickly, so keep drinking water.
The entire Angkor Wat complex is one of the world’s most amazing places. We spent five days exploring temples and learning about Cambodia’s history. And I’m ready to return! Steve says its one of his top five places in the world for visiting. It’s right up there for me too!
Limiting the pictures from each temple is difficult, as I could easily share 20 stunning photos from each site. I think this is one trip where I’ll print a picture book of all the temples. The ancient beauty is like nothing we’d seen before.
Plan your visit ahead of time to get the most out of what you’re seeing. Locals sell guidebooks, which are probably great. But we loved the tiny Lonely Planet Pocket Guide for Siem Reap & the temples of Angkor. We carried it daily. So pick one up before you leave home.
If you’re planning a Cambodia trip, check out our Visit Cambodia post to learn the basics.
Or read about Cambodia’s sad Civil War History in Steve’s article about the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – S21.
And of course, drop a comment below to share your own travel stories with us!