What Is Angkor Wat?

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is a massive temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s the world’s largest religious monument, built over several centuries. And it’s pretty amazing to visit!

The largest temple in the complex is Angkor Wat, but there are over 1000 temples to explore. But, of course, it would take months or years to visit them all. So instead, break them down into smaller chunks, and then decide which temples you most want to see.

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Ticket Cost For Angkor Wat Archaeological Park: 

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)

It’s a good idea to purchase a lanyard to slip your ticket into and easily hang around your neck. We saw a number of people doing so and wished we’d thought of it ahead of time. You’ll need to show your ticket at different checkpoints, so keeping track of it is important. We kept our tickets inside our pocket guidebook, but I always worried about losing them.

Our Angkor Wat Plan Of Attack

Here’s our plan for temple visiting. Maybe it’ll help you decide which temples to explore.

  1. We visited Angkor Wat on Day 1 by ourselves. Our guide wanted us to keep exploring, but honestly, I was too hot and hadn’t been drinking enough water. So he reluctantly returned us to our hotel.
  2. Then we started checking off temples from the Grand or Big Circuit on Day 2. 
  3. Next, we visited Small Circuit temples.
  4. Then we went back to Angkor Wat with a tour guide. 
  5. And finally, on our fifth day, we visited far away Banteay Srei District. 

Check Out These Guidebooks

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 that we took to Cambodia and referred to often.

What is Angkor Wat?

The Grand Circuit includes Angkor Wat, which sits on 402 acres and was built by King Suryavarman II (r. 1113-50). Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat slowly converted to a Buddhist temple by the end of the 12th century. So you’ll see elements of both religions depicted.

Angkor Wat means the City Temple. And this ancient but vast temple complex is about four times larger than the Vatican. 

Today, this temple represents the backbone of Cambodia’s tourism industry, and it appears on the national flag. It is enormous. And we definitely recommend hiring a guide to understand best everything you’re seeing.

View from the Moat of Angkor Wat
View from the Moat surrounding Angkor Wat

How Was Angkor Wat Built?

Inscriptions on temple walls say Angkor Wat’s construction took 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. And portions of the temple were never entirely constructed. 

Our guide pointed out holes drilled into the massive stone blocks. These holes were for the attached straps which elephants pulled from the quarry to the temple complex. And just how far was the quarry? 

The sandstone blocks came from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, about 31 miles (50 kilometers) away. Elephants pulled them to the river, and workers floated them down to the building site. Then elephants pulled them into place.  

It’s hard for me to imagine the complicated logistics of such an enormous construction project. No heavy machinery is involved as we rely on today.

Why Does Angkor Wat Face West?

Angkor Wat differs from all the other temples in the complex since it faces West. And while scholars have conflicting ideas for a reason, our guide believed it faced the West because Hindu god Vishnu did. 

Since Vishnu is associated with the West, the general belief holds that the temple built for this deity also faces the west.

Another idea is that the temple construction faces the sunset since that direction is associated with death. And some believe the temple might have been built as a tomb for King Suryavarman II. However, even though the king died in battle, whether his ashes reside in the temple remains unknown.

Monks visiting the grounds

How Many People Lived At Angkor Wat?

In its prime, the city was larger than London and Paris at the same points in history. It was likely one of the largest empires of its time, with between 700,000 and 900,000 people by the mid-13th century. That’s about as many as currently live in San Francisco, California.

For comparison, about 80,000 lived in London and Paris during the same period. So you can see how vast the Khmer empire actually was.  

Where Did Angkor Wat’s People Go?

Sometime during the 15th century, the Khmer Empire declined. Then, Cambodia and Thailand warred, and around 1431, many city inhabitants moved to Phnom Penh, which became Cambodia’s capital.

But Angkor Wat wasn’t completely abandoned, even though some temples in the complex were. Instead, it continued as a place of worship. 

In the 19th century, French naturalist, Henri Mouhot, visited and later published papers about the temple. So Angkor Wat came back into Western civilization’s knowledge. And then, hordes of Western researchers and tourists followed in Mr. Mouhot’s footsteps to explore this vast complex. 

Finally, in December 1992, Angkor Wat became a UNESCO world heritage site, and now teams from different countries work to restore and protect it.

Gates, Libraries, And Visitor Status Of Angkor Wat

As you come through one of the five gates on the West Portico, it’s mind-boggling to see the size of this colossal temple. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever explored.

Back in the day, the two end gates let elephants and their passengers in. Then two more gates allowed everyday people to enter. And finally, the middle gate welcomed royalty and nobility. 

Accordingly, the two external libraries were for commoners, while the two middle libraries on the temple’s second level welcomed nobility. Then, finally, the royal family had their own library on their private upper temple level.

The same levels of status applied to the temple’s pools. Since Angkor Wat served as a place of worship, the pools held the particular purpose of baptism. So the ground-level pool served commoners, while the middle and upper levels served nobility and royalty.

Steve by an upper level pool


Covering the walls of the temple’s central complex is a vast series of extraordinary bas-reliefs. Most were carved in the 12th century, but inscriptions show that artists added some as late as the 16th century.

These reliefs tell the stories of great battles. Others depict King Suryavarman II’s great army. One of my favorite areas shows images of heaven and hell. So if you told lies or gossiped in life, you might expect the hammering of a wooden dowel down your throat in the afterlife!

Some images were quite extreme, but others showed the rewards of living a good life. So it balanced out.

Angkor Wat Bas-Relief
Notice the person at the bottom getting the log-down-throat treatment

Another of my favorite bas-relief depictions is The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. It’s on the South wall, showing asuras and devas churning up the sea to extract immortality’s elixir. Mt Mandala is at the center of the war between the demons and gods. It sits on Vishnu, incarnated as a giant turtle. His shell helps pivot the mountain as the fight for immortality continues. Luckily, the gods reigned over the demons for control of the elixir.

Churning of the Milk Bas-relief at Angkor Wat
Churning of the Milk

Steps To Angkor Wat’s Upper Level

During our visit in November 2022, we walked right up to the stairs leading to the upper level and started climbing. However, our guide said pre-Covid times meant waiting an hour or more to go up. So we felt lucky for the lower tourist numbers.

Stairs going to upper level

Of course, Steve and I would never make it to the private upper level in its heyday. So just going up felt thrilling. The staircase is steep, but a handrail makes it bearable. However, you can bet this chubby girl was huffing by the time I reached the top!

The upper level gave us magnificent views of the surrounding jungle. And it helped me realize the immensity of the temple complex’s size.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by jungle

We saw the remnants of the royal pool and the remaining Buddha statues. And we even saw graffiti from a Japanese visitor who lost his way and couldn’t get out of the temple for weeks. 

It happened in the 16th century, but I can’t remember all the details. And it proved difficult for me to find stories about it using Google. So if you know the story of the Japanese explorer whose graffiti is now famous, then drop me a comment below!  

Japanese Graffiti at Angkor Wat
Japanese Graffiti

I even got a blessing and a fortune of sorts from a monk. He has a really old book that I held above my head and then pointed a stick at a page. The monk reviewed it, then gave it to our guide to translate into English. Since our guide served as a monk into his late 20s, his knowledge amazed us.

The fortune was good and the blessing felt humbling. The monk spoke some words over me and tied on a braided yarn bracelet. Simply being there to experience Angkor Wat was blessing enough. But Buddhist monks and Catholic priests hold a special place in my heart, so it was great!

Monk Blessing at Angkor Wat
Monk Blessing

The Grand Circuit Of The Temple Complex

I’m not sure that anyone hits all the temples in each circuit. We did not. But you pick and choose and let your driver guide you to the best sites. Sometimes that means the small temple that most people skip is a great stop. 

One important thing to note is you will find many differing spelling versions for the same temples. I’m not sure why, but I’m guessing it’s because of the translation from Khmer to English. Online and printed materials call the same temples by slightly different names, so just know that if it’s close, it’s likely the same place.

My lists are probably incomplete since you find so many temples tucked into the forest. But it’ll give you a good starting point.

  • 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
  • Srah Srang
  • Prasat Kravan
  • Banteay Prei Temple
  • Banteay Samre

The Small Circuit

More prominent temples in the Small Circuit include 

  • Angkor Thom (might technically be in the Grand Circuit)
  • Bayon
  • Ta Prohm
  • Chau Say Tevoda
  • Ta Keo
  • Banteay Kdei

How Crowded Is Angkor Wat?

During our visit, Angkor Wat had few visitors. So we could see almost everything we wanted without waiting in line. We also took many pictures where it seemed we were the only visitors to a temple. But that’s deceptive since it was all about timing. Tourists are very good at giving one another our selfie time.

In December 2021, Angkor Wat had 3,385 visitors. But December 2022 had 62,263, so you can see that travelers are returning. That’s a great sign for all the small businesses that rely on tourism for income. 

Visitors to Cambodia:

2019 = 6,610,592

2020 = 1,306,143

2021 = 196,495

2022 = Through August = 998,272

View from the middle level of Angkor Wat
View from the middle level

Visitor Information

Here are all the details for visiting Angkor Wat.

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.

Official Website:


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. 

And definitely 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. 

Ticket Cost: 

There are three ticket options:

1 Day = $37

3 Days = $62

7 Days = $72

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. And we purchased the three-day ticket and entered the temple complexes on five different days. 

I don’t know if extra days are regular 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. However, you don’t have to go on consecutive days. So it was nice to take a day off between visits. That gave us time to explore Siem Reap and watch documentaries to learn what is Angkor Wat. 

Hiring  A Guide

We recommend hiring a guide for Angkor Wat. Of course, you can hire guides for each temple individually or work with one 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.

Our Tour Guide

Temple Location

Angkor Wat is about 8km outside of Siem Reap. You can arrive by tuk-tuk, car, bicycle, or even on foot if you’re that adventurous. But the temple complex is enormous, so it’s nice to have a driver who drops you off at a temple, then waits to take you to the next one. 

How To Get To Angkor Wat Temple Complex

The easiest way to get to the Tonle Sap 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 the floating village, helps you get a boat ticket, and waits to take you back into town later. 

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. However, we had zero issues getting to where we wanted. Most drivers speak some 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.

How Much Time Should I Spend at Angkor Wat?

As I mentioned, we spent five days touring the temple complex. Most days, Mr. Chea picked us up at 8:00 am. That was early enough to enjoy wandering around before it got too hot. Then he’d take us to a restaurant for lunch before seeing one or two more temples in the afternoon. 

We drank a ton of water, usually bringing a bottle with us and then drinking more that Mr. Chea provided. And we still were so hot. So don’t underestimate the heat and how much you’ll sweat. 

What To Wear To A Temple in Cambodia

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.

When I left the hotel in shorts, Mr. Chea sent me in to change one morning. Not even short shorts, but modest Bermuda-length were still not appropriate.  But if you make it past your tuk-tuk driver, you can buy a scarf from shops and stalls around the market to wrap around you.

While the women’s dress code remains strict, men have fewer clothing restrictions at temples in Cambodia. 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.

When is the Best Time to Visit Angkor Wat?

Visit early in the morning, before crowds arrive and the temperature rises. I consider hats and sunglasses a necessity. And we saw people carrying a sun umbrella or parasol, which is a great idea.

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. So 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.

Save time in your Siem Reap schedule for a day trip to Tonle Sap Floating Village. It’s a nice outing to see how other Cambodians live.


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