Guide to Angkor Wat the famous Siem Reap Temples, showing main temple towers on a sunny day with the lake in front.

Angkor Wat: A Guide to the Famous Siem Reap Temples

Angkor Wat evokes images of ruins covered in jungle vines, tomb raiders, and ancient rituals. These famous Siem Reap temples and city ruins are a lot of fun to explore. Most temples don’t have one-way paths or restrict visitor access, so imaginations can run wild as you explore and learn about long-lost cultures.

The archeological complex of Angkor Wat once flew under the radar- it only gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1992. However, this world heritage site temple complex is a must-see for any traveler interested in Cambodian history, ruins, or temples, and ranks with any of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Angkor Wat was once a thriving city, with the famous Angkor Temple at its center. This is the iconic image that you most often see defining the site. However, there are many temples spread out across hundreds of acres of land, and some are still unexcavated.

We’ve now visited Angkor Wat, and Siem Reap, Cambodia twice, once on our honeymoon (that’s how much I wanted to see these temples!), and again more recently with our kids during our Family Gap Year. A few things have changed since our first visit, but we strongly recommend a visit for families.

In this post we’ll cover how to visit these famous Siem Reap temples, a suggested itinerary for visiting Angkor Wat, the best temples to visit, and whether you should hire a guide. Post-2020 Cambodia has struggled to bring back the tourist numbers it depends on, so now is a great time to consider a visit to Angkor Wat!

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What is Angkor Wat?

Angkor Wat is a vast temple complex that was the heart of the Khmer Empire. The temple complex covered over 400 acres. In Cambodian, “wat” means temple, so you’ll encounter that term a lot. When you visit Angkor you are visiting not just the remains of Angkor Wat, but of the city of Angkor as well. This lost city was once home to over 700,000 people. Construction of the complex began in the 9th Century and it remained the center of Khmer art and culture for more than 600 years. Angkor was all but abandoned sometime in the 15th Century, with only a few Buddhist monks remaining.

Originally a Hindu structure, Angkor Wat was later converted into a Buddhist temple, so you’ll see evidence of both religions as you explore. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and a travel bucket list destination for many people.

von Berg family in front of the iconic towers of Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Family photo with the iconic towers of Angkor Wat

These famous temples are part of Siem Reap province, Cambodia. Once simply a stop on the way to the temples, Siem Reap has evolved into a city that’s worth a visit beyond the temples. Angkor Wat represents a high point of Cambodian culture, so you’ll find the image of the main temple on local currency, as well as the Cambodian flag.

While in Siem Reap we highly recommend taking a food tour to learn more about Khmer culture. We’ve also rounded up the best places to enjoy coffee in Siem Reap while relaxing after your temple explorations.

Getting Tickets to Angkor Archeological Park

When buying tickets to Angkor Archaeological Park you’ll choose between 1 Day, 3 Day, and 7 Day passes.

Children under 12 do not need a ticket, and enter for free. This can be a huge savings for families, so plan around visiting before that 12th birthday if you are able! Children who are close to this age may be asked to show a passport to verify their birthdate.

Note: Age is calculated by the exact day of birth, not the birth year.

To buy a ticket, you’ll follow the prompts online and upload a passport-size photo for each person. You’ll then get a ticket that you show on your mobile phone as you move around the Angkor complex.

You can also buy a ticket from the Official Ticket Counter, paying only in cash. The ticket center is located on Road 60. You will need to supply a photograph.

Each ticket is valid for 10 days from the issue date you select when purchasing the ticket. You do not need to use the ticket on consecutive days.

We recommend the 3 Day pass (62 USD in 2024). We only used our pass for two days but enjoyed the option to use it for an additional sunset or sunrise if we decided to do so. If you’ll just be passing through quickly, the 1 Day pass may suffice (37 USD), or if you are serious about exploring all of this massive complex, you can nerd out with the 7 Day pass (72 USD).

How to Visit the Temples of Angkor

There are three main ways to visit the temples of Angkor: by tour (bus or van), by bicycle, and by tuk-tuk. Whichever method you choose, park passes should be purchased separately.

Please note that riding elephants is no longer allowed at Angkor Wat. If you wish to get up close to Asian Elephants, consider visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary where the natural behaviors of the elephants are respected.

Tour of Angkor Temples

A pre-booked tour of Angkor Wat means you don’t have to research which temples to see, or in what order. You can alert your guide to any accessibility issues, relax, and enjoy a smooth journey.

While there are parts of the temples that are accessible, there are many other parts that are not. Uneven ground, stairs, and loose rocks are part of the more remote ruins.

This two-day private tour of Angkor includes Angkor Wat and other major sites. A sunset viewing of Angor Wat is included, as well as Ta Phrom and Bayon temples. On the second day, you’ll also visit the floating villages at Tonle Sap Lake.

Travelers speak very highly of the guides and the tour experience in general. The roads around Angkor do not accommodate large buses, so you’ll be with just your private group in a small car or van.

Book Now: Temples in Two Days


You may also book a tour to cover an extensive range of temples and prefer a fully qualified guide for the full time. This 3-day tour includes the small circuit, grand circuit, and an additional day to visit the remote Koh Ker and Beng Melea Temple. You’ll move between the temples in an air-conditioned vehicle, ending back in Siem Reap each night.

Book Now: Three Day Full Tour of Angkor

Bicycle

You can rent bicycles and cycle around the temple complex on your own. We did this the first time we visited Siem Reap. We rented bikes and cycled out to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. The downside to this plan, was that it was dark after sunset (who saw that coming? Clearly, I didn’t think this one through.)

Suddenly we were sharing the road, and roundabouts with tour buses, tuk-tuks, and other vehicles in the dark. Not the best plan unless you are a very confident cycler.

Siem Reap and the Angkor complex have only gotten busier since then, so plan carefully if you intend to ride bikes from temple to temple. Bicycling is best in the cooler months, as the complex often gets quite hot.

Cycling allows you to move around at your own pace and not worry about a driver or guide’s timing.

The first time we visited was in January, and biking was fine. The second time we visited in August, and were very glad of a respite from the sun as we were driven around in a tuk-tuk from one temple to the next.

Tuk Tuk

Tuk-tuks are our preferred method for moving around the Angkor complex. You hire a driver, (and an additional guide if you’d like), and they take you to a temple, then wait while you explore, then take you on to the next temple.

Kids in a tuk tuk parked in the shade with the driver standing at the front in a shaded forest at Angkor Archeological Park

There are some standard itineraries that tuk-tuk drivers offer, we’ll cover those in our recommended itinerary for Siem Reap temples below.

We used a tuk-tuk for most of our first visit to Angkor Wat and chose to visit via tuk-tuk the second time we visited as well. Our kids were 6 and 9, and the four of us could comfortably share a tuk-tuk, chat as we moved along, and decide how long to stay in each location.

Do I Need a Guide to Visit Angkor Wat and Other Siem Reap Temples?

You don’t need a guide to visit the temples of Angkor, though we recommend you consider one. The first time we visited, we didn’t use a guide, and I was determined to poke my head into every crevice of Angkor Temple and not miss a thing! However, even with a guidebook, we only scraped the surface of understanding what we were looking at.

For our second visit, we hired a guide for the first day of exploring, starting with Angkor Temple. This meant that our guide led us through the temple on a path designed to make sure we saw all the highlights (and then some). He was able to explain the stories behind some of the massive pictorial murals on the walls, and also answer our questions as we moved along.

The von Berg Family shown on the left in front of the stone temple ruins, and again on the right next to a large tree in a double exposure image.
Double Exposure at Banteay Kdei

The guides also know the best places to take photos in Angkor and helped us take some fun family photos including group pictures, nose-to-nose pictures with some of the carvings, panoramics, and some fun photos where we moved mid-panoramic to all appear in the photo twice! These antics helped break up all the serious temple learning and kept the kids entertained as we moved along.

How to Hire a Driver or Guide

When we arrived in Siem Reap, we took a tuk-tuk from the bus station, and the driver offered us his card. We liked him, knew his level of English, and decided to use WhatsApp to ask him to quote on taking us around the temples. We also asked at our hotel desk what they would charge.

Once we settled on a driver, we asked him to recommend a guide, which he happily did. We figure this way the driver and guide know each other and are used to working together. In 2023, for the “small tour”, or “small circuit” about 6 hours, we paid $15 for the tuk-tuk, and $35 for a guide for the day.

Recommended Angkor Itinerary

Here is our recommended itinerary for visiting these famous Siem Reap temples. Angkor is a huge complex, and each family’s capacity for temple visits (possibly in high heat) will vary, so we’ll describe why we like these temples, and you can decide which to visit, and which to skip.

Sunrise at Angor Wat

Sunrise is an extraordinary experience at Angkor Wat. You’ll need to get up very early to get to the Angor Wat temple and wait to watch the sunrise over the iconic towers. We did this on our first visit and opted to skip it on our second since getting the kids up that early often means dealing with tired meltdowns later in the day.

Colorful pinks and blues during sunrise at Angkor Wat. The spires of the temple are show black against the sky and reflected in the water below.

Many guides will charge a little extra for the very early start, you’ll want to arrive at the temple by 4:30 or earlier depending on the time of year. From there, you’ll continue your day exploring, and end in the early afternoon when everyone starts to get tired.

So, is visiting Angkor Wat for sunrise worth it? Absolutely. On a good morning, the colors that silhouette the temple tours are stunning. We know families that have done it, and others that have split, with older kids getting up, and others sleeping in. We highly recommend seeing sunrise at Angkor Wat at least once.

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

Phnom Bakheng is one of the most popular spots for sunset within the Angkor Archeological Complex. It’s close to Angkor Wat, and makes a lovely end to the day if you are still in the complex at that point! Phnom Bakheng is one of two temples that stay open until 7 pm to allow for sunset viewing (the other is Pre Rup).

Is visiting Angkor Wat for sunset worth it? It’s lovely, but it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so don’t stress if it doesn’t fit into your schedule.

Crowds of people on the top of Phnom Bakheng to watch sunset at Angor Cambodia


Angkor Wat vs Angkor Thom

There are two major components to the Angkor Archeological Complex.

Angkor Wat is the main temple and the huge temple complex that surrounds it. King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat as a Hindu Temple dedicated to the God Vishnu. This was both the state temple and also probably the King’s mausoleum.

At the end of the 12th Century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple after being sacked by the Khmer enemy, the Chams in 1177. The Chams are the Hindu people who built Champa, which you can visit in Vietnam from nearby Hoi An. King Jayavarman VII’s wife was Buddhist and convinced him to convert to avoid further losses.

Angkor Thom is the city of Angkor, which includes the Angkor Wat complex. The Angkor Thom South Gate is 1.7 km from the entrance to Angkor Wat. This also included the original Royal Palace, as well as other temple complexes.

The whole of the Angkor Archaeological Complex is over 400 square kilometers, so accept from the beginning that you won’t see every inch of it!

Day 1: Main Temples of Angkor

For your first day, we recommend getting a driver and a guide and doing most of the “small tour” of the main temple of Angkor. This is also the day to visit Angkor Wat at sunrise, as you can then immediately enter the complex and continue to explore it.

This route includes Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei temples. Unless you move quite quickly, you probably won’t be able to visit these all in the allotted time.

The “Grand Circuit” includes Srah Srang, Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, and Preah Khan. These temples are a bit farther from Siem Reap, so take more gas and time to visit.

Day 2: Secondary Temples of Angkor

For your second day, skip the guide, and take the time to visit the temples that you are most interested in, or that you didn’t get to on your first day. We found that this day was best to focus on climbing, exploring, and enjoying the jungle experience rather than focusing on a guide.

For our second day, we chose to visit Preah Khan, Ta Keo, and Ta Phrom. Make sure to be clear with your driver where you want to go and how long you plan to be in the complex. Our driver wanted to charge us for the “grand route” because one of the temples was farther out on the “grand circuit”, but agreed to the same fee as the day before when we promised that the second day would be the same time or shorter than the first.

The 7 Best Temples in Siem Reap

These are the 7 temples we think are the most fun to visit in Siem Reap. We’ll explain why, so you can choose which temples to do in which order. We chose to finish our tour with Ta Phrohm, which I had talked up to the kids as the “most exciting” temple.

This temple is famous because it was featured in scenes in the movie “Tomb Raider” and was my favorite temple on our first visit. However, it’s gotten so popular, that the flow through the temple is now more regulated, and the kids were a bit disappointed. I learned my lesson about over-selling an experience!

City Gates

As you move between temples, you’ll also see the gates of the city, with impressive stone carvings. While there were originally five gates, each closed by wooden doors, most people now enter through South Gate, the best preserved of the gates.

Young girl in a purple shirt with her back turned to the camera walking toward the South Gate of Angkor Thom

You’ll cross a 100m wide moat as you approach the South Gate. On the crossing, you’ll find stone gods on one side, and demons on the other. Look for the large faces above the gate, one looking in each direction, as you pass through.

The East Gate is featured in Tomb Raider, though they block it up to show the soldiers “breaking” the gate. We found it fun to watch clips of the movie specific to Angkor Wat before and after visiting the site.

1. Angkor Wat

With a guide, we spent about 3 hours at Angkor Wat, so this will be a large chunk of your first day. This is by far the largest complex, so take your time here. The temple was never fully abandoned, though it was “re-discovered” by Europeans in the 1500s.

Angkor Wat opens at 5 am, and closes at 5:30 pm. If you wish to fully explore every corner of Angkor Wat, plan to spend a full day here.

Aspara dancer carved into the sandstone of Ankor Wat in Siem Reap Cambodia
Aspara Dancers are found throughout the Angkor Complex

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat with bridges crossing it. Over 900 years old, it’s built of sandstone and includes many Aspara bas reliefs. Aspara are female dancers and spirits in the Hindu tradition. Inside you’ll find the “Hall of A Thousand Gods”, several libraries, the Temple Proper, and several ponds.

There is a steep staircase used to reach the Temple Proper. Children under 12 and pregnant women are not allowed to climb the Temple of Angkor. There may be a line to climb, and you are asked to stay no more than 15 minutes.

You must be dressed properly to climb into this section. Shoulders must be covered, and scarves are not allowed. We recommend bringing a lightweight button-down shirt to put on for this part of your journey.

Steep stairs of the inner temple of Angkor Wat
Staircase up the Temple Proper in Angkor Wat

2. Phnom Bakheng

This temple between Angkor Wat and Tonle Om (Angkor Thom South Gate) is famous as a sunset spot. The temple is a pyramid built on a hilltop, so you climb up the side of it for views of the jungle beyond.

You’ll find Asparas (spiritual dancers), Devatas (guardian spirits), and warriors carved into the stones. Stone lions guard the entrance to the stairways. You’ll often see Buddhist monks at the top of the temple as well as tourists.

If you want to visit for sunset, you must arrive by 4 pm during busy months, as the number of visitors is restricted to 300 people at a time. The stairways are rather narrow (with metal railings), but the top is a wide open terrace with lots of room to move around.

3. Bayon Temple

Stone faces and crumbling roof of Bayone Temple with a clear blue sky behond.

Bayon Temple is famous for its many, many carved faces. There are three levels, with a total of 216 faces. There are a lot of bas-reliefs here, including many depicting battles between the Khmer and the Champas. This is a fun temple to explore. We visited just before lunch when the heat was getting to everyone, so didn’t spend as much time here as I think we would have if we visited at another time.

4. Ta Keo Temple

View of Ta Keo and the jungle beyond from the top of the temple, with dark storm clouds beyond.
Entrance to Ta Keo as seen from the top of the temple

Ta Keo is a pyramidal temple with a very steep set of stairs leading up to a terrace. Once here, there’s a second much smaller set of stairs to the top section. From the top, you have lovely views of the surrounding jungle. There are no railings or easy ways to climb up. Our kids thought it was one of the most fun temples because they had to work hard to scramble to the top.

Several people climbing the steep staircase to the terrace of Ta Keo Temple in Angkor

There is very little artwork or decoration visible here, it is thought that the structure may have been left unfinished. The main experience is the climb. Ta Keo is one of the tallest structures in Angkor and is believed to be one of the first temple buildings of the Angkor Complex.

5. Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm is the most famous temple in Angkor Park, second only to Angkor Wat. Featured in Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie, it is known for its mixture of jungle and ruin. Trees grow through and over the temple as if the jungle has tried to bury or hide the ruins.

The first time we visited Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm was my favorite temple. It lived up to all my expectations about the overgrown jungle and the feeling of exploring and discovering a lost temple. However, on our return with the kids in the Fall of 2023, this temple had changed quite a bit.

Young Girl standing next to a wooden fence in Ta Prohm temple with a large tree root behind her spreading over the temple roof.

This temple has become so popular, that boardwalks have been put in to control crowds, and increase accessibility. Photo locations have been set up with wooden decks and rope barriers. There are arrows to direct you, with a set path, and it no longer feels like exploring.

The trees are still massive and beautiful, and the temples are being preserved, which is important. Don’t skip this temple, but visit with the expectation that you will view it from afar, and then move along to other more remote temples to escape the crowds.

6. Banteay Kdei Temple

Two kids as seen through several rows of stone doorways in Bantaey Kdai Temple Cambodia

This was originally a Buddhist temple that is known for its mazelike structure. There are large trees and it feels a bit overgrown.

This was one of our favorite temples. It’s flat and accessible. The kids could wander and explore, and we didn’t see many other tourists. A lot of art is visible on the carved columns and door frames. The kids loved squeezing between stones and finding their own path.

7. Preah Khan Temple

Stone front of Preah Khan with bright green moss covering the stone.

This was the first temple we visited on the second day. It’s remote, covered in moss, and a delight to wander through. This is a flat temple complex that I would recommend ending with- plenty of room for the kids to make up games and climb around.

Once you go through the temple, follow the dirt path at the back to a large manmade pond with a Buddhist temple in the middle.

How Many Days Do I Need to Visit Angkor Wat?

Depending on how much you love visiting ruins and temples, you could limit your visit to one day, or spend several days visiting Angkor Wat.

Most families will be happy with two days of temple visits, with a break between days at Angkor to do other things around Siem Reap. Don’t miss our full post on other things to do in Siem Reap besides temples.

We spent two days in Angkor Wat and found that was the right amount of time for us. We asked the kids whether they wanted to return to the complex for an additional sunset visit, and they declined.

When is the Best Time to Visit Angkor Wat?

Angkor Wat is accessible all year round, but the best time to visit is from November to March. You’ll be in the dry season, and not yet in the hottest months of the year.

From March to May, the temperatures get quite hot, though conditions remain dry, so you can still explore.

From June to October, you are in the rainy season. You’ll get cooler weather, but also a chance of thunderstorms.

We visited in August, and while it was quite warm, we did get a few thunderstorms that sent us ducking for cover. We still had two fun days exploring the temples, so don’t discount visiting during this time! You may want to schedule a few extra days into your visit so you can time your temple visits around any rain.

Where to Stay in Siem Reap

When booking your accommodation in Siem Reap, you’ll want to stay downtown, near the river, within walking distance of Pub Street and other cafes.

Recommended Hotel: Siem Reap Urban Boutique Hotel

We stayed in this three-star hotel, in a family suite with two twin beds and one queen.

From here you can walk to Pub Street and the old market easily. The rooms are large and clean, and a good hot breakfast is served each morning. We particularly like the hot Asian options over the pancakes and waffles. The staff was very nice, and they have a small pool for cooling off during hot weather.

Book Now: Siem Reap Urban Boutique Hotel


FAQ: Angkor Wat and Siem Reap Temples

Why is Angkor Wat so famous?

Is Angkor Wat one of the 7 Wonders of the World?

No, Angkor Wat is not one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Some people call it the 8th Wonder, but that’s very unofficial, and also sometimes used for Lion Rock in Sri Lanka.

Angkor Wat is an amazing site and is just as impressive (if not more) as World Wonder sites. We visited Chichen Itza during our six weeks in Mexico and would rank Angkor Wat well above it, in terms of scale and impressive ruins.

Is Angkor Wat really worth visiting?

Yes, Angkor Wat is one of the most spectacular ruins you will find anywhere in the world.

Why was Angkor Wat abandoned?

Angkor Wat was never truly abandoned. The capital city was moved, and the Khmer Empire crumbled. The complex was only “lost” to the European world.

Is 2 days enough for Angkor Wat?

Yes, two days of viewing Angkor Wat is plenty for most people, though we recommend having more time to see other things in Siem Reap, and around Cambodia.

Is Siem Reap the same as Angkor Wat?

Siem Reap is the closest city to Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is specifically the temple of the complex of Angkor, and the ancient Khmer city.

What airport do you fly into for Angkor Wat?

You can fly into Siem Reap International Airport. You can also fly into Phnom Penh and then go overland to Siem Reap from there.

There You Have It: A Guide to the Siem Reap Temples of Angkor Wat

The Angkor Wat complex is immense and impressive. Whether you are interested in the artwork, the architecture, or just seeing crumbling stones deep in the jungle, you’ll love visiting Angkor Wat. These famous temples close to Siem Reap are a wonderful introduction to Khmer culture and all that Cambodia has to offer.

There are many temples and sites to visit, we’ve outlined our top seven so you can choose the sites that most appeal to your family.

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