A Photographer’s Guide to Angkor Wat
I’m sure many blogs out there would tell you their “Ultimate Guide to Angkor Wat” only after spending no more than a few days in Siem Reap. We spent about 6 days in the city with a 3 day ticket for Angkor Wat. Let me start by saying there is no ultimate way to tackle this place. Angkor Wat is HUGE. Its comprised of a bunch of temples and Angkor is just one of many – probably the best preserved one. When we arrived at the ticket booth, I thought it would be ridiculous to even consider in getting a 7 day ticket until I visited the complex. There are many ways to visit this place and it all depends on what you plan to do with the time you have in Siem Reap.
1 day – $20
3 day – $40
7 day – $60
As of Feb 1, 2017, the price increase as follows:
1 day – $37
3 day – $62
7 day – $72
There are essentially two loops, very originally called “small circuit” and “grand tour”
Small Circuit includes the following temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, Ta Keo and Banteay Kdei Grand Tour includes: Angkor Wat, Part of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup. These two are the typical routes you would do no matter what form of transportation you choose with those crunched for time choosing the small loop. If you purchase 3 or 7 days, you don’t have to use it consecutively. You have a time limit of a week or two giving you some breaks in between so you wont suffer from temple burnout!
There are TONS of these guys around the city and after a few polite “no thanks” you’ll definitely get tired of saying it by night fall. We arrived by bus from Bangkok and the station in Siem Reap was really far from the city center. Luckily the bus company provided “free” transport by tuk-tuk at the station. As you all know, nothing is really free. This service gives the driver an opportunity to sell you their driver service and to guarantee a job for themselves by driving you to see the temples. These ones are fairly expensive and will do a hard sell, making it difficult to fend them off. The ones at the airport or bus terminal often start at $20USD.
If you get one off the street, it’s a mixed bag. Some play the role of a guide and can speak very good english (or honestly, whatever language). We had one that spoke both English and Mandarin for our friend we shared a tuk-tuk with. These guys can range from $10-13USD to start. Usually, you just need them to take you to your desired circuit. They also usually have a limit with the time of hire, about a 5 hr service time. I’ve mentioned their starting prices because it depends on which temples you want to see. More on that below.
The mini loop costed about $10-13 USD for the whole tuk-tuk and the grand tour costed about $15-18 USD. There were 4 of us in the tuk-tuk so we split the cost. That is one way you can save on the ride there! You can also quote per person prices if you are trying to get a deal. A friend got one to drive her and a friend for $4 USD per person, although it was already mid-afternoon. Don’t forget you don’t have to follow the route if you don’t want. You can always tell your driver which ones you want to see and make your own tour!
Oh, and if you want to add either sunrise / sunsets to your trip, add $5 more to the price.
This was by far the most fun and worthwhile way to see the temples. We only tackled the short circuit by bike as the larger circuit was about 37km round trip. The short circuit was a manageable 25km round trip and allows you to have the freedom to see each temple at your own pace. There are a few downsides to biking the circuit:
- The last stretch of road from Ta Phrom back to Angkor Wat is under construction so wear a face mask as you will be covered by dust as you cycle through 8km of dirt roads.
- If you bike back to Siem Reap in the afternoon, it’s hot and the roads can be tricky to maneuver in between vehicles.
- If you decide to bike to Angkor Wat for the sunrise, there are no street lights. Bring a headlamp or torch!
It’s about $3USD to rent (though we’ve read about someone renting it for $1.50USD but got a really junky bike)
That classic silhouette shot of Angkor which can be seen in the online is what everyone goes for. People (including myself) would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to get there and hope for the best. I haven’t been lucky enough to see the fiery orange sky after visiting it twice for sunrise. Maybe, next time. Just a few tips if you do decide to go:
- There is A LOT of people. Best to go early around 4:30 and claim a spot most tuk-tuks will insist on leaving Siem Reap at 5am (takes about 20min to arrive.) By then, front row is taken up and you’lI have to make your way through the crowd. I found a great spot with mud so I had a lot of space around me but for the most part, it gets pretty crazy in there. People get pushy at times. So make sure your tripod is firmly in place.
- Bring a tripod & shutter release!
- If you can, get your ticket the day before. I know this might come as an extra cost but if you only have the one day to shoot, and want to find a spot early, best have your ticket ready. The lineup in the morning can range from a quick 10min to a 45min queue.
- You can buy coffee and some snacks by the gates in Angkor Wat!
- During the time of year that I went, the sun is actually to the right of Angkor Wat. March is when the sun is above the temple.
Big 3 – Angkor Wat, Ta Phrom, Angkor Thom
These are the busiest (and rightly so!) Each one also require a few hours to explore so it’s best to go in the morning when visiting one of these. Right after the sunrise, people will start moving towards Angkor Wat and start exploring the area so if you’ve got your sunrise shot, logistically, it makes sense to move towards Angkor Wat. I don’t know why but Angkor Wat was the least explored temple during my visit. The Bayon / Angkor Thom just intrigued me more. Maybe the amount of people also swayed my decision.
All temples open at 7:30am. The first one I wanted to tackle was the Bayon. I asked my tuk-tuk driver to drop me off here first and let me tell you how peaceful it was when you don’t have to make your way through the bus tour crowds (they usually arrive around 8-8:30am). I chose to do this one first because it has very little covered spaces. By 8:15am, the light was already pretty harsh and it casted strong shadows on the faces.
Ta Phrom (I hated calling it the “tomb raider” temple) is stunning with morning light. I arrived here about 8:30-45am and it was already getting really crowded but the lighting was still awesome. Especially inside, where the trees and shaded areas are. You would definitely need a tripod inside even during the day if you want to shoot with low ISO. It’s unfortunate that due to people disrespecting the property, certain areas with tree roots have been roped off. There are other spots with tree roots which are barrier free but don’t be that person to ruin it for everyone 🙂 This place is also a great spot to visit late in the afternoon too but at that point, there’s just way too many people to get through.
On the day you buy your ticket, you are granted free access to the sunset spot at Phnom Bakheng after 5pm (Your tuk-tuk driver will know exactly where to go). It’s perfect if you plan to only do 1 day in Angkor, as you can use the time the day before to check out the sunset. Keep in mind, that the ticket office will only sell the tickets for the following day at 4:30pm. If you get there early, you will be waiting as they really do not sell it a minute before they are allowed. But don’t get there too late as 10 minutes before 4:30 pm, there is a mad dash at the ticket window. As good as it sounds, it leaves you very little time to actually check out the sunset. We were the first at the ticket window and then our tuk-tuk driver drove us quickly to the spot. We made it up there in 15min walking up the mountain on a dirt road, but we were sweating and partially running to make it on time. There’s a queue (yea, its quite popular) because they’re trying to limit the amount of people up on the temple to preserve the structure.
Another sunset spot is Prae Rup, it’s quite far but a great spot to watch the sunset. Don’t expect views of Angkor Wat here though as it overlooks the lush greenery, and rice fields.
However way you want to tackle the temples, just be prepared for the crowds. It takes a bit of planning if you go the photography approach. The whole place is big enough that you’ll at least come out with a few (or more) tourist-free photos! Oh and one last piece of advice, whatever you do, don’t forget your ticket. We’ve encountered many people and their horror stories upon arriving at the checkpoint and realizing they forgot the ticket. The checkpoint is halfway to Angkor Wat (3km from Siem Reap & Angkor Wat) and nowhere near the ticket office (2km from Siem Reap) Have fun exploring!