Squeezed between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, Cambodia is a complex place. Its landscapes range from plains to mountains, its history from prosperity to turbulence. Over 2,250,000 travelers visited the country in 2022 alone, drawn by the resilience of its people and the allure of its attractions—and Angkor Wat is undoubtedly its crown jewel.
A centerpiece of our Cambodia tours, this sprawling compound has survived the destruction of war, the decline of empires, and the passage of time. It’s a site as enduring as the country it resides in, and whether you have a day or a week, it deserves a spot on your itinerary.
Curious about this famous destination? Here’s everything you need to know before you visit Angkor Wat.
What is Angkor Wat?
The temple of Angkor Wat sits in the UNESCO-listed, 400-square-kilometer Angkor Archaeological Park (which is often called Angkor Wat, too.) In the Khmer language, Angkor Wat means “City of Temples,” and one look beyond the archaeological park’s famous main towers shows how it got that name. Set in a series of concentric rectangles, it claims the record for the largest religious structure in the world.
“The whole complex spans an area that’s the size of about 304 football fields,” staffer Emily said. “We spent two days exploring some of the most popular temples, and we only cracked the surface of all there is to see.”
Here’s a little extra history (and a fun piece of trivia): The temple of Angkor Wat was originally built in 1150 A.D. as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu. By the end of that century, it had been converted to a Buddhist place of worship.
Where is Angkor Wat?
This temple complex sits roughly 3.5 miles north of the city of Siem Reap in Cambodia. On our Grand Tour of Thailand: Bangkok, Chiang Mai & Phuket, you’ll have the opportunity to extend your trip and add a two-night stay in Siem Reap. But if you opt for our new Grand Tour of Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia & Thailand, you’ll get to enjoy three nights.
Even if your main bucket list moment is seeing the temple of Angkor Wat, there are even more wonders that await you through the rest of Angkor Archaeological Park. Trek out to explore two other iconic places: Angkor Thom (the last capital city of the Khmer Empire, once the home of up to 150,000 people) and Ta Prohm (a 12th-century temple famous for its tree-reclaimed buildings and its cameo in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). During your free time in Siem Reap, one of the best things to do is strike up conversations with locals to understand what makes their culture so special.
“Cambodia has dealt with the impacts of colonization, Civil War, the Vietnam War, and genocide, but I could feel the pride the locals have for their country emanating from every anecdote they shared,” staffer Emily said. “Their stories opened my eyes to a culture I knew very little about prior to arriving in Siem Reap, but felt privileged to learn about firsthand.”
When’s the best time to visit Angkor Wat?
Most guides recommend visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise, which we do on our Vietnam & Angkor Wat tour. But if shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and crack-of-dawn wakeups aren’t your thing, we’d suggest the late afternoon. “I started my guided tour around 2:30pm and explored all of the towers and hallways sans the early morning rush,” staffer Emily said.
Still craving those famous cotton-candy skies? Visit Angkor Wat on a sunset tour, like the one offered on the Cambodia extension of our Grand Tour of Thailand: Bangkok, Chiang Mai & Phuket.
We’ve touched on the best time to visit Angkor Wat. As for how many days you need to visit Angkor Wat, it depends on how much you want to see. While you’ll certainly be wowed with even one day at the site, there are so many more magnificent stops in Angkor Archaeological Park, and seeing those require a bit more time. For the full experience, budget two to three days. (Each of our guided Cambodia tours include at least two nights in Siem Reap!)
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What should I see when I visit Angkor Wat?
You could easily spend a day roaming the sacred temple’s three main galleries. We’re not exaggerating—the first contains nearly 13,000 square feet of ornate, bas-relief carvings, depicting eight stories from the Hindu religion.
Each rectangular gallery is nested within the and terraced above the one before it. Creating a unique Khmer architectural feature known as a temple mountain, representing Mount Meru—home of the Hindu pantheon. At the corners and center of the two innermost galleries, intricately hewn towers rise above the jungle floor. The largest of the bunch stands 213 feet high, and while you can’t climb the tower itself, be sure to scale the bakan. This structure stands nearly 100 feet tall and connects each gopura (entrance tower) to the shrines and galleries of the inner sanctum. The panoramic views of the whole complex are worth the climb.
Mind your step, though. The bakan’s stairs are pretty steep, done intentionally to mimic the difficulty of reaching the kingdom of the gods.
Other highlights to see within the expansive temple complex:
- Bayon Temple. Built in 1200 B.C. by Jayavarman VII, this Buddhist temple has 54 towers covered in carvings depicting everything from daily 13th-century life to Jayavarman’s military victories.
Ta Prohm. This temple was created in honor of Jayavarman’s mother and is unique because its inscriptions detail its purpose.
Terrace of the Elephants. This striking, ornamental wall is where King Jayavarman VII looked out over his victorious returning army.
Terrace of the Leper King. Don’t miss this terrace, which is home to an androgynous statue whose meaning remains somewhat mysterious.
Visit all four of these staggering masterpieces on our new Grand Tour of Southeast Aside: Vietnam, Cambodia & Thailand.
How can I visit Angkor Wat?
If you’re wondering whether Angkor Wat is worth visiting, the answer is yes. Getting there is a straightforward affair, thanks to its connections to major cities across mainland Southeast Asia. Flights to Siem Reap from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh take roughly 45 minutes, while ones from Bangkok, Thailand, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, take about an hour each.
After touching down at Siem Reap International Airport, you’re less than 15 minutes from visiting Angkor Wat’s famous gates and moat. If you’re traveling independently, hail a cab to make the quick drive over—or, for a one-of-a-kind experience, hire a lemorque. The Cambodian take on the tuk-tuk, and it consists of a small, open trailer hauled along by a motorcycle. Expect a ride to run you about $10 USD. (Alternatively, you can book one of our Cambodia tours and let us handle the transfers for you.)
Why is Angkor Wat worth visiting?
Where do we start? History buffs will be wowed while they retrace Angkor Wat’s 900-year-old past, while aspiring photographers will find ample subjects in the form of elaborate bas-reliefs and epic gopuras. Still others will enjoy the simple pleasure of being present and letting this UNESCO World Heritage Site speak to them.
“You get to step back in time,” staffer Jules said. “It was very peaceful to walk through these temples and see impressive monuments covered in carvings. It was like reading a book.”
Ready to live your own Angkor Wat experience? Discover our Cambodia tours →