Angkor Wat for Backpackers

March 25, 2007

dsc02248.JPGOne of the highlights of my trip to SE Asia was Angkor Wat. For the past two months, whenever I met someone who had already been, I picked their brain about where they went, what they liked, and did they have any tips to share. I bought a book on Angkor Wat. Still, I was confused – just how long did I really need? What was worth seeing and what did people see only because they felt obligated to? Once in Siem Reap, frustration set in. Paying American prices for nasty pizza, constant nagging by tuk-tuk drivers and children selling tacky bracelets, getting stuck behind the herds of pack tourists at nearly all of the temples.

Especially for the budget-minded, independent traveler, a visit to Angkor Wat can be complicated. In the off-moments, sitting back in the tuk-tuk in the evenings on the way home from a busy day of sightseeing, I thought about what went well, what didn’t, and how I could have made my time more enjoyable. Hopefully, these tips will help other backpackers make the most out of the temples.


We hired a tuk-tuk for three days. To see all of the temples in the Angkor Archeological Park cost us $12 a day (as of March 2007). Some friends of ours paid $10. To go to Banteay Srei (38 km outside of Siem Reap) cost $18. To do Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and Beng Melea in one day would have cost us $35, so to cut costs we only chose the first. To hire a private car to see the afore-mentioned three temples would have cost $60 per day.

With that said, to save money, we could have gotten away with hiring a tuk-tuk for only two days. The Small Circuit is compact enough to see on a bicycle. Most guesthouses rent them out for only $2 a day. Keep in mind that starting from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., it is rip-roaringly hot, and during these times, I was grateful for the tuk-tuk’s protection from the sun.

If arriving into Siem Reap by bus, you will be swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take you to your guesthouse for free, in the hopes that you will hire them for the remainder of your stay in the city. This is perfectly legit and friends who have done this were very satisfied with their drivers.

Siem Reap

Everything is expensive – internet, laundry, food, lodging, I mean everything. The rich package tourists have spoiled everything for us cheapies. We paid $8 a night for our guesthouse (Two Dragons), when we’ve been paying $5 everywhere else in Cambodia. Fortunately, we had free WiFi and water, which helped us save a few dollars in the end.

For cheap food, there are several inexpensive local dives on the west side of the Old Market and food stalls on the east riverbank, north of National Highway 6.

And for God’s sake, don’t only eat at the places recommended in the guidebooks. It seems Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and Travelfish were all too lazy to do anything more than read each other, since they all recommended the same crapola places. Just walk around town and pick somewhere that looks good – you may win, you may lose – but your odds are just as good (bad?) if you’re going to blindly trust a guidebook.

Seeing the Temples

I love temples, I love ruins, I love old things. I thought about buying a one-week pass to Angkor. Whatever you do, do NOT do this unless you are getting your Ph.D. in Angkor temples. The three-day pass was more than sufficient.

In three days, you can see:

Day 1: Small Circuit, with either Angkor Wat or Angkor Tom (don’t do both in one day!)
Day 2: Big Circuit, including whichever Angkor you left out the day before
Day 3: Outlying temples like the Roulos Group, Banteay Srei, Beng Melea, etc.

Don’t rush! You have plenty of time. Aim to take at least one 10-20 minute break in each temple you visit. This gives you a chance to soak up the atmosphere and will also keep your batteries charged.

Take snacks and a big bottle of water when you see the temples. Food and drink is double price in the park.

Go home mid-day. Start early and return for lunch, take a shower and a nap, eat some ice cream, then go back out around 3 p.m. You will thank yourself.

If you want to go to the outlying temples, check out your transportation options as soon as you arrive in Siem Reap. Because the temples are so far from the city, the best option is going by car, but you’ll need four people to keep your costs down. Tours are also offered, but not everyday. Check out the Peace of Angkor Guesthouse and The Villa at Siem Reap. They were some of the only places that offered affordable day-trips to far-away temples. For Banteay Srei and Kbal Speal, you need the Angkor pass. For Beng Melea, you don’t need the pass and entrance is $5.

Avoiding the Crowds

In the words of Scotty from Star Trek, “You just can’t do it.”

To a certain extent. Certain places to avoid are Phnom Bakheng at sunset and Angkor Wat after sunrise. Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei in the morning are supposed to be packed.

We did, however, have a few strategies to beat the hordes. First, leave early. The temples are pretty peaceful before 8 a.m. (except for Angkor Wat.) Second, go late. While many of the tour groups are still at it around 4 p.m., I noticed that the pace seemed more relaxed. After 5 p.m. was great – cooler temperatures, soft, beautiful sunlight, and very few people around.

dsc02231.JPGCheck alternative sunrise and sunset places. We were at Pre Rup and it was populated, but definitely wasn’t as crowded as Phnom Bakheng. Sunrise at Angkor Wat, while crowded, is manageable because the temple is just so huge.

Many people advise going out during mid-day to avoid the bus-loads of tourists. I would only recommend this in the cool season, unless you’re itching to get heat stroke. Just wake up early. It won’t kill you.

With all of this said, I don’t regret the money I spent at Angkor Wat. I know some travelers who only went for one day to save $20 on the expensive entrance fee, yet blow $5-10 every night at bars. Um, there are bars at home. There’s only one Angkor Wat. There are times to be cheap, and there are times to spend money. So shell some of it out knowing that after three days of nothing but temples and ruins, you won’t need to see another one again for a very, very long time. A bargain, really, when you think about it.


One Response to “Angkor Wat for Backpackers”

  1. I agree, waking up before sunset really gets you in front of the tourist crowds. Plus, the temples are much more beautiful at that time.

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