Obviously Angkor Wat was my primary reason for choosing Cambodia as a travel destination. So we wanted to make sure we did it right with a guided tour, and I’m glad we did because I can see how visiting any other way might be a disaster.
Booking a private tour
Our hotel, Mane Village Suites, contacted us about booking a tour directly through them months before we arrived. Their tour included Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple). Having done no research on our own, we decided to take them up on the offer. We were given the choice of just booking transportation, by car and tuk tuk at different price levels, and to do it with or without a private guide.
Why choose a guided tour
I can think of a thousand reasons why it’s good to get a guide for Angkor Wat. Here are just a few of the most important.
You’ll benefit from the guide’s knowledge
Whether you book it through a company or your hotel or hostel, I recommend getting a guide because you’ll have no idea what you’re seeing without it. Unless you’re the kind of person that reads three books about the sights you’ll be visiting, there’s most definitely some stuff you won’t know to look for.
For instance, I’m ashamed to admit that I had no idea before our tour that Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple. Throughout the entire complex there’s symbols of both Hinduism and Buddhism that I only knew to recognize because our guide, Long, had explained them to us. He explained what to do to get a blessing from a monk and took us to the chest knocking shrine in Ta Prohm, where you can hear a loud echo when you hit your chest.
You avoid some of the harassment around the temples
Another good reason to book a tour is that Angkor Wat and surrounding temples are a circus. All the people selling souvenirs and books and offering you tours and tuk tuk rides are hanging around the temples in numbers almost as large as the tourists. Walking around with a guide can help keep some of that annoying pressure off you because they know you’re already spoken for.
You get to learn a little more about local culture
Our guide had us try bamboo rice during the course of the day, at one of the market areas outside Angkor Wat. It was yummy and I wouldn’t have known to try that or even what could be inside the bamboo. He also made sure to pick out ones for us that smelled the best. He told us about his life, and life in Cambodia in general, which is interesting because unless you’re visiting someone who lives there, you probably wouldn’t get that opportunity. We spent all day with him so we discussed city life, politics, work, education, and even got some good recommendations for the rest of our trip.
You won’t get scammed with an unlicensed guide
Though it might be cheaper or convenient, many people who offer tours are not licensed. What can happen if you pick an unlicensed guide is that they might get kicked out of the site in the middle of your tour. Licensed guides all wear tan button down shirts with a numbered tag on their chest and several official patches.
You’ll get amazing pictures
Guides see these temples every day. And even if you have the keenest eye for photography, you won’t necessarily know where in the temple you can go to get a shot with no people or where the light falls just the right way. Our guide, Long, was exceptionally patient and creative with his shots so he took some really incredible photos of us, which would have otherwise been mediocre selfies. I can’t recommend him enough. You can find his website here.
You’ll have more flexibility
A private guided tour to Angkor Wat is the way to go because you can always adjust it as you go along. If you’re feeling tired or hot, you can skip something or stop for a drink and a rest. You can always request to see something else or see less of anything you’re not really interested in. So although your guide will want to share certain important information with you, you can also make it more personalized to your interests.
A guided tour of Angkor Wat at sunrise
Our tour departed from our hotel at 4:30 am. They were nice enough to pack a breakfast for us, though you can also buy food and drinks at Angkor, so don’t worry. You won’t go hungry.
Buying the tickets
The ticket office is closer to Siem Reap city center, about halfway to the Angkor Wat complex. Tickets are $37 for one day, $62 for 3 days, and $72 for 7 days. If you want to take your time exploring the different temples (there are over 200 of them in total), then you’d want to opt for the 3-day ticket or even 7-day ticket. You can do part or all of it of it as a guided tour if you have the flexibility of several days around the Angkor Archeological Park.
To make the best of a one-day pass, you should get it the day before your visit after 5 pm, because then you can visit the park the last two hours of the day. Tickets are not transferable – they have your picture on it – and sold only at the ticket office. Anyone selling you a ticket any other way is trying to scam you. Your ticket will be checked several times when you enter different parts of the park.
The ticket counters start selling tickets around 4:45 am, though the posted opening hours are 5 am. And there will be lines immediately. Another good reason to go with a guide is that they can point you to the one that will move the fastest and get you on your way.
The Angkor Wat part of the tour
You’ll get to Angkor Wat in the dead of night, where things are illuminated only by people’s phones. But then you’ll get a prime spot in front of the reflecting pools where you can see a mirror image of the temple with the sun rising behind it. We only waited about 30 minutes and it was beautiful the entire time. Some people choose to see it from some of the structures around, like the main entrance bridge or one of the library buildings on either side of the bridge that give you a bit of an elevated view, though one farther back. If you got in early enough I recommend standing in front of the pond.
After sunrise, we had breakfast before starting our tour. We got some general information about the history of the temple before entering. From outside, you can see each of the levels of the temple, one representing hell, the second representing earth, and the highest level in the center representing heaven.
As we meandered through the interior, we got information about the different structures, the carvings on the walls, and even got a water blessing from a monk for a small offering of one dollar. We also got to see the point that is exactly 0 degrees on the axis of the earth through the center of the temple.
To get to the third level of Angkor Wat, you have to stand in line because they only allow 100 people up at the top at a time. As the most sacred part of Angkor Wat, you must be dressed appropriately to be allowed in. If you came in shorts, you can’t just wrap a sarong around your legs. So be aware of this when you pick your outfit for the day. From the top level, you can see the view from every side and the forest that surrounds the temple. It’s really peaceful with the sounds of birds and other animals. And since the number of people is limited, it’s not uncomfortably crowded.
The Angkor Thom part of the tour
Angkor Thom is the former capital of the former Khmer empire and is at least five times the size of Angkor Wat. If seeing a lot of Angkor Thom is important to you, I recommend getting a 3-day ticket. It would be awfully tiring to try to do all of this and Angkor Wat in one day. Our tour included two stops, one was the South Gate, which is a larger than life size representation of an important event in Hindu mythology that is represented in many temples around Cambodia including a huge carved mural in Angkor Wat.
After this, we spent the majority of the time in Bayon Temple. This important place is known for its 49 towers, each featuring a Buddha head on all four sides. We went all the way to the top and enjoyed the views and the elaborate structures. We learned about the significance of the number 9 and how and why everything built according to this lucky number.
If you do want to see more of Angkor Thom, you can either use your private tuk tuk driver or ride bike around or even pay to ride an elephant to some of the important sites in the complex. Surrounded by a huge wooded area, there a ton of macaques hanging around everywhere so you can also just hang out and watch the monkeys play.
The Ta Prohm part of the tour
The last stop, my favorite, was the abandoned temple of Ta Prohm. This was made famous by the movie Tomb Raider, and it was probably the busiest of all the places we visited. Though that could be due to the fact that it’s smaller and that it was later in the day when we arrived, as opposed to 6 am when we were in Angkor Wat.
Visiting Angkor Wat will definitely always be one of the highlights of my life. It’s an absolutely stunning place that words and photos can barely do justice. So if you get a chance, do it the right way and take a guided tour so you can get as much out of it as possible.