An Angkor Wat Itinerary That Will Delight History Lovers

by Cambodia, Itinerary

When I was preparing for my trip to Cambodia, I had a hard time planning my Angkor Wat itinerary. Most itineraries I found online were geared toward the traveler who was just looking to tick off a box on their “been-there-done-that” bucket list.

I, however, wanted a more serious itinerary that would fit someone who loves history and has always had a fantasy of becoming the next Indiana Jones. This Angkor Wat itinerary is ideal for such travelers. It’s a 6-day itinerary of Angor Wat and the floating villages on Tonle Sap that lets you see both the most famous temples along with the more off-the-beaten-track ones.

These 6 days exploring the ancient ruins of the Angkor Kingdom and the Floating Villages are part of my Cambodia itinerary of 3 weeks.

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History of Angkor Wat

The most powerful state in Southeast Asia over a thousand years ago was the Kingdom of Angkor. This kingdom ruled over the lands of modern-day Cambodia along with parts of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam from 802 to 1431 CE.

During these years, the rulers of the Angkor Kingdom built thousands of magnificent temples, monasteries, and palaces around the areas that they controlled. You can find these Khmer temples all the way into Thailand. The most famous and most beautiful temple is Angkor Wat. But there are plenty of others scattered around the plains of Cambodia that are just as stunning. My personal favorite structures are Bayon, Ta Prom, and Banteay Srei.

Bayon face tower on the South Gate of Angkor Thom during Angkor Wat itinerary

Most important rulers of the Angkor Kingdom:

You’ll come across several hard-to-pronounce names of Khmer rulers.  However, there are really only three that you need to keep in mind. These are Jayavarman II, Suryavarman II, and Jayavarman VII.

Jayavarman II (802-850) united the Khmer people and founded the Angkor Empire. The Roluos temples (Angkor Itinerary Day 3) were built around the time of his rule.

Suryavarman II (1113-1150) was responsible for the building of Angkor Wat. He established relations with China and defeated the Chams and sacked their capital.

Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) was the ruler after a low point in the Angkor Empire. He defeated the Khmer’s enemies after they had destroyed the Khmer’s capital. He went on a building spree—Angkor Thom including Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Kahn, and so on. He was a devout Buddhist.

Religions of Angkor: Hindu or Buddhist?

During the early part of the Khmer Kingdom, the Khmers were Hindus so the early temples like Angkor Wat were Hindu temples. You’ll see lots of bas reliefs depicting stories from the Indian epics like the Ramayana, temples dedicated to Shiva, and sculptures and statues of Indian gods and goddesses.

However, Buddhism came to surpass Hinduism as the religion of the Khmers starting when the Buddhist monarch, Suryavarman VII, became ruler and built many Buddhist temples and changed Hindu temples to Buddhist ones.

Surayavarman VII’s successor’s successor was a Hindu who gave the Hindu priests their power back. They defaced some of the Buddhist sculptures and images. You can see the damage at the monastery, Preah Khan.

In the end, Buddhism won out. Today Cambodia is predominantly a Buddhist nation under Theravada Buddhism (what is practiced in Thailand today; not the same Buddhism as in China, Korea, and Japan).

Many structures at Angkor have both Hindu and Buddhist features.

Angkor Wat Itinerary: Day 1

On Day 1 of your Angkor Wat itinerary, you’ll be spending it by checking into your accommodations, arranging transport, buying your Angkor Wat tickets, and viewing the sunset at Phnom Bakheng.

1. Arriving in Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the closest city to the ruins. This is where most travelers stay. There are lots of hotels and guesthouses at a variety of prices and comfort levels along with lots of restaurants and bars catering to tourists.

Purchase Bus Tickets: You can purchase your bus tickets through 12Go.Asia.

Booking Accommodations: You can also book your hotel or hostel through Booking.com or Agoda.

2. Arranging Transportation for Angkor Wat Itinerary

If you haven’t arranged your transportation for getting to the temples and other sights ahead of time, I recommend doing it as soon as you get to Siem Reap.

You can visit some of the temples on this Angkor Wat itinerary by bike, but you’re going to waste a lot of time biking to and from Siem Reap and between the temples. Then you’ll see fewer temples. And you won’t be able to complete this Angkor Wat itinerary in six days.  Plus! It’s horribly hot and humid in Cambodia even in December and January.

The best thing to do is to hire a tuk-tuk or car depending on how much comfort you need and cash you have.

My Experience Hiring a Tuk-Tuk Driver

I hired a driver before arriving in Cambodia through an acquaintance who’d used him before on her trip to Angkor Wat.   I paid US$95 (plus US$5/day tip) for four days (Days 2 – 5 of this Angkor Wat itinerary) from morning to evening. During the day, he took me to the temples and waited for me while I toured them. In the evenings, he took me to various activities (Apsara Theater, Phare Circus) and then took me back to my hotel.  The price included the trip to the floating villages.

I also used the same tuk-tuk driver to take me to the temples by car on Day 6 of this Angkor Wat itinerary. One temple is all the way on the border between Cambodia and Thailand (Prasat Preah Vihear). I paid US$80.

tuk tuk on Angkor Wat itinerary

How to Hire a Tuk-Tuk Driver

It’s imperative that you hire an honest and reliable tuk-tuk driver so you won’t get scammed. You can read all about some of these scams here.

The best way to get a reliable tuk-tuk driver is to hire one through Klook. In that way, if the driver doesn’t meet your expectations, you can complain about him or her on Klook.

Another option is to arrange it through your hotel because they will know if the driver is reliable and honest or not. If the driver isn’t, you can complain to the hotel. If you hire a driver from off the street, and the driver isn’t reliable, then you have no one to complain to. I’ve been cheated in the past in other countries when I hired a guide off the street. 

When you hire a driver, make sure you give him or her a list of places you want to visit. Be very clear about pick-up and drop-off times so that the price includes visiting temples at sunrise and/or sunset.

Expect to pay around US$15 – $20/day to see the temples near Siem Reap and around US$30-$35 to see the temples that are farther away like Beng Melea, the Roluos Group temples, and Banteay Srei.

Hiring a Tour Guide

I recommend hiring a guide for certain temples like Angkor Wat. The guide will give you the history of the temple and explain the meaning behind the different temple features. I hired one at the entrance of Angkor Wat.

Make sure the guide, though, is an official one. It takes time and money to become an official Angkor Wat tour guide. You can tell if a guide is official or not by the fact that official guides wear light yellow shirts and lanyards. There are plenty of fake guides. 

You can hire a guide at the entrance of the temple, through your hotel, or through your driver.

I hired a guide at the entrance of Angkor Wat. After he took me around the site, I went around a second time on my own.

PRO TIP: Angkor is a religious structure in Cambodia and Cambodians take attire seriously when visiting these sights. You cannot enter the temples in sleeveless shirts and short skirts and shorts that cut off above the knee.

3. Buying Your Angkor Wat Ticket

  • Ticket Office: This is the ONLY place you can purchase Angkor Wat tickets. | Official Angkor Wat ticket office website | Google Maps
  • Open: 5:00 – 17:30
  • Cost: 1-Day ticket price: US$37 | 3-Day ticket price: US$62 | 7-Day ticket price: US$72 | For this itinerary, buy the 3-day ticket. it will cover every temple except Beng Melea in the first 4 days of this Angkor Wat itinerary.
  • How to Pay: cash (US dollars) or credit card; there’s an ATM nearby
  • Getting to the Ticket Office: Take a Tuk Tuk to the office

There’s a trick when it comes to buying your tickets to Angkor Wat. The ticket office for Angkor Wat closes at 5:30 pm. But if you buy the ticket after 5:00 pm, it will be issued to start the next day. However, you can still enjoy the temples that are still open on the day you purchase the ticket. For instance, if you buy it on December 15, 2021, the ticket office will stamp it to start on December 16, but you can start using it on December 15.

4. Viewing the Sunset from Phnom Bakheng

  • Built: During the reign of Yasovarman I (889 – 910)
  • Purpose: Hindu state temple dedicated to Shiva | a replica of Mount Meru, the home of the Gods in Hinduism (similar to Mt. Olympus for the Greek Gods)
  • Open: 5:00 – 19:00
  • Best Time to See It: Sunrise or sunset! – Get there early enough, though, to get a place in front of the crowds. Or Sunrise – you’ll see beautiful views looking out over the plains of Angkor. You can see Angkor Wat from here.
  • Getting there: Google Maps | Use the same driver that took you to the Ticket Office. Have the driver wait for you to take you back to your accommodations. Once the tuk-tuk drops you off, you’ll have to walk along a path that goes uphill for 15 to 20 minutes to get to the actual temple.
Angkor Bakheng at sunset

Here is your first temple on your Angkor Wat itinerary, a five-tiered temple called Phnom Bakheng (phnom means hill).

The Khmer build their temples using three different layouts: mountain-temple, flat, and linear.

Phnom Bakheng is an example of a mountain-temple—a concept that they adopted from Indian culture. Mountain-temples symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred home of Hindu Gods (similar to the idea of Mt. Olympus for Greek Gods).

The Khmers built their mountain temples either on top of real mountains or hills or they created artificial ones out of stone and brick. Phnom Bakheng is built on a natural mountain.

You can see great sunsets from the top of the temple. The temple overlooks the plains around Siem Reap. You can actually see Angkor Wat in the distance. The downside is that it can great pretty crowded at the temple at sunset.

Angkor Wat Itinerary: Day 2

On Day 2 of your Angkor Wat itinerary, you’re going to be seeing two of the most famous temples in Cambodia: Angkor Wat and Bayon.

You’re also going to be getting up really early to see the sunrise from Angkor Wat.

There are two ways you can organize your Angkor Wat itinerary on this day:

Angkor Wat Day 2 Itinerary #1

  • Morning: Angkor Wat (come for the sunrise and then tour the complex – it’s not so crowded from 7:00-9:00 am when the tour groups go back to their hotels for breakfast
  • Late Morning and Afternoon: Angkor Thom (huge complex with many sites)
  • Late Lunch: There are places to eat at the end of your tour of Angkor Thom, but you won’t be able to eat until late in the afternoon.

Itinerary #2

  • 5:00 am: Angkor Wat (come for the sunrise)
  • BREAKFAST: Grab breakfast near Angkor Wat or bring it with you and eat near the temples
  • 7:30 am: Angkor Thom (the lighting is best in the morning and from 7:30 to 9:00, there are fewer crowds)
  • LUNCH: There are places to eat at the end of your tour of Angkor Thom
  • 2:00 – 5:30: Angkor Wat (the lighting is best in the afternoon)

I did Itinerary #1 and I wish I had done #2 because it was so hot climbing around the temples at Angkor Thom at around noon. I also couldn’t eat anything until I got to the end of my tour at around 3:00 pm.

1. Angkor Wat

  • Built: During the reign of Suryavaran; between 1113 and 1150
  • Purpose: Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu; later after King Suryavarman II’s death, it was used as a tomb/mausoleum
  • Open: 5:00 – 17:30
  • Best time to visit: Sunrise and afternoon. Get here on your first day at sunrise. But because Angkor Wat faces west, the best time to visit it is in the afternoon.
  • Length of Visit: 3 hours
  • Highlights: The bas reliefs in the corridors surrounding the central sanctuary | the top level of the central sanctuary | take photos from across the moat so you can get a photo of the temple’s reflection in the water | photos at sunrise and sunset
Reflection of Ankor Wat at dawn, Cambodia

One of the first temples to visit in this Angkor Wat itinerary should be Angkor Wat itself. Visit it for the typical sunrise photo op in the morning. Then finish the morning off at Angkor Thom before returning to Angkor Wat in the afternoon when the light is perfectly hitting the temple—ideal for photos.

For the history lover, it should take you at least two or three hours to fully appreciate the features of one of the largest religious structures in the world. I recommend touring one time with an official guide who can explain the history and symbolism and another time alone at your own leisurely pace. The guide helps even if you carry with you Dawn Rooney’s book on Angkor Wat.

the bas relief Churning of the Milk

The temple was built in the early twelfth century during the reign of Suryavarman II. One widely-accepted theory as to the original purpose of Angkor Wat is that it was built as both a temple and a mausoleum. Unfortunately, Suryavarman II died before the temple was completed.

There are several clues backing up this theory. While most temples face East, Angkor Wat faces West—a direction symbolizing death.

The second clue is in the beautifully detailed bas reliefs found in the corridors surrounding the central temple. They should be viewed by walking counter-clockwise. Funeral rituals are also conducted counter-clockwise.

There are many highlights that should not be missed. As mentioned above, the exquisitely carved bas reliefs are a must-sight to see. They can be found on all of the four walls of the gallery surrounding the inner temple. Some tell the story of Indian epics like the Ramayana, while others depict historical and mythical battles fought by the Khmers. They’re all fascinating, but make sure to keep an eye out for the one called Churning of the Ocean of Milk (above photo).

the exterior wall of Angkor Wat
corridor at Angkor Wat on Angkor Wat itinerary

One of my favorite features at Angkor Wat is the images of the 3,000 beautiful apsaras (female deities). Like the terra cotta soldiers in China, each apsara is wearing her own unique hairstyle (37 different types), facial expression, and jewelry.

The central structure of Angkor Wat is the 3-level central tower, symbolizing Mt. Meru. Sometimes you can climb up to the third level, while other times it’s closed off.

Overall, though, what makes Angkor Wat so impressive is its sheer size and symmetry. 

2. Angkor Thom

  • Built: around 1181 – 1220 during the reign of Jayavarman VII
  • Purpose: capital city – the religious and administrative centers of the Khmer Kingdom
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: Morning
  • Length of Visit: Give yourself half a day
  • Highlights: Causeway and front gate, Bayon, Terrace of Elephants, Terrance of the Leper King, Baphuon

One of the many highlights of this Angkor Wat itinerary is Angkor Thom, the capital of the Angkor Empire from the late twelfth century to the fifteenth century. These years correspond to the period of the Empire’s decline.

The area is quite large, so it will take you at least half a day to take in the most important sights.

There are restaurants located at the North Gate.

If this is the last stop of the day, you enter through the South Gate and have your driver pick you up at the North Gate.

If you’re visiting in the morning and going back to Angkor Wat in the afternoon, enter and exit from the South Gate.

2.1 Causeway Leading to South Gate

One of the most unforgettable sights in Angkor is the causeway leading up to the South Gate of Angkor Thom.

a row of sculptures on Causeway leading to South Gate of Angkor Thom

Along the sides are these stone sculptures—on the right are demons and on the left are gods.  It’s best to photograph these sculptures in the morning.

The South Gate will be your first encounter with the enigmatic face towers of Bayon.

2.2 Bayon

  • Built: late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries; during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1230)
  • Purpose: Buddhist temple (originally it was thought to be a Hindu temple); however, much of the meaning and purpose of the temple is still not understood
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: Morning
  • Length of Visit: 2 hours
  • Highlights: the 216 faces and bas reliefs on the first level
3 face towers at Bayon temple on Ankgor Wat itinerary

The first structure you’ll come to upon entering Angkor Thom is the unforgettable Bayon.

The interesting thing is that “Bayon” was the name the French gave the structure. Originally, it was called Jayaviri “Victory Mountain”.

I’m probably not alone in saying that this religious structure is my favorite of all the Angkor temples. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.

I have to agree with Lonely Planet that from a distance, it does look like a pile of rubble, but when you get up close, you realize the genius of whoever built it.

There are 200 faces carved on 54 towers. The smile is as enigmatic as the one on the face of the Mona Lisa. Most scholars think that the faces represent King Jayavarman VII. It’s best to view these carvings the first thing in the morning when the sun is shining on them.

bas relief at Bayon during Angkor Wat itinerary

The other highlight of Bayon is the bas reliefs found on the outside of the temple. The best ones are found on the first level, where you’ll see scenes from everyday life, battles between the Khmers and Chams, and possibly a civil war.

The best way to view these bas reliefs is by walking clockwise around the temple (keeping the temple on your right).

2.3 Baphuon

  • Built: around 1060 during the reign of King Udayadityavarman II (1050 – 1066)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva | converted to Buddhist temple in the mid-fifteenth century
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: it’s not crowded; morning light is best
  • Length of Visit: 1 hour
  • Hightlights: bas reliefs, view from the top of the temple
Baphuon Temple during Angkor Wat itinerary

The next stop in this capital city is the mountain-temple structure of Baphuon.

Baphuon had originally been built on unstable ground so that by the 1950s, it was on the verge of collapse. In the 1960s, archaeologists attempted to reinforce it by taking it completely apart piece by piece along with carefully labeling each piece.

But then the Khmer Rouge came to power and archaeologists were unable to finish putting it back together. In all the chaos, records of where each piece should go were lost, so when archaeologists were able to work on it again (mid-1990s-2011), they had to sift through ancient records to put the 300,000 pieces back together again. Over 10,000 pieces were leftover.

2.4 Phimeanakas “Arial Palace”

  • Built: tenth to early eleventh centuries under the reign of King Rajendravarman II (941-968)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple inside the Royal Palace
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: it’s not crowded; best lighting is morning
  • Length of Visit: 30 – 45 minutes
  • Highlights: climb to the top of the temple
Phimeanakas temple on Angkor Wat itinerary

The next stop on this Angkor Wat itinerary is the Royal Palace. Unfortunately, there’s not much left of it except for a Hindu mountain-temple called Phimeanakas.

There’s an interesting story behind the temple. A nine-headed serpent lived in the temple and each night it turned into a woman. The king had to sleep with this woman every night before he slept with one of his wives. If he didn’t, he would die.

2.5 Terrace of the Elephants

  • Built: end of the twelfth century under the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181- 1220)
  • Purpose: a platform where the king would sit and view his army returning from battle; the base of a large audience hall
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best of Time to Visit: the lighting is best in the afternoon
  • Length of Visit: 30 minutes
  • Highlights: Elephants
Terrace of Elephants on Angkor Wat itinerary

Across from the Royal Palace is a large reviewing platform called the Terrace of Elephants, where the king and his consort would stand and watch his army come back from battle.

The outside is decorated with bas reliefs and sculptures of the heads and trunks of elephants picking up lotus flowers.

2.6 Terrace of the Leper King

  • Built: end of the twelfth century during the reign of King Jayavarman VII
  • Purpose:  perhaps the royal crematorium
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: Facing the east so the best time to get photos is the afternoon
  • Length: 15 to 30 minutes
  • Highlights:  bas reliefs
Terrace of Leper Kings during Angkor Wat itinerary

Who is the Leper King? And how did it get its name? Was there really a king who had leprosy?

There are a few theories. One is that King Jayavarman VII was a leper. Another was that the God of Wealth, Kubera, or Yasovarman I were lepers.  Another is that the name came about naturally due to the lichen that grew on the stones reminding people of leprosy.

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the royal crematorium was housed on the Terrace of the Leper King. The statue represents the king of death.

The last theory is that a minister refused to prostrate himself before the king, so he was killed. When he died, something infectious got onto the king, who developed leprosy. He then became known as the Leper King.

ANGKOR WAT Itinerary: DAY 3

Day 3 of this Angkor Wat itinerary is filled with many of the best temple-hopping experiences of Southeast Asia. Here is the closest you’ll ever probably come to realizing your Indiana Jones’ fantasy.

 

1. Banteay Kdei – “Citadel of the Cells”

  • Built: end of the twelfth century during the reign of King Jayavarman VII
  • Purpose:  Buddhist monastic complex
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: Not many people visit it so it’s rarely crowded
  • Length of Visit: 1 hour
  • Highlights: bas reliefs, niches with female statues | untouristy and quiet
Bayon face tower at Banteay Kdai on Angkor Wat itinerary

Do not skip this little-known Buddhist monastery. It was one of my favorite experiences. Mainly it was because except for 2 or 3 other tourists, I had the whole temple ruins to myself in the early morning sunlight.

The other highlights were the beautifully carved apsaras (female deities) and the Bayon-faced tower gate.

2. Srah Srang

  • Built: dug in the mid-tenth century and then modified in the twelfth century
  • Purpose: Royal Baths, reservoir
  • Open: 24/7
  • Best Time to Visit: You can get a beautiful shot of the sun rising over the reservoir
  • Length of Visit: Enough time to take a photo of you sitting on the landing-stage by the lake
  • Highlights: there are some beautiful sunrises from here | the sculptures from the terrace overlooking the lake
Srah Srang reservoir on Angkor Wat itinerary

Located across from Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang is an ideal spot for a quick stop and photo of yourself sitting on the terrace that leads to the water.

Check out the serpent balustrades that lead down to the water along with the lion heads on the edge of the water. There used to be a temple on the island in the middle of the lake.

3. Ta Prohm “Old Brahma”

  • Built: founded in 1186 | late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1880-1220)
  • Purpose: Buddhist monastery and university
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: morning when there are fewer people around and better sunlight
  • Length of Visit: 2 hours
  • Highlights: the Tomb Raider tree and many other towers and buildings entwined in trees|the stegosaurus carving
tree roots wrapped around temple at Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is not just a temple but an experience.

Its original name was Rajavihara “Monastery of Kings.” The new name, Ta Prohm means “Old Brahma”.

Jayavarman VII went on a building spree when he came to power. One of the first structures he built was the monastery and university of Ta Prohm. In its heyday, this wealthy monastery was home to over 12,000 people.

French archaeologists decided that since the jungle-enveloped monastery was just too picture-perfect, it should be left as is. They chose not to restore it but instead stabilize it.

The best way to tackle this jungle monastery is to wander aimlessly around the passageways and courtyards. Don’t worry about following a map or worry about backtracking or getting lost. Just take in the atmosphere, the ruined buildings wrapped in tree trunks, and the finely carved figurines.

4. Pre Rup

  • Built: 961 during the reign of Rajendravarman II (944 -968)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, but its function is unknown
  • Best Time to Visit: the best time is early in the morning or at sunset as you can stand on top of the temple and look at the sun setting across the plains; however, in this itinerary, I’ve arranged it to be visited in the morning as it is on the way to one of the best temples in Angkor, Banteay Srei
  • Length of Visit: 30 minutes
  • Highlights: great views from the top of the temple
Pre Rup temple during Angkor Wat itinerary

Pre Rup is not a temple that stands out too much, but it makes for a  nice stop on ones’ way to one of the most beautiful temples in Angkor, Banteay Srei.

Pre Rup is another mountain-temple symbolizing Mt. Meru. But this one is built on an artificial mountain.

No one is sure exactly the function of the temple. Some people say it could have something to do with funerals as the name “Pre Rup” has something to do with cremations.

5. Banteay Srei – “Citadel of the Women”

  • Built: 967 during the reign of Rajendravarman II (944 -968)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, but its function is unknown
  • Best Time to Visit: early morning or late afternoon
  • Length of Visit: 1 – 2 hours
  • Highlights: the intricate decorative features
Banteay Srei

The next stop on this Angkor Wat itinerary is the beautiful temple of Banteay Srei. It goes by many names: “Pink Temple,” Lady Temple,” “Citadel of the Women” and “Citadel of Beauty.” These names are due to its size and color and the fact that it’s covered in finely detailed figures of female deities.

Banteay Srei Temple

Banteay Srei is all about its elegant and intricate decorative features on its pink sandstone temple structures. Nearly every surface of the buildings and gate is covered in some decorative art (female figurines, geometric patterns, foliage, deities, animals, etc). Most of the carvings tell the story of Indian epics like the Ramayana.

The piece de resistance of Banteay Srei is the central structure. These include two libraries and an inner sanctuary. Dawn Rooney suggests walking around the central structures twice. The first time to get a sense of the overall layout and the second to study the intricate carvings on the pink limestone.

No one is sure what the function of the temple is. It is one of the only temples in Angkor not built by a king. Instead, it was built by a Brahmin who was counselor and teacher of a future king.

There’s an interesting story about the thefts of some important pieces by the French writer and politician, Andre Malraux. He was arrested and wasn’t released until he gave up the goods. 

6. East Mebon

  • Built: 952 during the reign of Rajendravarman II (944 -968)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: anytime
  • Length of Visit: 30 minutes
  • Highlights: the elephant statues on the first and second tiers of the temple
elephant statue at East Mebon temple on Angkor Wat itinerary
door on East Mebon temple on Angkor Wat itinerary

East Mebon was built nine years before Pre Rup Temple by the same King, Rajendravarman II, in 952. During that time, the temple was situated on an island in the middle of a reservoir, accessed by boat. Now it’s in the middle of a rice field.

East Mebon is similar to Pre Rup in design and construction. It’s a three-tiered temple symbolizing Mt. Meru with three towers at the top.

The highlights of the temple for me were the beautiful and life-sized elephant statues on the corners of the first and second tiers.

7. Ta Som

  • Built: end of twelfth century during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1220)
  • Purpose: Buddhist monastery
  • Style: Bayon style | flat-temple
  • Best Time to Visit: between 10:00 am and 11:00 am is the best time to see the gate that is entwined in a ficus tree
  • Length of Visit: 1 hour
  • Highlights: the main gate (East Gopura III) is entwined in trees and the Bayon-style faces on the East Gate; some beautiful female deities carved in niches
a garopa entwined by a tree on Ta Som

The next temple to visit on your Angkor Wat itinerary is Ta Som. It may not be very large like Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, but it has some cool features that shouldn’t be missed.

Ta Som is a Buddhist monastery built in the Bayon style and built during the time of Jayavarman VII, who dedicated the monastery to his father. 

The coolest highlight is the main gate that is entwined in a ficus tree. The second highlight is the face-towers like those at Bayon.

Don’t miss the carved Apsaras along the walls of the interior structures.

8. Neak Pean / Neak Poun – “Coiled Serpent”

  • Built: second half of the twelfth century during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1220)
  • Purpose: Buddhist temple and place where sick people went to ask Lokeshvara to be well again.
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit:  right after sunrise and before sunset
  • Length of Visit: 30 minutes
  • Highlights: the temple standing on what resembles a lotus bud
Neak Pean temple

The second to last religious structure to see on  Day 2 of this Angkor itinerary is the Buddhist temple of Neak Pean. This is another temple built during the reign of Jayavarman VII.

Neak Pean is unique in that it is built on an island in the middle of a man-made lake. The temple is supposed to have the power to cure sick people and it attracted pilgrims who were looking to pray to the Buddha to restore their health.

9. Preah Khan – “Sacred Sword”

  • Built: second half of the twelfth century during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1220)
  • Purpose: Buddhist monastery but was also the temporary home of the King while Angkor Thom was being built
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit:  late afternoon is fine
  • Length of Visit: 2 hours
  • Highlights: the garudas, female figurines carved in niches, Apsaras, trees strangling the buildings
corridor at Preah Khan temple during Angkor Wat itinerary
figurine in niche at Preah Khan during Angkor Wat itinerary

Preah Khan will appeal to those who have ever wanted to become an archaeologist. As the second largest religious structure after Angkor Wat, it is a maze of passageways and courtyards that you can get lost in.

Before Jayavarman VII became king, he had to fight off his rivals. Each side was supported by a Cham ally. In one of the final battles, Jayavarman VII defeated his rival’s Cham ally. When he became king, he built Preah Khan on the site of this battle. The temple thus became the home of a sword called the “Sacred Sword.” According to legend, whoever is the keeper of the sword is the legitimate ruler of the Khmers.

Preah Khan has had a variety of functions. It’s been a Buddhist monastery, a Hindu shrine, a university with 1,000 teachers, an administrative office, and a royal palace. That’s right. Preah Khan was the temporary home of Jayavarman VII until Angkor Thom was built.

After the Buddhist Jayavarman VII successor died, a Hindu Jayavarman VIII took power. Hindus got their power back, and they disfigured and beheaded the Buddhist statues at Preah Khan.

Angkor Wat Itinerary: Day 4

In the morning of Day 3 of this Angkor itinerary, you’ll be heading quite far outside of Siem Reap to a jungle temple. In the afternoon, the Angkor itinerary takes you to some of the earliest temples in the Angkor Empire. Although there isn’t much left anymore, you’ll get to see the site of the original capital before it was moved to Angkor Thom.

1. Beng Mealea – “The Lotus Pool”

  • Built: the beginning of the mid-twelfth century
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu
  • Open: 7:00 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit:  morning
  • Length of Visit: 2 hours
  • Highlights: carvings, the experience of exploring the labyrinth of passageways and courtyards, the buildings strangled by tree trunks.
  • Getting there: tuk-tuk or car | it’s too far by bike
wall at Beng Melea covered in tree branches and roots

Despite the fact that Beng Mealea is quite far away from Siem Reap and requires hiring a tuk-tuk or car to get to, it is well worth the visit. It will definitely appeal to those who have ever had Indiana Jones’ fantasies.

It is not covered in the Angkor Wat Tourist Pass, so you’ll have to pay an extra US$5 to enter the temple

Beng Mealea was a Hindu Temple dedicated to Vishnu. It was probably built during the time Angkor Wat was also built.

Since it hasn’t been restored, it’s not in the best condition, but that’s what makes it so worthwhile. The surrounding jungle seems to have swallowed up the temple complex, and many of the buildings are wrapped in tree trunks and branches. You can spend your time imagining you’re not a tourist but an archaeologist coming upon Beng Mealea for the first time, crawling over crumbling walls and getting lost in the labyrinth of passageways and courtyards. Beng Mealea is not just a place but an experience.

There are a lot of excellent carvings depicting stories from Indian epics.

2. Roluos Group of Temples

The three final temples of the day make up the Roluos group: Lolei, Preah Ko, and Bakong. They get this name because they are located near the village of Roluos.

These three temples are all that is left of one of the earliest capitals of the Khmer Kingdom called Hariharalaya.

The Roluos temples are perfect examples of the art and architecture in the early years of the Angkor Kingdom. Their decorative features are also some of the most beautiful pieces of Khmer art as well.

Some key distinctive features of the Roluos Group include the following:

  • Tall, square towers made of brick with columns, lintels, and niches made of sandstone
  • Each tower has one door opening to the east with false doors on the other three sides of the tower
  • There used to be a walled enclosure but little remains of it
  • Look for a kala (monster head), Vishnu, garuda, female figures with lots of jewelry, guardians, and apsaras
  • Most beautiful lintels of all Khmer art
  • Octagonal columns decorated in leaves

We’ll start with the temple that my driver took me to first as I made my way back from Beng Melea. You can reach these temples by bike from Siem Reap.

2.1 Lolei Temple

  • Built: end of the ninth century during the reign of Yasovarman I (889-910)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva
  • Best Time to Visit: anytime
  • Length of Visit: 30 – 60 minutes
  • Highlights: carvings and inscriptions
figurine in a niche at Lolei temple on Angkor Wat itinereary

Lolei might be the smallest of the three temples and might not be in the best of conditions, but it has some of the finest decorative features of Khmer art, so it should not be missed.

The temple was built on an island in the middle of a baray (reservoir). The reservoir no longer exists.

You can still make out some beautiful and historically significant Khmer inscriptions on the sides of the doorways.

The temple complex consists of a walled enclosure around four towers on a small brick platform. There is an unusual cross-shaped channel at the center of the towers with a lingam placed in the center where the cross would meet.

The brick towers were originally covered in stucco, but most of it is gone now.

3.2 Preah Ko “the Sacred Bull”

  • Built: end of the ninth century (879) during the reign of Indravarman I (877-889)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva; a funeral temple for the king’s parents, maternal grandparents, and previous king, Jayavarman II, and his wife.
  • Open:  7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit: anytime
  • Length of Visit: 30 – 60 minutes
  • Highlights: intricately carved doors and lintels,
stairs lined with stone lions leading up to Preah Ko temple on Angkor Wat itinerary

Preah Ko is a bit bigger than Lolei and is in better condition.

The highlight of Preah Ko is the two rows of brick towers on a platform. The unevenly spaced towers commemorate the King’s ancestors. The front three temples are larger and honor the male ancestors, while the three in the back row pay tribute to the female relatives.

Each tower also has images of a Hindu god that is associated with the deceased that the tower commemorates. The male towers have columns decorated with male guardian images while the female towers have female deities guarding them.

The highlight of these towers is the exquisitely-carved decorative features on the columns, lintels, and false doors. Look for the carvings of kala (monsters) on the lintels whose mouth is spewing out garland and additional monsters called makaras.

Look out for the bull sculptures as Preah Ko means “Sacred Bull.”

3.3 Bakong

  • Built: end of the ninth century (881) during the reign of Indravarman I (877-889)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva
  • Open: 7:30 – 17:30
  • Best Time to Visit:  morning or late afternoon
  • Length of Visit: 1 hour
  • Highlights: carvings and inscriptions
a view from the top of Bakong temple of the Bakong temple complex

Bakong originally stood at the center of the Khmer capital. It was the state temple at the time.

The temple is enclosed in two walls. There was a moat around the outside of the outer wall but that no longer exists. But there is still a moat surrounding the temple within the outer wall.

A long procession leads to the central temple complex.

The actual temple is a temple-mountain with five levels, representing the five cosmic levels of Mt. Meru. The first four levels are associated with mythical creatures (Nagas, garudas, rakashas, and yakshas) and the top level is reserved for the gods.

Angkor Wat Itinerary: Day 5

By day 4 of your Angkor itinerary, you probably need a rest from spending three days visiting all those temples in the hot Cambodian sun. One thing you can do is head out to the floating villages of Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

Tonle Sap is the home of a lot of Vietnamese people. During the time of the Khmer Rouge and the war between Vietnam and Cambodia, Cambodians of Vietnamese ethnicity left Cambodia. When peace came, they tried to return to their homes. But they were not allowed to get their citizenship or property back, so they became stateless. Without Cambodian citizenship, they were not allowed to own land. So they decided to build their homes on the lake, keeping their homes afloat with bamboo and barrels.

Many of these people remain poor. Their children cannot go to school. They cannot open bank accounts and they cannot get jobs in factories. What’s more is that they make little money from the tour boats that come to gawk at them since most of the boats aren’t owned by locals.

I’m not into voyeuristic tourism where you visit an ethnic village to look at the local minority group as if you’re at a zoo. I just feel uncomfortable for the local people. But I do believe in the importance of seeing for yourself the plight of people who are mistreated.

How to Visit Tonle Sap

You can visit these villages in one of two ways:

  1. Hire a private boat and guide at Tonle Sap 
  2. Join a tour group from Siem Reap 

Scams

There are a lot of scams taking place at Tonle Sap. There’s a scam whereby your tour guide pressures you into buying US$50 of rice for an orphanage, but the rice doesn’t really go to the children. There’s also another scam whereby you get pressured into donating money to the orphanage but again the money is pocketed by scam artists.

Floating Villages

There are between 1.2 and 3 million people live on or along the lake. There are four villages open to tourism:

1. Chong Kneas

The village of Chong Kneas is the closest village to Siem Reap and thus the most accessible.

floating village of Chong Kneas

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly touristy.  Reviews have been quite negative. If you can, avoid going here. You can read reviews of Chong Kneas on Trip Advisor.

2. Kampong Phluk

The village of Kampong Phluk is made up of houses built on stilts and NOT houses floating on the water. Instead, the houses are built along the banks of the river.

floating village of Kamong Phluk on Tonle Sap in Cambodia

You can walk around the village during the dry season. But during the monsoon season water does rise to the bottom of the houses. There are lots of tours you can take that go to Kampong Phluk.

3. Kampong Khleang

Kampong Khleang is the largest town on the lake but also the furthest away from Siem Reap.

The Floating Village of Kampong Khleang on Tonle Sap Lake at Si

Most of the homes in this town are stilted but there are a few floating ones as well. This is the best village to visit as it is much less touristy than Chong Kneas but gives you both types of homes.

If you want to visit, you’ll have to organize the visit on your own.

4. Me Chrey

Me Chrey is another floating village. It’s a smaller village than Chong Kneas, but it’s also becoming rather touristy.

You can join tours to Me Chrey. There have been complaints of tourists being pressured to buy rice for orphans.

Angkor Wat Itinerary: Day 6

On day 5 of this Angkor Wat Itinerary, you’re back to exploring the Khmer temples. This time, though, you’re heading outside of Siem Reap all the way to the Thai border. You’ll need to hire a car and driver for this day.

You’re first stop is a famous mountain temple on the disputed territory with Thailand. Then you’ll head back to Siem Reap stopping at another former capital of the Khmer Kingdom called Koh Ker. There’s a temple there that happens to be THE MOST PHOTOGENIC temple in Cambodia. It makes the ones at Ta Prohm seem ordinary by comparison. You’ll also get to see a pyramid-like temple structure with views as far as the eye can see.

1. Prasat Preah Vihear

  • Built: end of the ninth century (881) during the reign of Indravarman I (877-889)
  • Purpose: Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva
  • Best Time to Visit:  morning or late afternoon
  • Length of Visit: 2 hours
  • Highlights: carvings and inscriptions
  • Getting There: I hired a car and driver, who dropped me off at the foot of the mountain, where I took a motorcycle to the top of the mountain.
a view of the Cambodian countryside from Prasat Preah Vihear temple

Preah Vihear is located on the eastern side of the Dangrek Mountains, which is also the border between Cambodia and Thailand. The territory was in dispute for a long time, resulting in exchanges of gunfire between Cambodia and Thailand.

The whole conflict began with a poorly drawn map that resulted in France giving the territory to Thailand. You can imagine how upset the Cambodians were given the fact that one of their most sacred Khmer temples was located smack dab on the border. However, the International Court of Justice in the Hague reversed the treaty and gave the territory to Cambodia, saying that Thailand hadn’t submitted paperwork in time.

The temple is back in Cambodian hands. When you go up to the mountain, though, you’ll see lots of military people hanging around and you can see a Thai military base down below.

a long walkway leading lined with pedestals to Prasat Preah Vihear

It took the Khmers over 300 years to finish building and embellishing the Hindu temple. The site may have been chosen because there originally was a holy hermitage located on the mountain top that attracted pilgrims.

The temple complex is different from most of the other ones in Angkor in that it’s linear. There are four levels. The first two levels consist of a very long causeway. The second level has some palace buildings in poor condition. The fourth level is the temple sanctuary.

The highlight of Preah Vihear is the location. You can see panoramic views of both the Thai and Cambodian countryside. Look out for the Thai flag.

Architecturally it’s cool because of the long causeways and its location. There’s not a lot of artistic details at Preah Vihear.

2. Koh Ker – “Island of Glory”

  • Built: the tenth century during the reign of Jayavarman IV (928-941)
  • Purpose: It was the capital of the Angkor Kingdom | temples are Hindu
  • Open:
  • Best Time to Visit: anytime
  • Length of Visit: 2 hours
  • Highlights: Prasat Bram temple—its towers are entangled in tree trunks—it’s a site you’ll never forget |
  • Getting There: hire a car and driver to take you to the temple complex

Although Koh Ker means “Island of Glory,” it is not located on an island or anywhere near. It’s located northwest of Siem Reap along an ancient route connecting Angkor with Preah Vihear.

Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer Kingdom for twenty years. Jayavarman IV, known as the Usurper, was a powerful military leader who wrested control of the Kingdom and moved its capital to Koh Ker. His son succeeded him but did not rule long. After that, the elites of Khmer society took back control and moved the capital back to Angkor.

Koh Ker covers a huge area. According to the website, Angkor Temples in Cambodia, there are over 180 structures that have been uncovered so far. The temples have not been restored, which makes visiting them in their ruinous and jungle covered state a fun experience.

There are a few highlights that you should not miss on your adventure:

2.1 Prasat Bram

The first monument I saw when entering Koh Ker was Prasat Bram.

a tower with tree trunks wrapped around it at Presat Bram

Prasat Bram is without a doubt the most picture-perfect example of an Angkor structure being strangled by the roots of a tree.

2.2 Prasat Thom

Out of any structure from the Angkor Kingdom, Prasat Thom reminds me the most of a pyramid-like those you’d find in Mexico.

Angkor Thom at Koh Ker

Prasat Thom is made of up 7 or 8 levels. Each level appears to have green foliage growing out of them. From far away it looks a little bit like Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

a panoramic view of plains of Cambodia from top of Angkor Thom at Koh Ker

You can climb to the top of the temple for panoramic views of the Cambodian countryside. Here it’ll really hit you at how flat this area of Cambodia is.

Things to do in the Evening

1. Pub Street

Siem Reap lives and breathes tourism, so you can imagine that there are a lot of bars and restaurants geared toward foreign tourists. One area where you can find all of these houses of libation and gastronomy is Pub Street.

2. Angkor Night Market

For all things souvenir-related, head to the Angkor Night Market. You’ll find stall after stall of handicrafts, souvenirs of t-shirts, Buddha statues, and bas relief rubbings, and illegal copies of books on Angkor and Cambodia.

3. Fish Massage

If you’re into having fish nibble on your feet, you can join all the other tourists at one of the many outdoor fish massage places.

4. Phare Cambodian Circus

A not-to-miss experience in this Angkor Wat itinerary is a visit to the Phare Cambodian Circus. Phare is a combination of performance art mixed with social message minus the use of animals. It feels authentic rather than fake touristy. You can purchase tickets for Phare here. 

5. Apsara Theater

The Apsara Theater is the opposite of Phare Cambodian Circus in that it is indeed fake touristy. Located in a large wooden building, Apsara Theater is a dinner show. It begins with a buffet dinner. Once everyone is seated and eating a show of traditional singing and dancing on the stage. When I was there, the place was jam-packed with tour groups. You can purchase tickets ahead of time here.

6. Angkor Dynasty Show

Another option is to learn about Cambodian history by seeing the Angkor Dynasty Show. I haven’t seen it.  You can purchase tickets for the show here. 

7. Food Tour

Another thing you can at night in Siem Reap is to join a food tour. It’s a great opportunity to try out some of Cambodia’s culinary traditions. Check out a list of available food tours on Klook.

Phare Circus on Angkor Wat itinerary

Why did the Angkor Kingdom Collapse?

The Angkor Empire started to decline after the rule of Jayavarman VII.  It found itself having difficulty fending off attacks by the Ayutthaya and Sukotthai Empires from Thailand, so in 1431, it moved the capital to Phnom Penh.

What brought about the end of the Angkor Empire? Probably several factors led to its demise. The building spree that Jayavarman VII went on along with the many wars fought to stave off the Thais put strains on its coffers, leading probably to an increase in taxes on the common person.

Settlements farther from the capital grew dissatisfied with Angkor’s rule and demanded more independence, thus weakening the unification of the Empire.

Finally, many scholars cite environmental problems as an important contribution to the Empire’s decline. The area had been depleted of trees due to the clearing of land for building projects and rice fields to feed the growing population. This affected the water system. The soil needed the roots of trees to hold it together, but without these roots, the soil ran off into the rivers and lakes, clogging them up. This, in turn, led to fewer fish and less water for crops and in the end a weaker economy.

Sources for Angkor Wat Itinerary

I based this post on several written sources along with the notes I took during my own tour of the ruins of the Angkor Kingdom.

This Angkor Wat itinerary isn’t going to appeal to all travelers. But if you’re into history, temple-hopping, or fantasizing about becoming a real-life Indiana Jones, then I think you’ll find this the perfect itinerary. 

This itinerary is also part of my 3-week Angkor Wat Itinerary. In that itinerary, I added a day 7 at the end for you to rest, get a massage, and visit some museums before taking a night bus to Sihanoukville. 

If you have any questions about this itinerary or visiting Cambodia, please leave your question in the comment section below. Thank you!  

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1 Comment

  1. I didn’t know the settlement history of the Tonle Sap floating village community!

    Reply

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About the Bamboo Traveler

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore Asia’s history and culture. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make more informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand a place more deeply.

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