Angkor Wat Through my Lens: A Photo Essay
Anyone visiting Cambodia rushes to visit Angkor Wat. It’s not surprising why this archaeological complex is one of the true wonders of the world. It’s one of a kind and it’s not until you wander inside its walls that you truly appreciate just how mind-blowing it is.
Those incredibly detailed carvings, those huge tree roots growing all over the buildings, the feeling that you get just standing inside the ruins of the biggest religious temple complex in the world. It’s an experience of a lifetime and it’s no wonder why it’s on so many peoples’ bucket lists.
It’s hard to comprehend the amount of effort that must have gone into building this archaeological wonder. In fact, words can’t really describe our visit to Angkor Wat, so I’ll let my pictures do the talking instead.
Keep reading for some tips on getting better photographs and avoiding tourists (not an easy task at Angkor Wat!).
Angkor Wat is the only temple in the complex that faces west towards the setting sun. All of the other temples face east. Although Angkor Wat faces the sunset, it is world famous for its sunrise. The sun rises behind the temple, creating a lovely backlight above it. It’s very photogenic, even though it’s nowhere near as peaceful as it once was.
Angkor Thom is not just another temple. It’s a whole city! “Angkor” means “city” and “Thom” means big, so as its name suggests, it’s a big city, It consists of several temples and has some pretty amazing architecture.
Bayon was one of our favourite temples. From a distance, it just looks like a whole lot of rocks piled on top of each other. But get closer, and you’ll find something a little more “spooky”. Giant smiling faces stare down at you from different directions. There are apparently two hundred and sixteen faces throughout Bayon. That’s a lot of stares and they’re mesmerising! We loved exploring its mazes of tunnels and doorways. It has three levels, so be sure to climb the steps to the third level.
Baphuon is a few minutes walk west of Bayon. When the city of Angkor Thom was first completed, Baphuon was at its centre. It was shaped like a pyramid to represent Mount Meru. Climb to the top of Baphuon for some great views.
Terrace of the Elephants
This terrace is 350 metres long and has stairs decorated with lions, garudas and life-sized images of elephants.
Terrace of the Leper King
This terrace is north of the Terrace of Elephants. The carvings and decorations are just incredible.
If you’ve watched the movie Tomb Raider, you will recognise Ta Prohm. But even if you haven’t seen the movie (I haven’t!) you’ll want to visit the temple. It’s renowned for the large trees that over the years have grown into the temple’s walls. Some of those trees are holding the temple together while others are slowly pulling it apart! It’s crowded but well worth a visit.
Banteay Kdei is so peaceful and quiet compared to the more popular temples of Angkor. Its ruins are a fascinating maze of chambers. Exploring them is a lot of fun and so much less stressful than the other temples.
Ta Keo’s staircase is very steep. It’s certainly not made for short people like me! Watch your step as you climb to the top and be careful when heading back down. There are great views from the top though!
Preah Khan is still largely unrestored and is a much quieter version of Ta Prohm.
Everyone heads to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. It’s so crowded that we’d heard it wasn’t worth it. So we headed to the less touristy Pre Rup instead. It’s a very quiet temple during the day and although it does get busier at sunset, it’s still enjoyable.
How to avoid the crowds in Angkor Wat?
Visiting Angkor Wat was something I had wanted to do for a long time. But as we got closer to our visit, I started to worry because I’d heard how crowded Angkor Wat had become and I really don’t do well with crowds. Another thing is that while I love taking pictures, I hate having people in them. So how do you get those empty shots in a popular place such as Angkor Wat? It’s not easy but it is possible. Here are some tips on how to do it:
The park opens at 7.30 am. Be there at that time! If you visit any of the temples very early (other than Angkor Wat) you will find a lot fewer people there. Lots of people watch the sunrise in front of Angkor Wat and then many of them head straight inside afterwards to view Angkor Wat. Instead of doing that, after sunrise go on to Ta Phrom or Angkor Thom instead before everyone else gets to them. We visited Ta Phrom just after opening and there was hardly anyone there. Plus the golden hour was great for photography.
Go during the heat of the day
Angkor Wat is the main temple everyone visits and avoiding the crowds there is rather tricky. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to completely avoid the crowds but you can visit when it is less busy. That’s after lunch at around 2 to 2.30. At that time most people have headed back to Siem Reap to relax in the pool and take refuge from the afternoon sun. You’ll be hot and sweaty for sure and you’ll need to drink a lot of water. But if you can cope with the heat then that’s your time to visit Angkor Wat.
Sunrise and the tourist zoo!
If you want to see the sun rising over Angkor Wat, (and you really should), you’ll need to be prepared! It’s incredibly crowded at that time. You can’t really avoid the crowds but if you wake up early enough and are one of the first to arrive, you can take a position in the front row and plant your tripod there before people try and push you out of the way (yes people will try!).
The doors open at 5 am. We arrived at 4.45 am and a handful of people were already queuing at the gate. At 5 am when it opened there were quite a few more. We were actually lucky that some of those people knew where to go once inside the gates. It was pitch black, we had no torch and having not visited Angkor Wat by day, we had no idea where we were going!
When we arrived at the reflection pond we looked for a quiet spot right at the front where we “sort of” could see the reflection of the temple. It was hard in the dark but we managed. Make sure to avoid having too many lily pads in your shot because they get in the way of the reflection. Fortunately, there weren’t too many around when we were there. Once you are happy with your spot, set up your tripod quickly and claim your position. We found the left side of the pond to be better and less crowded than the middle.
As the place fills up, people who woke up late will try and get to the front anyway. We saw someone walk in front of people who’d already been waiting there for an hour and planting his huge tripod right in front of them.
Expect Some Rude Tourists
Unfortunately, Angkor Wat is one of those places that brings out the worst in some tourists. Everyone wants a perfect shot and some are prepared to be rude to get it. You just have to stick up for yourself and be firm.
I saw a woman pushing her way from the back of the crowd up to the front next right to me. She then shoved her camera in front of mine, at which point I told her to stop, I hadn’t woken up at 4 am to have someone who slept in for an extra hour steal my place. I certainly wasn’t going to let that happen. She apologised and tried her luck elsewhere. Of course, don’t start a fight, it’s not worth it. Most of these bozos will just back off if told.
Another tip; if for some reason you arrive too late and can’t get to the front, there is a second pond on the right-hand side. We never knew about it in the dark as we hadn’t visited before but the reflection is pretty good there too and you might have better luck getting a good position.
Do the circle counter clockwise
All the tourists seem to go around the small and large circuits clockwise. We hired a lovely tuk-tuk driver. When he asked me “Do you want me to remove all the tourists for you”, I thought he was having a joke at first. So I said yes, please! What he actually meant was, let me know if you’d like to avoid them! So he suggested that he take us counter-clockwise around the circuits. He definitely knew what he was doing as we were almost the only ones at Ta Phrom when we arrived there at 7.30 am.
How to get better photos of Angkor Wat?
- As mentioned earlier, visit early to avoid the crowds! Golden hour is also the best time to do photography as the light is soft with the sun not too high in the sky.
- Bring a tripod for your sunrise shot. Having a tripod will keep your camera still and avoid the grain found in many Angkor Wat sunrise photos.
- Be patient! I know that one is hard and I am the least patient person in the world! But sometimes patience is rewarding and in this case, it really can be. Hang around for a bit and you’ll get a second or two with a clear shot. You just have to be ready to take your opportunity.
- Because there are so many temples in the Angkor Wat archaeological site, don’t just stick to the main ones. The smaller ones are pretty amazing too and offer similar photo opportunities with a lot fewer people.
How much is Angkor Wat’s entrance fee?
There are three options for tickets to the site.
1 day costs $37
3 days costs $62 (it does not need to be consecutive but has to be done within 7 days)
7 days costs $72 (it does not need to be consecutive but has to be done within 10 days)
If you have long enough in Siem Reap we would recommend getting the three-day pass to have more time to explore the site.
Tip: If you buy your ticket the night before from 4.45 pm, you can head straight to sunset and this first night will not count. So you can watch the sunset, and start your one day or three days pass the next day. That’s a bonus sunset for you!
Where to buy the Angkor Wat ticket?
The Angkor Wat Pass tickets can only be purchased at the official ticket centre. It’s located four kilometres away from the town centre and opens from 5 am to 5.30 pm every day. Anyone else trying to sell you a ticket is a scam. Tickets purchased from hotels, tour companies or other third parties are not valid so don’t waste your money elsewhere. The entrance ticket can be paid in cash (US Dollars, Cambodian Riel, Thai Bath or Euro) or by credit card (Visa only).
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