Sunrise at Angkor Wat. For many, a bucket list experience. For others, an overrated tourist activity that requires waking up way too early. Which is it? Keep reading to find out!
But let’s start from the beginning.
Nestled in the heart of Cambodia, Angkor Wat is a historic temple complex. It’s known for its size (it’s said to be the world’s largest religious structure), impressive architecture, and historical significance. Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu in the 12th century, it later became a Buddhist site. Thanks to its undoubtable beauty and historical and cultural significance, Angkor Wat is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an iconic symbol of Cambodia’s past and present.
Why the sunrise?
The popularity of sunrise at Angkor Wat as a tourist attraction has grown significantly over the past few decades. Many travellers want to witness the sun rising from behind the spires of Angkor Wat, painting the sky with pink and orange hues. It’s meant to be one of the most enchanting moments of all, a moment when time stands still and the world is bathed in the gentle, golden light of a new day… Or that’s what social media is trying to sell you.
Because yes, it can be all of that. But you also have to take into consideration that this magical sunrise you see in photos is not always magical and there’s a few pretty straightforward and even a bit stressful things that go into the whole process of coming to see the sun rise behind this famous temple.
In this blog post I’ll break down all the steps to see the sunrise at Ankgor Wat. I’ll tell you what to pack, how to get ready, what to expect and most importantly I’ll answer the question: is sunrise at Angkor Wat worth it?
How can you see sunrise at Angkor Wat on your own?
Let’s start with what you need to do before coming to Angkor Wat, because there are a few things you need to organize at least a few days in advance.
This blog post is naturally dedicated to travellers who want to visit Angkor Wat on their own. If you’re travelling in an organized group, most of the information here doesn’t apply to you.
What to arrange in advance?
First of all you’ll have to buy the tickets to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Luckily nowadays, instead of queuing at the ticket office at 5 am, you can easily do it online. You do have to register and upload your photo, but the process of buying the tickets is quite straightforward. Alternatively, you can buy them on the spot, but…why?
If you have a few days in Siem Reap, I’d recommend getting at least a 3 day ticket. This way you’ll have a bigger chance to actualy see any sunrise colours. Plus, the whole complex is quite big and I personally don’t think you can visit even the most important temples all in one day. I’d had enough by 1 pm. Why? I’ll tell you later.
Always keep your tickets handy, because you’ll have to show them at several checkpoints! You don’t have to print them.
Second thing you need to arrange is the driver who takes you to the temples and brings you back. Angkor Wat complex is located around 6 kilometers from Siem Reap centre, so if you’re staying in the city centre you can’t really walk there. Alternatively, you can cycle – during my stay in Siem Reap I did cycle to the temples and it was fun – but I wouldn’t recommend doing that for the sunrise experience.
But don’t worry, organizing a driver with a remork (tuk tuk but bigger) is super easy. Every guest house owner, hotel receptionist, Airbnb host knows someone who offers such services and I’m sure they will help you sort it out. If not, you can just go to the city a day before and you’ll have a lot of offers from remork drivers – because well, that’s money for them.
Speaking of money, renting a driver for a day who takes you to the temples, drives you around the whole complex and brings you back to the city shouldn’t cost you more than 20-25 USD.
That’s actually the most popular way of visiting the temples.
How to get ready?
First stressful bit…
Since it’s a sunrise experience, you can already imagine what it requires. Waking up early! Super early! Depending on your accommodation location, you’ll have to get up around 4-4.30 am. How to get ready for that? Well, go to bed early (or don’t go to bed at all), set you alarm (alarmS!) and get mentally prepared for such an early start to the day.
Again, depending on your accommodation location and the time of the year, you’ll have to leave around 5 am, possibly even earlier. I’m sure your driver will suggest the appropriate time. It will be dark and surprisingly chilly, so…
What to pack?
…there are a few things worth bringing with you:
- a long sleeve top for the remork drive – since a remork is like a tuk tuk – kind of open, the chilly morning wind will be blasting your whole body. I really recommend wearing something warm for this morning ride, I was quite cold;
- appropriate clothing – well, that’s not really something you pack, it’s something you wear. But since Angkor Wat is a temple complex, you (especially girls of course) do need to have your knees and shoulders covered. Normally I’d recommend a scarf for your shoulders (girls), but to enter the top “floor” of Angkor Wat, you need to wear a proper shirt or a t-shirt covering your shoulders. A scarf won’t do it – I know, I tried. Keep in mind, that after the morning chill, it gets there super hot super fast, so long, breathable clothing will be perfect;
- appropriate shoes – again, not something you bring (although you can bring shoes to change into), but be aware that even with a driver taking you everywhere, you’ll be still walking a lot! Those temples are huge! So wear something super comfortable;
- some snacks – in theory there are a lot of places in the whole temple complex where you can eat, but the food I had there was very mediocre and very expensive (for Cambodia), so I’d honestly bring my own food. Or at least some snacks. I saw people bringing huge bags of take out and after this awful meal I had, I regretted not doing the same thing;
- drinks – it will get hot and dusty, so you’ll need plenty of water. Again, you can naturally buy drinks on the spot, plus your driver should have bottled water for you, but in order not to use unnecessary plastic, pack your reusable water bottle with filter;
- sun protection – SPF and a hat or a cap are a must! For obvious reasons;
- a camera – also for obvious reasons;
- cash – to buy anything at the temples you need cash. Cards are not accepted;
- a torch – because the next part of the sunrise experience will require…
What to do at the spot?
…walking in pitch black! After waking up at 4 am, that’s another fun part of this experience. Actually, it wasn’t that much fun. That part was actually quite frustrating for me.
Second stressful bit…
Your driver will leave you at a certain spot in front of Angkor Wat complex – every driver has his favourite one – he’ll show you the way and maybe he’ll even walk with you some part of the way, but for the most of, it you’ll be on your own. And it really is so dark in the morning, that you can’t see anything.
First time I went to see Angkor Wat sunrise, my driver was not very proactive and basically just showed me the direction I had to go in. With only my iPhone torch, I basically just followed the smudges of people I saw in front of me and was hoping that at least they knew where they should be going. Somehow, also thanks to Google maps, I made it there. But you really have to be careful – later, when it got bright, I discovered that many paths are marked with thin wires, that are just asking you to trip over them. They’re kind of hard to see in the daylight, so imagine in pitch black – they’re simply invisible.
Also, depending on what side of the temple your driver leaves you on, you might have to cross a bridge – the Rainbow Bridge. It’s very unlikely that you would, but be careful not to fall in the water.
But ok, let’s say you made it safely and you can already spot the shape of the temples from a distance.
Where to go exactly for the best view of Angkor Wat sunrise?
In front of the reflecting ponds. Well, on Google maps only one pond is called the “Reflecting Pond” – the left one. However, when I visited Angkor Wat (February 2023), the left pond was “closed”. There was a fence around it. So admiring sunrise from that side was impossible. Everyone was crammed around the right pond. And by everyone I mean hundreds of people. There will be hundreds of people there, I can promise you that.
Third stressful bit..
Even with all the preparations: waking up at 4 am, walking in the dark, you might be simply too late to claim a good spot. And what is a “good spot”? The first or the second row from the pond. Only this way you’ll manage to take good photos and simply enjoy the experience without people sticking their phones in your face.
Alternatively, you can watch the sun rising from the Northern or Southern Library. Naturally, you won’t take an epic sunrise reflection shot, but you’ll have more peace and quiet. But that’s the thing…
Fourth stressful bit…
those magical sunrise colours might not be there! You’re at the complete mercy of the weather. I actually read about a guy, who spent a whole month in Siem Reap, went for sunrise every day and never experienced those epic pinks, purples and oranges. So I guess, I should consider myself lucky.
I went for Angkor Wat sunrise twice. First time there were almost no colours. It just got bright. Some pinks and purples appeared later, but to be honest everything looked better through peoples phones. The phones somehow added the colours to the sky. I can honestly say, that my first sunrise experience was disappointing. It wasn’t at all what I imagined.
Other people felt the same way, because the comments I heard while I was standing there included: “I’ve been to 37 countries and saw way better sunrises”, “das ist Scheisse” and “I could have stayed in bed”. Actually listening to people complaining was my favourite part, because the whole atmosphere was far from magical.
The second time was better. Firstly, I knew where I was going, so the darkness wasn’t that overwhelming, I came prepared and most importantly, I knew what to expect: crowds and the possibility of no colours. And then some sunrise colours actually did show up.
Don’t leave right away. The best colours might (or might not) appear around 30-40 min after the sunrise. The photo below was taken around 7 am, when the colours really popped.
So now the big question: is this hustle and bustle worth it?
Is sunrise at Angkor Wat worth it?
I’d say yes. If you know how to prepare, what awaits you and you realize that the reality can be far from expectations (and by expectations I mean the edited photos you saw on the Internet), it can be quite a pleasant experience. In the end the temples are pretty spectacular and watching the world waking up there can be magical. I just wouldn’t put too much pressure on it.
Aaa almost forgot
In terms of weather, the best time to see the sunrise is in the dry season, which is from early December until March. The weather is pleasant with good temperatures and the least amount of rain. However, because it is high season, it becomes the busiest period. I’d recommend visiting during the week. Weekends might be even busier.
Cool! So set your alarms, grab your torch and head to admire (maybe not) the most spectacular sunrise in the world, but definitely the most famous.
If you have any questions regarding Angkor Wat sunrise, drop them in the comments. If you want to see a funny: Instagram vs reality video, check out my Instagram.
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