Can We See Ten Angkor Wat Temples in a Single Day?
We can if we hustle our asses off!
Brent and I recently spent ten days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, near the famous ruins of Angkor Wat, and a reader asked me, “Michael, could I see all of Angkor Wat in one day?”
Angkor Wat is the name of one specific temple, but it also often refers to all the temples in Angkor Archaeological Park — more than six dozen major temples spread out over more than 400 square kilometers. The temples were all built by the Khmer Empire, which lasted from the 9th to the 15th centuries AD.
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know any of this. I didn’t learn it until after we’d arrived myself.
Anyway, no. Unless you’re in a helicopter, it’s impossible to see all of Angkor Wat in one day.
But what about the best temples?
Our ten favorites were Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Pre Rup, Bayon, Banteay Srei, Preah Khan, Prasat Kravan, East Mebon, Banteay Samre, and the Terrace of the Leper King (which isn’t a temple per se).
Let’s play a game of “What if?,” shall we? Could Brent and I have seen all of these places in a single day?
Google Maps says it takes approximately two hours and 18 minutes to drive this trip, at least during the low season — but that doesn’t include any parking, walking, or temple-visiting time.
Plus, while parts of the park open at 5 AM, and everything closes at 7 PM, the temples themselves all close at 5:30 PM.
In other words, it’s going to be close.
But we’re willing to give it a try!
4:30 AM: Siem Reap, Our Hotel
Brent and I have been up since 4 AM, and Sophea, our guide, and Mr. Chhun, our tuk tuk driver, meet us outside our hotel.
It’s 4:33 AM, and we were off!
The streets are very quiet this early in the morning.
The temple named Angkor Wat is the biggest of them all, and it’s supposedly spectacular at sunrise, so we’re hoping to be there in time to catch it at 5:37 AM. Plus, we only have a single day to see everything, so we bought our passes into the park the day before.
We’re at the entrance to the park when it opens at 5 AM, along with twenty or so other folks. But Angkor Wat is located on a massive human-made island beyond a massive moat, and it’s a bit of a walk from the parking lot to the temple itself.
So we don’t have time to dawdle. Will we make it? And if we do, will it be a gorgeous sunrise — or a blah morning?
5:26 AM: Angkor Wat Sunrise
We made it, and we’re in luck — it’s gorgeous!
HOW ARE WE HOLDING UP? Getting up at 4 AM was brutal, but the air is cool, the sunrise was lovely, and we’re feeling fairly invigorated. That said, we’ve got a long day ahead of us, and we know we need to pace ourselves.
6:14 AM: Angkor Wat Temple
Now we head into the temple itself.
WHAT MAKES THIS TEMPLE SPECIAL? Mostly, the massive size — it’s said to be the largest religious structure in the world. Angkor Wat was first seen by Europeans when a Portuguese friar visited in 1586, but the next European to visit wasn’t until the French returned in 1860 when the place was mostly abandoned and in total ruin. But the French, who colonized Cambodia, eventually completely reassembled Angkor Wat.
When they did, they discovered that it had been built in perfect alignment with the sun. In fact, twice a year, on the equinox, when a person stands in front of the Western entrance, the sun rises directly over the central lotus tower.
Alas, it’s not the equinox today, but we can still climb up into those famous towers.
To get up there, Brent and I have to navigate a steep set of stairs. Sophea, our guide, says that during the high season, the temple is visited by 20,000 people every day, and the wait to enter can be more than an hour. Thankfully, it’s early in the morning during low season, so there’s no wait at all.
7:20 AM: Prasat Kravan Temple
Angkor Wat opens at 5 AM for the sunrise, but most of the other temples don’t open until 7:30. Thankfully, Prasat Kravan opens at six, which is critical if we’re going to see all ten temples today.
We return to Mr. Chhun’s tuk tuk, and he whizzes us off through the green jungle to Prasat Kravan.
WHAT MAKES THIS TEMPLE SPECIAL? Unlike most of the other major temples, which were built with massive stones dragged by elephants from a distant quarry, this is a “red brick” temple, which means it predates Angkor Wat. This one was built in AD 921.
HOW ARE WE HOLDING UP? So far, so good!
8:20 AM: Ta Prohm Temple
We’re off to see the temple that is better known as The One That Was Featured in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I didn’t like the movie, so I’m also expecting to hate the temple.
But it turns out I’m wrong! It’s stunning, and I can see why they used it in the movie. I only wish we had more time, so I could do a more thorough exploration.
WHAT MAKES THIS TEMPLE SPECIAL? In addition to the Lara Croft connection, this temple was built by King Jayavarman VII for his mother. But it was also one of the Angkor temples built without mortar, making it very easy for the native strangler fig trees to take root between the stones. As the trees grew, they pushed the stones apart.
It’s terrible for the temple, but it definitely makes for a stunning look. We have a lot of ground to cover, but this temple absolutely requires at least some investigation.
HOW ARE WE HOLDING UP? Surprisingly well. The temperature is climbing, but the crowds are super light, and Ta Prohm was so great that we’re psyched to keep going.