5 Tips for Catching an Angkor Wat Sunrise Like a Pro

Tuk-tuk, sir? Tomorrow you go see Angkor Wat sunrise?

That’s the call of tuk-tuk drivers waiting for business in the temple town of Siem Reap. It’s also one of the most popular and spectacular things to do. Getting the most out of the DIY experience requires planning, however. Forgoing it will only result in stumbling, scuffles with rude tourists, photos of their selfie-sticks and plenty of frustration.

In this post, I’ve put together five tips that will ensure you get the best out of this magical phenomenon and lose the least sleep – all for just $7 more.

1. Make sure it’s good sunrise weather

This seems obvious but I cannot overstate it. The sky is the most important part of sunrise at Angkor Wat. Trust me, you don’t want to drag yourself out of bed to watch dark grey skies turn light grey, or worse, sit through a thunderstorm inside a stuffy tuk-tuk. Save the effort for a clear or partly cloudy time between 4 and 7 a.m.; there are plenty of apps that have hour-by-hour forecasts.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
You probably won’t enjoy this.

2. Buy your tickets the day before

Buying only a single-day pass? The day before your chosen sunrise date, go to the ticket office no earlier than 4.45 p.m. It starts selling tickets that are valid for the next day from 5 p.m. This ensures that you don’t waste any time queuing for your pass in the morning, especially since the office now requires a detour from the main road. Did I mention that your bleary-eyed portrait will be taken and printed on your pass?

If you’re buying a three- or seven-day pass, there’s no need to rush like this unless you want to catch the sunrise on the very first day. By the way, the prices in US dollars are $37 (one day), $62 (any three days out of 10 and they don’t have to be consecutive) and $72 (seven days in a month).

3. Recce the place beforehand

Once you get your ticket at 5 p.m., you have a free pass to the Angkor Archaeological Park for the rest of the evening. The guards should not punch a hole in your pass. Use the remaining daylight to walk around the inner west side of Angkor Wat and find the ideal spot to take your photos from. The constant restoration works mean that some visible part of the temple will be under scaffolding. While the trees are useful for covering the work, but you won’t find them in the pre-dawn darkness if you wait.

As an added bonus, from February to early September, the late sunset bathes Angkor Wat in a gorgeous golden light. The guards start ushering people out from the inside from 5.30 p.m., so you should be able to hang around the pond for another 15 minutes.

All told, the extra trip in a tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat alone and back should cost $7. Reward yourself with a glass of 50-cent beer and have an early night.

Angkor Wat
Sunset in September 2014

4. Go to the pond on the right if you’re taking photos

Armed with your tickets*, you and your party should be motoring straight to Angkor Wat at 4.30 a.m., with no detours to the ticket office. Remind your driver to take the old road; on the map, it’s Charles de Gaulle and it runs north-south from the southern side of the moat. *You should also have insect repellent, a flashlight and a drink

Most of the photographs of Angkor Wat are taken from the edge of the pond on the left as you enter. (See the photo above.) It’s popular because, from that spot, the sun appears to rise behind the temple. It also gets crowded there very quickly.

I can vouch that the view is no less beautiful from the pond on the right-hand side. In addition, as of November 2016, one of the towers on the left was under scaffolding. If you’re taking photos, it’s easier to hide it using the trees on that side. You should have found all this out the day before, anyway.

Angkor Wat sunrise
Angkor Wat sunrise on a clear day in November 2016

5. Walk right through after the sunrise

Once you’ve had your fill of the sunrise, don’t forget to explore the temple while the temperatures are still low. Very few people venture beyond the relief of The Churning of the Ocean of Milk on the eastern inner wall, but it is worth appreciating the view from the other side. Ten to fifteen minutes after sunrise time, the morning sun lights up the five inner shrines within the inner enclosure.

Angkor Wat sunrise from the east
Angkor Wat sunrise from the east

Walk further still and you may find yourself alone for a while. The path is maintained to the barest minimum and the outer enclosure wall is shockingly dilapidated, probably the way it was before Angkor Wat was spruced up.

Angkor Wat east
It’s hard to believe we’re still within the Angkor Wat grounds

There may or may not be enough time to join the queue to ascend those towers. The line forms very early and quickly and access is limited to a couple of hundred people. If that’s your goal, you may want to save it for another day when you don’t mind skipping the sunrise to queue. However, there’s enough time to catch up on the other bas-reliefs that other people have been poring over. When it’s your turn, you know what to know for, having used the resources in my art student’s perspective post.

If all this doesn’t give you a buzz as you return to town or continue to Angkor Thom, nothing else will. After all, you got to see things and take photos of the Angkor Wat sunrise that 90% of the other visitors didn’t get. Don’t forget to reward yourself with more 50-cent beers for that.

How about sunset? Let me introduce you to Phnom Krom – it’s even better than Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup.