What It’s Like Seeing an Angkor Wat Sunrise
For many tourists headed to Siem Reap, seeing an Angkor Wat sunrise is one of the first things on their Angkor bucket list. But is it worth it? What’s it like being at the most important temple in Angkor at the most crowded time of the day? And what do you need to do to get the shot you want?
My Experience at Angkor
I am definitely not a morning person, but in Cambodia, you need to get up early if you want to actually enjoy yourself. Even in the “coolest” months, the temperatures are regularly in the eighties and nineties degrees Fahrenheit. And that’s why when my hotel said my tuk-tuk driver would pick me up at 4:30 am, I nodded in painful acknowledgment that this was all voluntary on my part.
Here’s the Facebook Live video I shot after I got there if you want to see what it’s like:
How to Get to Angkor Wat for Sunrise
I got picked up at 4:30, and it takes about an hour and a half to get from your hotel door to the actual temple of Angkor Wat. The tuk-tuk drove me out to Angkor, which is a little way outside of Siem Reap. Then after buying tickets to the park, we drove some more to the area outside of the temple. Then I walked in the dark for a little while, in a swarm of tourists, into the yard in front of the temple.
If your goal is to be there for sunrise, arrange your tuk-tuk a few days in advance. I organized mine with the owner of my guesthouse, but you can also schedule a pick up from a tuk-tuk driver you’ve already been working with. You can also schedule a guide and car, or you can even take a specific photography tour. Just make sure you know when and where to be on the morning of, because it really does take longer than it feels like it should to get into place.
You can also buy your ticket the day before, giving you more time to scope out your spot in the temple.
Should You Try to Go to Angkor Wat at Sunrise?
First, decide how important an actual sunrise picture is (as opposed to one taken a bit later in the day). Although I would not advise getting to the park too much later in the day, since you want to get most of your sightseeing done before it gets too hot, you still could theoretically get there an hour or two later and have just as much fun for the entire day. So you have to decide if having watching the sunrise or getting a sunrise photo is important enough to you to sacrifice a couple of hours of sleep.
Secondly, it’s not a gorgeous, vibrant sunrise every day. If all you want is a painted sky, you might be disappointed. If this is the thing you need the most from your visit, get a multi-day pass to be safe and plane to go back in case the first one doesn’t work out.
Even though I hated getting up early, it was definitely a highlight of my time at Angkor, so it ended up being worth it for me. However, it’s easier to have a good time and get the shot you want when you know what to expect beforehand.
Alternative Sunrise Spots at Angkor
Rather than irritating me, I found the crowds amusing. However, a lot of the joy of getting up to photograph and watch a sunrise are about finding a moment of tranquility and peace. If that’s what you’re looking for, then I suggest finding an alternative spot for sunrise at Angkor.
There are tons of temples at Angkor, and there are others you could go to for a more private sunrise viewing. Just because you’re an early bird doesn’t mean you have to be at the most popular spot. Great sunrise alternatives (especially for those with a multi-day pass):
- Pre Rup
- Ta Prohm
- Phnom Bakheng
- Srah Srang Reflecting Pool
- Bayon (watching the light illuminate the temple faces, as opposed to a traditional sunrise photo)
- East Mebon
Where’s the Best Place to Photograph the Angkor Wat Sunrise From?
Once you’re actually at the temple, there are many places you could choose to camp out. I don’t think there is any best spot to photograph the sunrise from, but there are a few different ones you can try. I’ve shared photos here from the central walkway and two points on the left reflecting pool.
My favorite that I took was far on the left reflecting pool a little bit after the sun was already up. I found that the colors were still amazing, but the crowds had thinned. I ended up getting that shot after I walked through the temple on my way back out. This was mostly luck on my part, but it’s a good reminder that sometimes the shot you think you want and the one you end up loving are different.
Other popular spots are the right reflecting pool (which as you can see from the video above has way fewer people), and further back on the grounds of the temple.
Some important things to consider when deciding where to shoot from and how early to get there is if you’re going to be using a tripod. I didn’t, but I saw tons of them that early in the morning. Because you’ll have a driver for the day, using one in the morning doesn’t mean you’re going to be stuck lugging it around all day. If I were to go back, I’d probably bring one with me. Although you can get some great shots with your cell phone, too. Check out this article for an analysis of the different spots you can shoot from.
Please, Don’t Be an Ugly American (or other Kinds of Bad Tourists)
Unless you are a true professional photographer, my biggest piece of advice would be to chill and enjoy the moment. Get your shots, but don’t be so stressed that you ruin other people’s mornings by being a bad tourist. I’ve heard horror stories of people throwing rocks in the ponds just to get in front of the crowds, and I saw a ton of borderline bad behavior while I was there. Remember this is an ancient religious structure, important to practicing Buddhists. It’s one of Cambodia’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and it’s one of the most important historic sites in the world. Putting your snapshot/Instagram pic/blog post photo ahead of someone else’s experience or offending someone’s religion is a heinous way to spend your trip to such a beautiful place.
I mentioned in an upcoming episode of my podcast how visiting Angkor has affected me personally, because I saw so many people acting like fools for photographs. All. Day. Long. It’s bad enough when Instagrammers and Bloggers act like fools for pics, but it’s crept into the population at large.
What to Do When You’re Done Taking Photos
Um…go visit the temple! It’s huge and beautiful. You’re there for the golden hour. Go stroll through the corridors, enjoy the mystique of each hallway and the mist rising from the lawns. There’s so much more to Angkor Wat than just photographing it from the outside!
Here are a few of my favorite photos from inside the temple!
The Angkor Wat Dress Code
Remember that Angkor Wat (and all the temples at Angkor) are active Buddhist temples, and so you’ll need to dress accordingly. A good rule of thumb is to be covered from knees to elbows. If you’re a woman, it’s good to show minimal cleavage. I wore a spaghetti strapped dress, and then had a thin jacket to put on when I went into temples. I found this Wikitravel article to be inaccurate about the dress code enforcement. It mentions that there are only two places where the dress code is strictly enforced, but I was asked to cover my shoulders in a small, outlying temple. The people who take your tickets at every temple are the same people who enforce the dress code, and I didn’t see anyone flouting it.
Technically, one should remove one’s shoes before going into different parts of Angkor Wat, but I do not remember seeing anyone take their shoes off. If you are asked to, take your shoes with you since there are many doors and paths, and you may end up exiting from a different place than you entered.
The Angkor Cafe – A Great Place to Stop On Your Way Out
Assuming you’re planning on staying for more than just sunrise, you have a long day ahead of you! For me, the first thing I did after finishing up at Angkor Wat was to try to find a moment of peace and quiet away from the tourists, but I ended up running into a cheeky Angkor Wat monkey instead. If you do spot some monkeys (you’re bound to eventually), make sure you’re not hiding any bananas.
Then I went to the Angkor Cafe, which is across from the outermost entrance to the temple. It was a nice place to cool off. Even at seven in the morning, the day was already getting hot. My guesthouse had been really kind and packed me a breakfast, which I’d eaten on the way at 4:30. But I was ready for a second breakfast by the time I spotted the cool and truly empty cafe. It was heaven getting some solitude and fresh breakfast after being in the crowds. I didn’t dawdle there too long because I obviously wanted to get to the next temple, but I’m glad I stopped to eat, use the (very clean) restroom, and browse their local crafts before joining back up with the rest of the tourists.
Oh and unlike the rest of the food stalls and restaurants at Angkor, they take credit cards!
So Should You Go to Angkor Wat for Sunrise?
For me, the answer was yes. I knew what to expect beforehand (crowds!), which meant I could keep my expectations in check. I got lucky and was there on a day with a beautiful sunrise. And I also wanted to see the place more for its history and architecture than just for a sunrise photo. If I’d left with only regular photographs from the day, I would have been just as happy.
However, if you’re not that into photography or you think the weather won’t be great, I wouldn’t fight the crowds. Instead, I’d choose a quieter spot where the I could enjoy the experience of the morning, especially a place where one can feel alone. I have many friends who’ve gone to Angkor without hitting up sunrise at Angkor Wat, and they all have told me they’re happy with the choices they made.
The biggest warning I would make to someone who is skipping going at sunrise is to make sure you still get there early! Showing up at even a respectable 9 am is going to push a lot of your day to the afternoon when it’s way too hot to enjoy yourself. If you’re doing two or three days, you (probably) won’t want to go to sunrise every single day, but you’ll still want to be there near the beginning of the morning so that you can have the most enjoyable day possible.
You Might Also Enjoy
- The Angkor Wat Monkeys are Jerks! & Other Naughty Monkey Tales
- How to Improve Your Travel Photography
- My UNESCO World Heritage Sites Bucket List