The Angkor Archaeological Complex is one of the truly mesmerising sights of the world, but when combined with a sunrise or sunset that feeling is multiplied by ten. Despite the volumes of tourists around the main sites during both times of day a complete hush seems to descend over the entire crowd and, other than the frequent click of a camera shutter, you can seemingly enjoy the experience in relative quiet as everyone stands in awe. Although a sunrise experience means getting out of bed at a somewhat ungodly hour, to miss the experience would be a huge mistake; so make sure that on at least one of your days in Siem Reap you make the trip to Angkor in the pitch black, early hours of morning. Below, I’m going to highlight what I think are the two best spots, and some key tips, for staking out sunrise and sunset locations.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
The main Angkor Wat temple is that quintessential sunrise photo you generally see online when you google search Angkor Wat. It is undeniably one of the most majestic sunrises I’ve ever witnessed (even despite the crowds) and to miss it would be a big mistake. That said, to make sure that you get the most of your early morning wake-up call, here are some tips to consider:
Top Sunrise Tips
Where to Stand: The sun rises to the East of the temple and so your best bet is to approach from the West Main gate and stand in front (not to the side) of the reflecting pond. You want to avoid having the trees on the right of the reflecting pool in your photos so try and make your way to the left hand corner of the pond. If you can, mark your territory in true tourist fashion by setting up your tripod (which you’ll need for the perfect sunrise photos). If you’re hoping for a good reflection photo in the pond then also try and gauge where the lily pads are; otherwise you risk getting all pads and no reflection. Finally, get as close to the water’s edge as possible; to not do so means you run the risk of people trying to stand right in front of you (I witnessed some truly ‘ballsey’ maneuvers to get in front of people). Trust me, it won’t be hard to spot where to stand even before the sun starts rising; just follow the other tourists (unless you’re fortunate enough to be one of the first there).
Take a torch: If you get the timing right it should still be pitch black by the time you arrive at the temple and you want to fairly steadily make your way to the reflecting pond along a fairly lengthy causeway of uneven stones. It’s best to have a torch so that you can avoid tripping on the stones (which we saw happen; I swear it wasn’t me that tripped).
Get your pass the night before: Depending on the specific sunrise time you’re likely to have to wake up around 4am and then want to get to the temple as quickly as feasibly possible to avoid the arrival of the main bulk of the crowd. So get your passes the night before after 5.30pm. This way its already done but you don’t have to pay for the extra day as passes purchased after 5.30pm are only charged for the following day (although you get a free sunset entry for the day of purchase); and who doesn’t like a bonus sunset!
Get there early: I think this goes without saying, but the earlier you get there then the better spot you get. I know, who wants to get up at 4am on holiday, but once you’re there you’ll realise how worth it the early wake-up call is. For me, so much so that I did it all again the following day to make sure I had photos I was happy with (although, I admit, my wife was far less keen the second day and stayed in bed).
It’s dark; so don’t lose your tuk tuk: Tuk tuks all look the same. In all the excitement of jumping out (or rolling out if you haven’t had a coffee yet) of the tuk tuk in the morning there’s a chance you might not organise where your driver is meeting you. Don’t make this mistake; he will definitely be forced to move whilst you’re watching sunrise and then you’ll spend the next hour searching for your tuk tuk like a Disney tourist looking for their car in the Mickey lot amongst 1,000 other cars.
Stay after sunrise: Within 20 minutes of sunrise most of the crowds start to leave and the temple really empties out as people head back to the hotels for breakfast. This is a perfect time to head deep in to the temple as the crowds are minimal and you can experience the temple in relative solitude (compared to two-three hours later).
Pre-Plan: The most important thing to remember is to make sure you pre-arrange your pick-up time with your tuk-tuk driver to ensure you don’t miss all of the action. Secondly, and for those who are more serious about staking out a prime location, you might want to consider going to the temple the day before to scope your spot and familiarise yourself with the layout of the temple. The second day I went for sunrise my photos were ten times better because I had a better understanding of where to stand (although hopefully my advice above will help avoid you having that problem).
Sunset at Phnom Bakheng
It’s not one of the more popular temples and most people pass right by it during the day on their way from Angkor Wat to Angkor Thom. But come late afternoon Phnom Bakheng goes from deserted to packed as gaggles of tourists descend (or rather, ascend) the temple to catch a glimpse of sunset across the Western Barray. It might not be as spectacular as sunrise over Angkor Wat (although if you can catch it on a clear day it isn’t far off), but if you’re going to catch a sunset whilst you’re here then you could certainly do a lot worse! Here are some key tips for you:
Top Sunset Tips
Get there around 4pm or earlier: There used to be unlimited access to the top of Phnom Bakheng and as a result it became a bit of a tourist nightmare. It’s now been limited to a maximum of 300 for sunset and you’ll go through a gate to be counted off. Therefore, you want to get there early to make sure you’re one of the 300. 4pm should, I hope, just about cover it, but if you’re willing to get there earlier then all the better.
Where to stand: Getting there at 4pm means you’re in for the long haul and its unlikely you’ll want to stand in the same spot for the next two hours. In addition, by limiting numbers to 300 it’s now more feasible to move around as the sun sets and I managed to get myself into different spots (although as you can see, or rather not see, my lack of photos of the sunset goes to show that even the best made plans often don’t result in photos you’re happy with!). Just try and make sure that you have a decent view over the Barray and you should have yourself covered. If you want to get photos of Angkor Wat from the top as the sunset casts a pinkish glow then you’re going to want a decent optical zoom (not digital zoom). I would suggest a minimum of a 300mm.
Be prepared for a climb: The temple is fairly steep in places and has seven levels. As you’ll be climbing whilst the sun is still fairly hot it can be a pretty draining experience for the non-gym-goers club of which I am a member. There is the option of an elephant ride (for a fee) for a portion of the climb on the mud slopes around the outside of the temple. Typically I would shy away from encouraging the use of working-animals but apparently the elephants are well treated and so this could be an option if you don’t fancy the climb all the way to the top.