Siem Reap, Cambodia: Why sunset is better than sunrise at Angkor Wat

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Why sunset is better than sunrise at Angkor Wat

Can I get an Angkor? So Nice, I Went There Twice: Angkor Wat in the Morning vs in the Evening (and why sunrise at Angkor Wat is Overrated) 

With peak season in Cambodia (November to January) coming to a close and savvy travellers such as yourself (you clever thing, you) looking into visiting Siem Reap in the less crowded, less expensive off-peak season that is May to October, it seemed timely that my first Asia travel story of the year should be of arguably the most famous of Cambodian monuments - the instantly recognisable and incomparable Angkor Wat. You know by now, of course, my 2018 mission to see all the South East Asian countries I've yet to visit. With Vietnam, Singapore, my native Malaysia, Thailand, and now Cambodia under my belt, that leaves just six countries to go. I can't think of a better destination to kick off this year's travel stories with, so here are the first of my photo diaries from Siem Reap, Cambodia, and my observations on why sunset trumps sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Why sunset is better than sunrise at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat in the light of day...

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Why sunset is better than sunrise at Angkor Wat


Carefully stepping over fallen sandstone bricks, I tiptoed gingerly through miles of galleries engraved with scenes from Hindu epics. Gazing at the bas reliefs depicting the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, I was transported into a land when Gods and Monsters roamed the earth and shook the skies with their ferocious battles. Corridors carved with portraits - astonishing in their diversity and detail, for each person depicted seem to have a different hairstyle and dress - painted a picture when the ancient city of Angkor (the Khmer word for capital city) was the seat of the Khmer Empire.

I learnt how the Khmer empire was born out of the Indian subcontinent - Angkor is the earthly representation of Mt Meru (the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods) which explained the Sanskrit carvings on the walls. In 802AD  the Hindu monarch Jayavarman II declared he was a "universal monarch" and "god-king". His legacy, the Khmer Empire, would become one of the greatest and most influential of its time: in its heyday the empire's capital of Angkor, now a sprawling 400 square km of forest and farmland in modern-day Siem Reap, was a megacity supporting at least a tenth of the global population.  His empire would last all of 600 years until it was seized and ransacked then abandoned in 1431 - but not before encompassing South East Asia and shaping the politics, culture, and aesthetic development of the region.   

It was surreal to walk among the remains of this lost civilisation, and to think that if not for painstaking restoration work, all that rich heritage would've been lost to the ravages  of time. Angkor Wat was just about spared this fate, but many of the thousand and more temples of Angkor have not been so lucky.

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Why sunset is better than sunrise at Angkor Wat

Being the crown jewel and religious centrepiece of this ancient city, Angkor Wat (City Temple), is said to be the world's largest single religious monument and naturally, one of the most important archaeological sites in South East Asia.  All these fascinating facts I learnt from my guide, an affable local chap whose soft spoken and sweet nature belied an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient and modern Cambodian history. At every twist and turn he would point out a detail and regale me with a fascinating story and legend attached to it. My guide and the driver I hired to show me around the temples of Angkor soon paid for themselves: besides the comfort of an air-conditioned car laden with a cooler full of ice-cold water bottles ferrying me to and fro, there was never any need to worry about language barrier as my guide spoke fluent English. 

My visit to all the temples, including Angkor Wat was a walking lesson in history, architecture, and geography. Especially useful and crucial in these too-hot-to-handle temperatures was how my guide could navigate the maze-like complex with a ruthless efficiency. Perfect for any short-on-time visitor who just wanted to see the highlights reel (and best photo spots) of this sprawling temple complex.

But of course, not even the prodigy of man is a match for the ferocity of Mother Nature, which is why I yielded to the crippling heat and returned on a different day to witness...

...Angkor Wat in the evening.

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Why sunset is better than sunrise at Angkor Wat

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Why sunset is better than sunrise at Angkor Wat


Here's the tea. While most of Siem Reap's many temples are east facing, Angkor Wat faces west. Anyone who's ever hummed that famous song from Beauty and The Beast knows that means that Angkor Wat will get the best light in the afternoon. Sure, travel literature will tell you that watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat (especially twice a year during the solstice, when the sun rises exactly on the point of the middle tower) is an unmissable experience - but unfortunately, these guys also got the memo:

Sunrise at Angkor Wat - the grim reality behind the pretty pictures. *screams in Cambodian* 
Photo by Boiler Maker Travel

So unless you're prepared to wake up extremely early and get a taxi/tuk-tuk/what have you in the dark to be the first at the gates when Angkor Wat opens at 5:00am (and believe me, you won't be alone), then stand ankle deep in mud and risk your foot being jabbed by an enthusiast's tripod, you'll be stuck behind rows and rows of eager spectators. Then when the sun rises, whatever awe-inspiring sight or serenity will be shattered by the hundreds of arms raised and holding up tablets, smartphones, and cameras; and sounds of a hundred shutters clicking, as they  all jostling to capture the moment as opposed to just enjoying it. And that's even if the light or weather conditions are good enough to justify the early wake up call and struggle to see past the sea of people.

Now, if it's that lovely rosy hue that the rising sun coyly shines on all it touches when it hauls ass from its nap that you're so keen to capture, here's a fun fact. That warm glow that makes the sky saturated, colours so intense, and the reflection of Angkor Wat in the lake especially crisp is called the Golden Hour. The Golden Hour, so beloved by photographers, is basically nature's Amaro Pro filter and happens twice a day: the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. That's right. In the morning and evening.

So if you're less inclined toward mentally and visually blocking out the hordes at crazy o'clock in the morning, go to the lake in front of Angkor Wat an hour before closing time. By then, the visitors will either be beginning to exit from the temples or entering the complex. What was hundreds of people aggressively pushing for a picture twelve hours ago is now a few dozen visitors milling about a tranquil lotus pond - most of them somewhat mellowed-out from a long, hot day - who are happy to give you the space to take your souvenir snapshot in front of the iconic monuments. With the exact same temperature and colour of the light as dawn, nobody can tell if your photos were taken at 6:00am or at 6:00pm - unless of course, they look at the direction of the shadows (but who's going to nit-pick over that detail?).

For the traveller who wants to have it all, go at dawn to see what the fuss is about but don't expect a scene of tranquility. Take advantage of the daylight and cool morning air to see as much of the temples as you can. Be sure to leave before noon (have lunch, go to a spa, whatever) then return after 3pm for more look-sees and for that "I can't believe it's not sunrise!" portrait.



NOVEMBER to JANUARY is peak season for a reason - November is the coolest month. I went in December, and while I wasn't exactly being serenaded by a chilly breeze, the temperatures are milder than the cloying heat that follows FEBRUARY to APRIL. Avoid those months, unless you love being covered in dust and being roasted to a crisp by the sun. April is the hottest month. MAY TO OCTOBER is wet season, making it off-peak, less hot, less expensive, and with less tourists. This is an ideal time to visit if you hate crowds and don't mind a little rain (besides, in this part of the world the occasional shower is a given).


Being a tropical country, sunset in Cambodia is more or less consistent, between 5:45 - 6:00pm depending on time of year. Likewise with sunrise, ranging from 6:00 - 6:30amAngkor Wat visiting hours are 5:00am - 5:30pm. 


You must buy the 'Angkor Pass' to visit the temples and sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park, including Angkor Wat. Valid tickets can only be purchased from The Angkor Ticket Office. Passes are sold in one-day (US$37), three-day (US$62) and seven-day (US$72) blocks and must be used on consecutive days. Be prepared to have a highly unflattering mug shot taken for your Angkor Pass, thankfully at no extra charge.


I may have toed (or rather shouldered) the line of decency by sliding off my shawl for some photos, but there was nobody to offend in my vicinity at the time. Otherwise, keep your shoulders and knees covered out of respect for the sanctity of the place or at least if monks are present. Wide-legged trousers or long dress in linen, cotton, or similarly breathable materials; a light scarf, and a hat are the best for keeping cool in the hot and humid weather.

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Why sunset is better than sunrise at Angkor Wat

Having seen Cambodia's most celebrated monument in two different lights, I was now satisfied and ready to continue with my exploration of Siem Reap's other famous temples. But first, tell me, how do you think sunset at Angkor Wat compares with sunrise? Did you find one experience more gratifying than the other? 


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