In my last few posts, I gave you some tips for traveling to Siem Reap and within the Angkor Wat temple complex. Today I tackle how to snag the ultimate unicorn: the elusive Angkor Wat sunrise photo. Many have tried to capture it, but here is what you need to know in order to bag your own Angkor Wat sunrise trophy.
Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips
When to go. Expect to be up before the crack of dawn if you will be photographing sunrise at Angkor Wat. I cannot understate how crazy the crowds are at the main temple. Angkor Wat is at the top of the list of once-in-a-lifetime destinations for thousands of people. While they may or may not be seeing all the temples in the Angkor Wat complex, the one thing each of them will be doing is arriving for sunrise at the main temple. So you have to be prepared. If the sun rises at 6:00 a.m., then you must arrive at the temple with ticket in hand no later than 5:15 AM in order to stake out your spot. The guides in Siem Reap pride themselves on getting their personal pack of tourists to the best sunrise locations before everyone else. If you want to beat the local guides, you have to get there first. You need to take into account how long it will take to get to Angkor Wat from your hotel. It takes longer to drive in a tuk tuk than it does in a regular automobile, so add time to whatever Google maps says.
Get your ticket ahead of time. On my first day at Angkor Wat, I – like all the other tourists – had to first purchase my temple pass. That requires a trip to the Angkor Wat Visitor’s Center, which is a 15-minute drive from Angkor Wat. You have to have your ticket before you can enter the temple. The guards check at every entrance at sunrise.
My tuk tuk driver knew to get me to the Visitor’s Center bright and early. When we arrived, I was one of the first people through the door. I stood in line for the seven-day ticket, and was the first one to receive that ticket. As you can see, however, the lines for the three- and four-day tickets filled up almost instantly. Not many people buy a seven-day ticket, so I had a ticket seller all to myself. But if you are planning to purchase a ticket for less than seven days, expect the line to be instantly long. Even if you arrive early, plan for a 30-minute wait. This means that you may end up missing sunrise. Prepare ahead of time, and if possible, purchase your tickets the day before you plan to photograph the sunrise. Please note, however, that tickets purchased up to 5:00 p.m. are valid beginning from the date of purchase. If you would like to purchase a ticket for the following day, then you need to purchase your ticket after 5:00 p.m. Yes, the Cambodians are sticklers for rules.
9VGM+J3 Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Hours: 5:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Tickets may be purchased by cash (US dollar or Cambodian riel) or credit card
On-site ATM is available
Here are the ticket prices as of August 2018:
- 1-day pass – US $37
- 3-day pass – US $62
- 7-day pass – US $72
Where to stand. In terms of where to stand for sunrise, there are two schools of thought. The majority of people online will tell you that the left pond at the entrance to Angkor Wat is your best view of sunrise because it is unobstructed by trees. The other school, which I ascribe to, favors the right pond. I should tell you upfront that the term ‘pond’ is a bit misleading. During the rainy season, the ponds in front of Angkor Wat are filled with water and provide a beautiful reflection of the towers. When I visited in February, the ponds were all but dried up. There wasn’t much reflection to speak of, but what little water was present was more plentiful on the right side. I did not find the trees to be too much of a hindrance, and in fact think they add something to the view. The trick is that you need to be positioned perfectly in the middle of the pond so that you have a view through the trees to the Angkor Wat towers.
Regardless of how much water is in the pond, you will want to park yourself directly on the edge of the pond. If you brought a tripod, positioning is even more crucial. Most importantly, if you get to the edge of the pond first, then you get to SIT and watch the sunrise. If the crowds beat you to the pond, then you will be standing the entire time. And remember that you have an hour (plus!) to wait for the sun to be visible. Again, there will be hundreds of people and if you get there late, they will all be standing in front of you. When that happens, the most you can hope for is to hold up your cell phone and pray you get a good snapshot.
No leaving your spot for any reason. If you get up and leave for any reason, your seat will be taken. Trust me, I did it on my second sunrise to a tourist who had the perfect spot in front of me at the pond. He left, and I snatched that spot before it even turned cold. I am shameless. To get the perfect spot, you have to hold on to it.
Bring your breakfast and entertainment with you. You’ll be waiting a solid hour before the sun peeks over the horizon; bring something to occupy your time and to eat. For the days I planned an early sunrise, I went to the convenience store in Siem Reap the night before and brought along a packaged breakfast and coffee in a can. One of the best breakfasts I had, and one that packed easily, was a streetside banana crepe. They are delicious the next day. Also, bring some postcards to write or a travel journal.
Bring a flashlight. I learned this lesson the hard way. When you arrive at Angkor Wat, it will be pitch black. The temple is not lit, and you will be finding your way in the dark. Bring a flashlight so that you can save your cell phone battery, which you will need for the map GPS later in the day.
Take advantage of the calm before the storm. Those crowds will disappear magically once the sun has risen. The non-photographers among you will be headed back to their plush hotels for a hearty breakfast. Put that time to work, and make sure you climb to the top of the Bakan, or main sanctuary, before the masses return. The line for the Bakan can reach around the temple, so get that out of the way first. The view is nice from the top, but not spectacular. There are some interesting chapels within the structure that are worth photographing, however.
Know where your driver will be. If you are meeting your tuk tuk driver after you explore Angkor Wat, know exactly where to meet. Your driver will drop you off in the dark, so after the sun rises everything will look different. Angkor Wat does have limited cell service, so call or text your driver to confirm your pick up location and time.
Go more than once. To get the best sunrise, increase your chances by visiting more than once. I was there twice for sunrise, and on my second visit got more creative with my shots while I was waiting for the sun to rise.
A tripod isn’t necessary. Bring a tripod if you want, but know that you will need to be on the edge of the pond and that absolutely requires you to be one of the first people there. Personally, I did not bring a tripod and did not feel it was necessary. I was sitting down for both sunrises, and braced my camera against my knees. The sun coming up over the main towers will cause them to be backlit, so if you are dying for details in the earliest stages of sunrise, then by all means truck along a tripod.
Be prepared for smog. When I visited Siem Reap in February, there was a constant haze of pollution that prevented any clear shots. I got close one day at Phnom Bakheng with some cloud formations that were spectacular, but that’s about it. There’s not much you can do, except adjusting your clarity levels in Lightroom during post-production.
Pay attention to the story going on around you. Sometimes the most interesting story is what’s going on behind-the-scenes. These are a few of the photos I took of my fellow tourists, as we sat there waiting for the sun to make an appearance.
Get creative. If you are sitting on the edge of the pond alongside everyone else, you are all going to be taking the same exact photo. While sitting there for an hour, I took the opportunity to challenge myself to see how I could mix it up with my shots. Try to outdo your Instagram brethren by taking a different perspective from the same perspective.
Angkor Wat Sunrise Alternatives
Angkor Wat is not the only game in town for sunrise. You can get a temple-by-temple breakdown in my blog post here, but know that the other main spots for sunrise are as follows:
Srah Srang offers a beautiful, sweeping sunrise over a pond and has the advantage of having more space to spread out and explore. The temple gets crowded towards the stairs going into the pond, but you’ve got the entire edge of the pond at your disposal to position yourself for sunrise. Take advantage of the trees and wandering puppies that you find in the area.
Phnom Bakeng was one of my best sunrises when I was in Siem Reap. You’ve got a 30-minute walk to the top of the temple, but it’s worth it. The view, if you have the right clouds, is breathtaking. Smog is always a factor, but you should be able to see Angkor Wat from the top of Phnom Bakeng.
It’s not so much that sunrise is beautiful from Ta Prohm; it’s that you want to beat the crowds here. Morning light drifting into the temple is lovely.
As with Ta Prohm, it’s not so much that you can see a perfect sunrise from this temple as the fact that morning light looks loveliest here. This smaller version of Ta Prohm should be a morning priority.
Coming up in the next blog: I think it’s time to cross the border into Vietnam and check out the river markets of Can Tho.
If you would like to see more images from my travel portfolio, then please visit my website – www.Kelly-Williams.com