A Day on the Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat

Several people told me that one day is enough time for Angkor Wat, especially if you are on a budget. But, Angkor Wat has so many temples divided into two route; small circuit and grand circuit. Wouldn’t I miss a bunch temples if I only went for one day?

Although I was on a budget, I knew that I was me going to want to go back so I purchased the $62 3-day pass ticket in advance. I can tell you now, with a high level of certainty, that ONE DAY is not enough.

Tuk-Tuk vs. Group Tour

My first experience at Angkor Wat was far from perfect with the Onederz Hostel Sunrise Tour. This time, my second day at Angkor Wat, was going to be different. A hostel mate and I decided to privately hire a tuk-tuk driver, instead of opting for another hostel tour, and it was the best decision.

We were able to make contact with my first tuk-tuk driver, Sokea, who I exchanged numbers with upon arriving in Siem Reap. We hired him for the day to take us on the Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat; also known as the outer loop of temples.

Exchanging numbers with Sokea was the BEST decision to have happened during my week in Siem Reap. It not only gave us the freedom we both wanted but allowed us to create our own “tour” experience by selecting which temples we wanted visit.

More Than a Sunrise

Angkor Wat is WAY more than just the famous sunrise. I only knew it from pictures of that famous sunrise over the main temple. But, once I got to Angkor Wat, I realized the importance and the vast history of the grounds and the kingdom.

When I arrived at my hostel, I learned there are commonly two “drives/tours,” you could follow during your visit. On my first visit, I did the Sunrise Petit Circuit tour, which consists of the temples in the inner circle. This time, we decided to do the Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat, or the outer loop, with the sunrise AND sunset option.

Srah Srang

When you hire a tuk-tuk driver, it allows you freedom to choose what you want to do and where you want to visit. It’s always good to have a general idea and discuss it with your driver ahead of time. For us, we both knew we wanted another sunrise, AND we wanted to see the sunset at Angkor Wat.

Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat Srah Srang

When a hostel mate and I were in the initial stages of planning our day, we were sure where we could do sunrise. We did Angkor Wat the day before, so we asked Morl for his recommendation. He mentioned Srah Srang. I had no idea what this was, but he explained that it was the king’s pool. So, at 5 am the next day, Sokea was at Onederz Hostel to pick my hostel mate and me up for sunrise at Srah Srang.

There was a striking difference between the “famous sunrise at Angkor Wat,” and this peaceful, non-crowded, quiet sunrise over a beautiful water reservoir. I think, in total, I may have only counted 10-12 other people at this location.

Best Advice for the Grand Circuit

One thing I remember when my hostel mates and I were talking was about “how to beat the crowds at the temples?” After the overcrowded feel of Ta Prohm, I knew I wanted to beat the crowd, as did my hostel mate.

One piece of advice from a guy at the hostel was, “Do the circuit BACKWARDS!” It was the best advice and something I never would have thought about.

Typically, the circuit begins by leaving Angkor Thom’s North Gate heading towards Preah Khan (Banteay Prei). It continues to Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and ends at Pre Rup. 

Instead, after sunrise, we made our way to Pre Rup Temple. We had the entire temple to ourselves. It was so refreshing compared to the day before’s sardine feel.

Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat

Pre Rup and East Mebon

Pre Rup is a 10th-century Hindu temple, believed to be the sight of funerals. It was built out of combination of brick, laterite, and sandstone, which gives this temple a slight pinkish color.

Upon entering the temple, I was staring onto a grand staircase with a small stone “cistern” placed in front. I felt small among the bricks and towers surrounding me. 

The grand floor plan surrounded me with small towers in every direction. At the top of the stairs stood five towers in a quincunx formation. The quincunx formation has one tower placed in each corner with the final tower in the middle. Each of the towers were built with their own deities to stand guard.

Pre Rup Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat
Pre Rup Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat
Pre Rup Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat

Lcated only a few minutes from Pre Rup lies another temple. This temple, East Mabon, has a similar style of architecture to Pre Rup. When we arrived at East Mabon, we were once again blessed with being the only ones. East Mabon is a 10th-century Hindu temple dedicated to the god, Shiva. It was built in honor of the king’s parents, on an island in the middle of the East Baray. The East Baray was once a body of water but has since dried.

East Mabon

East Mabon is a unique temple, in that it’s precise location was well thought by King Rajendravarman. It’s axises line up with two other temples, Pre Rup and Phimeanakas Temple, located 6,800 meters due west.

It has a similar design to Pre Rup in that a top a small staircase stand 5 towers in the quincunx formation. It is also built out of the same materials as Pre Rup.

It still fascinates me how much thought and planning went into these now-ancient structures at the time of construction. From the perfect placement of the sun behind Angkor Wat to the placement of East Mebon and relationship to the other temples, the king’s vision was able to come to life and remain centuries later.

Ta Som

The next temple on the Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat was Ta Som. Built towards the end of the 12th-century, Ta Som has a similar feel to Ta Prohm, including massive trees growing amongst the ruins. Thought to have been destroyed around the 16th century, this temple remained untouched for many years. 

It’s layout consists of three enclosures each containing a gateway, known as gopuras, and main shrine. Through renovations, the temple was easy to navigate and explore.

We entered the temple grounds to pure silence. I can tell you that these temples have such a different feel to them when you can enjoy them alone.

Ta Som Grand Circut

Neak Pean

Neak Pean is next on the Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat. This particular Hindu temple is very different from others, not only the overall design, but the entrance from the road to the temple is a wooden bridge. It was thought to have been built sometime in the late 12th to early 13th-century, and according to our driver, Neak Pean was built to help cure diseases. 

The plus-sign design of this temple has four connected pools; each one dedicated to an element. In the center of the pools are stone statues of the four great animals; elephant, bull, horse and lion. These animals represent the cardinal directions and protect its coordinating pools.

Neak Pean
Neak Pean

Preah Khan​

Preah Khan was then next temple on the Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat. This temple was far more untouched than any of the other temples we have visited over the past two days.

Built in the 12th century, Preah Khan was a gift and dedication to the king’s father. Its name translates to “holy sword.” This two-story structure, which differs from the one-story Ta Prohm, built for his mother, features massive trees intertwined with the ancient ruins. Due to the difficulty of the growth of vegetation and unknown historical accuracy, Preah Khan has remained mostly untouched from restoration.

Preah Khan Grand Circuit at Angkor
Preah Kean
Preah Khan

Terrace of the Elephants and Baphuon

After Preah Khan, we passed through the North Gate of Angkor Thom and arrived at the Terrace of the Elephants. Terrace of the Elephants was built in the 12th-century as a viewing platform for the king to his army and for ceremonial purposes. It is a perfect place for a mid-day walk, just beware of the monkeys.

We walked the entire length of the terrace, stopping a few times to take in the architecture. We continued onto Baphuon, an 11th-century pyramid style temple built high into the sky. To arrive at Baphuon, you walk on a long, elevated walkway. This walkway ends at the entrance and continues to a set of steep stairs. These stairs are a “must climb.” When you reach the top, the view is breath-taking and one of the best in Angkor.

Angkor Wat Elephant of the Terrace
Angkor Wat Elephant of the Terrace
Angkor Wat Baphun Temple

Before making our way back to our hostel, we made one final stop at Angkor Thom’s Southgate. This particular gate is known for its stone figures aligning the roadway. These figures are on both sides of the gate and engaged in something called “the Churning of the Ocean.”

This famous Hindu myth speaks of the guardian gods pulling the snake Shesha’s head, while the demon gods pull opposite the snake’s tail. It is also considered to be the most preserved section of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

South Gate Angkor Thom

Sunset at Angkor Wat

Even though we finished the Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat around 3pm, my hostel mate and I weren’t ready to be done. You see, early in the day, we had asked Sokea if he would be willing to return us to the hostel for a break. Then, come back closer to sunset and take us back to Angkor Wat.

This was another tip when visiting Angkor Wat that a fellow hostel mate mentioned during one of our nightly hangouts. It is one of the perks of staying at hostels and talk to other travelers, you learn these small tricks and tips.

Sunset at Angkor Wat did not disappoint. It was very refreshing to watch the day end without the thousands of travelers at sunrise. If you are traveling to Angkor Wat, I cannot recommend experience both sunrise and sunset at the main temple.

Sunset at Angkor Wat
Sunset at Angkor Wat

After finishing the Inner Circuit and the Grand Circuit at Angkor Wat in two days, I was ready for a break. I was ready to explore more of the lovely city of Siem Reap. Stay tuned to find out what I did on my day off from Angkor.

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    • Nicole | Mapless Adventures

      Angkor Wat blew me away! I highly recommend a visit! Hopefully travel will bounce back and you’ll be able to go one day!

  • lastminutewanders

    I love the idea of seeing the sunrise at the reservoir and doing the circuit backwards! When I saw the sunrise at Angkor Wat, we left straight afterwards to go to the Bayon temple, thinking that we’d beat the crowds who would probably be exploring Angkor Wat. We did beat them, but we also found that the temple didn’t open until 7.30am! So we had to wait for it to open and our plan was ruined (we were on bicycles so it wasn’t as easy to move on and come back later).
    The whole experience was incredible though! I love the Angkor complex so much, and you’re right – one day is definitely not enough!
    Thanks for the ideas for my next visit 😉

    • Nicole | Mapless Adventures

      Right? The crowds just took a little away from the experience, but just a little. Angkor Wat is still incredible, just more incredible without the crowds.

  • Amber

    This post soooo makes me wanna go to Angkor Wat! Actually I’ve been a bit apprehensive about going because I’ve heard a lot of crazy things about Cambodia but this looks just too beautiful to miss.

    • Nicole | Mapless Adventures

      Don’t be turned off because of what you hear. I absolutely LOVED Cambodia. It is definitely different than other SEA countries, but everything I experienced was truly wonderful. You should add Angkor Wat to your list of places to go, and I can bet you would not be disappointed.

    • Nicole | Mapless Adventures

      That’s a bummer about the food poisoning. Hopefully, you’ll be able to one day go back and experience it without being sick.

  • Karen

    You have some great ideas to avoid the standard tour. I like the idea of doing it backwards and hiring your own tuk tuk driver. Brilliant.

    • Nicole | Mapless Adventures

      Thank you. It was a brilliant piece of advice I must say. Tuk tuk drivers are the way to go!

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