Angkor Wat sunrise sits comfortably high in many bucket lists, including mine. That’s why the prime focus of my latest trip to Asia was to visit the legendary Siem Reap temples and enjoy the most famous sunrise there is. Yes, the greeting the sunrise at Angkor Wat is a very popular activity, it’s so popular that it turns 5 AM to the busiest time in the temple.
Been that popular, it should be easy to get the perfect Angkor Wat sunrise photo, right? Well, it’s not. Even though I had researched the place throughout, I almost missed catching the iconic photo! After getting to the wrong pond, setting my tripod on the wrong side and almost leaving before the actual sun comes out, I was adamant I need to write an Angkor Wat sunrise guide to help every other traveler/photographer to get that sweet Angkor Wat photo.
Before we get to the details, let’s learn a bit more about the place you’re about to sacrifice your sleep
What is Angkor Wat
Located about six kilometers (four miles) north of Siem Reap, the Angkor Archeological Complex was home to various capitals of the mighty Khmer Empire. Thriving from the 9th to the 15th centuries, Khmers ruled over an empire that stretched from Myanmar to Vietnam. Nowadays, the complex covers an area of more than 1000 square kilometers (400 square miles), and it’s the among the most important and well preserved archeological sites in Asia.
The Grand Temple of the complex – Angkor Wat, was built in the early 12th century, initially as a spiritual home for the Hindu god Vishnu but later transformed into a Buddhist temple. With its magnificent ancient-stone spires, beautiful ornaments and picturesque silhouette it’s no wonder that Angkor Wat is not just one of the hundreds of temples in the area but a masterpiece relic of human history revered strongly enough to be on the national flag of Cambodia and on their money.
Angkor Wat Sunrise Spots
Let’s get to the point now. There are a few spots to make a gorgeous photo and one ultimate place where you can take the iconic sunrise photo.
The left reflecting pool in front of the temple (aka the ultimate spot)
The good news is, the place is picture perfect with clear reflection and symmetric view of Angkor Wat and its towers. It even has some natural palm frame. The bad news is – everybody knows about it, and there is a fight for the front row spots. There are literally thousands of people on the left pond making it extremely hard to get to the front row and ruining every chance for a tranquil sunrise.
The right reflecting pool
If you arrive late or you don’t want to fight the hordes of tourist on the left pool the best alternative is the right pool. The view won’t be as symmetrical as the other one, but since there are way fewer people there, the experience will be more peaceful and hassle-free. A bonus of the right reflection pool shot is that you can hide the Angkor Wat left
In love with Angkor Wat? See more of the beautiful Siem Reap temples:
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On the right side of the left reflection pool (aka arrived to late spot)
If you’re too late for a front row place on the left reflection pool, you can go in its top right corner. You need a wide angle lens, and you won’t have the gorgeous pond reflection, but you’ll get a good composition of the spires with some palm trees in the corners.
Other Angkor Temples Sunrise Spots
Even though there are dozens of temples in the area, all but a few of them opens at 7:30 AM ruling them out as potential sunrise spots. The few chosen ones beside Angkor Wat are Pre Rup, Phnom Bakheng and the reservoir that used to be a royal bathing pool – Sras Srang.
This temple is located on a hill close to the main temple, and it’s more popular as a sunset photo spot, but it works for sunrise too. Since you can see Angkor Wat in the distance, it’s not a bad place to catch a mystic photo with morning mist around the temple and the dense jungle around it. Make sure you bring your best telephoto lenses though, cause Angkor Wat is quite far in the distance. If you intend to take pictures with a phone, Phnom Bakheng is not your place.
Not really a temple but more like a lake. If you catch a picturesque sky with some interesting clouds, you can make a kick-ass reflection photo there. If you’re a sunrise chaser that’s not looking that much into the photo opportunities but more of the peaceful, tranquil experience – this is your spot.
Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips
How to Get the best Angkor Wat sunrise photo
– Reserve More Than a Day
If you really really want to have that perfect picture, plan more than one sunrise days. Even if you get the best spot from the first try, you can never guess what sky you’re gonna get and having more than one shot at it gives higher chances for a top-notch photo.
– Don’t go on Your First Day
If you need to get your pass (which is bought at a different location and opens at 5 AM), you’re gonna be too late for the best spots. Get your entry ticket the day before and maybe even go for a walk around Angkor Wat to get to know the area.
– Make Sure you’re at the Correct Pond
So, yeah, going to the wrong lake is something I did…In my defense, there are two bigger ponds just outside Angkor Wat that can easily confuse a first-time visitor. Make sure you go to the small left reflection pond inside the temple grounds!
– Go Early
Not just early – very early. Leave your hotel at 4:30 to make sure you’re one of the first people who enter the Angkor Wat area (that opens at 5:00 AM)
Use the correct bridge
This again may seem like an obvious one, but when it’s that early in the morning, everything is dark, and you rely solely on google maps (or whichever map app you use). And on google maps, there is one distinctive bridge that appears to be the entrance to Angkor Wat. Well, it may have been, a few hundred years ago, but today it’s closed, and there is another, floating one, on it’s right. Make sure to go there before 5:00 AM to be among the first ones inside.
– Find the Right Position at the Pool
You think you get that one covered since you’ve taken thousands of photos and can easily find the right spot? That’s what I thought. But surprise surprise, at 5:00 it’s still dark, and you can’t see the Angkor towers so finding the best spot is tricky at best. The first spot I took was in the center side of the pond, but when it got a little brighter, I found out a palm is blocking one of the spires, so I had to move to the left and lose my
– Use Long exposure
To get the very best out of every sunrise or sunset, you need to learn to use the long exposure technique. The idea behind it is that you leave the shutter open for a long time so the camera can catch all the lights around and produce a clear and bright photo. If there are moving clouds or water, it gives them a nice foggy look too. While the shutter is open, every little move or
Here’s a video tutorial that will teach you more about the long exposure technique
– Mind the lilies
When choosing your position consider where are the lilies in the pool. One of the things that make the Angkor Wat sunrise photo perfect is the beautiful reflection, and you don’t want some lilies to cover it.
– Take vertical photos
Taking vertical photos at Angor Wat makes it hard to get all of the towers inside the frame, but if you plan to post the picture on Facebook or Instagram, the vertical one will look so much better. Especially on the phone screens!
– Wait until the sun comes out
This is an error I saw a lot of people do (I almost did it too). You start your shooting around 5:30 when the golden hour starts and the light is soft and warm. At 6:00 – 6:15 the sky becomes full-time lovely pink/purple/orange color, and everybody is like “Wooow“. At 6:30 – 6:45 it’s already pretty bright, and the sky is not as colorful as before, so the crowds leave the reflection pond and start entering the temple. Don’t follow them! Wait around half an hour more, and the sun will begin slowly to peek behind the temple! Beautiful photo opp that may result in a better picture than the colorful-sky one you took earlier.
Get yourself Lightroom or other post-processing software and get out all the colors your camera captured. Don’t worry, post-processing your photo is not cheating, and it doesn’t mean you’re making a fake photo.
– What to bring
Make sure you let your hotel knows you’re going for the sunrise so they can prepare your breakfast to go. Besides that, you need clothes that cover your shoulders and knees (especially if you’re a woman), a tripod (a small gorilla tripod will do, but you need to make sure you get a prime spot), an ND filter (to make the long exposure longer) and if you plan to use a phone – a selfie stick. Not to take selfies but to lift it above the crowd when taking your Angkor Wat sunrise photo (you can do some selfies later too).
How to Visit Angkor Wat
To visit Angkor Wat, you need to make your way to the town of Siem Reap. You can do it by bus or by plane (the city does have an international airport)
Siem Reap is used to having a large number of tourist, so you won’t have trouble finding everything you need including prepaid travel sim cards and all type of food joints.
Where to Stay in Siem Reap
Golden Temple Villa
Just 800 meters from the tourist center of the town, the Golden Temple Villa offers spacious well-designed rooms, a spacious pool that will help you survive the Cambodian heat, a free airport shuttle and the best of all – free complimentary massage!
Check out the latest prices
Traditional Home Stay
Another interesting option you can book via Airbnb is this traditional Khmer house. There is no better way for an authentic Cambodian experience than staying in one of those. By booking this homestay, you’ll also get a local tuk-tuk driver and a friendly host that will cook for you traditional Cambodian dishes!
Want to explore more options in Siem Reap?
See the best hotels in town with a tasty breakfast and free wi-fi
How to get around Siem Reap and the Angkor complex
Driving a car inside the complex is forbidden to foreigners, but you may rent a bike if you like. I don’t recommend it though since the distances are long and the Cambodian sun is relentless!
Best way to navigate around the city and the Angkor complex is to hire a tuk-tuk for the day. The price is between 20$ and 30$ (per pax) per day, and you can direct your driver to take you anywhere you want. There are thousands of tuk-tuks in Siem Reap, so you won’t have troubles finding one.
If you want a nice reliable drive you can communicate with before you even arrive in Cambodia, reach out to Mr. Sok. He speaks excellent English, drives carefully and will give you insider tips about all the temples you visit. If he is not available, he will send one of his friends. I can personally recommend Mr. Thorn who not only was always on time and drove very carefully but also, after every temple visit, he was waiting for us with a bottle of cold water and wipes. Getting a tuk-tuk this way won’t only guarantee your perfect experience but will also ensure your tourist money goes to the local people of Siem Reap and not some local boss!
To reach Mr.Sok, add him as a friend on Facebook first and then write a message (this way you can be sure the message will be seen and not sent into the “others” inbox that nobody ever checks).
That’s all from me, I hope you shot the perfect Angkor Wat sunrise photo!
If you haven’t planned your trip there yet, find out how I plan my trips!
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