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Monday, January 16, 2017

Tips for Watching and Photographing the Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia

I am not a morning person.  In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of sunrises I have witnessed.  I’m actually struggling to think of more than two, and one of them, sunrise in Monument Valley, Utah, was only because I was able to photograph it from our hotel room balcony in my pajamas.  However, seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat is supposed to be one of those bucket list not-to-be-missed experiences so, with the helpful enthusiasm of Romeo, without which I would have stayed in bed, we woke up before the crack of dawn to photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise.  Here are our Angkor Wat sunrise tips.

The Best Arrival Time to Watch and Photograph the Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Sunrise 5:35 a.m. Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia
Angkor Wat around 5:35 a.m. from the south reflecting pool (but not the best spot for watching the sunrise).
The key to successfully photographing the sunrise at Angkor Wat is to find the best spot.  The only way to find the best spot for photographing the Angkor Wat sunrise is to arrive early.  I mean really early.  Our Viking River Cruises tour guide suggested leaving the hotel at 5:00, as did the hotel concierge.  However, while that time works for watching the sunrise, it’s actually a little late for getting the best spot to photograph the sunrise.  Angkor Wat opens at 5:00 a.m., so we suggest getting there at or before 5:00 a.m. and leaving your hotel by 4:40 a.m. at the latest.

The Best Way to Get to Angkor Wat for Sunrise

The most common and, in our opinion, best way to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise is by tuk tuk.  It was really easy.  All we had to do was go to our hotel’s concierge the afternoon before and ask them to set up a tuk tuk for us at 5:00 a.m. (but ask for it earlier as mentioned above).  When we came downstairs in the morning our tuk tuk was waiting and whisked us off to Angkor Wat. 

The first thing our tuk tuk driver did before we drove away from the hotel was ask us if we had our temple passes.  We did, but we were grateful he asked because it could have been very easy to forget them in the rush to get ready, and how sad that would have been.

South Reflecting Pool Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia
If you do get to Angkor Wat late, the view is still pretty from the south reflecting pool, the sun just won't come up over the temple.
When we arrived at Angkor Wat, I went to pay our tuk tuk driver and then learned that he would actually wait for us and return us back to the hotel, at which time we would pay him.  The total cost for this was $10.  We returned to the parking lot around 7:00 a.m., which by that time had become a sea of tuk tuks, but our driver had told us where he would be parked and he was waiting for us and waving when we returned.  Just to be sure, take note (or a photo) of your driver’s tuk tuk name and number.  Our driver’s tuk tuk was marked Mr. Lorn No. 1.

Another option for getting to Angkor Wat for sunrise is renting a bicycle.  We passed a few bicyclists on our way.  However, we wouldn’t recommend it.  Imagine how early you’d have to wake up to bike to Angkor Wat!

The Best Place to Photograph Angkor Wat at Sunrise

6:45 a.m. Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia
Just before the sun appeared over the top.  Surprisingly, many had already left.
Once you arrive at Angkor Wat, it’s important to get to the best place to photograph the sunrise, and to do so quickly.  You won’t have the luxury of taking your time to find the best spot to watch the Angkor Wat sunrise or to move around.  Romeo was surprised by how many tuk tuks and bicycles were on the road so early in the morning, all heading to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

Upon arrival, you will walk along the Sandstone Cause Way across the Angkor Wat moat and enter through the Angkor Wat Gateway.  You’ll then continue along the walkway until you pass the North Library and South Library on either side.  There will then be two reflecting pools, one on each side of the walkway.  We found the best place to photograph the Angkor Wat sunrise to be at the northwest corner of the north reflecting pool facing Angkor Wat.

There are two reasons why you should visit Angkor Wat a day or two before you plan on visiting for sunrise.  First, you need to have already purchased your temple pass to enter, which is $40 for three days.  Second, you need to have scoped out the area so you can make your way as quickly as possible to your desired spot in the pitch black without breaking an ankle or falling into the water. 

Since we arrived a little later than was best, I was extremely fortunate to find a spot in my anticipated perfect spot, as most people first headed for the center spots along the reflecting pool.  There was already a family of three there and just enough space for me at the water’s edge.  When I asked where I could put my tripod so I wouldn’t be in their way, they were kind enough to let me squeeze in with them and I ended up placing my tripod below the cement step on which we stood straight into the muddy bank of the pond.  A few people joked about my tripod in the mud, but it was stable, out of everyone’s way, and helped me get the best sunrise shots while taking up as little room as possible.

Camera Setup Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia Tripod in the Mud Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia

Be prepared to stand firm to keep your spot.  Late-comers may try to push through and stand in front of you.  You woke up early for your spot, so don’t let them!  We actually didn’t have this problem, thankfully.  One person early on tried to squeeze by me and the daughter of the family I stood with, but we just stood still.  Otherwise, a few people asked to squeeze through just for one photo once the sun had mostly risen and people had started to leave, which we allowed and they very politely took their photo and then moved back again.  However, I have heard tales of people piling rocks in the water so they could stand on the pile or wearing rubber boots so they could wade into the reflecting pool.  I have also heard of people throwing rocks into the pool during sunrise, causing ripples to ruin people’s reflection photos.

The Best Way to Photograph the Angkor Wat Sunrise

North Reflecting Pool Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia

To view sunrise at Angkor Wat, all you need is a pair of eyes to see and a pair of legs to stand on.  If you want a few snapshots of the sunrise once the sun has lit the sky or just as it peaks above the Angkor Wat towers, a cell phone or point-and-shoot camera will work.  However, if you want really good pictures of sunrise from start to finish, a phone or point-and-shoot aren’t quite enough.

I was able to get pretty good pictures with my iPhone starting after 6:00 a.m. when the sun hadn’t quite made an appearance but was lighting up the sky enough for a handheld photo.  But I had already been taking photos with my mirrorless Sony A7ii for half an hour.  Just note that if you will be photographing the Angkor Wat sunrise with a cell phone or point-and-shoot camera, you will be standing around for quite a while with a very pretty view, but one that you will not be able to capture in a photo.

6:09 iPhone photo Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia
Angkor Wat sunrise at 6:09 a.m. on the iPhone.
6:41 a.m. iPhone photo Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia
Angkor Wat sunrise at 6:41 a.m. on the iPhone.
If you do want to use your DSLR or mirrorless camera, your best bet is to bring a tripod.  Interestingly, even when I was able to take photos with my iPhone, I overheard people nearby me with DSLR cameras complaining that they still weren’t able to get a decent shot.  They were all trying to do so with the camera held by hand. 

For the photos included in my time-lapse of the Angkor Wat sunrise, I started just after 5:30 a.m. with the following camera settings: ISO 100, f/4.0, and a 30-second exposure.  As the light in the sky increased, I knocked down the exposure time (eight seconds at 5:45 a.m., 3.2 seconds at 5:50 a.m., and so on).  When the sun was close to appearing over the top of Angkor Wat, I changed the f-stop to 22 as I wanted to get clearly defined sunrays.  At all times my camera was on a tripod and my lens was focused to infinity.  I had worried that I should have brought my wide-angle lens.  However, I was glad I did not, as I ended up using a 35-millimeter focal length in order to crop out the people along the north edge of the reflecting pool, as I was positioned at the very corner.

If you are going to attempt an Angkor Wat sunrise time-lapse, use an app or a remote that opens the shutter at set intervals.  Not only does that make it a lot easier, it also reduces the amount of movement there will be in the photo from pushing the shutter button.  I did not bring my remote, so I was constantly pushing the button at irregular intervals, and my tripod’s position in the mud means there was some movement between shots.  (I used a two-second timer to eliminate shake in the actual photos.)  Luckily, Photoshop can layer the photos and auto align them quite successfully.  It only takes running the program overnight and a lot of patience…. 

Is Watching the Sunrise Over Angkor Wat Worth It

Starburst Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia

If hundreds, if not over a thousand or more, people are waking up at an ungodly hour every morning to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, it must be worth it, right?  Some might think it an awfully touristy thing to do.  I wouldn’t have put up a fight if Romeo hadn’t been into it, as sleep is precious to me.  However, as soon as tiny bits of light started to appear, revealing the dark outline of Angkor Wat, my heart started to beat a little faster and I was so glad we had made the effort.  So yes, if you are a fan of beauty and seeing something you just cannot see every day, watching the Angkor Wat sunrise is absolutely worth it.

However, sometimes conditions can make seeing the Angkor Wat sunrise not as epic on some days as on others.  We were extremely fortunate that, even though it was cloudy, the clouds were just high enough to see the actual sunrise above Angkor Wat, even though it only made an appearance for four minutes before disappearing behind the clouds.  If the sky is completely covered in low clouds and haze, the Angkor Wat sunrise may not be quite so spectacular.

Be sure to stick around for the sun to actually appear above the temple if it is clear enough.  I was very surprised by the number of people that had cleared out before that even happened.

Crowds Angkor Wat Sunrise Tips Siem Reap Cambodia
Who says watching the sunrise with hundreds of others isn't romantic?
Bottom line, if you’re thinking of watching or photographing the Angkor Wat sunrise, the early morning wake up, slightly chilly tuk tuk ride, mass march through pitch black, and view of one very romantic sunrise accompanied by a couple thousand strangers is well worth it.  Hopefully, our Angkor Wat sunrise tips will make it as painless as possible.

Thank you to Viking River Cruises for hosting us on their Magnificent Mekong tour through Vietnam and Cambodia and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are our own.  This article contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through them, it costs you nothing extra and we earn a small commission which goes towards funding this website and our travels so we can bring you more travel stories.
Travel the World: Angkor Wat sunrise tips including what time to go, how to get there,the best spot, and tips for taking photos.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.