Within Angkor Archaeological Park
Daily, 5am – 7pm (open for sunrise/sunset tours)
Admission: Included in Angkor Pass ($37/$62/$72)
Washroom On Site: No
An extremely popular hill temple with a strict visitor quota that can make it feel like an exclusive club. When you get inside, however, you may be unimpressed.
A small site in the busiest part of Angkor Park, Phnom Bakheng rises sharply to 79 metres over the surrounding flatland like a cystic pimple. One of three hilltop temples (Phnom Krom by Tonle Sap and Phnom Bok being the others), it’s the one with arguably the best view from its upper tiers. Given that the other hill temples are so far away, Bakheng’s ideal and convenient location in the middle of Angkor Park gives tourists an experience that they otherwise wouldn’t get to have.
You will be dropped off at the base of the hill. Surely you weren’t expecting your tuk tuk driver to motor around the hill so you could roll up to Bakheng like it’s Saturday night? If the thought of walking at a gentle incline turns you into a sobbing mess like Kevin Malone from The Office when he has to walk from the parking lot that is half a mile away, there is hope for you, my slothful friend.
To the left of where you would begin your ascent, some elephants should be standing around doing elephant stuff. If you’re like me, you’ve probably already noticed them from the road and got giddy to finally see one of these gentle giants with your own eyes. Phnom Bakheng elephant rides are an attraction in and of itself, much of the customer base coming from anyone obsessed with chasing Instagram likes.
The elephant ride at Phnom Bakheng is double the fun: not only do you get to ride an elephant, but the beast will also take you all the way to the steps of Bakheng. That’s right, this dutiful creature does the walk for you, hauling not only its own gargantuan weight but yours as well. Until they install an escalator at Phnom Bakheng, this is the only way you’re escaping the climb.
If the elephants are absent, it likely just means they are all “working” at the moment and will return shortly. There will be a small table in front of the elephants where you pay and can inquire how long to wait. The rides cost $20 (USD) per person.
We didn’t ride as $40 is pretty steep, but Mark came up with a brilliant hack. If all you want is a photo of yourself riding an elephant that is sure to have all your followers jizzing, pay for just yourself to ride, and have your companion walk beside the elephant during the journey while taking pictures and video. It makes sense because if you both got on, you’ll never get a picture of yourself and the elephant. Although the elephant path is hidden, pedestrians are allowed on it – Mark and I took this path down from Phnom Bakheng, and no one seemed bothered. There. I just saved you $20.
For those who choose the human way up, the journey begins with a few stairs before transitioning into a dirt path through the jungle. Some sections of the trail are quite flat and you’ll barely notice the slope, but other parts will leave you huffing. Along the way, there are a couple of viewing platforms with benches where you can rest. The view isn’t of much – mostly trees and a stretch of water in the distance. We came here around 4pm, and the trail was a bit buggy at that time, so pack some bug spray if you have it. The walk up to Phnom Bakheng shouldn’t take you long – 20 to 30 minutes if you spend some time at the lookouts.
It’s what’s after the hike up that could be the real meat of your day. Phnom Bakheng has become a “must-see” for most tourists, with countless guides singing praises for this hill temple and how your visit to Siem Reap is nothing if you don’t see Phnom Bakheng. Due to its extreme popularity, Bakheng is now one of the most threatened sites in Angkor. The monstrous volume of tourists climbing its stairs and parking themselves on its terrace every single day is jeopardizing the condition and stability of the architecture. Lose some weight, people! Bakheng is literally crumbling under your fat ass! Non-profits and the Cambodian government are fervently trying to preserve it – one method being to restrict how many visitors are on the temple at one time.
As you approach, curving rope barriers will snake their way to a tent. New temple rules state that, currently, only 300 visitors can be up on Bakheng at any given time. 300 sounds like a lot – I mean, 300 Spartans held off thousands of Persians – but even they would be overwhelmed by the unrelenting menace that is… the dreaded bus tour. Bus tours will constantly stop here, and all those people will quickly eat into that 300 person quota. This number might have changed by the time you read this. It might be less now, or maybe the temple is closed entirely as a temporary measure. The length of the queue greatly depends on the time of day and your own luck. Either way, be civilised and line up quietly like the good little tourist you are. Unless you’ve made the critical error of coming at a certain time, you’ll get your turn (finish reading this article to find out what time that is!).
When you get to the front of the line, you will be given a pass that you hold on to until you leave, at which point you give it back. There are a total of 300 passes on rubberised lanyards to give out, and once they have all been distributed, no one else is going up on Bakheng until someone comes down. Passes are given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so don’t assume you can book a time online or get your wimpier friend to wait in line and collect a pass for you.
A few steep stairs later (you should be used to these by now!) and you will have made it to Phnom Bakheng! Similar to Pre Rup, five gopuras will stand in a quincunx arrangement. They’re made of drab sandstone and are in various states of deterioration. I only witnessed one of the towers with some carvings still intact on its lintel and colonettes, but parts of them had broken off. Nobody comes here for the architecture, and their stubby stance will not get a second glance from visitors.
Let’s get to the view – the thing people are apparently willing to get up at 5am and hike up a hill for. Sweeping 360-degree views of Angkor Park sprawl out from under you. You are, at this moment, the tallest thing in the area. There’s decent space on Phnom Bakheng for you to wander around and duck behind gopuras to sneak peeks from all the directions. Most notable are the towers of Angkor Wat which can be spotted to the south.
Quite honestly, for the trouble and queuing it takes to get here, the view is exceedingly underwhelming. That’s just my opinion, but let me get into the details. Being 79m high, the view is indeed unobstructed. There’s not exactly going to be any condominiums in the way here, but there may actually be some cranes as preservation works occur. One fact is for sure: there is a hell of a lot of trees.
This is the only time when the lushness of Cambodia works against you. Similar to Phnom Bok, in every direction, there will be a cluster of thick foliage right in front of you. Most of the tourists were gathered in two spots: facing north towards Angkor Thom’s moat or facing Angkor Wat. Both groups were mostly staring at trees. There were only small breaks in the forest where Angkor Wat or the water could be glimpsed. In the case of Angkor Wat, the treeline obscures the tower on the right and you can’t even see the entire thing!
You can see lots of skies, which I guess is the whole point of watching a sunrise/sunset, but do you really need to come all the way here to see the sky? If the classic image of a blazing half sun resting on the earth is your goal, you can see the horizon despite the thicket. Remember that the important direction to get your shot is east or west. Whereas north and south have actual scenery, when you face east or west it’s just open plains with (what else?) an abundance of trees.
The thing about good sunrises and sunsets is that they are fickle and hard to predict. So many factors can turn one into a dull anti-climax: too many clouds, not enough clouds, too much wind, too much humidity, and other environmental factors that can change in an instant. The day could be heading into a gorgeous sunset, but then a sudden shift in wind can severely affect its aesthetic. The average person doesn’t know the ideal conditions for a picturesque dawn/dusk or takes note of the atmosphere during the day (other than “it’s bloody hot”). Many people blindly flock to Phnom Bakheng expecting breathtaking orange and purple clouds lighting up the entire sky, but the reality is that sometimes it’s just a bland grey with a strip of orange under that one cloud on the horizon.
In hindsight, I don’t know how we got so lucky as to arrive with no queue and immediately be able to stroll in. We reached the entrance tent at 4:20pm based on the timestamps of our photos, and already there were scores of visitors on top of Bakheng staking out their spots for sunset. They were stretched out on the terrace, sitting on steps, and being propped up by the gopuras. It was easy to pick out the sunset-watchers: a common feature in almost every one of them was that they looked bored.
They had been here for God knows how long at this point, getting in early to avoid the disappointment of not getting a visitor pass. They were resting their eyes, killing time on their phones or watching YouTube. There’s something not right about purposefully wasting time on YouTube when you’re on a holiday.
They still had over an hour to wait at this point, and I just felt sorry for them. There was a good chance it could have been a shit sunset, but yet here they remain because I’m sure most felt like this was something they “had” to do, or they were just doing it for their Instagram. I feel like the entirety of Phnom Bakheng is just for the ‘Gram. Guides and influencers rub heavily filtered photos in our face, so you go and try to recreate the experience. It’s not as spectacular as what was advertised but you have to continuously tell yourself that it’s going to be awesome because you went through all the trouble of getting here.
These people were sacrificing their time and mobile data when they could’ve been doing any of the other nice things one can do at this time: enjoying a beer on a patio back in Siem Reap, taking an evening dip in their hotel pool, or shopping the markets. Like many others here, I couldn’t tell if it was going to be a good sunset. Unlike the others here, I was not wasting two hours to find out.
As we were leaving Bakheng around 4:45pm, the line to get in had exploded. The rack that held the 300 visitor passes was bare and empty. It had now become the hour of the high-stakes tourist-swap. Many of those in line saw us descending and probably thought “finally!”, a jolt of adrenaline shooting through them knowing that they were now two notches closer to going up. Though, when I was up there it didn’t look like anyone was leaving soon. Why would they at this point? As it gets closer and closer to dusk, everyone who goes up is not coming back down until it’s dark. I don’t know how those at the end of the queue ever expected to get in.
We are the type of people who don’t like to re-trace the same path if we can avoid it, so we went down the hill via the elephant path. Turn left when you descend the stairs to get onto this route. Like I mentioned earlier, no rule says that pedestrians are not allowed here but yield to any elephants that are passing. Before you get too far into the walk, you’ll be able to spot Angkor Wat again. Ironically, I think the view is even better from here because you’ve passed the treeline that is blocking the view at the top of Bakheng. If you want to be clever, you could try and watch the sunrise or sunset from here, but remember that the best colours (if they happen) will not be in this direction.
Overall, I think Phnom Bakheng is a nice place to get a view of Angkor Wat, which you will not be able to see like this from anywhere else. If you have no intention to go to the other faraway hill temples, then at least you can say you’ve been to one after coming here and see Angkor from a different perspective. This is also one of the only places that offer the unique experience of riding an elephant. Come and visit for these reasons, but personally, I don’t see the logic in a sunrise or sunset tour. When it comes down to it, it’s just a sunrise/set. They happen every day! Coming here specifically for them is gambling a large portion of your time for an unknown payoff.
When to Visit
Considering how many tourists want to do sunrise tours, especially during the peak season, I honestly don’t know how anyone gets access to Phnom Bakheng in the morning. It officially opens at 5am, which probably means you need to start queuing at 4am, or potentially earlier. You can do the math on what time you need to get up at. Yuck. If you want to catch a sunrise or sunset at Phnom Bakheng, you will likely have to commit 2 to 3 hours of your life here, with the majority of that time waiting.
Maybe sleep is more precious than oxygen to you, and you think that a sunset visit is the way to go. After everything I’ve mentioned, if you’re still gung-ho about sunset and want the minimum amount of waiting, the best approach is a casual one: you’ll try, but if it doesn’t happen, you can try again another day. Phnom Bakheng has the advantage of being in such a convenient location – use it. We arrived shortly after 4pm (in the off-season) and we could easily get access. If you do the same and are lucky, that leaves “only” two hours that you need to kill.
Waiting sucks. Every minute you spend waiting on your vacation is a minute that you could’ve been doing something else more awesome. If you’re going to be stuck in this situation, make the most of it. Instead of wasting time on social media, enjoy the view! You’re never going to be back here, so you should appreciate the scenery even if the clock says it’s not time to do so yet. You can try to meditate, have a nice conversation with your travel companion or the other visitors at Phnom Bakheng. They’re all certainly just as bored as you. It’s important to have zero expectations as well. After all that effort and waiting, the sunrise/sunset might still suck, and there’s no point in being bitter about it.
If it is after 5pm by the time you’ve reached the queuing area, there’s no way in hell you’re going up to Bakheng that evening. To salvage your visit, you can always watch the sunset at the viewing platform that is not far from the entrance tent. You will have passed it if you walked up the hill on the regular path.
I would suggest not being a slave to time. If you visit after the sunrise rush at about 7am or 8am, there should be a steady flow of tourists leaving. The angle of the sun will also provide some shade next to the gopuras. It should be a similar situation between lunch and 3:30pm. At this hottest point of the day, everyone visiting Phnom Bakheng just wants a few snaps of the view and will leave. After 3:30pm is when the sunset chasers show up, and the outflow of visitors will gradually slow down until it is at a standstill.