Angkor Wat at sunrise

Heads up–I’m going to talk about photography a bit in this post.  Feel free to skim and just look at the pretty pictures.

**Disclaimer–numbers/sunrise times were applicable during my visit in early May 2014.  Depending on when you read this, it may no longer hold true.  Sunrise will also vary depending on time of year**

I freely admit that going on vacation to relax and enjoy myself….and then get up at 4am TWICE out of my four mornings to sleep in is borderline insanity.  But there is an iconic image of Angkor Wat that I wanted to shoot and make my own, and I was willing to suffer for it.

My hotel told me that “sunrise” tuktuk rentals were from 5am until 7:30.  I asked and was told this would leave plenty of time to get my pass and arrive for sunrise.  Which was sort of true in the general sense, but not in the photographer’s world.

In order to visit the temples, you need a visitors pass.  I bought the 3 day pass for 40USD.  The pass is purchased at the main entry point for Angkor Wat.  Be aware that only USD and only cash are accepted and prepare accordingly.  If you need money-there are atm’s in Siem Reap, and your hotel will be able to break the larger bills as most shops won’t take anything above a 10.  USD is the primary currency in Cambodia, but only bills.  Change will be dispensed in Cambodian Riel (at the time of writing 1 USD was roughly 4,000 Riel).

Angkor passWhile the pass won’t have your name on it, it will have your picture.  I don’t take a great picture at 5am and having only just showered.  It’s also a turn and smile and over, no retakes.  So be prepared that this will not be a terribly flattering picture.

By the time I left the hotel on Saturday morning, arrived and bought my pass and then got to the front gate of Angkor Wat it was 5:30-5:45 am.  The colors in the sky had been perfect as we drove toward it.  When I arrived at Angkor Wat on that first day, I wasted time taking this admittedly gorgeous shot.


This is outside the main gate.  I still had to hike to the gate, and then down the reflecting pool, which took another 5+ minutes.  While this is beautiful, this is the last moments before the perfect dawn shot with the sky all pink and blue and purple disappears.


This was the sky by the time I got there.  I did try to mess around a bit with my ISO and the exposure, but it really didn’t work out well.  I had missed the best light.

IMG_3886I did, however, get this shot of myself, so it’s not all bad.

I went back to my tuktuk driver, and headed back to the hotel for breakfast.  I took a shower and then met with my guide and headed out for the day (which will be another post/s).

Worth noting–if you’re just going out for the sunrise, get a tuktuk.  It’s still cool enough that the ride is enjoyable (as opposed to later in the day when it’s just so hot–again, something I’ll talk about in another post).  However, as the sun comes up, the temperature rose rapidly enough that my glasses fogged over a bit as I lingered by the water (6-6:30am).

On Sunday–Mother’s Day–I decided against the early wake up.  They were predicting rain later in the day, and no one seemed confident that sunrise would be all that impressive.  So on Monday, my last full day in Siem Reap, I gave it another shot.

This time, I already had my temple pass and wouldn’t need to waste time on it.  I also left my hotel around 4:50 in the morning so that I would be at the temple for 5am.  People were already there at 5:05 when I got there–and if I were to do it again, I might leave as early as 4:30.  Bring a flashlight (or use a flashlight app, as I did).  While the sky will be lighting up, the ground will be dark.  It is uneven and you will get injured if you attempt it alone.

At 5:05, the main entry was closed off, but the side doors were open once you reach the main gate (they check your temple pass at the bridge going over the moat).  Use the one on the left if you want the reflecting pool shot, which is the classic shot.

This time I got a number of good shots.

IMG_4846This was the sky as I arrived and finished setting up my tripod.  Let’s say 5:15am.

IMG_48825:20ish am.  This is one of the shots I’m considering framing.  This is the sky I wanted–all blue and and pink and beautiful against the outline of the temple, with the reflection in the pool.  (Tip–use your exposure lock on the sky, not the temple.)

IMG_48905:30ish am.  The light was disappearing and the best was already past.

Is it crazy to get up just to see the sunrise?  Yes, yes it is.  You’re there before the market next to the temple is open.  Before the touts and temple kids are trying to sell you stuff.  But if you are a photographer and you want this sort of shot, that is what it took for me to get it.

I will say, though, that if/when I go back to Siem Reap, I don’t think I’ll be doing this again, unless I have a new skill set to try out with it.  I’ve heard that filters can make shooting sunrise (and sunset) more intense.

(I use a Canon D600 DSLR camera, and I was using an 18-135mm lens)

My sunrise shots are mixed in with my full set of Angkor Wat photos here.

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2 Responses to Angkor Wat at sunrise

  1. Jen says:

    Nice! Gorgeous photos!
    Angkor Wat is one of the places I’ve always wanted to go to but haven’t been to yet.

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