Back in the early days of tourism, the decision of what to see and in what order came down to a choice between two basic temple itineraries: the Small (Petit) Circuit and the Big (Grand) Circuit. It’s difficult to imagine anyone following these to the letter any more, but in their time they were an essential component of the Angkor experience and were often undertaken on the back of an elephant.
Today, most budget and midrange travellers prefer to take in the temples at their own pace, and tend to use a combination of transport options, such as car, remork, bicycle or minivan. Plan a dawn-to-dusk itinerary with a long, leisurely lunch to avoid the heat of the midday sun. Alternatively, explore the temples through lunch, when it can be considerably quieter than during the peak morning and afternoon visit times. However, it will be hot as hell and the light is not conducive to photography.
The 17km Small Circuit begins at Angkor Wat and heads north to Phnom Bakheng, Baksei Chamkrong and Angkor Thom, including the city wall and gates, the Bayon, the Baphuon, the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas, Preah Palilay, the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of Elephants, the Kleangs and Prasat Suor Prat. It exits from Angkor Thom via the Victory Gate in the eastern wall, and continues to Chau Say Tevoda, Thommanon, Spean Thmor and Ta Keo. It then heads northeast of the road to Ta Nei, turns south to Ta Prohm, continues east to Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang, and finally returns to Angkor Wat via Prasat Kravan.
The 26km Big Circuit is an extension of the Small Circuit: instead of exiting the walled city of Angkor Thom at the east gate, the Grand Circuit exits at the north gate and continues to Preah Khan and Preah Neak Poan, east to Ta Som, then south via the Eastern Mebon to Pre Rup. From there it heads west and then southwest on its return to Angkor Wat.