Southeast Asia has within the last couple decades become a major backpacking/vacation destination and continues to grow in popularity today. With so many countries offering many different experiences and culturally unique experiences, there truly is never enough time to see it all.
Cambodia (located in between Thailand and Vietnam), and the lesser known Myanmar (to the northwest of Thailand) both offer their visitors truly remarkable ancient ruins. Though the countries of Cambodia and Myanmar are extremely different from one another, one thing is for sure - both countries and ancient sites offer its visitors breathtaking landscapes and a memorable experience. They are both as overwhelming as they are repetitive, uplifting as they are mysterious, and each worthy of a visit.
Angkor Wat: 149,000 Cambodian Riel
Bagan: 25,000 Burmese Kyat
Bagan, Myanmar is home to over 2,000 temples, and while it might seem like the landscape is a repetition of other Asian cities, Bagan offers more than similar temple experiences. The breathtaking sunrises every morning over the temples, and the equally amazing views at sunset, or the fog in the early morning and evening, and the eerie quiet during the heat of the day - all of it is iconically Myanmar in an unforgettable way. And did we mention how friendly and welcoming the locals are?!
Angkor Wat is just one of the 11 remaining structures at the Angkor Archaeological Park still standing and dating back to the 9th century. What’s magical about Angkor is that its beauty can be appreciated even if you haven’t read up on the difference between Khmer and Bayon architecture. It’s breathtaking no matter your level of interest or understanding when you arrive. Each temple is as breathtaking as the last and each leave you excited to see the next. Angkor truly is a remarkable Wonder Of The World!
ANGKOR: Khmer Empire
Angkor is the northern province of Siem Reap in Cambodia. It was, for centuries, the center of the Khmer Kingdom constructed in the highest level of ingenuity to sustain its people for centuries. UNESCO states that “With impressive monuments, several different ancient urban plans, and large water reservoirs, the site is a unique concentration of features testifying to an exceptional civilization.” The archaeological park’s 400 sq kilometers, outline an impressive progression of history and a hierarchy of reigning kings from both the Hindu to the Buddhist faith. The kingdom was run by kings of both faiths at different times, which accounts for the construction of statues from both religions. The park is protected by the UNESCO foundation and found on the list of seven wonders of the old world.
BAGAN: Pagan Empire
Bagan was founded in the second half of the 9th Century by the Bamar people who arrived in the region from the Nanzhao Kingdom, which led to the formation of the new Pagan Empire. The previously occupied land of Bagan by the Pyu people was gradually absorbed into the empire and became the capital of the Pagan Empire from 1044 CE until 1287 CE. “The cultural, economic and political rise of the city spawned the building of thousands of religious buildings including 1,000 stupas, 3,000 monasteries and 10,000 temples in an area of just forty-two square kilometres,” notes Visit Bagan’s website. Bagan has long been the application process for a UNESCO grant, but has yet to be approved (2018).
Breathtaking in that nature has uprooted temples from centuries ago, providing a fantastic experience of the imagination. The area is brimming with historical significance and history that can be too much at times and hiring a guide is beneficial. We did some pre-reading and then bought a guide book on site for our tuk-tuk tour, a mix of both the big and little circuit. However, as it is beautiful and one of the seven wonders of the world, it’s overwhelmingly crowded. There is hardly a chance in which to see the temples without 20-30 others sharing the same experience. Read all about Angkor Wat and all the temples in our travel guide here.
Unique in that you have the opportunity to tour the temples absent of any other tourists. Our experience was less about the historical interest, imagining how life used to be and more about the cultural overlap between the temples and generations of people that took care of them. We created a self-guided tour on E-bikes following the many signs for temples along the routes and a basic map from our hostel. All temples, being Buddhist, required visitors to remove both their socks and shoes, which we felt made the experience all that more unique.
What You'll See
The whole of the park had very different architecture to explore because different Kings incorporated different ideologies from both the Hindu and the Buddhist faith when they expanded. It’s also interesting to witness how nature has deconstructed many of the roofs and walls of different temples. Angkor is also very different as it’s the remnants of a whole civilization, so touring includes Universities, libraries, and not just temples. The visibility from a high vantage point exposes just how much of the forest has claimed back the land, isolating the smaller temples.
Some temples were similar in style and ideological themes, but many of them varied dramatically in size and color. Many of the stupas are gold and the upkeep of these temples are vigilant, making them look new. It was fascinating to enter the temples and inside would be a functioning place of worship adding an exciting dimension to visiting each one. Because the landscape and climate is different than in Cambodia, nature hasn’t taken hold of the temples. The temples are eroded by time, but uncovered by algae and moss.
A beautiful experience to witness a sunrise at Angkor where the warm light from the trees creates a magical effect as does the reflection of the sunrise of the water of the mote surrounding Angkor Wat. We braved the crowds to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat for a beautiful and iconic photo, but you can also make your way to.
Incredible, as the cold night air mixes with the encroaching heat of the day to create a beautifully hazy horizon. The hot air balloons are also an added iconic touch to witnessing a sunrise in Bagan. You can still safely and respectfully climb on the temples for sunrise and sunset in Bagan, provided that you remove your socks and shoes. The view from the temples is a special experience especially as locals meander in and out of view for the start of their day. The best two places we watched the sunrise were from Lay Myet Hnat Temple and Law Ka Ou Shaung Temple.
You can also rent an elephant and explore Angkor Wat, but you shouldn't. These elephants are treated terribly, abused, beaten, and none of the money that you will pay for the elephant ride will go to helping the elephant.
Car rental for the day 149,000 KHR ($37 USD)
Tuk-tuk for the day 72,000 KHR ($18 USD)
E-bike for the day 40,000 KHR ($10 USD)
Bike for the day 20,000 KHR ($5 USD)
Hot air balloon over Bagan plain is offered by three companies (Balloons Over Bagan, Oriental Ballooning and Golden Eagle Ballooning) ranging from $330-$370/person for a 45 minute sunrise journey.
Taxi 54,000 MMK ($40 USD)
Hoarse Drawn Cart 27,000 MMK ($20 USD)
E-bike 5,000 MMK ($3.75 USD)
Bicycle 1,500 MMK ($1.10 USD)