3 Temple Experiences You Can’t Miss in Southeast Asia

Sunrise over the plains of Bagan
Sunrise over the plains of Bagan

Asia is a continent of wonder to me, having grown up in England, and despite visiting on holidays in the past I felt compelled to spend longer here to immerse myself in the many different cultures within. About a year ago my partner and I decided to quit our jobs in London to explore the world, determined to find the most beautiful and secluded spots that have to be seen to be believed. For four hot months we hopped around South East Asia soaking up as much culture as we could; eating delicious food, learning the language, and trying to understand the histories that made these countries great.

I love to research and find the highlights for the counties I visit before I get there, and it was clear that the first three countries on our itinerary, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, all had impressive ancient temples to explore. I’d heard great things about Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, and a few travellers who like to go off the beaten track had mentioned the wonders of Myanmar’s Temples of Bagan and Thailand’s Sukothai Archaeological Zone. I couldn’t wait to explore all three sites and see for myself what each place had to offer and which one I would love the most.

Sunrise over the Plains of Bagan

Sunrise over the plains of Bagan
Sunrise over the plains of Bagan

Bagan was the highlight of our trip to Myanmar, a unique temple complex stretches over 26 square miles and hosts the remains of over 2000 Buddhist temples, best explored using an e-bike if you want to do it by yourself. We downloaded an offline map to help us get around, but actually getting lost by ourselves down the numerous winding dirt tracks that lead to tiny unknown spots was just as memorable as the most famous and awe inspiring highlights.

On the first day we woke up at 4.30am to see the sunrise from Shwesandaw Paya, the most popular place in town to view the 6.30am sunrise, and it was worth the early rise because we had the best seats in the house. Armed with a torch and compass, we climbed up the towering steps in the dark of night and positioned ourselves on the highest precipice. We got chatting to the people around us and exchanged stories until the sky turned pink, the birds started singing and everyone grew silent. It was a magical moment, even surrounded by people we felt alone with the endless payas puncturing the morning skyline. Soon hot air balloons started dancing on the horizon, igniting our curiosity and finally rising into the warm, red sky. This surprise addition only added to the immense beauty and uniqueness of the experience.

We explored the rest of the famous temples soon after the sunrise in the cooler temperature with less people around which made it far more enjoyable and worth getting up so early.

Cycling around the  vast complex of Sukothai, Thailand

Wat Mahathat in Sukothai, Thailand
Wat Mahathat in Sukothai, Thailand

Our first stop in Thailand was Sukothai, a charming little town with a lovely night market and friendly locals. We hired a motorbike and drove to the archaeological zone early in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat eager to see what Thailands’s Angkor Wat would look like. As soon as we entered our jaws dropped at the looming columns and Buddha heads of Wat Mahathat, it was such a peaceful and inspiring place made all the more special for the lack of people around us. We rode around the entire complex using our bike, noticing the reflections of these glorious temples in their surrounding moats, wondering why it isn’t spoken of as frequently as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We were glad to have travelled so far to see something so special and didn’t question it too much!

 

Feeling like Lara Croft in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Monks relaxing in Angor Wat
Monks relaxing in Angor Wat

After 3 weeks in Thailand we made our way to Cambodia, only visiting for a few days to see Angkor Wat as the weather was too hot there in April to stay much longer.  We left our hotel in Siem Reap at 5am and sped along the dimly lit streets surrounded by many other Tuk Tuks. It was clear there would be more people around this time compared to the handful of people we met at sunrise in Bagan. We arrived just in time and hurried over to the lotus pond in front of Angkor Wat, the best place to see sun rise over the temple. Although it was a misty morning it was a beautiful way to start the day and we ventured inside shortly after sunrise to wander around the huge corridors filled with ancient wall paintings and hidden treasures. The next temple of Bayon is famous for having 216 Buddha faces that stare into the jungle, truly unique and overwhelming. We also visited Ta Prohm which is where Tomb Raider was filmed, but seeing how the temple that has been overrun with trees growing into the structure is far more impressive in my opinion. We also asked our driver to take us to some hidden temples with no one around and we’re so glad we did, we got to climb amongst the crumbling ruins of some equally wonderful temples by ourselves with no one else around, something easily done if you ask your driver nicely!

Sunrise over Angkor Wat
Sunrise over Angkor Wat

After Angkor Wat, our temple hopping journey across Asia came to an end and we were left with memories that we could hardly believe. Though we took some wonderful photos on the trip, nothing can quite compare to seeing it in real life, feeling the heat on your body and walking in the same steps that others have for thousands of years. I couldn’t possibly choose my favourite place because each one gave us a unique experience and unforgettable memories, I hope you feel the same when you visit.

For help planning your trip to Southeast Asia, get in touch on +44 (0)7836 315 436 for a free consultation.

 

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