There are many difficult decisions to make in life: rare vs. well done, white vs. red wine, Coke vs. Pepsi, etc. Travel is no different, and one of the more difficult questions out there when you come to Southeast Asia is whether you should hit the amazing, breathtaking temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, or the amazing, breathtaking temple complex in Bagan, Myanmar.
As with many questions that arise in the middle of a vacation, there is no one answer that fits everyone, but there are a few simple truths that everyone will experience when they arrive at either place. But first, a quick primer:
The temples at Siem Reap, Cambodia – part of the giant Angkor complex – are easily the country’s most visited, most famous, and highest earning tourist attraction – so famous they appear on the national flag! The Angkor ruins have rightly been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are simply one of those things that has to be seen to be believed. The main temple, Angkor Wat, was built in the early 1100s and served as the heart of the Hindu-then-Buddhist Khmer kingdom until its decline in the 1400s. The main temple and hundreds of other temples large and small were subsequently abandoned and then ‘re-discovered’ in the late 1500s. The entire complex now stands as a magnificent monument to the might, ingenuity and sheer artistic badassery of the Khmers. Learn more about what there is to see in Cambodia.
On the other side of Thailand we have Bagan, Myanmar. At its peak, it was the center of the Buddhist Kingdom of Pagan, which was established in the mid 800s, and from the mid 1000s to 1287 (when the Mongols finally sacked it) it was the center of a thriving and powerful empire. Surprisingly, the site has not been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the large number of restorations that have taken place, but don’t let that fool you – there are plenty of ruins here – over 2,200 to be precise – stretching across 100+ sq.km and are a magnificent site any time of year. Much like the ruins of Siem Reap, they simply have to be seen to be believed. See more of what Myanmar has to offer.
But now the big question – which one should you see?
In broad terms, Siem Reap is a much slicker experience. Given a huge economic boost by foreign investment and relentless (and successful) international promotion, the town of Siem Reap is thronged by tourists and offers all of the comforts of a western city, from French pastries to hip bars, to cool music, and shopping. Transport around the town and temples is well-planned and some amazing hotels offer first-rate accommodation.
On the other end of the spectrum is Bagan, which is a much more rustic, challenging place to get around, although what it offers – or rather, doesn’t offer – might be a greater attraction. There are no convenience stores here, no well-paved roads, no western chain restaurants or well-organized international tourism campaigns to bring people in. Decades of repressive rule have left the country much like a child stepping into the sun after a long nap, blinking, yawning, but ready for big adventures. If you enjoy a slower pace and don’t mind occasional unplanned power cuts, internet that’s spotty at the best of times, and infrastructure that’s generously described as “crumbling chic”, then you will probably have a ball in Bagan.
Both Siem Reap and Bagan can easily be seen as two sides of the same coin – majestic, historic, spiritual, stunning, memorable sites that provide a powerful connection to the past. One is a few decades ahead of the other, but both provide a unique travel experience that should not be missed. So why just choose just one? The only way for you to know which is better is to experience both firsthand! Tell us everything you want to see in Southeast Asia and we’ll make it happen.
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