Imagine you’re standing somewhere in the North of Thailand on a road. You are exactly halfway between Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor in Cambodia and have only time to visit one. Which direction should you start travelling?
I’ve been lucky enough to visit both. Below, I will outline some of the standout reasons to pick one or the other… just in case you find yourself with that decision to make.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is a 400km2 region in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Dozens of vast, impressive temples in various states of repair mark out successive capitals of the Khmer Region from the 9th to 14th Century. A typical day would see you jumping in a tuktuk to drive round the well paved roads, stopping off to marvel at 6 to 10 medium to large sized temples that are nestled within a jungle setting.
The Bagan Archaeological Zone is smaller at just over 100km2, yet it features over 2000 temples, stupas and monasteries. A typical day here usually involves renting a bicycle and riding around the flat dusty plain and hopping from monument to monument.
As a disclaimer, I visited the two sites in very different ways. I went to Bagan in December 2014 during a holiday with my parents. This meant we stayed in far nicer accommodation than I would if I was alone, and that we had a driver with a car rather than bikes. On the other hand, I visited Angkor alone and my visit coincided with Chinese New Year in 2015 which meant the crowds were even higher than usual.
Angkor is the more famous site of the two. I am basing this on the fact that I had never heard of Bagan until about two years ago, and I’m happy to make sweeping statements based on my sample size of one. This also means it is the busier of the two. Bearing in mind I was also having to battle with the coachloads of extra Chinese tourists, I can certainly attest to Angkor’s overcrowded nature.
For many people, this is one of the most off-putting things about Angkor. I feared it would ruin it for me too when I arrived for sunrise over Angkor Wat. What should be a moment of peaceful and serene beauty felt more like a media scrum at Paris fashion week. However, most people then seemingly went back to bed because when I began exploring the temple’s inner sanctums, I felt as though I had the place to myself. I suppose the world’s largest religious monument has enough space to spread everyone out.
However, the rest of the temples were very tourist heavy. This can be frustrating, but also provides the opportunity to play “hide the tourist” (waiting for every tourist in your shot to be hidden by an architectural feature before you click down on the button) or “photo the tourists doing weird photos” (self explanatory). Ultimately, if you prepare mentally and are in good health, the throngs of tourists are not too difficult to overcome. There are also peaks and troughs throughout the day, and at times I found corners of temples where I could sit and feel completely alone.
In comparison, Bagan felt like a ghost town. We were there during peak season, yet we still only ever competed with a handful of people inside each temple (with the exception of the sunset at Pyathadar). Outside the temples is a different matter – street children and vendors swamp you as soon as you turn any corner with armfuls of postcards, t-shirts and flowers for you to buy. However, a friendly no usually shakes them off.
Both sites require a pass and prices vary depending on how many days you’re looking to spend there. Angkor is nearly three times the price of Bagan, though the $40 for three days will hardly break the bank of even the most frugal backpacker. Ultimately, you’re paying a small fee to witness an incredible place. I’ve never met anyone who said they regretted paying for entrance to either temple sites.
Away from the temple sites, Siem Reap has the more developed tourist infrastructure (which is either a good or bad thing, depending on your preference…). Bagan is more of a stay in your hotel for the evening kind of place, whereas Siem Reap’s pub street allows a chance to meet up with other travellers to swap stories of the day.
Though the two sites are often compared with each other, I found the experience of each to be very different. Angkor’s diversity of temples made for a far more varied experience. One moment you’re marvelling at the stone faces of Bayon, the next you’re scrambling over the tree roots of Ta Prohm. Each temple feels distinct from the rest and I felt as though I was Indiana Jones adventuring through these jungle temples.
In comparison, the temples of Bagan begin to feel rather similar. That isn’t to say there isn’t variety, and some of the temples certainly stand out from one another. However, they do still lack the more Hollywoodesque feel that the temples of Angkor have. That being said, the sheer number of temples that fill your view has a really stunning feel to it. If you have the money, a balloon ride over the top of the temples must be one of the greatest experiences one could have. I nearly found this out myself – my father and I took a balloon trip together. Unfortunately, the wind changed direction just as we got up in the air and we couldn’t get anywhere near the temples. Still, seeing the temples in the distance from the sky was one of those “top ten” moments that was still awe inspiring. Someone also proposed during our balloon flight (not to me…), though I can’t guarantee you’ll have this happen if you choose to go for it.
Sunsets from a temple are an absolute must if you visit either site. Taking time to sit and soak up the evening glow as the temple landscape before you transitions through every colour in the spectrum is a wonderful experience. Bagan wins this category hands down. It was one of the most incredible and spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. The temples caught the changing light beautifully. Even better still was the drive back to the hotel – the temples stood silhouetted against an eerily coloured sky.
Whilst the sunset at Angkor was still breath taking, it somehow lacked the splendour I experienced in Bagan. The key difference lies in the geography of the area. As Angkor’s temples are tucked away in the jungle, there is less of a vista compared to Bagan’s open, dusty plain with countless temples stretching out in all directions.
Beyond the temples
More likely than not, someone considering one of these two sites to visit is going to be making a holiday of it. In Cambodia, I only had time to see Phnom Penh whereas I got to see Mandalay, Inle Lake and Yangon in Myanmar. Almost everybody I’ve spoken to who has spent time in both countries would say Myanmar was by far their favourite place of the two. There is something really special about the country and its people. If your trip is longer than two weeks, I’d plump for Myanmar and include Bagan in your itinerary. If your trip is two weeks or shorter, I’d be leaning towards Cambodia with a big focus on Angkor as one of your main experiences.
I love both of these places, but Angkor was my favourite. Comparing these two is a bit like comparing being given £1,000 in £50 notes and being given £1000 in £1 coins. The net result is the same, it’s just that one comes in a few large, valuable chunks whilst the other features more nuggets of a smaller value. It’s also a matter of preference in a number of key categories. For example, Martina hates crowded, touristic places. She went to Bagan during the off season and found she had entire temples all to herself, so Bagan goes down as her favourite. I preferred the dramatic nature of Angkor, essentially living out my childhood archaeological action hero fantasies (that I developed thanks to Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Phil from Time Team).
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below? Have you been to either (or both)? Which is your favourite? If you’ve never been, which would you go for? If you still can’t decide, just grab a coin and toss it. You win either way. Here are a few more photos to whet your appetite!