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.

Overview

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.

AW relief
The angkor temples also features beauiful preserved relief carvings

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.

Temples all over
The temples of Bagan stretch out as far as you can see

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.

Crowds

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.

Sunrise at AW
The world and his wife (she’s the one on the right) come to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.

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.

Just stand there and look natural… Oh okay, pose the hell out of it

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.

Crowdless Bagan
See all the crowds in Bagan? Me neither.

Cost

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.

AW pass
Plus it makes a nice souvenir of your own face!

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.

Experience

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.

If you don’t hear the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme when you look at this, there’s something wrong with you…

 

Ta prohm
Ta Proahm (a.k.a. the Tomb Raider temple) shows that nature always wins. One day, the human race will die off, and over time the trees will reclaim all the buildings we create. Sobering and awesome all at once!

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.

B is for… Balloons over Bagan.
The guys in the green balloon caught a lucky gust of wind.

Sunset

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.

T is for… Temples of Bagan. As in the ones we failed to fly over in the balloon… Still, they looked very pretty as the sun set over them.
The misty sunset in Bagan was breathtaking

 

Temple silhouette
I could have looked at the temple silhouettes in Bagan forever… or at least as long as the sunset lasted

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.

 

AW sunset
The sunset in Angkor drew a crowd, but lacked the spiritual feel of the Bagan sunset

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.

Conclusion

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!

Window
Angkor: Well, at least they’ve rebuilt the window. Next stop… the walls

 

Structure
Angkor: Yup, that’ll hold it. Definitely not going to fall down now.

 

Bagan temple
Bagan: A beautiful example of the tiered style of the stupas

 

Bagan temples rising
Bagan: The temples rise up above the vegetation, allowing a more impressive vista compared to Angkor.

 

Bayon face
Angkor: A face from the Bayon temple (one of my favourites!)

 

Statueless feet
Angkor: There are unfound treasures hidden amoung the rubble. The statue that belongs on these feet may have been damaged, stolen… or possibly is underneath the rubble you see behind.

 

AW relief 2
Angkor: Carving by the ancient Khmer people. Moody black and white photo by me.

3 thoughts to “Bagan Vs. Angkor

  • Sand In My Suitcase

    We’ve been fortunate to visit Bagan – taking two separate rides by horse-and-buggy around the temples on different days and climbing up to the top of one temple at sunset for views across the plain. The ancient site struck us as pretty special! Now we’d love to visit Angkor :-). Especially as you say you think it’s even more impressive…

    Reply
    • lookafteryouleap@gmail.com

      We never did the horse-and-buggy option round the temples, but Martina did take one from the bus station to her hostel (as a birthday treat to herself). The photos on your blog look wonderful! A really special way to manoeuvre round the temple complex. Definitely add Angkor to your list – it’s a different feel to Bagan, but one that we’d recommend to anyone! Happy travels ☺

      Reply
  • Tee

    I rather pick Angkor temples or we should say the Khmer Empire temples over Bagan any day for good reasons. First off, the engineering level that took place during the Khmer Empire to build all of this is unmatched in all of human history. While Bagan Empire built only temples in one area and most of them small in comparison to Angkor. The Khmer Empire built thousands of temples across all of mainland south east asia. The numerous massive Khmer cities speaks for itself. If one sees the sunrise in Angkor during the spring Equinox it will beat the sunrise and sunset in Bagan any day. Bagan temples if am not mistaken does not have an astronomical alignment to the sky. Although, those two Empires are quite interesting to study about since the relationship between them is unknown so far. They started about the same time.

    Reply

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