They are the two preeminent sets of temple ruins in Southeast Asia. Both were memorable highlights of my trips to Cambodia and Burma respectively. But how do they compare?
In terms of individual temples, Angkor Wat (the collective noun I will use for the collection of temples around Siem Reap) definitely beats Bagan. From the Tomb Raider style ruins of Ta Phrom, with its overgrown trees and vegetation, to the red, dusty complex of Banteay Srei, and the exquisite faces of Bayon and Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat has a wide variety of different types of temples which makes three days of exploring diverse and interesting. It says something about the variety of temples on offer that for most, Angkor Wat itself isn’t the highlight. Bagan, on the other hand, features temples that are on the whole fairly similar to one another, with a few exceptions (Ananda Phato, Dhammayangyi Pahto, Schwezigon Paya). By your third day in Bagan it will be the atmosphere, rather than the temples, that you’ll be enjoying.
For sunrises and sunsets, Bagan beats Angkor Wat. The temples of Bagan mostly lie in a single flat plain, and there are plenty of good spots to see the sun rise over this plain, with balloons setting off for their expensive one hour sunrise trips. These spots are equally promising at sunset, when the temples are bathed in golden light. Alternatively, you can watch the sun set over the Ayeyarwady River. There are some crowds, particularly at sunset, but not to the extent of those in Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat has a few sunset options, but because of the spread of temples over a wide area none offers as beautiful a view as that on offer in Bagan. However a good sunrise spot is the lake of Sras Srang.
The entrance fee for Bagan is less than that for Angkor Wat – $15 for a week compared with $40 for three days. On the other hand, Angkor Wat easily beats Bagan on accommodation and food, both on price and on quality. In Angkor we stayed in a good quality, cheap hotel in Siem Reap (Angkor Pearl Hotel, $24). For approximately the same price I stayed in an extremely basic hotel in Bagan (Eden Motel, $22). In Siem Reap we had some of the best food of our trip to Cambodia (check out Sugar Palm, Touich Restaurant and Marum). In Bagan the food was fine (especially at A Little Bit of Bagan) but nothing special compared to Siem Reap.
Bagan beats Angkor Wat for moments of solitude, and for interaction with locals. My favourite moments in Bagan were cycling aimlessly through the plain of temples, only occasionally passing other tourists on bike or horse-cart. I also had some lovely encounters with locals, including a group of children and an elderly Buddhist monk at a temple, where, for half an hour, I was undisturbed by other tourists. You will likely have your picture taken by Burmese tourists, who are genuinely curious about foreign visitors. There are some hawkers. At Angkor Wat, you will be hassled by children selling postcards and women selling hats. People aren’t overly aggressive in their hawking but neither do they really have any genuine interest in you. The only proper interaction with locals you’re likely to have is with your tuk-tuk driver – and Angkor is definitely more crowded with foreign tourists too (although it seems that Bagan is inevitably getting worse in this respect as Burma opens up more and more to tourism).
Transport around the two locations is very different – in Angkor Wat tuk-tuk is the easiest way of getting around, and you can bond with your tuk-tuk driver. Renting a bicycle is possible, but the temples are very spread out so cycling would be quite tiring. In Bagan you have more independence, being able to rent a bicycle and cycle around relatively easily. If you are still put off by the idea of physical exertion, consider an e-bike, which is a fun way to see the temples for around 5,000 kyat (compared to 1,500 for a regular bicycle). I really enjoyed watching the countryside pass by in the back of Mr. Wong’s tuk-tuk in Angkor. However I also loved zipping around Bagan on my e-bike. A tie.
Angkor Wat: unrivalled variety of arresting temple complexes, cheap, good quality food and accommodation. However there can be crowds and there is less opportunity for aimless wandering and interesting interactions with locals.
Bagan: beautiful sunrises and sunsets, moments of solitude and the possibility of interaction with locals. However food and especially accommodation aren’t brilliant, and the temples can get a bit samey after a while.
These two places offer very different experiences, and I’d encourage anyone who can to visit both. Both are fascinating, beautiful places that will undoubtedly feature as highlights of your trip.
Still undecided? Have a look at some photos from Angkor Wat and Bagan.