It is 6am. You have woken in the dark to be at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. The first pink and lilac-hewed rays of dawn break behind the five tiered towers, lighting up the sacred bas-reliefs on the walls. Once upon a time, this experience was mesmerising, humbling. But the secret is out. Today, you are sharing your special moment with a crowd of people six deep, a sea of glowing camera screens, selfie sticks waving, a steady hum of chatter and the occasional shout. This is not how you envisaged it when you read about this in the brochure.
Don’t abandon hope of having your own genuine and unique experience in places like Angkor Wat. Do go and see the main temples, they are as spectacular as they look. But for a dawn visit, try Angkor’s East Gate at dawn: a slightly different view but a far more tranquil, special experience minus the crowds. And don’t forget to make time for some other slightly less obvious ways to see the country. You’ll come home feeling you’ve seen a whole lot more than just the sights.
To help inspire you, here are of my top picks of excursions which go ‘beyond the brochure’ across the whole region:
Sophie’s Art Tour, Saigon
Not just for art lovers, this tour is a brilliant way to connect with Vietnam’s turbulent history over the last two centuries. Led by British Art Historian Sophie Hughes who lives in Saigon, explore private collections, contemporary galleries and the Fine Arts Museum, discovering the personal experiences of artists who studied, fought, witnessed and documented major changes in 20th and 21st century Vietnam. From propaganda and military art to French masterpieces, this visual representation of history is way more memorable than the usual list of dates and names you’d get on a mainstream tour.
Angkor Photography tour with John McDermott
I’m often disappointed that my holiday pictures don’t do justice to the amazing things I’ve seen. This private tour of Angkor accompanied by American fine art photographer and photojournalist John McDermott ensures you’ll come home with envy-inducing images. John, whose work is exhibited worldwide, can work with photographers of any level, from beginner to professional, answering technical questions and helping you to look at the romantic ruins of the temple complex in new ways. Best of all, you can take your new-found skills and apply them throughout the rest of your holiday. Friends beware! I feel a slide show coming on.
Luang Prabang Cooking Class
Don’t know your Mok Pa from your Chicken Laap? If you’re daunted at the thought of ordering unfamiliar dishes which might accidentally blow your head off in Laos then I heartily recommend a cooking class at the start of your stay. Tamarind Cooking school in Luang Prabang offers stunning lakeside lessons using super fresh produce bought on a visit with the chef to the local market. You’ll learn about the ingredients and create a range of classic, flavourful dishes to enjoy at the end of your lesson. Order like a pro from local menus for the rest of your trip and recreate the dishes for friends and family once you’re home using the recipe book. How many chillies you use is up to you!
Bucket of Books
If you’re the sort of person who wishes they could do something to help whilst travelling through disadvantaged countries such as Laos then this unique tour is for you. Supporting two excellent local literacy charities, you’ll help children in rural communities gain access to rare Lao-language reading books by donating a ‘bucket’ of 10 books, plus much-needed supplies such as toothbrushes. Designed to be non-invasive, you’ll travel to the countryside to deliver the books to teachers or the village chief at one of a number of local villages, a way to find out about rural life and make a genuine difference.
Hanoi Street Food tour with food blogger
Your guide book has probably put the fear of God into you about eating street food in South East Asia but the tempting smells from the roadside stalls are there to make your resolve crumble! Now you can enjoy the amazing flavours of Pho tiu (noodle soup) and Bang tom (prawn pancakes) and try unusual delicacies like Ga Tan (poussin cooked in a Coke can) whilst deftly navigating the pitfalls of street food on this private tour in Hanoi. You’ll be in the safe hands of expat food blogger Mark Lowerson, a self-confessed ‘food nerd’ who knows every stall and café in the city.
Bagan by Bike
One of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, the hundreds of temples built by the kings of Bagan a thousand years ago are starting to be recognised for the treasures they are, and Bagan is now firmly on the travellers’ map. Leave the top temples like Ananda Pahto to the coach parties and instead head into the beautiful plain by bike. Guided private or group bike excursions offer scope to explore gorgeous, lesser known temples and detour into traditional villages along the way. After a day in the saddle your muscles (and posterior!) may protest but your memories of this unique site will be all the richer.
I really hope these ideas have sparked your imagination. The world might feel like it’s shrinking, but there are still lots of ways to see it in unusual and authentic ways.
All these special excursions, and a whole host more, can be booked with Temple World as part of a tailor-made itinerary in South East Asia.
Contact Temple World on 020 8940 4114 to speak to an expert and start planning your trip today.