In Asia, local life starts earlier than usual. At the crack of dawn you can watch the region come to life, from morning markets, to aerobics in the park, there’s plenty of reasons to rise and shine! Our resident early bird Karen Hewell sums up the morning activities worth setting the alarm clock for.
Alarm clocks, bitter coffee and yawns – there are plenty of unpleasant things synonymous with early mornings. Waking up at dawn is usually reserved for the work day, and most of us are glad to leave our alarm clocks behind once we leave home for holiday.
But in Southeast Asia, early morning culture is part of what makes the region so magical. It’s when markets, fishermen and farmers are at their busiest and when temples and pagodas rustle to life with morning prayers. Seeing Southeast Asia in the early hours of the day is an often overlooked but hugely rewarding opportunity to experience the region’s most authentic and enchanting culture and traditions.
But since hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock is tempting, we have six reasons why rolling out of bed will be worth it. These five destinations at dawn are our personal favorites, and some of the many reasons why we’re early birds ourselves.
Quang Ba Flower Market, Vietnam
The street side markets in Southeast Asia are some of the most frenetic, confusing and utterly exhilarating urban destinations for travelers, and strolling through a few when visiting nearly every major city in the region is something of a given. While most markets are usually bustling throughout the day, some markets are reserved only for before and just after the sun rises. Consequently, most travelers miss out on them simply because they aren’t awake early enough to go. It’s a shame, since these markets are some of the most beautiful and unique.
One such famous morning market is Quang Ba Flower Market in Hanoi, Vietnam. Flower wholesalers from around northern Vietnam congregate as early as 2AM in a quiet corner of West Lake to sell to florists in the city, as well as passing customers buying flowers by the bouquet. Although running year round, the Quang Ba Flower Market is at its most beautiful in the weeks before Tet – or Vietnamese Lunar New Year, usually in January of February – when flower sales are at their highest.
Although it’s possible to go to Quang Ba around sunrise, most will attest to it being a Hanoian tradition to arrive as early as 3am when the market is, surprisingly, at its busiest.
Changing of the Guard at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Vietnam
The Vietnamese are notorious early risers, and so it’s no surprise that yet another morning favorite is also in Hanoi, at one of the city’s most treasured and revered monuments – the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. As the long-time resting place of the country’s former president Ho Chi Minh, the morning light around the mausoleum’s magnificent facade is enough reason to see it at sunrise. But as the dawn breaks, those that arrive early enough can witness a Hanoian tradition before the crowds arrive – the changing of the guards.
Although the procession happens hourly throughout the morning, the mausoleum’s outer entrance gets busy from as early as 7am, so those that want to see it without battling the crowds should arrive beforehand. Early enough, and you may have the mausoleum’s stretching lawn entrance to yourself while you watch the ceremony.
Sunrise Over Angkor, Cambodia
Visitors to Cambodia’s astounding Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world – quickly find that the towering pillars of the temple are visually arresting no matter the time of day. And although Angkor doesn’t require an alarm clock to appreciate, it’s no secret that the dramatic backdrop of a golden sunrise behind the silhouettes of Angkor’s towers is a sight entirely unique.
Angkor at sunrise has become a popular morning activity with lots of visitors to Siem Reap, so many of the tours at dawn are busier than you would expect. That said, since these magnificent monuments only get busier throughout the day, these early morning visits are still as serene as Angkor gets during open hours. Those looking to experience it completely alone, though, can certainly take to the sky at dawn instead, in one of the touring air balloons.
Alms Giving in Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang in Laos is a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason – littered with beautiful and ancient temples and wats and exuding a kind of magical spiritual aura. That aura extends into the break of dawn, when the sleepy Buddhist town wakes with the age-old tradition of Alms Giving. In a single file line and dressed in identical saffron robes, Buddhist monks set off as the sun rises every morning to collect rice in ornate metal pots.
This morning ritual is an important one for Buddhists, and especially important in Luang Prabang where Buddhism is still central to daily life. Visitors that come to see Alms Giving should be careful to remain quiet and respectful during the procession, and should be mindful of the appropriate ways to offer food to the monks. Going with a local guide can be a great way to take part without any faux pas.
Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar
Inle Lake is a shallow lake just a stone’s throw from Mandalay in Myanmar, and the home of one of the most unique and bizarre fishing the world. Here, fisherman employ an odd, one-legged rowing style that allows them to see into the lake’s shallow water better than if they sat down. With conical nets and on flat, wooden boats, the fisherman on Inle Lake row between floating markets, lakeside villages and small farms while they navigate the waters.
And like most fishing towns, the community on Inle Lake start early in the morning, when their nets are more likely to catch fish and the air is cooler and crisper. Setting off to see the fisherman as they go about their work is best done as the dawn breaks – and when the morning air and quiet matches the calmness of the lake. Only at this early hour is the rhythmic sound of nets splashing water so serene.
Wondering how to get there? Our Myanmar Classic Highlights tour visits Inle Lake along its journey to the country’s most iconic spots.
Monks’ Morning Chanting at Wat Pho, Thailand
Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand is one of the most recognized and beautiful religious locales in the city, and enjoys a regular stream of visitors for its architecture and famous reclining Buddha statue. But early in the morning, the truest testament to the wat’s religious significance and culture is on full display – with the morning chanting of Wat Pho’s resident monks.
Beginning around 9am, the monks here gather for what is essentially a Buddhist worship ceremony, with the chanting meant to help the monks realize enlightenment. From the inside of the wat, the chanting echoes off of high walls and through the towers, and the entire temple takes on a truly ethereal atmosphere. Couple this with the calmness of the morning, and Wat Pho is certainly at its most beautiful just after the sun comes up.
Sunrise at Boroburdur Temple, Indonesia
Probably the earliest morning in this entire round up is the one required to see Boroburdur Temple at its most magnificent. This magical temple is located just outside of Jogjakarta, but it’ll require a solid hour drive to get out there – which means your alarm clock will probably go off around 3 or 4am to beat the morning rush.
An early morning well spent, though, since you’ll avoid the heaving tourists to this famous destination if you get there earlier enough. And ask anyone who’s seen it – this is by far the most magical morning you’ll spend in Indonesia, hands down.
Buffalo Tours loves an early morning and promises you will, too. Be an early bird in southeast Asia with us, enjoy early morning activities unique to Asia and see the region’s most iconic cultural destinations at sunrise. Daring travelers can see them all with our multi-country journeys, too.