Temple Trotting & Night Markets: Unveiling the Magic of Southeast Asia

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Traveling provides a new awareness about the world we live in and also assists in better comprehending oneself. People are constantly looking for new places to visit; in doing so, they want to find something that’s out of the ordinary and might offer new experiences. Southeast Asia can offer an assortment of new things. So, if you’re willing to diversify your food, religion in sight, and your way of thinking, Southeast Asia’s the place to be. The region has multiple attractions to offer, but for this paper, my intention is to explore the temples in Southeast Asia and the Night Markets. Both attractions, though different in structure, offer a unique experience and insight about the region, and it’s my intention to jot my experiences down for the readers’ understanding and reading pleasure.

Isadora Dunne, once again, takes the reader on several exotic adventures. This time she explores Southeast Asia in a narrative filled with lessons, chaos, and constant amusement. Dunne exposes the ups and downs of the Thai and Vietnamese academic systems as well as uncovers the beautiful qualities of their culture and peoples. From evading pirates in Malaysia to cruising down the Mekong River in Laos, her descriptive accounts will whisk you into the region. Readers will journey through the development of personal growth and understanding while traveling in third world countries. Her trips will take you from comparing fish heads to a rotting corpse to experiences that solidify one’s conviction in the human race. Whether traveling in a tuk-tuk, being arrested, or teaching students, Dunne’s experiences are filled with intellect and global insights.

Exploring the Temples of Southeast Asia

The discovery of Angkor by Henri Mouhot in the 1860s is said to have inspired more visitors than any other ruin. It certainly is grand and unique, but the trend for grandiose temple building was established long before Angkor’s time. Java’s Borobudur and Cambodia’s Phanom Rung both bear witness to an extraordinary burst of architectural energy inspired by religious fervor. This fervor was not confined to any specific faith, and the ruins of Ayuthaya in Thailand, Melaka in Malaysia, and Goa in India all show various degrees of cultural blending indicated in the architecture of their temples and religious monuments. Slightly less ancient but equally interesting are the WWII tunnels and shrines on Penang’s Batu Ferringhi.

Abandonment under the shadow of dense jungle for centuries, in some cases, has preserved architecture in such an amazing condition that, for a brief moment, one can almost sense the original spirit of the place. Birds, insects, and other wildlife provide a soundscape that is so different from urban bustle and can be delightfully soothing. Flickering shafts of sunlight, filtered by the canopy, and the musty scent of earth combine to create a mysterious atmosphere.

Discovering the temples of Southeast Asia is always a magical experience. Venturing deep into tropical jungles, hiking through rice paddies or scrambling along coastal boulders brings its own rewards. The discovery of a lost city, a hidden sanctuary, or a place of worship is certainly one of the most satisfying.

Experiencing the Vibrant Night Markets

A mainstay of Southeast Asian culture, and an opportunity for any traveler to experience the buzz of local life, the night market can vary in size from a few temporary stalls on the sidewalk to a major event spanning several blocks and drawing thousands of visitors. It is worth seeking out the general hours of local markets from a nearby tourist office because not all night markets are daily events. In some rural areas, they are held only once a week. An always unexpected experience, night markets are some of the best ways to enjoy a pleasant evening in Southeast Asia. Colorful, often chaotic and always vibrant, they are not just about buying items. The energy is high, and local people go to meet others, eat a meal, and wander. There is always a lot going on with usually a few impromptu open air musical acts, maybe some demonstrations and a chance to see many of the locals in a festive mood.

Temple Trotting

South East Asia holds a closely guarded secret which visitors to the region will see for themselves, and although the definition of a temple may differ quite significantly from what a Thai or Cambodian might call one, these marvels of architecture, belief and tradition are held in high esteem the length and breadth of the region. From the spiritual meccas of Northern Thailand to the remote animist shrines of the Philippines’ mountain tribes, travelers looking to unearth the mysticism and wonder of South East Asia will not be disappointed by the smorgasbord of temple options on hand. On the island of Java in Indonesia, two famous temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan are often a key highlight of a traveler’s time in Indonesia. Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist monument in Central Java and is considered to be one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. The Buddhist monument was founded around 800 AD and abandoned around 100 years later. Javanese convert to Islam and volcanic eruption was the cause of this. It was rediscovered in the 19th century and ever since has been undergoing restoration by the Indonesians and the UNESCO. It is the single most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia and is still used as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over Indonesia.

Discovering Ancient Wonders

Ancient temple ruins have always been an awe-inspiring mystery for people. How could such massive, intricate places of worship and home to so many be deserted? You can visit the temples of The Angkor Wat is generally considered the most beautiful temple in the world. Location on the temple of Ta Prohm is unique. One of the most memorable and photogenic temples of the Angkor complex, you’ll recognise Ta Prohm as soon as you see the iconic trees and roots that adorn the temple’s walls and courtyards. This temple was made famous by the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Tomb Raider’ and is a “must visit” site in Angkor. Built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, it’s a Buddhist temple founded by the King Jayavarman VII, dedicated to his mother. It’s still largely unrestored, as you’ll notice from the numerous trees and other vegetation growing out of the ruins. This is a great site and one not to be missed, being unique in that it has been left largely as it was found. Bring a good pair of walking shoes and plenty of film! Your guide will explain the history and the foundational structure of the temple and you will also be free to explore on your own. Please do take care in some of the less secure areas of the temple.

Embracing Spiritual Traditions

Temples and Spiritual Atmosphere Today, there is a growing relationship between the existence of spiritual traditions and religious practices where such traditions may be fading. An attempt is being made to use the world heritage status as a means to conserve the historical and spiritual value of Angkor. Steps have been taken to disallow certain new age practices from being carried out in the temple area such as yoga and meditation, claiming that it is a corruption of Buddhist and Hindu practices, and the prayers and blessings of monks are being done to maintain the purity of the temple ground. With the current state of politics, economy, and rapid development, it is almost certain that there will be much change to the face of Cambodia in the near future. For tourists who might wish to embrace spiritual traditions, witnessing the changes at Angkor and Cambodia as a whole can be quite thought-provoking.

Anytime chasing after spiritual ideals in a foreign country, there is a need to be prepared or at least to understand what is being pursued. My trial with this in Siem Reap 1999 did not present one of readiness, and therefore I found myself running around the temples of Angkor seeking a place where solitude might be present and a chance to partake in a meditation practice could begin. This process of seeking out an appropriate environment for meditation is something of importance and involves a decision-making process regarding the spiritual atmosphere of a place and the compatibility of our own spiritual path. Finally finding a suitable place and having gained permission from the head monk, I resided for a while, practicing meditation in the temple grounds of Wat Bo. During this period, I developed an affectionate relationship with the young monks there, and before leaving Siem Reap, I made a promise with the head monk that I would one day return to Cambodia to help the young monks and to the Angkor temples to do some kind of work beneficial to both temples and people.

Capturing Breathtaking Architecture

Least publicized are the roads and footpaths leading to and from the dark side of the temple. Although a minority of these are middle-class highways between village and town, others are long forgotten, stony climbs to the ancient ruins. By following these courses you have the opportunity to meet Cambodia’s past face to face. Your efforts will be rewarded when the journey ends in soaring gopuras of temples such as Angkor Wat or the sombre smiling faces of Bayon. When an-globa were here in Cambodia he was asked by a fellow history enthusiast “why are you always reading or researching about Cambodian history?” He replied at the time “And why are you always drinking beer? Because I like it. I like Khmer history. It’s interesting.” He then went on to say a year later after finding some valuable historical artifacts. “I used to think that Cambodian people are not interested in their past. The further away you get from Angkor, the less they seem to know. But now I’m not so sure. In my explorations of central Cambodia, I’ve come across quite a few people who share my interest and truly this is the heartland of historic Cambodia. This page is for all those who have an interest in Cambodian history and those who are yet to be exposed to the vast history of this great Kingdom.”

Night Markets

Night markets are found across Southeast Asia and can be a great way to experience local culture. Eating food from a street market is a very different experience to eating in a restaurant. By choosing to put your digestive system in the hands of the street vendor, you will quickly gain an understanding of whether or not the food is safe to eat. If the state of the stall and surrounding area looks clean, and the food is being handled in a hygienic manner, it is most likely safe to eat. Also, watch to see whether the food is being cooked in front of you. If it is, it reduces the likelihood of the food being reheated and will reduce the time for bacteria to accumulate. Apart from health and safety, eating at a night market is a great way to interact with the locals. Many street vendors will only speak the local language, so it is a good opportunity to learn some basics. If you are a fussy eater, don’t expect to find an English menu or be able to communicate specific dietary requirements, but there is often a decent variety of food available, so you may be able to walk around and find something that you like the look of. Night markets are a great place to find cheap local food, and every Southeast Asian night market will have a variety of these on offer. On top of this, some of the larger markets will have food from different regions and countries. In cities or areas with a large expat community, you may even find food from other areas of the world. So take a break from the standard backpacker diet of fried rice and spring rolls and treat yourself to something different.

Immersing in Local Culture

Night markets are not just about buying and selling. The entire night market is a traditional form of leisure, deeply entrenched in the social culture of a local community. In many small towns, the night market is the highlight of the social month. It gives the people a chance to get out from the house and meet up with friends, neighboring villagers and even relatives. Above all, it’s a cheap way to spend an evening, or even a weekly event around pay-day. This is not to say that the night market is a place for middle and lower classes. In many western countries, it’s associated with the lower class. Any traveler wanting to experience a true glimpse of everyday local life would be well advised to visit a local night market. This is particularly the case in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, where night markets are a prominent part of the local culture. It will also provide ample opportunity to practice language and even pick up bits and pieces of the local dialect. Often free from touts and people hassling you to buy things, you’ll be able to let your guard down and take people as they are. Night markets are a good chance to make local friends. By showing an interest in a local craft and talking with the vendor, you may find yourself invited to a local wedding, or out for a drink with the family after the market has closed. People are generally more relaxed and friendlier at night markets, making it an ideal setting for making friends. With the global dominance of smartphones and fast food, they will also become increasingly rare in the future, making them a site of cultural heritage in themselves.

Indulging in Delicious Street Food

The street food found at South East Asian night markets is some of the most delicious, unique, and affordable in the world. Every country has their own specialty, often simple and fitting to the setting of a busy market place. The smell of freshly grilled satay sticks floats through the air at markets in Bali, while in Thailand the options are endless with spring rolls, mango sticky rice, pad thai and various coconut-based desserts. My personal favourite is found at Lhong 1919 in Bangkok, a restored Chinese shrine hosting a small but very tasty market. I snacked on amazing roast pork buns, fresh spring rolls, and crispy pork belly with rice here many times throughout my stay in Bangkok. Markets are the perfect place to sample a bit of everything, often for less than a dollar per dish! If you are a less adventurous eater, or are concerned about what street food might do to your health, don’t be discouraged from eating at markets. Law-abiding vendors in South East Asia understand the importance of cleanliness and safe food storage and are often operating under strict health and safety standards enforced by their local council. In my experience, I have never had any issues after eating street food, so eat away and don’t miss out on the magic of the markets!

Shopping for Unique Souvenirs

The main advantage of doing souvenir shopping specifically at the night market is the unique items available. As stated earlier, many of the vendors produce their own products. The result is that the consumer can find an assortment of items that are particular to that country. If you are visiting several different countries in Southeast Asia, souvenir shopping at the night market can be especially nice because the opportunity to purchase the same or similar items is very unlikely. Kellie, a seasoned traveler of Southeast Asia recalls a particular item that she picked up, “I bought a great picture made out of flower petals depicting an elephant. It’s different and something unlikely to be found outside of Thailand.” The chance to find rare items like Kellie’s flower petal picture is often too good to pass up for souvenir hunters. In addition to more unique items, some of the best prices can be found at night markets for comparable items sold in other venues. With a multitude of vendors all selling similar products, the power of bargaining in the night market is a very useful tool for shoppers looking for a good deal. Most vendors realize that there will be quite a bit of comparison shopping between their booth and the one next to them so they will often be more inclined to haggle over price. Ningkanjung comments, “You can also compare more easily the prices and quality among the other vendors. This makes the vendor strive more to get the lower price with the best quality so they can attract more customers to their shop.” At the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos many of the same products found at the nearby “Hill Tribes” clothing shop were significantly less expensive. An identical bag that sold for 180,000 kip ($22.50) at the shop, was later purchased at the night market for 90,000 kip ($11.25). Although the result may not always be a 50% off price cut, the potential to save money is much higher at the night market due to the increased competition between vendors.