Category Archives: Travel in Southeast Asia

The Stylish Way to See Myanmar: By River

River tours are becoming ever more popular with tourists in Southeast Asia, with both high-end luxury cruises and many more general options including day trips. The major river in Myanmar is the Ayeyarwady (also/formerly spelled Irrawaddy).

Myanmar rivers map, Copyright Pandaw River Expeditions
Myanmar rivers map, Copyright Pandaw River Expeditions

We recently posed some introductory questions to Sven Zika, Sales and Marketing Manager at Pandaw / The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, the first company to offer international tourists river expeditions in Myanmar, from 1995, with a company history going back over 100 years before that (see the history of the company here).

1. Has there been a growth of interest from travellers recently?

Sven: Yes, there has been a huge surge of interest in river cruising, especially as Myanmar has become more widely appreciated as a holiday destination. From two ships in 2013, our fleet has grown to 7 ships in 2014 with one more on the way in 2015.

2. What ages and nationalities of passengers most often come on your cruises?

Sven: At the moment the majority of passengers are 50+ and come mostly from the UK, USA, and Australia, as well as all over Western Europe

Many of the most famous sites to visit in Myanmar are directly accessible from river landings or nearby
Many of the most famous sites to visit in Myanmar are directly accessible from river landings or nearby (Photo copyright Pandaw River Expeditions)

3. Why are river tours a good way of seeing Myanmar?

Sven: Firstly, because many of Myanmar’s historical centres have developed along the rivers, you have access to all of the major tourism highlights of the country from river cruise stop-offs.

Of course, the comfort and style of travelling by river is unequalled: you don’t have to pack and unpack constantly, or deal with multiple hotel bookings and transport… yet you can see a big list of places across the whole country and explore some remote spots. Getting to the more distant and indeed authentic parts of Burma by car or bus means long journeys over bad roads, and internal flights are still erratic. So there is really no alternative to compete with the river routes.

From the river you can explore beautiful landscapes including on the Chindwin and Upper Irrawaddy

4. When you tour historic locations in Myanmar, what opportunities are there for passengers to find out about the history in more detail?

Sven: we have expert local guides travelling with passengers on every ship. The ships also have a well-stocked library, enabling you to read up before or after your trips off to famous places like Bagan and Mandalay.

5. What are your selected highlights in Bagan and nearby?

Sven: All of our tours pass Bagan. Here is what we regard as the must-see list:

  • Shwezigon Pagoda
  • Ananda Temple
  • Phayathonzu Temple (Masterpiece paintings)
  • Nanphaya Temple (Brahma sculptures)
  • Dhamma-yan-gyi (Finest brickwork)
  • Pyathatkyi Temple (Panoramic view of Bagan)
  • Gubyaukgyi (murals)
  • Manuha Temple (Captive King’s Temple)
  • Napaya Temple (Brahma sculptures)
  • Pyathatkyi Temple (sunset!)
Shwezigon Pagoda, in Nyaung-U, a town near Bagan (Photo copyright Pandaw River Expeditions)
Shwezigon Pagoda, in Nyaung-U, a town near Bagan (Photo copyright Pandaw River Expeditions)

6. Are these UNSECO-listed Pyu Ancient Cities sites accessible for visitors?

Sven: Yes, we visit Pyu during two cruise itineraries: The Irrawaddy 14-nights and The Golden Land 10-nights.

Find out more

Read full details of 14 different Pandaw itineraries in Myanmar here.

Contact: Sven Zika, Sales & Marketing Manager, Pandaw River Expeditions
[email protected]
UK office phone: +44 20 3773 8796

Many thanks to Pandaw River Expeditions for information and photos for this article - please view their tour information at
Many thanks to Pandaw River Expeditions for information and photos for this article – please view their tour information at

Visiting Temples: Tips on Behaviour and Etiquette

You'll feel less daunted about visiting Buddhist temples and holy sites after reading these commonsense tips courtesy of
You’ll feel less daunted about visiting Buddhist temples and holy sites after reading these commonsense tips courtesy of

For the uninitiated, a visit to a temple in Southeast and East Asia could be a daunting undertaking. The unfamiliar breeds trepidation and you find yourself unsure of what to do. What are the rules for these mysterious places?

Well, you will find that there are surprisingly few.

Each region has their own set of customs, but they are easy to remember and even easier to adhere to. You should always bear in mind that the temple staff want you to be there. If they can, they will help you in any way, from explaining the etiquette, to assisting you make an offering of your own.


Probably the easiest thing to make a mistake with is your feet. The first thing to think about when entering a temple is your shoes. In Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, you will need to remove your shoes and leave them outside each hall of the temple, reclaiming them when you exit. This is a cultural norm for entering a house as well.

In Myanmar, you often need to take off your shoes before you go into the compound, at the main gate. You normally leave your footwear on a rack, or next to the door, but it is sometimes acceptable to carry them in a plastic bag as you go around. This is a great idea, especially for a big place like the Shwedagon Paya, where you may leave from a different exit.

In Vietnam, Hong Kong and China, you will not need to remove your shoes at any point in either Buddhist or Taoist temples.

The other main point to note is that you should never point at anything with your feet – use your hands. The feet are furthest from your head and touch the ground, so it shows little respect to use them in this manner. Also, if you are in Thailand and you are sitting in a hall, try not to sit with your feet facing the Buddha. This can be quite a mission, but do your best and it will be appreciated.

Take along a bag to carry your shoes in, so you can exit the other side of the complex without having to go back to retrieve
Take along a bag to carry your shoes in, so you can exit the other side of the complex without having to go back to retrieve


Hands are quite easy. The main points to note concern gestures. A good rule to follow through pretty much all of Asia, is not to use your finger to point at people or religious imagery. Use an upturned open palm gesture instead.

If you wish to ‘wai’ to the Buddha in Thailand or any of the other Buddhist countries, simply place the palms together on your brow and bow. There is a system for doing this, but as a foreigner, any bowing will be enough. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t! You are not obligated to bow to anything or anyone.


Dress appropriately. In many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, you should not wear revealing clothes in temples. Ladies in particular need to bear this in mind. You should not wear low cut tops and your shoulders need to be covered. This is also true of knees.

Some temples will have shawls and sarongs for the unprepared, but if you want to guarantee entry, cover your knees and shoulders. Long shorts are fine and t-shirts also. If you are on holiday somewhere hot and you don’t want to wear many clothes, then you may want to bring a light shirt to cover your tank top.

Tourists at Wat Phra Kaew
Check with your guide or local contacts about the dress standards so you come prepared with a spare layer or shawl even if your normal tourist wear leaves lots of bare skin


People often feel concerned about talking in temples. This is really not a problem, so long as you don’t shout. Most temples will not have any rules about being silent. If there is a silence policy, then it will be clearly signed. So feel free to talk quietly.

You can also ask questions. If there is a friendly looking monk or temple official, then you can approach them and find out more about the temple. There may be a minor language barrier, but in my experience, they are almost always delighted to try and help you. If you are really lucky, they might even help you light some incense and do a small ritual.

The only caveat is not to disturb them when they are busy; try not to interrupt any ceremonies or temple business.

Manka Lungshan Temple, Taipei. In Chinese temples, check what the rules are about photography: often not allowed inside.
Manka Lungshan Temple, Taipei. In Chinese temples, check what the rules are about photography: often not allowed inside.

Eyes, Ears, Nose

As an extension of your senses, a camera can sometimes be the eye that many visitors see temples through. In a quest to get great photos, many miss out on the experience of a temple atmosphere. There are some rules concerning use of cameras that you should be aware of.

In Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Taiwan, you can photograph pretty much anything, including the main Buddha image. If there is a sign telling you not to, then respect it. Someone will tell you pretty quickly if you can’t use a camera.

Some images, such as the Phra Buddha Chinnarat in Phitsanulok or the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, are considered too holy to photograph.

In China, you can photograph outside the halls, but not inside. This applies to Buddhist and Taoist temples. In Hong Kong, you can’t photograph inside Buddhist temples, but you can inside the local god temples and shrines, unless told not to.

Incense Coils, Pak Tai Temple, Wan Chai
Open all your senses, including smell!

Really, you should keep your eyes open to the sights around you. You should listen to the sounds of bells, drums and chants. You should take in the powerful smell of joss sticks and incense. These are the life force of the temple. They are more than just beautiful buildings, they are places to experience with all of your senses.

Author Tom Billinge runs The Temple Trail, an ultimate website resource for learning about famous and lesser known temples and religious sites in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Hanging Hall Stacks, Xuankong Hanging Temple, Datong
recommended Temple Trail post: Xuankong Hanging Temple, Datong

Quan Su Pagoda, Hanoi, Vietnam

With over 1,000 years of history, Ha Noi has been Vietnam’s centre of Buddhism for centuries. The city has more than 600 temples and pagodas, many of which are not only religious relics but also popular tourist sites. Neither boasting a long history nor having an extraordinary architecture, Quan Su pagoda is still a precious treasure of Ha Noi and has been the Headquaters of the Vietnam Buddhism Association since 1858.

Courtyard at Quan Su Pagoda, Hanoi
Roof ornamentation at Quan Su Pagoda, Hanoi
stairway at Quan Su Pagoda, Hanoi
Faithful praying inside Quan Su Pagoda, Hanoi

The name “Quan Su” comes from an ancient word of “embassy” associated with the history of the pagoda. During the Le Dynasty in the 15th century, Chiem Thanh (Champa) and Ai Lao (Laos) usually sent ambassadors to offer tributes to Dai Viet (official name of Vietnam in the Le Dynasty). Emperor Le The Tong ordered construction of a building called “quan su” (embassy) to welcome these ambassadors. However, because they were all Buddhist, they suggested a temple for worship while staying in Dai Viet. As a result, Quan Su pagoda was built near the southern gate of Thang Long Capital and dedicated to Buddha.

Bell at Quan Su Pagoda, Hanoi

At the end of the Le Dynasty, while many pagodas around the country were burned down, Quan Su pagoda was fortunately saved and since then has gone through a lot of renovations. It was not until 1822 that the temple was open to the public.  Quan Su is always full of worshipers and visitors. The pagoda opens daily from 7.30 to 11.30am and 1.30 to 5.30pm.

>> To view more photos from Quan Su Pagoda in a full-size gallery please click this link.

Article and photos many thanks to writer Sophia Doan.

Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Hoi An, Vietnam

Night view of Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Vietnam
Burning incense in the courtyard at Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Vietnam

The Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, located at 46 Tran Phu Street, is a famous sign of Hoi An’s trading history and displays rich architectural features that reflect strong Chinese influence.

The building was constructed in 1692 by Vietnamese people living in Hoi An and originally a Buddhist thatched pagoda called Kim Son. It unfortunately became very damaged and was eventually sold to the rich Fukian merchants, who fled from China to Hoi An in the 17th century after their ancestors lost in the fight with the Qing to restore the Ming Dynasty. After the restoration in 1759, the pagoda was renamed “Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall” and dedicated to the worship of their ancestors and Thien Hau Holy Mother, who was believed to save and protect the traders during their escape.

Chinese characters around the doorway in Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Vietnam
Chinese boat model at Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Vietnam

This story is illustrated in the two huge embossments hung near the main door of the hall and the model of a boat symbolising the initial journey to Vietnam. The building also served as an assembly hall for the Fukian community – the biggest Chinese community in Hoi An at that time.

The interior of Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Vietnam

The three-entrance gate is a beautiful structure covered with blue enamel tube-tiles. Visitors might also notice that symbols of sacared animals such as fish, dragons, unicorns, phoenixes and turtles are featured quite a lot in the design and architecture of the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall. These symbols profoundly reflect the Oriental philosophy that values achievement, power, endurance, knowledge and nobiliy.

Chinese lion statue at Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Vietnam

The main hall houses the statues of Avalokitesvara sitting in mediation, Thien Ly Hau Holy Mother, the God of Thien Ly Nhan Thien Hau (thousand-mile vision) and the God of Thuong Phong Nhi (thousand-mile hearing). In the centre of the back sanctuary are the statues of the three most famous Kings of the Ming Dynasty and the six generals in the family who died in the fight for the restoration of the dynasty. The right altar in the back sanctuary is dedicated to the three Sanh Thai goddeses and 12 midwives who are said to teach newborns basic skills such are sucking and smiling. As a result, couples keen to have children often visit Phuc Kien Assembly Hall to pray for children. On the other hand, merchants who wish wealth and luck usually worship the God of Wealth whose statue is located in the left altar.

Guanyin altar at Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Vietnam

Nowadays, Phuc Kien Assembly Hall is one of the most popular tourist sites in Hoi An. Visitors come here not only to explore a beautiful work of architecture but also to participate in many annual events and activities to celebrate Chinese festivals when the assembly hall is in its full glory.

Tsunami painting in Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Vietnam

To view more photos from Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall in a full-size gallery please click this link.

Article and photos by writer Sophia Doan.

Linh Ung Pagoda, near Da Nang, Vietnam

Situated in the Son Tra peninsula, Linh Ung – Bai But Pagoda is an attractive tourist destination and the biggest pagoda in the charming coastal city of Da Nang.

Chinese style roofs at Linh Ung Pagoda, Vietnam

Unveiled in July 2010 after six years of construction, Linh Ung – Bai But pagoda features perfect harmony between the modern and traditional architectures of Vietnamese pagodas, especially in the three-entrance gate, the main chamber and the ancestors’ house. Tourists are also advised to spend their time admiring lively Buddha statues in the surrounding gardens as they illustrate fascinating myths and stories in Buddhism.

temple at Linh Ung Pagoda, Vietnam

Walking through the Linh Ung pagoda’s main gate, you’re greeted by 18 large white stone statues representing the 18 Arhats, which are a popular subject in Buddhist art, with all of the human emotions of joy, anger, love and sadness.

Guanyin statue at Linh Ung Pagoda, Vietnam

The most prominent part of the pagoda complex is the highest statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (or the Goddess of Mercy) in the Southeast Asia at 67 metre high. Inside the statue, 21 small Buddha sculptures are arranged across 17 floors, from which tourists can look over to the boundless sea and primitive forest surrounding the pagoda. This exemplifies the “Phat Trung Huu Phat” architecture in Buddhism.

monastery courtyard at Linh Ung Pagoda, Vietnam

If you are lucky enough to meet and have a chat with the monks, they will tell you the many stories about the history of the pagoda. In the 19th century, the local living on the peninsula saw a Buddhist statue drifting downstream to the local beach. Considered this a good omen, they named the embankment where the statue ran aground “Bai But”, which means “Buddha’s sanctuary on earth”, and built a small pagoda there. This is also the location of Linh Ung Pagoda nowadays.

Unlike other pagodas in Vietnam, tourists can visit Linh Ung Pagoda in the evening and enjoy a spectacular panorama view of Da Nang city.

stairs up to gateway at Linh Ung Pagoda, Vietnam
impressive gateways at Linh Ung Pagoda, Vietnam
views down to the sea at Linh Ung Pagoda, Vietnam
beautiful sea views at Linh Ung Pagoda, Vietnam

To view more photos from this Linh Ung Pagoda article in a full-size gallery please click this link.

Article and photos by writer Sophia Doan.