Best things to do at sunrise: Travel experiences worth getting up early for

There are few sounds in the world that are worse than the blaring of an alarm clock. Beep, beep, beep. It so rarely signifies anything good, or enjoyable. Mostly it just means it's time to go to work.

But there are exceptions – even, it turns out, while you're travelling. Because while no one particularly craves the experience of getting out of bed early for a flight or a bus, there are certain amazing, life-changing travel experiences that can only be had very early in the morning.

This is a magical time, after all, when the world is just beginning to wake up, when the early-morning sun has bathed everything in a palette of golden hues. It's when roosters crow, when people stir, when animals appear, and when rituals that have sometimes been carried on for thousands of years begin to take place.

If you're going to wake up early during your holidays, it has to be for good reasons. And these are some of the best reasons around.

BALLOON FLIGHT OVER BAGAN, MYANMAR

SET THE ALARM 5am

WHY To see fields of ancient temples bathed in orange light.

THE EXPERIENCE More than 2200 temples and pagodas dot the countryside of Bagan, in central Myanmar, and by far the best way to see them is from the air, floating in serene silence as the sun rises and the temples glow. While there are plenty of great places to take a dawn balloon flight – Cappadocia in Turkey would have to be on many people's bucket lists – there's something uniquely spectacular about the morning cruise over Bagan. It's well worth rising in the darkness for.

HOW Balloons Over Bagan runs dawn flights over the area from October to March, costing $400 a person. See easternsafaris.com.

See: The best way to see unspoilt Myanmar

FIRST TRACKS AT ASPEN SNOWMASS, USA

SET THE ALARM 7am

WHY To get the best ski conditions before everyone else does.

THE EXPERIENCE It doesn't matter how much of the apres-ski scene you enjoyed the night before – if you're staying in Aspen, you want to be up early. You want to be the first person in line when that gondola opens. You want to be one of the only skiers schussing down those pristine slopes first up, hopefully with a nice layer of fresh snow, enjoying the biting cold and the endless space with no one else to spoil it for you. Fresh tracks are always worth getting up for.

HOW Each day Aspen Snowmass offers guests the chance to book in for First Tracks, guaranteeing you'll be first up the mountain at 8am. It's free, but space is limited. See aspensnowmass.com.

See: 20 reasons to visit Aspen

SUNRISE AT DUNE 45, NAMIBIA

SET THE ALARM 4am

WHY To witness the Namib Desert at its most spectacular.

THE EXPERIENCE You awake in pitch darkness. You pack up the tent, slurp a quick coffee and then hit the road into the Namib-Naukluft National Park, driving into the desert until huge dark shapes begin to appear on either side of the road. You stop at the highest one, Dune 45, a 170-metre-tall monster. It begins all black and brooding, but as the sun slowly rises the sand dune turns a dark, angry red, and then fiery orange, and finally glowing gold. Spectacular.

HOW Entry into the national park costs $7 a person. Dune 45 is 45km from the gate. See sossusvlei.org.

See: How Namibia magnificently replaced Australia in Mad Max: Fury Road

SUSHI BREAKFAST IN TSUKIJI, JAPAN

SET THE ALARM 5am

WHY Share the breakfast of champions with the people who made it happen.

THE EXPERIENCE While there are those who will advocate rising even earlier to see the famed tuna auctions at Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Markets, the real attraction of the area begins at about 7am, when the sushi restaurants supplied by this huge institution throw open their doors and the workers rush in. For them it's probably about lunchtime, but for tourists it's a delicious, fishy breakfast.

HOW One of the best Tsukiji sushi joints is Daiwa Sushi, though if you're not keen on queuing for hours, Sushi Maru is also good. See jnto.org.au.

See: Visit Tokyo's biggest attraction while you still can

MACHU PICCHU'S SUN GATE, PERU

SET THE ALARM 3am

WHY To be one of the few to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu.

THE EXPERIENCE You have to wake early – extremely early. It will still be dark when you get dressed in your tent, pack a few things into a bag and then begin walking the final stretch of the Inca Trail. This is day three of the hike, and most of it will be done by torchlight, picking your way along a rough mountain path before eventually arriving at Intipunku, the Sun Gate. There, as the sun rises and the jungle mist burns away, hikers have their first view of the magical Machu Picchu. It's something you never forget.

HOW While day-trippers to Machu Picchu can access the Sun Gate, they won't be able to get there until about 10am; the best experience is to hike the Inca Trail and arrive at dawn. See chimuadventures.com.au.

See: Where to unlock the secrets of Machu Picchu

THE BEST TRAVEL PHOTOS

SET THE ALARM Half an hour before dawn

WHY Because you don't get great photos at midday.

THE EXPERIENCE You know all of those amazing travel photos you've seen, of famous sights and monuments in beautiful golden light, without a tourist to spoil them, everything looking serene and calm? There's a very good chance those photos were taken at or just after dawn. For photographers, the "golden hour" – just after sunrise and just before sunset – is the perfect time to shoot. And getting up early means you don't have to deal with the crowds.

HOW This photography trick is good for pretty much any location around the world.

See: Tips on how to take better travel photos

DAWN ON VOLCAN VILLARRICA, CHILE

SET THE ALARM 4am

WHY To experience sunrise while standing on a live volcano.

THE EXPERIENCE You're given crampons for this hike, strapped to boots with clumsy, cold fingers in the dark of night. You're given ice axes, gripped tight in gloved hands. And then it begins: the climb up the side of Volcan Villarrica, a live volcano in Chile's southern Lakes District. It begins in the dark, climbing with the aid of head torches, but a few hours in the sun finally begins to rise, revealing the snow-covered volcano and the full glory of its surrounding countryside. It's worth the early rise.

HOW Villarrica expeditions depart from the town of Pucon, and take about eight hours all up. See turismoandesmar.com.

SURFING AT SUPERBANK, QLD

SET THE ALARM 5am

WHY To get the best of the Gold Coast's iconic surf break.

THE EXPERIENCE Surfers love to get up early, and with good reason: the best wave conditions usually occur just after dawn, particularly on Australia's east coast, where onshore winds tend to hit in the late morning and ruin most surfers' days. So you need an alarm clock for the best of surfing, and you need to be in the Gold Coast – specifically at Superbank, a now world-famous wave that connects Snapper Rocks with up to five beaches to its west. You'll see Mick Fanning out there. You'll see Joel Parkinson out there. In fact you'll see half of the Gold Coast and Coolangatta out there. And you'll see them just after dawn.

HOW Surfing at Superbank is free and unrestricted. For condition reports, see surfline.com.

QUIET TIME IN EUROPE

SET THE ALARM Dawn

WHY To have some of the world's most famous attractions all to yourself.

THE EXPERIENCE There's only one way to see Rome's Trevi Fountain without the maddening crowds. There's only one way to take photos of the Eiffel Tower without it being spoiled by a million tourists. And there's only one way to stroll Venice's alleyways and canals without feeling squeezed by the tourist crush. Get up early. Get up at dawn and explore Europe's most famous cities and all of a sudden it's just you and a few locals going about their business. It's quiet. It's serene. It's completely different.

HOW The great thing about European cities is that many of the most famous sights are public and free. Plus, getting up early costs you nothing more than the loss of a few hours' sleep.

See: How to beat the crowds at the world's busiest attractions

MORNING PRAYERS IN KOYA-SAN, JAPAN

SET THE ALARM 6am

WHY To watch a centuries-old ritual of morning worship.

THE EXPERIENCE It's impossible to ignore the magic of Koya-san – a small village high in the mountains above Kyoto – at any time of the day. This is the world headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, a UNESCO heritage site with more than 120 temples and shrines set among wooded hills. In the early morning, however, it's at its most charming. That's when monks gather to chant and pray, their hypnotic song adding to the serenity of this beautiful place.

HOW Best way to experience Koya-San is to stay overnight at a "shukubo", a temple that offers guest lodgings, and then rise early to see the monks praying. See www.koya.org 

See: Meditating with the Shingon monks

DUMPLINGS AT LIN HEUNG, HONG KONG

SET THE ALARM 7am

WHY To join the daily battle for Hong Kong's best dim sum.

THE EXPERIENCE You've been to dim sum, or yum cha, before – but it won't have been anything like this. Since 1926, Lin Heung restaurant has been serving up tea and Cantonese snacks to the masses, dishes such as steamed dumplings, pork buns, cheong fun, and a steamed sponge cake. But they don't come easy. Arrive early any day of the week and you get to see Lin Heung in full swing, as Chinese businessmen sip tea and read newspapers while hungry diners dash around the room chasing down food carts and returning triumphantly with their dishes of choice. It's a riot, but in a good way.

HOW Lin Heung is open every day from 6am, and meals cost about $25. See openrice.com.

See: Lin Heung: A taste of real yum cha

SUNRISE OVER ANGKOR WAT, CAMBODIA

SET THE ALARM 5.30am

WHY To see the Cambodian temple at its best, before the heat of the day.

THE EXPERIENCE The secret is out. What was once a quiet moment to observe the Angkor Wat temple is now well known as the perfect time to be there: dawn. Don't let the crowds put you off, however. It's still one of the world's great sights, watching as the sun gradually rises behind this ancient temple, reflected in surrounding waters, slowly lighting all of the nooks and crannies of this huge carved stone edifice.

HOW Single-day passes into the Temples of Angkor cost US$20, and most hotels and tour operators take groups to Angkor Wat to see dawn. See tourismcambodia.com.

See: Touring Angkor Wat by bicycle

MACAW VIEWING IN THE AMAZON, PERU

SET THE ALARM 4am

WHY To see thousands of macaws feeding at an Amazonian "clay lick".

THE EXPERIENCE It's something you hear before you can really see: the rustle of feathers, the beat of large wings, the squawks that begin softly in the distance but build in intensity and proximity until they're a roar that feels within arm's reach. And then the light strengthens, and from the viewing spot hidden in the jungle near the Tambopata River you can begin to spot the Amazonian birdlife, the scarlet macaws, big as bald eagles, the toucans, the parakeets and the parrots that gather here every morning at dawn to feed and play.

HOW Macaw viewing takes place at the Tambopata Research Centre in north-eastern Peru. Four-day packages, including meals and transfers, start from $1130. See chimuadventures.com.au.

BIG-FIVE-SPOTTING ON SAFARI

SET THE ALARM 5am

WHY To see Africa's most amazing animal species.

THE EXPERIENCE Most typical days on safari begin like this. You wake early, before dawn, before the animal kingdom around you begins to stir. You sip hot coffee and dunk a few biscuits in. You grab a jumper and a hat and then climb into the safari vehicle, heading out into the wilderness as the sun starts to rise and "big five" come out to play. This is your best chance of spotting lions, or leopards, or elephants, or rhinos, or even buffalo. It's the time the African plains come to life. There's nothing else like it in the world.

HOW Safari camps range from the budget to the five-star, from east Africa to south. For options, see benchinternational.com.au.

See: Extremely cute and incredibly scary: Getting up close on safari

SUNRISE AT ULURU, NT

SET THE ALARM 5am

WHY To witness the rock at its finest.

THE EXPERIENCE Your first option is simply to drive out to Uluru before sunrise and wait patiently on a viewing platform as one of the world's great sights slowly reveals itself. Another is to take Ayers Rock Resort's Desert Awakenings tour, and witness dawn from far enough away to see both Uluru and Kata Tjuta as another day in the desert begins. Either way, an early start will bring the best of the big red rock, which begins as nothing more than brooding shadow but eventually becomes that world-famous sight.

HOW The Desert Awakenings tour costs $173 per person – see ayersrockresort.com. For independent travellers, entry into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is $25 per person. See parksaustralia.gov.au.

See: Six of the best Uluru experiences

ALMS-GIVING IN LUANG PRABANG, LAOS

SET THE ALARM 5.30am

WHY To see an ancient ritual played out on the city streets.

THE EXPERIENCE They almost seem like ghosts in the early morning. The streets are still dark and quiet as the first procession of orange-robed monks marches silently by, past the waiting faithful, the devout Buddhists who drop parcels of food into the monks' bowls. This is a pre-dawn tradition of alms giving that has been taking place in Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, for centuries. While it's now as popular with tourists as it is with worshippers, it's still a sight worth an early-morning start to see.

HOW Tourists are allowed to take part in Luang Prabang's alms-giving ceremony – however, to preserve the ritual it's recommended you simply remain at a respectful distance and observe. See tourismluangprabang.org.

See: You can't complain when you're part of the problem

MORNING RITUALS AT HOAN KIEM LAKE, VIETNAM

SET THE ALARM 6am

WHY To watch as a city comes to life … with tai chi.

THE EXPERIENCE During the day Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake is something of a touristy hotspot, a place to rest and escape the heat, even surrounded by raucous traffic and the occasional scam-artist. Wake early, however, and you'll see a completely different scene. Hoan Kiem Lake is a favourite dawn gathering place for Hanoi locals, who come to take tai chi classes, or play badminton, or simply go for a lakeside stroll. It's a time when the area is at its best.

HOW It's free to walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, and there's action there every morning of the week. See vietnamtourism.com.

See: 20 reasons to visit Hanoi

GEYSERS DEL TATIO, CHILE

SET THE ALARM 4am

WHY To see the world's highest geysers in full flight.

THE EXPERIENCE The tours leave early from the town of San Pedro de Atacama, minivans snaking their way through the cold, dark desert and up towards El Tatio. This series of steam geysers, set 4300 metres above sea level, is most spectacular in the early morning, before the heat of the day begins to evaporate those rising clouds of mist. Arrive at the right time and you'll see one amazing show at the top of the world.

More: Day trips from San Pedro to El Tatio start from about $70 per person. See chile.travel.

See: The place to become the traveller you always wanted to be

PRE-DAWN IN ISTANBUL, TURKEY

SET THE ALARM 6am

WHY To see the devout taking their pre-fast meals.

THE EXPERIENCE Many of Istanbul's residents observe a strict sunrise-to-sunset fast during Ramadan, which means the hour or so before dawn is a busy period of eating and socialising. The Turkish metropolis's streets are alive at this time, with fasters getting in their last few bites to eat, their last slug of tea, their last drink of water, before the sun rises and the day's devotion begins. It's a fascinating thing to witness.

MORE In 2016, Ramadan is on June 7 to July 7. Wandering the streets of Istanbul is free. See goturkey.com.

See: Why Istanbul is a hard city to resist

FLOATING MARKETS OF THE MEKONG DELTA, VIETNAM

SET THE ALARM 6am

WHY To see some of Asia's best floating markets in full swing.

THE EXPERIENCE Whether you choose markets such as Can Tho, Cai Be, Long Xuyen or Chau Doc, the experience will be similar: a marketplace borne on the Mekong River, with merchants floating past in sampans selling everything from fresh vegetables and fish to soft drinks, coffee, and steaming bowls of noodle soup. This is an ancient tradition that is best viewed in the early morning, when locals come out to do their daily shop.

MORE Intrepid Travel's 12-day Real Food Vietnam tour includes a Mekong homestay and visit to the markets, and costs from $1867 a person. See intrepidtravel.com.

See: How to experience the real Vietnam and Cambodia

FIVE BEST BREAKFASTS

If food is your thing, these are the meals worth getting out of bed early for

PHO, VIETNAM

There's nothing quite like the smell of this fragrant noodle soup – a herby broth laced with onions and poached beef or chicken. It's eaten throughout Vietnam, and it's absolutely delicious.

CHILAQUILES, MEXICO

Chilaquiles is the breakfast of champions: fried corn tortillas smothered in red or green salsa, cooked until they're soft and warm, topped with shredded chicken, queso fresco and avocado. Delicious.

MOHINGA, MYANMAR

This Burmese fish noodle soup is criminally underappreciated outside the country's borders. However, within Myanmar the dish is rightly revered, and street vendors will often run out before mid-morning.

PASTRIES AND COFFEE, ITALY

There's nothing too fancy for breakfast in Italy, just a croissant, maybe filled with flavoured cream, and a strong coffee. But both are done so well, and eaten with such relish, that it's impossible not to love the tradition.

NASI LEMAK, MALAYSIA

Clutching a plate piled high with coconut rice, a fiery curry, dried anchovies, slices of cucumber and a boiled egg, it's very easy to believe that this day in Malaysia is going to be a good one.

See: The 50 dishes every traveller must try at least once

FIVE THINGS WORTH STAYING UP LATE FOR

DINNER IN BUENOS AIRES

There's a word for people who dine before 10pm in Buenos Aires: tourists. The locals wouldn't dream of heading out the door before what most people would consider bedtime, dining on steak and wine well into the wee hours. turismo.buenosaires.gob.ar

ALCATRAZ NIGHT TOUR

The only thing freakier than a tour of a notorious old prison is a tour of a notorious old prison in the dead of night. Only a few hundred visitors are allowed into the San Francisco jail as darkness falls. alcatraztickets.com

STARGAZING IN LAKE TEKAPO

Designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve, the Lake Tekapo area in the South Island of New Zealand is perfect for stargazing fans. A night tour of the Mount John Observatory is the best way to check out galaxies far, far away. earthandskynz.com

MANTA RAY NIGHT DIVES IN KONA, HAWAII

The Kona coast of Hawaii's Big Island is home to about 200 huge manta rays – we're talking wingspans of up to five metres. Best time to spot them is at night, when scuba-divers plunge into the ocean for one amazing experience. mantaraydiveshawaii.com

NORTHERN LIGHTS VIEWING, NORWAY

The natural light show that is the aurora borealis is best viewed in the northern part of Norway, and it's an unpredictable beast: you might be waiting all night for a glimpse of the green, pink and violet waves that lash the dark sky. But it will be worth it. visitnorway.com

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