We take a look at the little-known archaeological marvels of Southeast Asia
Done Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Luang Prabang in Northern Laos, Bagan in Myanmar but still thirsting after archaeological marvels, preferably without the crowds?
Southeast Asia has a rich history. Dig deep and you’ll find many more historical landmarks and cultural sights beyond the iconic and touristy sites where you can wander among the ruins without rubbing shoulders with other visitors.
Here are the seven best Asean cultural heritage sites to check out.
George Orwell came here around 1930s and lived in the town for several years before writing his memoir “Shooting an Elephant”. Rudyard Kipling spent only three nights before leaving the small town to write a poem about his impressions. Prince Sukkasem of Chiang Mai came here too, to attend St Patrick’s School during the Colonial days before falling |in love with a young cheroot vendor. Mawlamyine – known as Ma La Maeng to Thais and Moulmein to everyone else – is rich in history. Once a capital city of British Burma from 1826 to 1852, the sleepy town is a combination of beauty and melancholy. It’s the best place to retrace colonial times, having been frozen in a time capsule by decades of military rule. The sleepy town has changed little since its colonial days. It has a ridge of stupa-capped hills on one side, the sea on the other and a centre filled with mosques and crumbling colonial-era buildings. St Patrick’s School still stands and is worth visiting before you follow Prince Sukkasem to Kyaikthanlan Paya, Mawlamyine’s tallest and most visible pagoda and the place where he is said to have met “Ma Mia” his cheroot girl.
VAT PHOU, LAOS
Nestled at the base of mount Phu Kao in Champasak Province, Wat Phou requires a climb of more than 300 steps to reach the temple of Shiva and take in the breathtaking view. The stone temple is a rare example of an ancient Hindu temple in Laos. It was built in the fifth century by the Champa Kingdom, which ruled the south bank of the Mekong River. Most of the remnants, including the stone-carved scenes and broken statuary of the gods, date back to the 11th century and the Khmer Empire centred on Angkor in present-day Cambodia. Like most ancient Khmer temples, this complex takes the form of a rectangle, with a long strip of paved path sweeping west-east through the site up to the inner sanctum. The pediment at the front has a fine carving of Vishnu on a garuda, while the South lintel shows Lord Krishna tearing his uncle, Kamsa, in two. Unesco designated the monument a World Heritage Site, and academics consider it the finest medieval Khmer complex in Laos.
SI SATCHANALAI, THAILAND
A visit to Sukhothai wouldn’t be complete without travelling to the historical site of the ancient Si Satchanalai City, which is about 50 kilometres away. The old city was founded in 1250 as the second centre of Sukhothai Kingdom and served as the residence of the crown prince in the 13th and 14th centuries The city was rectangular in shape and home to temples, pagodas and Buddha images. The best way to explore the ruined city is by bike. The main attractions are Wat Phra Si Mahathat, Wat Chang Lom and Wat Chedi Jet Taew, all of which showcase the authentic Sukhothai architectural style.
MRAUK U, MYANMAR
Tucked away in Myanmar’s West, Mrauk U (pronounced “mraw-oo”) is like Bagan without the tourists. The old capital of Rakhine state, it draws visitors and culture buffs for its “forest” of pagodas. It’s a magical place, especially in the winter when the valley is covered with a thick layer of mist. You will enjoy watching the pagodas appear as the mist dissolves in the old town. Unlike Bagan, the pagodas here are made from stone not brick. Mrauk U’s temples are spread across still-inhabited villages, rice fields, valley and hillrock, making it a way more green and liveable area than dry and dusty Bagan. Most importantly, you will probably have the historical site to yourself since less than 5,000 foreigners make it to Mrauk U.
PREAH VIHEAR TEMPLE, CAMBODIA
Like Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear was designed to represent Mt Meru and is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. It took four Cambodian kings, from Yasovarman I in the ninth century to Suryavarman II in the twelfth, to complete the 800-metre-long Hindu complex. The ruin, along with five cruciform pavilions, sits atop a 525-metre cliff, promising pilgrims and visitors alike an amazing view of Cambodia’s northern plain. Like Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.
MY SON, VIETNAM
The Angkorian and Cham in Central Vietnam were rivals, as the tales on the wall of Bayon suggest. While the Angkorian’s capital is popular with the tourists, My Son, the cultural centre of the Cham, is little known outside the archaeological circle. Actually, My Son was once the most important education and religious centres of the kingdom of Champa and was rediscovered in the late 19th century by the French. The temples are in bad shape with only a few structures still standing. My Son, however, is worth a day trip from Hoi An. As you stroll around the ruins of Cham, you might try to figure out the “Game of Thrones” over Tonle Sap Lake. The Angkorian and Cham people had many things in common including faith, architecture and arts. They should have been friends not foes.
PRAMBANAN TEMPLE, INDONESIA
Borobudur might ring a bell – but a trip to Central Java isn’t complete without a visit to Prambanan. This Hindu temple is jaw-dropping and mystical – an epic made of stone. Founded in the tenth century, Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple compound dedicated to the Trimurti – Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The temples are decorated with reliefs illustrating the Indonesian version of the Ramayana epic, which are masterpieces of stone carvings. These are surrounded by hundreds of shrines that have been arranged in three parts showing the amazingly high level of stone building technology and architecture in the eighth-century Java. With more than 500 temples, Prambanan Temple Compound is full of architectural and cultural treasures.