The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recognized the unique cultural and historical value of several sites within Southeast Asia. These UNESCO World Heritage Sites are of great value, too, for visitors who seek out unique cultural experiences in the countries they visit, for no place can better encapsulate a country's past and worldview than its World Heritage Sites.
Bagan, Myanmar’s recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site was a long time coming. Its 1996 application was rejected due to poor restoration quality, among other issues. In 2019, as UNESCO finally gave Bagan World Heritage Site status, locals felt that they’d simply made a long-overdue correction.
These temples are the last remnants of the Burmese Pagan Kingdom that once ruled the area. The Empire’s devout Buddhist kings and their subjects eventually built thousands of stupas between the 9th and 13th centuries CE, all as an attempt to make merit.
Less than a fifth of the original temple complement remain standing today, but visitors can take horse-drawn carriages, e-bikes or cars throughout Bagan’s must-see temples to marvel at their architecture, attention to detail, and the impassive Buddha statues that gaze out sightlessly over the gawping crowds.
Built between 1130 and 1150 AD by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat consists of an enormous temple pyramid covering a sprawling area measuring 4,250 by 5,000 feet, surrounded by a moat over 600 feet wide.
The Hindu Khmer saw Angkor Wat as a symbol of the universe as they understood it: the moat stands for the oceans around the earth; the concentric galleries represent the mountain ranges surrounding the divine Mount Meru, the Hindu home of the gods, which is itself embodied by the five central towers. Carvings depicting the god Vishnu (to whom Angkor was principally dedicated), as well as other scenes from Hindu mythology, cover the walls.
You won't immediately grasp the meanings behind Angkor Wat's architecture if you don't hire a guide to accompany you. Visit the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap beforehand, so you don't miss the hidden messages.
Laos can be distilled down to its essence in the buildings and traditions surrounding Luang Prabang.
Once the capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom that ruled Laos, Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, enticing visitors with its 33 wats, barely-maintained French colonial buildings, and breathtaking natural sights. On any given day, the morning ritual of tak bat, or almsgiving, can be observed on Laos' main streets.
On really special occasions, Luang Prabang remakes herself in a festive fashion to celebrate; time your visit for the Lao New Year to see Luang Prabang at her cheeriest best. “Bun Pi Mai” lasts for three days in the hottest month of the Lao year – meaning that getting splashed while on the street feels like an actual relief!
The festivities reach a peak during the procession of the Prabang Buddha image, a 50-kilo statue that makes its way (accompanied by hundreds of orange-clad monks) from the Royal Palace Museum to the Vat Mai temple.
Before following Islam, the kingdoms that once ruled central Java followed two religious traditions from India – both of which survive in two distinct monuments.
First, Buddhism embodied in Borobudur: a monument near Yogyakarta in Central Java that stands on a stupendous scale – a Mandala-shaped structure that immortalizes Buddhist cosmology in stone.
As Borobudur's visitors ascend the structure's levels, they'll find 2,672 well-preserved relief panels that tell stories from the Buddha's life and parables from Buddhist texts.
Second, you'll find Hinduism in Candi Prambanan: a 224-temple complex in Central Java dominated by three lofty spires representing the trimurti (trinity) of the Hindu religion. The tallest spire rises more than 150 feet high over the surrounding countryside.
Prambanan was built in 856 CE by a Hindu prince who had married into the ruling Buddhist Sailendra monarchy. After centuries of neglect, the authorities restored Prambanan only to see it toppled by a major earthquake in 2006. Restoration efforts are ongoing.
Visitors will find it hard to believe that the ruins of Ayutthaya were the site of a grand city that European visitors compared to Venice or Paris. For 400 years, Ayutthaya was the biggest city in the world, a nexus for regional trade that drew Chinese, European and others. That all changed in 1767, when invaders from Burma sacked the city and threw Siam into chaos.
The invaders may have carried Ayutthaya's treasures back with them, but they left enough for present-day visitors to gawk at. As the capital of the Siamese kingdom from 1350 to 1767, Ayutthaya still sports a wealth of temple and palace ruins (with an abundance of headless Buddha statues), along with museums to put all the artifacts into context.
Ayutthaya can be explored via day trip from Bangkok; explore the ruins by bicycle when you arrive, and take in centuries of history at your own pace.
UNESCO recognized two of Malaysia's most historic cities in one go – no surprise, as both cities were former colonial entrepots and present-day cultural treasures with so many things in common.
The state of Penang's capital George Town was a jewel in the British Straits Settlements – trade between India and China made George Town a prosperous entrepot, with mansions like the present-day Peranakan Mansion attesting to the wealth of its towkays (Chinese tycoons).
Remnants of the British presence in Penang can be explored throughout George Town: the historic core of the city boasts one of Southeast Asia’s finest collections of 19th century and early 20th century buildings.
Melaka is called "the Historic City" by Malaysians. Relics of Malay culture and foreign rule can be explored in a small historic riverside quarter: the Dutch Stadthuis and church in a brilliant red hue, across the river from Chinatown and its Street of Harmony linking three different faiths; the Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum celebrating Malaysia's Camelot; and the wealth of Malaccan traditional dishes you can enjoy at almost every corner you turn.
If it weren't for the mountains, the Ifugao would have become Hispanized like the Filipino lowlanders in the wake of the Spanish conquista.
And if it weren't for the mountains, we wouldn't travel all the way to the Philippines' highest elevations to see the results of indigenous ingenuity: several rice terraces carved out of mountain valleys, following each slope's contour lines to create platforms for rice cultivation in otherwise inhospitable terrain.
The Ifugao plant rice only for themselves, following an annual planting calendar that shapes the rest of their lifestyle. The communal efforts of planting and harvesting; festivals to mark the passing of seasons; and the storage of the product in distinctive granaries – rice stands at the center of it all.
There are several terrace trails that hikers can choose to trek through – easy hikes include the Bangaan Rice Terrace hike, and more accomplished trekkers will want to take on the gorgeously scenic Batad Rice Terrace trail. Afterward, stay in one of these lodgings within easy reach of the next trail.
Old Greens Made New: Singapore's Botanic Gardens
Southeast Asia's newest UNESCO World Heritage Site was established in the island-state in 1859. And it's young compared to other UNESCO sites – conceived by British colonial officials and landscaped in an English style, the Singapore Botanic Gardens has since evolved to become a showcase for Southeast Asia's most gorgeous plants.
Travelers disembarking from the MRT station get direct access to the 60 acre Gardens, its winding paths, strategically-located bodies of water and pavilions for relaxation or public performances (the Singapore Symphony Orchestra regularly puts on free performances for Park visitors).
The National Orchid Garden – the world’s largest orchid collection – offers over 60,000 plants and orchids, many named after famous people.
Guided walks around the park grounds explore the historical landmarks, orchid displays and other botanical collections. Kids can learn in a less structured way at the Jaco Ballas Children's Gardens, a playground set amidst a profusion of plants.
Centuries of Business: Hoi An & My Son, Vietnam
Two different civilizations are on display within a short distance from one another in Central Vietnam.
Hoi An is an ancient riverside trading town – in the 16th century, Hoi An was one of Vietnam's busiest trading centers. Chinese merchants settled here to do business with European and Asian traders… until the Thu Bon river silted up, and trade shifted further downstream.
Today the descendants of those Chinese merchants maintain Hoi An's narrow streets and distinctive row houses. The streets are now filled with lamp shops, tailors, and travel agencies, selling new products but preserving the enterprising spirit of old.
My Son is a complex of religious temples in Central Vietnam, built by the Champa dynasty between the 4th and the 12th centuries. Centuries of neglect – and two devastating 20th-century wars – have left little more than stumps and rubble, but some relatively well-preserved temples remain, giving visitors a glimpse of the Hindu empire that ruled central Vietnam until they were swept aside by the Dai Viet kings.
Centuries of Spanish rule gave the Philippines its collection of baroque churches; Spanish-founded cities across the islands imitated the Intramuros walled city, including its fondness for churches. In Intramuros itself, San Agustin Church remains largely intact, despite the best efforts of World War II-era bombers to flatten its spires.
What bombs couldn't take down, earthquakes often did – the quake-prone Philippine islands destroyed many churches in minutes. Existing baroque churches today tend to be the third or fourth such church on the site, rebuilt by devout Catholic locals after multiple tremors.
The Paoay Church in Ilocos looks like a direct response to earthquakes, its robust buttresses giving rise to what architects call “Earthquake Baroque”. The graceful Miag-Ao Church in Iloilo lacks Paoay's robust supports, but compensates with its graceful facade carved with tropical elements, like palms and papaya trees.
Forgotten City-States: Pyu Ancient Cities, Myanmar
The last remnants of powerful city-states that once ruled the Ayeyarwady River basin between 200BCE and 900CE, the Pyu Ancient Cities – Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra – stand in silent testimony to the peaceful civilization that held sway over this part of Myanmar a millennium ago.
The Pyu peoples built walled brick cities to protect their empire; each of the three surviving cities have their own palace complexes, along with architecture unique to each one. Sri Ksetra, for one, holds the massive Baw Baw Gyi stupa, the earliest-built Buddhist monument in Myanmar. Visit the museums in each of the Ancient Cities to get a grasp on the civilization that ruled here before
The Ancient cities may have been contemporaneous with Bagan, another ancient empire due north. Unlike Pyu's monuments, Bagan's stupas were damaged by earthquake and hastily rebuilt – giving Pyu an edge over Bagan in the race to UNESCO Heritage Site recognition.
Hue was the capital of Vietnam throughout the 19th and early 20th century. The Nguyen emperors ruled from the Hue citadel palace complex, a sprawling complex with high stone walls surrounding a series of refined palaces and temples.
And the Nguyen emperors enjoyed an afterlife that was almost as cushy as their days among the living. Scattered among the hills around the city, royal tombs were specially prepared for each emperor years before their passing, each one intended to be a testimonial to the power and grandeur of their respective reigns. Each emperor's story lives on in their tombs, from Tu Duc's tragic weakness to Khai Dinh's disdain for his people.
The Nguyens ruled (in fact, and later as figureheads) until 1945 – the year the last Nguyen emperor Bao Dai turned over the reins of government to the revolutionary government of Ho Chi Minh.
This 52,684-hectare slice of karst (limestone) tropical forest astounds on multiple levels—some 295km of explored caves, including the largest known cave chamber in the world; over 3,500 plant species, including the rare and extremely pungent Rafflesia; and the soaring Gunung Mulu mountain that gives the park its name.
Villages along the rivers house the Berawan and Penan peoples, who settled here eons ago for the rich hunting and now serve as hosts to visitors. Travelers to Mulu can visit their villages in Long Terawan and Long Iman to browse through the handicraft markets or try their hands at firing the traditional blowpipes.