South East Asia is an incredible region to visit at any time of year, and is known mainly for its stunning beaches, delicious cuisines and friendly local culture, but Asia also is a paradise for ancients temples and religious monuments with Buddhist, Hindu and even Christian temples still in active use to this day. A visit to an ancient temple is like a taking a step back in time, and puts you in awe of the ancient cultures that built them.
1. Angkor temples, Siem Reap, Cambodia
The temple complexes of Angkor are by far Cambodia’s and South East Asia’s biggest historical claim to fame – and rightly so as well. Stretching for over 400 square kilometres and with 1000 temples, the park contains the ruins of several capitals of the Khmer Empire that existed sometime between the 9th and the 15th centuries. The main draw here is the temple complex of Angkor Wat, it is the largest religious building in the world and the most visited in the Archeological park. So whether you see it at sunrise or at sunset, both are spectacular, but you will be sharing the view with scores of other tourists crowding around a small pond fighting for the best spot to take that all iconic photograph.
For the more adventurous in you, there are a few rarely visited temples inside the park that you can find peace during sunrise and snap that amazing shot. There is a lot to explore here, and while most people see what they want in just one day, for those with a real interest the three-day ticket is a real must. A tour by motorcycle tuk-tuk is the easiest way to see the ruins and you can stop off at some of the less visited temples. Siem Reap itself, a few kilometres from the park will be your home, it has grown over the years and now there are an excellent mix of restaurants, bars and boutique shops for you to explore whilst not exploring the ruins.
2. Bagan, Burma
Nowhere else in Asia will you see a sight quite like Bagan, this is one of Burma’s main attractions with temple after temple after temple stretching out as far as the eye can see across the plains. Some would say, Bagan is a superior version than Angkor, not so, just very different and without the crowds. This temple town along the banks of the Irrawaddy River is at its best when seen from a high as you gently float above the temples at dawn in a hot air balloon, or galloping along in a pony trap clip clopping between the ancient stupas. There are supposedly over 3,000 stupas in the area, for sure you will never see them all, but spending a couple of days seeking out the most important ones is an incredible experience.
Try to wake up early one morning for sunrise as the views of the morning sunshine and the hazy fog across the plains of Bagan are a sight that must be witnessed at least once on your trip. Bagan is not off-the-beaten-track anymore, but it does offer one of the most richly rewarding travel experiences in Southeast Asia.
3. Borobudur and Prambanan, Java, Indonesia
Located outside the cultural city of Jogjakarta on the magical isle of Java, lies the incredible Buddhist and Hindu temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. The Buddhist stupa and temple complex of Borobudur dates back to around the 8th Century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, being the the largest Buddhist structure in the world with a string of active volcanoes as a back drop, only enhances the majesty of the complex. Devout Buddhists are supposed to circumference each layer of Borobudur, symbolically following the path to enlightenment.
Close by is Prambanan, this is a collection of massive Hindu temples just outside the city of Jogjakarta built by the Mataram Kingdom during the 9thCentury and like Borobudur is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both sites are closely linked but very different in style and design. Deserted and forgotten for centuries it was only in the 1930’s that reconstruction began to bring them back to their former glory and showcase the incredible Hindu Art that you will see on the structures.
4. Ayuthaya Kingdom, Thailand
Easily accessible from Bangkok on a day trip by road or much more atmospherically onboard a traditional rice barge, Ayuthaya, once the ancient capital of Siam with its myriad of temples and palaces glittering in the tropical sunshine. Today these elegant ruins offer a tantalising glimpse into Siam’s once glorious past as one of the most powerful cities in all of Southeast Asia, which during its height stretched into Burma, Cambodia and Laos. Traders from all corners of the globe marveled at its majesty and cited it as being “the Paris of the East”.
Ayuthaya makes a welcome relief from the maddening chaos of Bangkok, the crowds are small and the decaying temples are set in amongst a quaint small Thai town making a welcome change to mix visiting temples with a little modern culture as well. Ayuthaya’s ruins were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1990′s, with the listing mentioning these temples ‘represent a masterclass of genius’, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world today with its picturesque ruins, statues and temples, gently decaying in the tropical heat, are fascinating to explore.
5. Wat Phou, Laos
Few people visit Laos, this tiny land locked country in South East Asia, with the majority only seeing the charms and delights of Luang Prabang, with even fewer sampling the emerald rice plains of the far south, with its stunning jungle forests and some of the prettiest villages in the country. Close to the sleepy towns of Pakse and Champasak in Southern Laos lies the UNESCO ancient Khmer temple ruins of Wat Phou on a hill top overlooking the might Mekong River, these pre-Angkorian ruins date from the 5th Century, with the majority of the temple ruins from the 11th Century, pre-dating the mighty Angkor Wat temple across the border in Cambodia.
Easily visited by bike from Champasak or more exotically, spend a few days in luxury on the Wat Phuo, an old converted rice barge taking in the ruins as well as the 4,000 islands and the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins or the even rarer railway line at Ban Khone, the furthest outpost in the old French Colonial Empire.
Dave Fuller is a Senior Manager at Asia Odyssey.