Southeat Asia is home to a whopping 36 UNESCO World Heritage sites – but they’re not all one-size-fits-all. This is our list of sites perfect for temple hoppers, history buffs, culture vultures and more.
Southeast Asia is chock full of UNESCO World Heritage sites, and its no secret that these incredible spots top plenty of travel to-do lists. In total, Southeast Asia is home to a whopping 36 UNESCO sites, each with their own character and story that makes them a must-see in Asia. But unless you plan on spending the better part of six months making your way to each and every one of them, it’s a good idea to consider what kinds of destinations are the most invigorating for you.
Are you on the hunt for history? Do you love exploring the great outdoors? Are you a sucker for world wonders? Depending on your travel style, some UNESCO World Heritage sites are bound to be head-and-shoulders above the rest for you. These are the sites that are prefect for particular tastes in travel – and why each of them is worth exploring!
For temple hoppers…
Borobudur Temple Compounds
The Borobudur Temple Complex is perhaps the most famous destination on Indonesia’s island of Java, but it’s not hard to see why. These incredibly intricate temple complex boasts thousands of delicately carved statues of Buddha surrounding a pyramidal shaped structure. If you’re a fan of symmetry, you’ll get a kick out of Borobudur – the entire complex is arranged in concentric circles and pleasingly balanced.
Angkor Temple Complex
You’d have a hard time heading to Cambodia without putting the Angkor Temple Complex at the top of your travel list, but there’s much more reason to explore these temples than just ticking it off of your bucket list. Most travellers will only spend a day or two exploring the complex’s most famous spots – the Bayon, Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm – without getting too far outside of the central area. If you head out further into Angkor’s 1000 square kilometres, you’ll find yourself among much fewer tourists and some truly incredible history.
Prambanan Temple Compounds
The Prambanan Temple Compounds in Java are similar to Borobudur in style, since both structures were inspired by Hindu architecture. That said, the Prambanan Temples are arrestingly tall and truly breathtaking to see with your own two eyes. Make sure you’re prepared with a good set of walking shoes – there are three main temples in the complex that are all worth a lengthy exploration.
Complex of Hue Monuments
The incredible city of Hue is not only home to beautiful central Vietnam weather, but the country’s most dynamic collection of tombs and royal monuments. A wander through Hue’s best temples and structures is a bit like taking a step back 400 years or so, since so many of these temples are beautifully preserved and still have the smell of incense wafting through them. Get ready for a kaleidoscopic experience, too – beyond the ancient tombs of emperors, a wander through some of central Hue’s wooden architecture promises a vivid painting of golds and scarlets.
Preah Vihear Temple
Preah Vihear, Cambodia
While many of Angkor’s temples follow a particular kind of architectural style, Preah Vihear Temple has a slightly more Hindu influenced style, and it’s well worth exploring if you’re fascinated with temples. Plus, since Preah Vihear is so isolated and doesn’t entice too many tourists, it’s gloriously remote and in exceptionally good condition given its has limited renovations.
For nature lovers…
Komodo National Park
You’d best watch where you’re walking in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, since this area is famous for its rather large, scaley locals. Komodo National Park is home to a unique species of giant lizard, the Komodo Dragon, as well as countless endemic fauna and flora. If you’re even passingly interested in wildlife and the outdoors, Komodo National Park won’t disappoint.
Ujung Kulon National Park
Banten and Lampung, Indonesia
Indonesia is well-known for its frightfully active collection of volcanoes, but those temperamental natural wonders are part of what makes this central Javan natural park a top spot. Most that head here do so to see the famous Krakatoa volcano up close, but you’ll likely spot some of the park’s endangered animal species along the way.
Sumatra Tropical Rainforest
Wildlife lovers, take note – Sumatra is a hotbed of animal activity. Head here if you’re up for rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s largest primates and most endangered animals. This primary rainforest is almost as dense with animals as it is with unique and truly bizarre flora, and you’re unlikely to find anywhere in the world with more astounding plant life – or bigger bugs!
Gunung Mulu National Park
There are some places in the world that you have to see to believe – and Gunung Mulu is certainly one of them. Famous for its karstic features and bizarre cave systems, Gunung Mulu is a geological wonder that owes to very high humidity and its effect on rocks. Some say that the impossibly wave-like rock formations here look less like stone, and more like melting wax.
If you want to experience what it’s like to stand in the shadow of Southeast Asia’s highest peak, Kinabalu Park is the place to do it. Reaching 4,095 meters at its summit, Kinabalu is surrounded by dense forest and beautiful natural landscape that’s heavily protected. The area’s range of habitats and animals owes to this protection, and the result is a wildlife lover’s dream.
It’s no secret that Halong Bay is one of the most incredible natural wonders to behold, and it’s on top of most Vietnam-bound travellers’ bucket lists. That said, Halong Bay isn’t just a place to sit back and behold from the boat’s deck – rock climbing and kayaking is popular in the area, as well as wandering around some of the area’s bizarre floating villages. Keep an eye out for the pearl farms, too, where you can pick up some souvenirs!
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
Ke Bang Province, Vietnam
Home to the world’s largest cave that’s big enough to enclose the Empire State Building, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park has only recently made it onto the UNESCO list. Phong Nha cave was only discovered by a local man within only the last few years, and tours into the cave system are still new. Plan on shelling out a pretty penny to get inside (about US$3000), but for nature lovers, its well worth it.
Trang An Landscape Complex
Sometimes called “Halong Bay on land” by locals, Trang An Complex is a beautiful collection of rice paddies, incredible rock formations and subterranean cave systems. The best way to experience it is with a boat ride through either Trang An or Tam Coc (meaning 3 Caves), but it’s also a popular place to go for a trek or a climb to the tops of the area’s beautiful mountaintop temples.
For history buffs…
If you’re interested in the dynamic history of the Khmer Empire and its Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Vat Phou is a fantastic place to see it up close. Just far enough outside of any major tourist attractions, Vat Phou is unusually remote, which highlights how it embodies the balance between man and nature, an important Hindu belief.
Ban Chiang Archaeological Site
Udon Thani Province, Thailand
Ban Chiang, like many other archaeological sites, is a gathering of some of Asia’s oldest and most significant historical findings. Ban Chiang is one of the world’s most important prehistoric settlements, and has countless examples on display of mankind’s earliest use of metals and agriculture in the Asian region.
My Son Sanctuary
The My Son Sanctuary is a beautiful example of Cham architecture, and is one of the last remaining remnants of the ancient Champa Kindgom. This mysterious empire once ruled over a massive area in Southeast Asia, but now only have their Hindu-inspired temples like My Son and a small number of ethnic Cham communities to carry on their heritage. My Son is a great place to experience both.
Sangiran Early Man Site
Central Java, Indonesia
The Sangiran site is a history buffs dream – this fascinating area is the source of half of all hominids fossils found in the entire world. This dense collection of ancient history is what makes Sangiran an incredible place to see if you’re fascinated with the evolution of the human race – and want to see where it all began.
For culture hounds…
Pyu Ancient Cities
The Pyu Ancient Cities are remnants of the Pyu Kingdom which reigned from 200BC to 900AD. Here you’ll stumble across unbelievably old – yet beautifully preserved – buildings, ranging from royal compounds to religious architecture. Plus, you’ll see the remnants of an irrigation system that was one of the world’s most complex at the time, not to mention a rich aura of Buddhist culture.
Just a stone’s throw from the bustling city of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is well worth the boat ride down the Chao Praya River for the history alone. This area was once the capital of the Siam Kingdom in the mid 14th Century, but was decimated by the Burmese in the 18th Century. The structures that still stand, though, give plenty of clues to how glorious this city must have been in its golden age, and it’s worth exploring for yourself.
Also an ancient capital of the Kingdom of Siam, Sukhothai is actually best known for its perfect illustration of the Sukhothai style – an aesthetic famous in ancient Thai architecture. This “style” is often considered its own culture, and has varied and dynamic elements from many traditions that make it a fascinating melting pot of influences.
Pura Ulun Danu Batan Temple
It’s not often that you see philosophy having such a great effect on landscape as you do in Bali, Indonesia. The philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana – centred around an assembly of men, spirits and nature – the Subak water management system includes elements like rice terraces, water temples and canals. Pura Ulun Danu Batan Temple is a perfect example of the classic water temple, and it’s probably the most serene destination that you’ll ever have the pleasure of seeing.
Ho Dynasty Citadel
Thanh Hoa Province, Vietnam
History lovers will surely find a lot to love about the Ho Dynasty Temple in Thanh Hoa Province of Vietnam. This imposing citadel reflects the spread of Neo-Confucianism during the 14th Century, and is built according to strict Feng Shui principles. Plus, since its well outside of the tourist trail, its a great place to experience history without having to wander alongside too many tourists.
For urban explorers…
Malacca and Georgetown
Malaysia is already a glorious mix of cultures, flavours and stories, but there’s no place that better represents this diversity than Malacca and Georgetown. Both are a strange and unique blend of Western and Eastern influence, thanks to Malaysia’s history of Dutch colonial settlements and trade. In Malacca, that’s most apparent through the dusty pink buildings in the administrative quarter, and Georgetown’s poetic mix of pastel home fronts with a touch of European charm. Pro tip: Make plenty of time to eat in Georgetown – its famous for its food!
Thang Long Imperial Citadel
Hanoi is proud of its 1000-year history, and its Imperial Citadel is a perfect example. Gloriously lit at night and imposing by day, the Citadel is a fabulous example of an odd mix of Champa and Chinese culture. It was also an important element of the Ly Dynasty winning its independence from China, and maintained political importance for over 13 centuries.
Hoi An Ancient Town
Hoi An, Vietnam
Gloriously pastel and idyllic, the ancient town of Hoi An is home to some of Vietnam’s oldest architecture and vibrant history. As a former maritime trade port, there’s a fascinating mix of Japanese, Chinese and Indian influence in the architecture here, plus some of Vietnam’s best food! Nowadays, Hoi An is best known for its fantastic tailors. Make a bit of time to have a jacket, a dress or even a pair of leather boots made just for you.
Remarkably walkable and peaceful, the mountain adjacent town of Luang Prabang is home to over two dozen temples ranging from a few decades to a few centuries old. These temples aren’t just ancient artefacts, though – most are still in use by Luang Prabang’s massive population of Buddhist monks. Don’t forget to head out in the early morning to witness the tradition of almsgiving – when locals give rice to saffron-robed monks walking the roads barefoot. Make sure you stand back and keep your head below that of the monks, though. It’s a sincere sign of respect for the procession.
Explore all of these incredible cultural wonders with Buffalo Tours! Plan your own itinerary, or let us create a customised UNESCO tour to see your top spots all in one amazing journey.