Southeast Asia is a treasure trove for history and culture buffs – elaborately inscribed ancient temples, spires covered in gold, pilgrims worshipping at the feet of crumbling statues.
More vast than any religious sites uncovered in the West, and often times reclaimed by jungle, the major temple ruins of Southeast Asia never fail to invite you into an adventure. You can explore on foot with a knowledgeable local guide, see them at a leisurely pace by bicycle tour or sail over their rooftops in a hot air balloon.
More than just ‘ruins’, these ancient Southeast Asian temples are a window into supremely wealthy, powerful and surprisingly advanced kingdoms. To see them in person is the only way to appreciate their complexity, their elaborate decoration, their detail and their sheer size. For a wander through history, to a time that predates the borders dividing Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma, here are some of the most spectacular ancient ruins of Southeast Asia.
Ancient temple #1: Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
The largest temple complex on Earth – four times the size of the Vatican – and the capital of the Khmer empire – is an eternally fascinating site. And it’s even bigger and older than previously thought.
In 2013, an archaeological team used lidar technology to map out a vast ‘lost city’ with man-made ponds, canals and dykes that point towards an advanced hydraulic engineering, with inscriptions that date it to the 9th century (Angkor Wat was constructed in the 12th century).
While the ruins remain engulfed by the jungle, a tour of the Angkor complex points to the grand scale of this city, one that covered more than 1,000 square kilometers at its peak. Add in a tour of Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom and you’ve got yourself a tailor-made Indiana Jones adventure.
Ancient temple #2: Buddhist temple, Ayutthaya, Thailand
The old capital of Siam is also an intriguing site. Strategically built on an island in the Chao Phraya river, it features multiple ancient temples and palace buildings, many in ruins, some beautifully preserved.
Ayutthaya was the center of the Siamese Kingdom from the mid-14th century to the mid 18th century, and was a wealthy trading port – some reports suggest it was the largest city in the world in the 17-century until it was sacked by the Burmese.
A tour around Ayutthaya today might begin with a leisurely cruise up the Chao Phraya from Bangkok, before doing a guided tuk tuk tour of the UNESCO-listed heritage park.
Ancient temple #3: Mrauk U, Myanmar
Just like any epic ancient city, Mruak U was once a wealthy metropolis, the most powerful Rakhine kingdom from the 15th to the 18th century. Mruak U was also a trading hub, doing, business with major European and Asian capitals.
Due to its wealth, it could build myriad temples and pagodas catering to the different faiths of its inhabitants – unique in that they’re made of hewn stone. If you like ancient structures, the immense Shittaung Paya temple will have you spellbound with its countless stupas and stone corridors lined with Buddha statues.
Make sure your Mruak U tour features the nearby Shittaung Pillar, with its inscriptions that date back to the 5th century. A truly beguiling place to explore.
Ancient temple #4: Vat Phou or Wat Phuin, Champasak, Laos
Another amazing ancient site in Southeast Asia is in the picturesque Champasak Province, Laos.
More than 1,000 years old, you’ll find this sprawling religious complex in beautiful green countryside, stretching out over more than 10 square kilometers between the Mekong and Phou Kao mountain.
This massive temple complex is built in Khmer style and depicts Hindu concepts; strolling through its relics, you’ll see remnants of man-made waterways, monuments and works of art dating from the 5th to the 15th centuries.
Today, its worshipped by Theravada Buddhists, and one of the best times to see it is during the Vat Phou Festival, when pilgrims come from far and wide to pay tribute and celebrate. A tour of Wat Phou is perfect for travelers who want to explore Laos’ stunning landscapes.
Ancient temples #5: Bagan, Myanmar
The tales of Bagan are legendary. Built in the ninth century, at its peak its plains were dotted with up to 13,000 temples and pagodas over 42 square kilometers.
In the 13th century, Marco Polo wrote about its gold spires, saying it was the ‘finest city ever seen.’ Today, 2,200 ancient temples and pagodas remain.
Though Bagan is not as famous as Angkor Wat, it’s just as important an archaeological site and makes for fascinating touring, especially when combined with a cruise on the Irrawaddy or a sunrise hot air balloon ride over its peaks.
Ancient temple #6: Preah Vihear, Cambodia
The temple of Prasat Preah Vihear is another prolific Khmer structure, dating back to the 11th century.
Siting on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, it has been the subject of an ownership dispute, many believe for its strategic military position on the top of Pey Tadi peak, part of the gorgeous Dângrêk Mountain Range. What sets this crumbling beauty apart is its 800-metre-long axis of pathways and stairs that connect separate sanctuaries, as well as the precision of its architecture, specially built to fit in this challenging mountainous setting. Its carved stone ornamentation is also of note – well-preserved thanks to the temple’s remote position.
If you’d like to dive into the history Southeast Asia, exploring ruins and uncovering relics, contact us for a tailor-made historic trip through Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar or Laos. Better still, find a tour that takes in multiple countries and historic sites.