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Five Ancient Fortresses in Southeast Asia

Remnants of Empire, Located throughout the Region


For thousands of years, successive civilizations have claimed parts of Southeast Asia as their own. Today, the Khmer kingdoms, Vietnamese Nguyen monarchs, Javanese Buddhist and Hindu empire-builders, and European colonists have long receded into the past, but they live on through the walled, ancient fortresses they built that still stand around the region.

Not all the walled structures listed here belong to vanished civilizations - the ruling dynasty that built the Kraton in Yogyakarta inhabits it to this day. All of the fortresses in this list, though, provide an invaluable peek into the life, culture and government supporting the powers that lived behind their walls. For a related list of storied places in Southeast Asia, check out this run-down of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Southeast Asia.

The Spanish Walls: Intramuros, Manila, Philippines

Image courtesy of Anlex Basilio, used with permission

The Spanish built Intramuros on the smoldering ruins of a Malay fortress at the mouth of the Pasig River. As the conquistadores built their empire in the Philippines, the strategically-located walled fortress grew in importance, becoming the Spanish colony's capital, and staying that way for over 400 years.

As time went on, Intramuros (Spanish for "inside the walls") became the center of Spanish political, religious, and military power in the region. As the 20th century loomed, the Spanish gave way to the Americans, who governed the Philippines until World War II. Intramuros was flattened during the war, with only San Agustin Cathedral left standing by war's end.

Today, Intramuros is coming back to life, thanks to major restoration and reconstruction efforts that have remade the former Spanish settlement into a prominent tourist spot filled with churches, restaurants, and museums.

For more information, proceed to our article on Intramuros. For a look into Intramuros' sole UNESCO World Heritage site, read this article on San Agustin Church.

Figurehead's Fortress: The Citadel, Hue, Vietnam

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

Hue, in Central Vietnam, was the capital of the country throughout the 19th and early 20th century, and the Hue Citadel was the heart of the empire, or at least it acted like it was. Here, the increasingly powerless Nguyen Emperor lived behind high stone walls, worshiping his ancestors and commanding what little power was allowed him by his French colonial overlords.

The last emperor, Bao Dai, turned over the reins of government to Ho Chi Minh in 1945. The Ngo Mon Gate, and the Belvedere above it, was the site of the turnover ceremony, and from here, a towering Vietnamese flag can be seen today flying over the Citadel walls.

The interior of the citadel was much damaged during the successive wars of the 20th century, but valiant restoration efforts give you a decent look into what life must have been like for the Emperors: the 520-hectare site contains the Emperor's Throne Room, his Library, the Empress Dowager's quarters, and the temple honoring the Emperors of the past.

For a closer look at the walled palace's interior, take our walking tour of the Hue Citadel, Vietnam. For other historical structures nearby, check out the Royal Tombs of Hue, Vietnam, or visit the riverside Thien Mu Pagoda.

British Presence: Fort Cornwallis, Penang, Malaysia

Image courtesy of Tourism Malaysia, used with permission

The imposing, star-shaped Fort Cornwallis looking over Penang Harbor is a monument to imperial ambition and duplicity. The British built the fort to help the Sultan of Kedah's interests, but later went to war with the Sultan instead!

Today, Fort Cornwallis is open to visitors, but outside of the walls, only three original structures remain within: a stockade cell, gunpowder magazine, and a tiny chapel, the first Christian chapel built in Penang. All around the Fort, signboards will keep you clued into the history of the place and its present influence on modern-day Penang.

The cannon around Fort Cornwallis merit close study, particularly the Seri Rambai Cannon looking out of the northwest corner. According to local folklore, women who place flowers and offerings inside the cannon can be cured of their infertility!

For more on the fortress facing Penang Harbor, go here: Fort Cornwallis. For more on the historic district around the fort, read our article on Georgetown, Penang, or visit our page on Penang, Malaysia.

Nothing Left but Walls: Banten Lama, West Java, Indonesia

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

The former capital of the once-great Banten Sultanate, Banten Lama stood at the heart of an empire that commanded west Java from the 12th century to the 19th. The Dutch colonizers razed the fortifications to the ground, and little remains of the Sultan's Surosowan Palace except for the orange brick perimeter walls and traces of the buildings inside: a royal bathhouse and the steps leading up to the palace.

The nearby Masjid Agung Mosque still stands today, a flourishing place of worship with design touches adapted from Javanese, Western, and Chinese sources. An eight-sided minaret towers almost 80 feet above the worshipers at the mosque. Nearby, a number of Royal tombs can be found.

Read our article about Banten Lama, West Java, Indonesia. For Banten Lama in pictures, see: Images of Banten Lama, West Java, Indonesia.

Rule, Yogyakarta: Kraton, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

As a special region governed by Indonesia's only ruling monarch, the city of Yogyakarta takes special pride in the Sultan's palace: the Kraton, which serves as the Sultan's home, a center for Javanese performing arts, and a living museum that preserves the best of Javanese history and culture.

The total area of the Kraton covers about 150,000 square feet (the equivalent of three football fields), but the Kedaton - or the inner sanctum of the palace - will take only a couple of hours to see in its entirety. Inside, you'll find a number of important structures: the Bangsal Sri Manganti, a venue for Javanese cultural performances every day of the week; the Bangsal Kencono, a site for important ceremonies, and the Museum of Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, which displays the previous Sultan's memorabilia.

Read our article on the Kraton, Jogjakarta, Indonesia to find out more, or check out this list of Museums & Tourist Attractions Around the Yogyakarta Kraton.

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