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10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia

Explore Southeast Asia's Ancient Forts, Historic Cities, and Towering Temples


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.

1. Hoi An, Vietnam

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

Hoi An is an ancient riverside trading town in Central Vietnam. 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.

2. Luang Prabang, Laos

Image © Nick Hubbard / Creative Commons

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. In 1995, Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

3. George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com
The state capital of George Town on the northeastern cape of Penang serves as the state capital and cultural center. It was also a jewel in the British Straits Settlements - trade between India and China made George Town a prosperous entrepot, with mansions like Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and 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, with old shophouses and grand civic buildings like Fort Cornwallis and the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower standing alongside Chinese clan houses like Khoo Kongsi.

4. My Son Holy Land, Vietnam

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

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.

5. Intramuros, Philippines

Image © Marlon Santiago / Creative Commons

Intramuros was Manila, for the thousands of Spanish colonists, their families, and their servants - for over 400 years, this walled city guarded the mouth of the Pasig River and served as the seat of the Spanish presence in the Philippines.

The walled city was flattened by American bombers in World War II; only San Agustin Cathedral was left standing by the end of the war. (San Agustin Church was later declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with a number of other churches in the Philippines.) A major (and ongoing) restoration effort has brought back much of what was lost.

6. Hue Citadel, Vietnam

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

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. 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.

7. Borobudur, Indonesia

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

Borobudur is a Buddhist monument near Yogyakarta in Central Java that stands on a stupendous scale - a Mandala-shaped structure that immortalizes Buddhist cosmology in stone. Visitors climb a series of platforms united by a circling pathway that takes them through three levels of Buddhist cosmology. Visitors walking the pathway see 2,672 well-preserved relief panels that tell stories from the Buddha's life and parables from Buddhist texts.

8. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Image © Gerry Van der Linden, used with permission.

Angkor Wat was built between 1130 and 1150 AD by King Suryavarman II, and 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 size is intended to be nothing less than a symbol of the universe as the Hindu Khmer 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. The walls are covered with carvings depicting the god Vishnu (to whom Angkor was principally dedicated), as well as other scenes from Hindu mythology.

9. Candi Prambanan, Indonesia

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

Candi Prambanan is 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.

10. Melaka, Malaysia

Image by Rudolph Furtado, released into public domain.

Melaka is called "the Historic City" by Malaysians. Its strategic location, sitting right in the eponymous Straits of Malacca, made it a tempting target for Chinese, Dutch, English, and Japanese conquerors, each of whom left an indelible imprint on the city and its people.

The Dutch left a particularly impressive imprint on Melaka, with many fine buildings that stand to this day - foremost among these are the Stadthuys, a salmon pink town hall, and Christ Church, a Dutch Reformed Church that was taken over by the British and converted into an Anglican place of worship.

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