Southeast Asia includes the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and the islands of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. The area is rich in cultural/religious tradition, and, of course, has numerous resorts associated with beaches and other oceanic activities.
1. Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand, is a city of contrasts. The modern trappings of a twenty-first century city are juxtaposed with many of the old traditions of a Southeast Asian third-world nation. The effect, however, is enchanting, and Bangkok is adept at winning the hearts of most visitors, no matter where they are from or what they expect. Bangkok is also intoxicating as a result of its incredible variety of foods and aromas. Because of the traffic in the city as well as the sheer volume of people, the best ways to get around are by water taxi or by walking.
Many of the city’s premier sights are in the vicinity of the Royal Palace, so can be included in a walking tour of this area. Within the Royal Palace itself, be sure to check out the Chakri Maka Prasad, which has Victorian elements, Dusit Hall, which has a mother-of-pearl throne, and Amarinda Vinichai Hall. Next to the palace is one of Bangkok’s most exceptional temples, Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which holds Thailand’s holiest Buddha Statue. Note the murals depicting the life of Buddha. The palace and Wat are dazzling in their finery and a definite must-see for all visitors.
Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is also near the palace complex and is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok. This statue of Buddha is 151 feet (46 meters) long and 49 feet (15 meters) high. Also nearby is Wat Mahathat, with its sitting Buddha, now home to a Buddhist college. Other attractions in this area include several of Bangkok’s best museums.
Just across the Chao Phraya River is the Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) whose Prang (tower) is about 80 meters (250 feet) tall and is inlaid with porcelain and ceramic tiles. Views from the terraces are fantastic.
Additional sights in the city include the following: Wat Saket, with its marvelous Golden Mount, which also affords great views from the top; Phra Thi Nang Wimanmek, the largest teak palace in the world; and Talaad Pak Klong, Bangkok’s Flower Market.
A visit to one of Bangkok’s Floating Markets is becoming a must-see these days after its feature in a recent James Bond film. Probably the best bet for this chaotic but delightful experience is the Damnoen Saduak, in Sangkhram Ratchaburi Province, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the city.
2. Angkor, Cambodia
Angkor, Cambodia, may well be the most important temple complex in the world, and also one of the most impressive man-made wonders in its history. The typical gateway for visitors to the area is the town of Siem Reap. Keep in mind that a visit to the area usually requires more than a single day, to appreciate the richness of the sight.
The temple complex was built over six centuries. Begun in the 9th century, it was not completed until the 15th. The ruins were abandoned and not rediscovered until the mid-nineteenth century. Because accessibility has significantly improved recently, the numbers of tourists is steadily increasing.
The most popular and probably most important temple in the complex is Angkor Wat, which is over 200 meters (600 feet) tall and is thought to represent the universe in miniature. The symbolism within the entire complex is extremely important in understanding the significance of the sights, so the tourist should prepare ahead of time to become familiar with at least the major themes or hire a guide who can adequately explain everything. The Wat has three levels which should all be explored. The ground level contains numerous, intricate stone relief carvings which represent scenes from various religious epics as well as the history of Angkor. Perhaps the most interesting scene depicts the legend of “The churning of the ocean of milk” in which 88 demons and 92 gods churn up the sea in order to make ambrosia which will confer immortality on those who drink it. On the second level, one will find the Gallery of 1000 Buddhas (of which little remains) and the Hall of Echoes. The third level’s claim to fame is its glorious view of the entire complex.
Just north of Angkor Wat is the Angkor Thom complex. Entry is via a causeway lined with over 50 statues. In the center of this complex is the Bayon, another building whose walls contain carvings which depict legends from Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as everyday life in Angkor. It has a 45 meter (135 foot) tower surrounded by 51 smaller towers.
Other highlights within the ancient city complex include the Terrace of the Elephants, with its rows of sculpted “garudas” (half-man, half-bird vehicles which transport Vishnu), the Terrace of the Leper King, whose centerpiece is a reproduction of a statue of Yama, the naked god of death, Ta Prohm, which has been left in ruins entwined by jungle and probably represents the way the entire complex must have looked when rediscovered, Neak Pean, a small temple surrounded by five ponds which seems to be floating on a holy snake (naga), and Preah Khan, which means “holy sword”. This large temple complex was thought to be the location of a famous battle in Khmer history.
Sunrise and/or sunset are perhaps the best times to visit Angkor since the interplay of light on the temples is both magical and awe-inspiring.
Recently opened Banteay Srei makes a great day trip from the Angkor area. It is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Angkor complex. This complex of pinkish temples, known as the “Citadel of Women” also contains exquisite rock carvings.
3. Bagan, Myanmar
Bagan, Myanmar, is one of the greatest Buddhist shrines in the world. It is best seen at sunrise or sunset. More than 13,000 pagodas were once spread over this dry plain during the golden age of the 11 great kings (roughly 1044-1287). However, with the threat of invasion by Kublai Khan from China, this extraordinary area was abandoned. Now there are fewer than 3000 pagodas.
The village of New Bagan has a museum, market, and places to eat and stay, or visitors can stay in the town of Nyaung U which is also near Old Bagan, site of many of the most important temples.
In Old Bagan, be sure to visit Ananda Temple, built in the 12th century, with its seventeen stupas and many Buddhas lining the walkways, and Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest building in the complex.
Near Nyaung U, the must-sees include Shwezigon Pagoda, perhaps the most important temple in the area because it houses several relics of the Buddha, including his tooth and collar bone.
Between Old and New Bagan, the visitor should seek out Sulamani Temple, with its interesting wall paintings, and Dhammayangyi Temple which is one of the largest temples and possesses superior brickwork. Also in the area is Shwesandaw Pagoda, which rewards those who climb to the top with a spectacular view, especially at sunset, when it is most popular.
The Mingalazed Pagoda also offers panoramic views.
4. Borobudur, Java, Indonesia
Borobodur, on the island of Java, in Indonesia, is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Construction began in the 8th century A.D., and was completed in the 9th century. It is one of most important tourist sights in Asia and has tremendous religious significance. The temple, like Buddha’s path to enlightenment, has ten levels, and is topped by a 40 meter (120 foot) tall stupa. Visitors should begin their exploration with a stop at the Audio Visual Center for an orientation film.
Within the temple are carvings along the walls which picture the life of Buddha and many of his incarnations. A meditating, stone Buddha depicts “enlightenment” and is surrounded by numerous small statues. Use the right hand (the left is “unclean”) to touch the Buddha for good luck.
Borobudur is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Jogjakarta, which has a number of attractions to offer as well, and makes a reasonable base of operations for an excursion to the temple.
Climb into the hills behind Borobudur for a great view of the complex.
Also near Yogyakarta is the beautiful Prambanan Temple (Temple of the Slender Virgin) which contains several shrines. The Shiva temple rises to 130 feet (40 meters). This complex is about 17 kilometers (10 miles) to the southeast.
5. Bali, Indonesia
Bali, Indonesia, is iconic, in its juxtaposition of the modern with the traditional, and relatively unspoiled. For this reason, this small island is extremely popular with tourists from all over the world.
A visit to the island should include at least the following sights and attractions. The city of Ubud, in the interior of the island, boasts a Monkey Forest, a miniature jungle within the city, which, besides the cute but somewhat aggressive monkeys, contains the Pura Dalem (Temple of the Dead).
The Pura Besakih (The Mother Temple) is a complex found on the slopes of Mount Agung and is the holiest shrine on the island. Around the three main temples dedicated to the Hindu Trinity: Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, are eighteen additional sanctuaries.
The town of Bangli is home to the Pura Kehen Temple, which dates back to the 11th century and is characterized by a huge Banyan Tree that graces the first courtyard.
Further inland and to the northwest is Lake Bratan, with a beautiful temple, Ulu Danu, lying picturesquely on its shore.
Kuta is perhaps the major beach community on the island. It is well-developed as a resort area. Not far from the town is another of Bali’s most visited temples, Tanah Lot, built on top of a large rock, surrounded by the sea. This dramatic “Temple of the Earth in the Sea” is best seen at sunset. Kuta is also the best place to see traditional Balinese dancing, which is offered at numerous locations in town.
Perhaps the most enduring sight from any visit to Bali is an excursion to the rice terraces which dot the countryside. Whether it is the road between Rendang and Sidemen or from Candidasa to Amlapura, these scenic wonders should not be missed.
6. Hue, Vietnam
Hue, the former capital of Vietnam, is known for its beautiful imperial architecture, although a great deal of this was destroyed during the Tet offensive of the Vietnam War in 1968. The Perfume River forms the border between the city itself and the former ‘Forbidden Purple City’, and its mighty Citadel. This ‘city within a city’ with its tombs, pagodas, and lakes covered in lotus flowers was largely destroyed during the Vietnam War (the Royal Library is one of the few buildings still intact), but one can still see evidence of its former magnificence. The Noon Gate, grand entrance into the Imperial City, is opposite the Flagpole of Hue, the tallest pole in the country. The Emperor’s throne was once housed in the Palace of Supreme Harmony where he watched festivities from the Five-Phoenix Pavilion.
Within easy reach of the city are the tombs of several of Vietnam’s emperors. Most interesting, perhaps, are the Tomb of Minh Mang and the Tomb of Tu Duc. The city also houses fine examples of Buddhist pagodas and other temples, such as the Thien Mu Pagoda which sits on a high hill overlooking the Perfume River.
7. Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon, Myanmar, is a city of Buddhist temples, open-air markets, food stalls and ill-repaired colonial architecture. It has a population of over two million. Although most of the city has been built in the last hundred years, and although it suffered considerable damage during World War II, there are still several examples of a more ancient culture. These include the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most spectacular Buddhist shrines in Asia and reputedly 2,500 years old (although rebuilt in 1769). Within, visitors can find intricate woodwork and paintings describing the life of Buddha which adorn the stairs. Around the main pagoda are 64 miniature pagodas, several large ones, as well as several sculpted creatures.
The Sule Pagoda, also over 2,000 years old, houses one of Buddha‘s hairs and is found in the center of the city. The Botataung Pagoda, as old as the Shwedagon Pagoda, displays some of its relics through the use of mirrors.
Kaha Aye Pagoda contains a Buddha image made with silver. It is next to the Maha Pasan Guha, or ‘Great Cave’, which was built to hold up to 10,000 people during the Synod (the 2500th anniversary of Buddha‘s enlightenment).
8. Komodo National Park, Komodo, Indonesia
Komodo National Park, on Komodo Island, west of the Island of Flores, Indonesia, is noted for only one thing — it is the home of the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon, which can be 3 meters (9 feet) long and weigh 50 kilograms (110 lbs.). These reptiles have been known to eat creatures as big as goats, and are formidable predators, with their sharp teeth, long claws and powerful tails. Once on the island, the National Park Office personnel lead tours to the creatures’ hangouts in the early morning and late afternoon, when they are most active.
Getting to the island is somewhat difficult, since regular ferry service has been discontinued. The only options are tour packages from Labuhanbajo, on the western side of Flores, or to charter a boat from Labuhanbajo or Sape. Most options require an overnight stay, either on the boats or in government accommodations on the island.
9. Banaue Rice Terraces, Philippine Islands
The Banaue Rice Terraces, in the Philippine Islands, are considered one of the largest complexes of their type in the world, and have been recognized as a World Heritage Site. These spectacular terraces were cut out from the high Cordilleras over 2,000 years ago and remain as a testament to their builders. They are found at an altitude of 1,525 meters (about 5,000 feet), and, although difficult to get to, they reward the persistent tourist with an incredible sight, dubbed by some the “eighth wonder of the world”.
10. Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam, lies on the banks of the Red River. It is a beautiful city that retains an air of French colonial elegance with pretty yellow stucco buildings lining leafy streets. Hanoi is also a city of lakes, which add to its ambience.
In the middle of the city lies the peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) with the 18th-century Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) sitting on an island in the center of the lake. The temple can be reached by the Huc Bridge (Rising Sun Bridge).
To the north of Hoan Kiem Lake is the Old Quarter, a fascinating maze of narrow, ancient streets lined with markets, restaurants and cafes.
West of the Old Quarter and south of the West Lake is the former Ville Française. This is the old, French administrative center and is characterized by enormous colonial-era châteaux and wide spacious boulevards. It also houses Hanoi’s most popular attraction, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. When visiting the Mausoleum, it is important to be respectful, both in dress and attitude. Ho Chi Minh was the father of the modern state and is still held in reverential regard. His house, built in 1958, is also on public view.
There are a number of interesting pagodas in Hanoi. The One Pillar Pagoda, first constructed in 1049 AD (subsequently destroyed by the French just before they were ejected from the city and then rebuilt by the new government), was built to resemble a lotus flower – the symbol of purity rising out of a sea of sorrow. The Temple of Literature, built in 1076 AD, was the first university in Vietnam. It is a graceful complex of small intricate buildings and peaceful courtyards. To the northwest of the Citadel is West Lake, which is about 13km (9 miles) in circumference. The shores of the lake are popular with locals for picnics and there are a number of cafes. The lake also contains the wreckage of a crashed American B52 bomber.
About 160km (100 miles) from Hanoi, near the port of Haiphong, is Ha Long Bay. This is an amazing complex of 3,000 chalk islands rising out of the South China Sea. The area is strange, eerie and very beautiful. Many of the islands contain bizarre cave formations and grottoes. Near Ha Long Bay is Catba Island, a designated National Park and a rich repository of plants and wildlife.
11. Mandalay, Myanmar
Mandalay, Myanmar, is rich in palaces, stupas, temples, and pagodas (although the city has suffered several bad fires which have destroyed some buildings), and is the main center of Buddhism and Burmese arts in the country. There are some excellent craft markets and there are thriving stone-carving workshops and gold-leaf industries. The city takes its name from Mandalay Hill which rises about 240m/787ft and can be climbed (approximately 700 steps) or reached via linecar service. About halfway up is the Shweyattaw Buddha, whose outstretched finger points toward the city.
The Mahumuni Pagoda, or ‘Great Pagoda’, houses the famous and revered Mahumuni image of Buddha. The Buddha has been covered in gold leaf over the years by devout Buddhists. The process still goes on today and visitors are allowed to take part, for a small fee.
The base, moat, and huge walls are virtually all that remain of the once stupendous Mandalay Palace, which was an immense walled city (mostly of timber construction) rather than a palace. It was burned down in 1942. A large-scale model gives an indication of what it must have been like.
The Shwe Nandaw Kyaung Monastery was, at one time, part of the palace complex and was used as an apartment by King Mindon and his chief queen. Like the palace, the teak building was once beautifully gilded. There are some extraordinary carved panels inside and also a photograph of the Atumashi Kyaung Monastery, destroyed by fire in 1890. Its reconstruction is just a shadow of its former grandeur.
Kuthodaw Pagoda is called ‘the world’s biggest book’ because of the 729 marble slabs that surround the central pagoda which are inscribed with the entire Buddhist scripture, written in a language which only the monks can understand.
Singapore lies at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, and this “Lion City” is world-renowned for its adherence to strict laws. Do not even consider gum-chewing, or littering, or spitting here, because hefty fines are levied for these transgressions. Otherwise, however, Singapore is a very modern and prosperous city and has much to offer the tourist.
Orchard Road is both the major shopping street and also one of the major arteries of the city, running east to west. Because Singapore has matured into a melting pot of cultures, there are several distinct ethnic or cultural districts which should be explored. The three most prominent are the Colonial District, the hub of the city and scene of its most elegant architecture, Little India, in the northern part of the city, and Chinatown, which lies across the Singapore River, to the south.
Specific sights which should not be missed include the Raffles Hotel, a huge, white structure which is a National Monument, Chijmes, a complex of outdoor shops and cafes, the Kwan Im Temple (Goddess of Mercy Temple), with its golden exterior and fortune-telling monks, and Singapore’s Red Light District, the area around Desker St. and Petain Rd. On the fringes of the city are the Singapore Zoo, which ranks just behind the San Diego Zoo, in the USA, for number of species and completeness, and the Botanic Gardens, with their incredible collection of orchids.
13. Kuala, Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, “KL“, as it is locally known, is Malaysia’s hub, a huge, bustling, cosmopolitan city that is the business heart of the nation. Its ethnic diversity is part of the attraction, with Malaysian, Chinese, Indian and European cultures blending together on the tropical streets. KL has a wealth of attractions. Most obvious are the Petronas Twin Towers which, at a height of 436m (1453ft), are amongst the tallest buildings in the world. From the Towers’ viewing level the old mosques and ramshackle buildings contrast with the gleaming skyscrapers that have sprouted as Malaysia has become one of the regional economic powerhouses.
Merdeka Square is at the very heart of old Malaysia, and is showcased with the stunning Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which blends Victorian and Moorish architectural styles.
The Tasek Perdana Lake Gardens are one of the city’s best known natural landmarks, a popular spot for picnics and walking. Within the gardens are Parliament House and the National Monument. The National Monument, an impressive brass sculpture, is one of the world’s largest free-standing sculptures. Close by is the National Museum, which houses many historical exhibits.
Near the railway station is the National Mosque, surrounded by lawns ornamented with fountains. This modern mosque, built in 1965, gleams every bit as brightly as any of Kuala Lumpur’s skyscrapers. The main dome is molded in the shape of an 18-point star to represent the 13 states of Malaysia and the five central Pillars of Islam. The huge main prayer hall can hold up to 10,000 worshippers, although this section of the mosque is closed to non-worshippers. Nearby is the old Chinese clan house of Chan See Yuen.
KL has a smorgasbord of eating opportunities, with fine dining restaurants as well as local eateries that showcase the finest culinary delicacies from all over Malaysia. Then there are the street markets, with food stalls, where some of the best and cheapest food is to be found for the adventurous.
The Friday Mosque, situated at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers, the point where the first Europeans scrambled ashore, is the most visually appealing and popular sight in the city. The best time to visit is at sunset or during the muezzin’s call to prayer, which echoes around the ornate domes and palm trees, giving the mosque the appearance of great calm amidst the skyscrapers and the hustle and bustle of the city.
14. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, is Thailand’s second largest city and is located in the northern part of the country. The major tourist attractions are found in the Old City, which is surrounded by a moat, and eastward to the Ping River. Within the moat area are several Wats which should be explored: Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest, Wat Chedi Luang, with its Golden Buddha, and Wat Phra Singh, with its Bronze Buddha. Other attractions lie just outside the city.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is Chiang Mai’s most important landmark, and overlooks the city from its forested mountain setting. It is 15 kilometers (8 miles) from town and dates from the 14th century. There are stairs (almost 200 of them) and a funicular up to the temple. The Golden Pagoda contains holy Buddhist relics and is a major pilgrimage site.
On the same road, visitors will find the Phu Phing Palace, about 7 kilometers (4 miles) further along. This is still the royal winter palace and its beautifully landscaped gardens and grounds are open to the general public on weekends and official holidays if the Thai royal family is not in residence.
Doi Pui Tribal Village is located about four kilometers (2.4 miles) from the Phu Phing Palace and offers a glimpse of modern tribal life in Thailand.
Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre, located on the road to Chom Thong, stages Lanna Thai cultural performances with a Kan Tok Dinner.
The Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong is 58 kilometers (35 miles) from Chiang Mai and dates from the 15th century. It has a collection of bronze Buddha images, and the secondary chapel contains a Buddha relic.
15. Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos, was the country’s capital until 1556, and has been somewhat isolated since then, allowing it to maintain much of its heritage without the influence of modernization which has transformed other Laotian cities. Located between the Mekong and Khan River, it is the cultural and religious center of the country, boasting 32 large temple complexes.
Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City) is the epitome of Laotian religious architecture and probably the most impressive temple, decorated with golden relief and a mosaic Tree of Life.
The Royal Palace, built in 1904, contains a copy of the Pha Bang, a golden Buddha and also houses the Palace Museum (the former royal palace), recognizable by its golden-spire. The museum has an impressive collection of Laotian artifacts.
Nearby, in the town center, visitors can ascend Mount Phousi (Marvelous Mountain) for a panoramic view of the city and its surrounding rivers. Also worth visiting is Wat Chom Phousi and the cave which houses a footprint of the Buddha