September 29, 2020
In reviewing my 20 years worth of content and photos for the rebuild of this site, I thought it might be a good idea to summarize my favorites in a single article, to give you some travel inspiration. In this first list, I've selected some of the most memorable historic sites. I definitely have a weakness for ancient monuments. One of my Thai friends once lamented that I spent too much time looking at “piles of rocks”. There is no objective reasoning behind these choices. They're just my personal favorites from all my years of travel in the region.
Not all ancient monuments in Southeast Asia are abandoned. Some have remained more or less active throughout their life, and that's the case of Wat Phra Mahathat in the out-of-the-way southern Thai provincial capital of Nakorn Si Thammarat. The chedi (pagoda or stupa) at the heart of the temple dates from around the sixth century — making it one of the oldest in this list — and took its present shape around 1227. It's not just age that puts it on the list, though. The temple has it's own small museum and a distinctive main prayer hall with angled columns outside as well as inside which create a forced perspective, making the building appear taller than it is.
Read more about Nakorn Si Thammarat at ThailandForVisitors.com
Completed in 1091, the Ananda Temple lies just outside of the old city wall. The entrance halls each lead to large niches housing huge gilded standing Buddha images. Each of the images displays slightly different hand gestures, each of which has a meaning representing the last four incarnations of Buddha. A clever placement of windows in the upper story lights the face of each Buddha image. Although the central temple building has remained relatively unchanged, save for a bit of looting over the last 1,000 years, there have been additions right up to modern times.
Located north of the old city walls of the first “Thai” kingdom, Wat Si Chum was built in the late thirteenth century. The most striking feature of the temple is the large solid building (mondop) at the rear of what remains of the main prayer hall. A single narrow slit, almost the full height of the mondop, is all that pierces the structure. Through this narrow entrance, you glimpse the serene face of a single large seated Buddha image that almost completely fills the space enclosed by the building. The mondop once had a roof, but it is now gone, so the interior space is open to the sky. The walls of the mondop are much thicker than they need to be, concealing a stairway that once lead to the roof.
Read more about visiting Sukhothai at ThailandForVisitors.com
While the nearby massive Buddhist temple-mountain of Borobodur tends to get more attention, I think the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan is the much more impressive achievement. At one time, an empire based here held sway over much of Southeast Asia, long before the kings of Angkor or Ayuthaya rose to power. In total there are the remains 244 temples in the complex, most built between the eighth and tenth centuries, but it's the central group that definitiely makes an impression. The central shrine to Shiva is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Hindu art.
For a complete guide to the Prambanan and Yogyakarta, see AsiaForVisitors.com
The temples surrounding Angkor Wat in Cambodia are indeed the most impressive collection of ancient monuments in Southeast Asia. There are more than 40 sites within the area that was once the capital of the Khmer empire, but picking out a favorite was not as hard as it may seem. The sprawling temple of Preah Khan is the one I make a point of returning to every time I've visited the archaelogical park. Like the much more popular Ta Prohm, Preah Khan has be left largely in the jungle's embrace. Without the crowds of the other temples, it's wonderful to just wander around this ruin on your own.
See AsiaForVisitors.com for a comprehensive guide to the temples of Angkor.