12 amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you need to add to your bucket list

Be sure to check out these cultural and natural wonders on your next trip.

  • Delle Chan
  • December 2019

Being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is no small feat — after all, the coveted designation is only granted to places deemed to be of outstanding importance to humanity. From majestic temples to immaculate churches, verdant parks to postcard-perfect towns, here are 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you need to see in this lifetime.

1. Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Angkor Wat at sunrise
The best time to visit Angkor Wat is during sunrise, when its ornate towers are silhouetted against a candy-floss sky.

Probably the most well-known UNESCO World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia, the Angkor Archaeological Park is a sprawling 12th-century temple complex situated just north of Siem Reap. Taking centre stage is Angkor Wat — which, at 162.6 hectares, is the largest religious monument in the world.

Once you’re done admiring the temple’s elaborate Khmer architecture, be sure to also check out the other sites within the Park, such as Bayon Temple, whose numerous Gothic towers bear the likeness of Avalokiteshvara (the earthly manifestation of Buddha).

Address: Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia

2. Preah Vihear, Cambodia

Preah Vihear
Like many of the temples in Angkor Archaeological Park, Preah Vihear is a stylised representation of Mount Meru, the sacred home of the gods in Hindu cosmology.

Another UNESCO-listed temple in Cambodia is Preah Vihear, which dates back to the 9th century. Set on the edge of a cliff in its namesake province of Preah Vihear, it can be reached via a four-hour drive from Siem Reap. Its Khmer architecture has been beautifully preserved, in part thanks to its remote location. Here, visitors will find a series of sanctuaries connected by a network of pavements and staircases, and punctuated by elaborate gopuras (entrance towers).

Address: Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia

3. San Agustin Church, The Philippines

San Agustin Church interior
San Agustin Church’s intricate interior is a sight to behold, with vaulted ceilings adorned with trompe l’oeil frescoes, choir seats inlaid with ivory, as well as a baroque pulpit.

UNESCO has given due recognition to the Baroque Churches of the Philippines — four Roman Catholic churches constructed during the Spanish colonial era between the 16th and 18th centuries. Among these is San Agustin Church, which is located in the historic walled city of Intramuros in Manila. Opened in 1607, it is the oldest church in the Philippines.

Address: General Luna St, Manila, Metro Manila
Tel: +63 2 8527 2746

READ MORE: 5 best nature walks for day trips out of Manila

4. Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An
According to UNESCO, this ancient town south-east of Danang is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port.

Hoi An is an amalgamation of both indigenous and foreign influences that reflect its cultural pluralism: from vernacular structures such as the Central Market to Chinese wooden shophouses and French colonial buildings.

Japanese Covered Bridge in Hoi An
The iconic Japanese Covered Bridge was constructed in the 15th century by the town’s sizeable Japanese community.

Address: Quang Nam Province, Vietnam

5. My Son, Vietnam

My Son
Ensconced amid tropical jungle are the ruins of various Hindu temples and sculptures, much of which were sadly destroyed during the Vietnam War.

Step back in time at this atmospheric temple complex, which can be easily visited on a half-day trip from Da Nang. Many of the structures, which have been hewn from red brick and sandstone, are dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, who is said to be the protector of the kings of Champa — an ancient civilisation that flourished between the 2nd and 17th centuries.

Address: Duy Phu, Duy Xuyen District, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam
Tel: +84 235 3731 309

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6. Thang Long Imperial Citadel, Vietnam

Thang Long Imperial Citadel
Thang Long Imperial Citadel functioned as the seat of Vietnamese military power for over a millennium.

Also known as the Hanoi Citadel, this 11th-century complex in the heart of the Vietnamese capital was actually built upon the ruins of a 7th-century Chinese fortress. Throughout the years, various archaeological treasures have been unearthed: from ancient roads to palace foundations, as well as bronze coins and ceramics. Some of the smaller relics are on view at the citadel’s display room.

Address: 19C Hoang Dieu, Dien Ban, Ba Dinh, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: +84 24 3734 5427
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7. Ayutthaya, Thailand

Wat Mahathat
Don’t forget to get the quintessential pic at Wat Mahathat where you’ll find a large stone Buddha head mysteriously entwined with the roots of a tree.

Situated around 80km north of Bangkok, this historic city was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam from the 14th to the 18th centuries, until it was devastated by the Burmese in 1767. Fortunately, visitors can still admire vestiges of its former splendour: highlights include Wat Chaiwatthanaram, a monumental temple with eight ornate chedis (stupas) and 120 Buddha statues.

Address: Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Province, Thailand

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8. George Town, Malaysia

Street art in George Town
Penang’s capital may be best known for its highly photogenic street art, but it is also an architectural gem.

Over the years, Penang’s urban fabric has been shaped by various cultural influences — Chinese, Indian, Malay, British and more. With its indigo walls and timber louvre windows, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a shining example of Straits Eclectic architecture. Do also check out other sights such as the Lebuh Aceh Mosque, which is noted for its Egyptian-style minaret; and the colonial-style City Hall, which was built by the Brits in 1903.

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9. Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore

Singapore Botanic Gardens
This 74-hectare green space is Singapore’s first ever World Heritage Site.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens is also the only tropical botanic garden in the world to receive UNESCO recognition. Its status is well deserved, thanks to its role in advancing horticultural and botanical research: for instance, it was here that Pará Rubber, a cash crop that is integral to the region, was developed. Wander around its verdant themed gardens, including the National Orchid Garden, which is home to over 300 species of the bloom.

Address: 1 Cluny Rd, Singapore
Tel: +65 6471 7138
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10. Cultural Landscape of Bali Province, Indonesia

Water temple of Pura Ulun Danu Batur
Be sure to visit the water temple of Pura Ulun Danu Batur, which manages the water from Lake Batur; the latter is regarded as the source of every spring and river in Bali.

This catchall term refers to 19,500 hectares of rice terraces and water temples, which together demonstrate the ancient practice known as subak. This is essentially an egalitarian irrigation system that sees village cooperatives managing a shared water supply from a single source. To see subak in action, head to the picturesque Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, where stepped rice paddies are carved into the hillside.

READ MORE: Your itinerary for the perfect weekend in Bali

11. Lenggong Valley, Malaysia

Accessible via a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, this verdant valley in the state of Perak is where you’ll find some of the earliest traces of human history. Its four archaeological sites date back almost two million years, with relics from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Metal ages. Sights include open-air caves and stone tool workshops that offer an insight into early technology — all of which are a testament to the remarkable evolution of mankind.

READ MORE: 5 amazing nature getaways within a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur

12. Dong Phayayen–Khao Yai Forest Complex

Khao Yai National Park
You’d have to spend days on end exploring the entirety of the complex, but a good starting point is Khao Yai National Park, which is under a two-hour drive from Bangkok.

This enormous swathe of land spans 615,500 hectares across five Protected Areas, namely Khao Yai National Park, Thap Lan National Park, Pang Sida National Park, Ta Phraya National Park and Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s home to an incredible array of flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the banteng, the spot-billed pelican and the pileated gibbon.

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