Borobudur, Indonesia

Southeast Asia does have its fair share of UNESCO World Heritage sites – 33 as of now.

Indonesia and Vietnam lead the pack with eight each, while the Philippines has six sites, Thailand has five, Malaysia four, followed by Cambodia and Laos with two each and Myanmar with one.

However, many of these sites are rather obscure or out of the way.

Have you heard of Lenggong Valley in Malaysia’s Perak for instance?

Or Lorentz National Park in Indonesia?

Well, I certainly haven’t, but here’s a list of five sites which I think should top your list (though in no particular order).

1) Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang has no top-draw destinations.

Certainly nothing on the scale of something like the Opera House when you think of Sydney, for instance.

And yet, it’s utterly charming.

Located along the Mekong River and its tributary, Luang Prabang is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries.

And every morning, you can see people lining the streets to offer alms to scores of Buddhist monks in their saffron robes.

The atmospheric old town also has an air of serenity, making it the perfect place to sit back and contemplate life’s mysteries.

Colonial mansions in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Morning alms procession, Luang Prabang

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang

2) Vigan, the Philippines

Located about 8 hours by bus away from Manila, Vigan is the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia.

And it’s full of cobblestone walkways, horse-drawn carriages and centuries-old mansions.

My friend and I spent just two days here, and it was definitely not enough.

The town is small enough for you to check out all the sights in a day, but that would be such a waste, for the place is brimming with nostalgia of a bygone era.

And slowing down would better enable you to soak in the atmosphere.

Plaza Salcedo, Vigan

Crisologo Street, Vigan

Colonial-era mansion, Vigan

Vigan

3) Hue, Vietnam

To be honest, I found Hue (pronounced hway) a bit blah.

But no one travels to Hue just to see Hue.

Between 1802 and 1945, the city was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty.

And remnants of its illustrious past are what has kept Hue on the tourism map.

There’s not a lot left within the Imperial City, as much of the grounds were destroyed during the Vietnam War, but the Tombs of the Emperors are definitely a must-see.

The Tomb of Minh Mang, for instance, is surrounded by woodland and water.

And it includes courtyards with warrior statues as well as temples and pavilions.

But I thought that the Tomb of Khai Dinh was the most interesting, with its European-influenced architecture and incredibly opulent interiors.

Take note, however, that the tombs are a little far from town, so either hire a driver for the day, or set off early on your bicycles.

Thai Hoa Palace, Hue

Cycling to Tomb of Tu Duc, Hue

Tomb of Khai Dinh, Hue

Tomb of Khai Dinh, Hue

4) Borobudur, Indonesia

The magnificent Borobudur temple is the world’s biggest Buddhist monument, and yet many have not heard about it (among my friends anyway).

So try to get there before the crowds do.

The monument consists of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and it’s decorated with over 2,500 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues of various types.

But even though most visitors time their visit to catch the sunrise, the sunsets are equally striking.

So here’s a tip: if you think you’d like to visit Borobudur more than once, stay at the nearby Manohara Hotel.

It offers you free-of-charge unlimited admission to Borobudur though you’d have to pay for the sunrise tour.

And as the icing on top of the cake which is Borobudur, the temple is just an hour’s drive away from Indonesia’s cultural capital of Yogyakarta.

Borobudur

Borobudur

Borobudur

Intricate stone carvings, Borobudur

Yogyakarta Palace (kraton)

5) Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat today is so famous it needs no introduction.

And yet, it’s still an absolute must-see.

But you should find ways to beat the crowd.

Most people don’t stay on after watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, so hang around after that and you’d have the whole temple to yourself (well, almost).

After that, head to atmospheric Ta Prohm (my personal favourite) with its overgrown roots and hanging vines.

At midday, there’ll be hardly anyone there.

If you can spare the time, try to venture beyond the small circuit which covers the most well-known temples including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon.

Temples further afield, such as Pre Rup and the pink temple of Banteay Srei are well worth a visit too.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Pre Rup Temple

Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm

P/S I hear the hidden jungle temple of Beng Melea is even more atmospheric than Ta Prohm, but I didn’t get to go.

So if you do go there, give me a shout-out on how it is.