From the Great Wall to the Taj Mahal, from Angkor Wat to Borobudur – Asian civilizations have bequeathed some of humanity’s most awe-inspiring architectural legacies. These bold-face wonders, and many other lesser known landmarks, share a common imprimatur: they have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, embodying “outstanding universal value” and meeting at least one of 10 selection criteria, such as “a masterpiece of human creative genius.” They are must-sees on any itinerary, and for very good reason. Asia’s architectural draws are not only ancient, though; places like Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong have all erected cutting-edge buildings from 21st-century “starchitects” as well.
Angkor Wat is often used as shorthand for all of Siem Reap’s temples, and understandably so – it has become a symbol of Cambodia, earning center stage on the national flag. The five-towered wat is the crowning achievement of the Khmer Empire, whose legacy is spread more widely around 150 square miles of temple wonders built between the 9th and 15th centuries. This entire Angkor Archeological Park is a collective UNESCO site, with other can’t-miss temples including Bayon, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei.
Staying true to its regional competition with India, China possesses a disproportionate share of Asia’s architectural draws and World Heritage sites. Beyond the Great Wall, there is the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and hutong district of the capital city Beijing; the Old Town of Lijiang in southwestern Yunnan Province; the unique Sino-Portuguese melange of Macau; the careful landscaping of Hangzhou’s West Lake and Suzhou’s classical gardens; and numerous dynastic tombs, most notably the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor – commonly called the Terracotta Warriors – which remained hidden for 2,000 years before its discovery in 1974. Potala Palace in Tibet is another landmark of ancient Chinese architecture.
When it comes to architectural treasures, India is an embarrassment of riches. Beyond the beacon of Agra – the exquisite Taj Mahal – there are still too many to list, but here is a sample of the subcontinent’s gems: the Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb and Qtub Minar of Delhi; Agra Fort and the “ghost town” of Fatehpur Sikri; the carved caves of Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta; the “erotic temples” of Khajuraho; the various hill forts of Rajasthan, including Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Amber, Ranthambore, and more.
The largest and one of the grandest Buddhist monuments in the world, Borobudur, in central Java, Indonesia, was originally built in the 9th century, rediscovered in the 19th and restored (with UNESCO’s help) in the late 20th. Today, it is the Angkor Wat of Indonesia, pulling pilgrims with a magnetic draw (helped by the stone’s-throw presence of Amanjiwo). The Hindu and Buddhist temples of Prambanan, Borobudur’s 10th-century Javanese sibling, are an “architectural and cultural treasure, but also a standing proof of past religious peaceful cohabitation,” says UNESCO.
Japan is, simply, an architecture buff’s delight. Tokyo is all about the ultra-modern, with neighborhoods like Aoyama and Roppongi boasting eye-catching buildings that house haute couture boutiques and contemporary art galleries. Travel north, south or west of the capital, and you meet the ancient Japan of the imagination. Kyoto alone is home to 17 UNESCO temples and shrines, including the famed Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle and Kiyomizu-dera, while Nara’s massive Todai-ji houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue. And don’t overlook Kamakura, home to exquisite Zen temples just a day trip from Tokyo.
Myanmar is home to some of Southeast Asia’s best ancient architecture, much of which seems poised to be added in quick succession to UNESCO’s World Heritage list as the country continues to reform. The jewel in Yangon’s crown is the towering Shwedagon Pagoda – “a golden mystery...a beautiful winking wonder,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1899. The thousands of ancient temples scattered across the plains of Bagan rival Angkor in scale and ambition; Inle Lake is a unique water-based culture home to some 70,000 Intha people; and the remote ancient capital of Mrauk-U is home to more then 200 well preserved Buddhist monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Here’s a fun fact: Sri Lanka is home to more UNESCO World Heritage sites than Egypt. These include the ancient city ruins of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura; the sacred city of Kandy, the last redoubt of Sinahlese kings before British rule; and the Old Town of Galle, with its unique mix of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial flavors. Bearing Sri Lanka’s most recent UNESCO stamp (2010) is not a man-made property but a natural one, the island nation’s Central Highlands, cited as a “super biodiversity hotspot.”
From its ancient capitals of Sukothai (1238-1438 ) and Ayutthaya (1350-1767) – both UNESCO World Heritage sites – to the modern one of Bangkok, Thailand is choc full of terrific architecture. No stop in the present capital is complete without taking in the majestic Grand Palace, the lofty Wat Arun or the enchanting Wat Pho – whether walking among the buildings or cruising past them on a riverboat. The well preserved temple ruins of Ayutthaya include both tapering Thai-style stupas and the “corn-cob” Khmer shape, while the nearly 30 square miles of Sukhothai Historical Park are home to 26 temples, the most impressive of which is the immaculate Wat Mahathat.
This is just a selection of the Asia architecture and heritage sites Remote Lands can incorporate into your Asia luxury holiday. Please contact us today for more information and to begin planning your trip.