World Heritage Sites of Southeast Asia
For many westerners, any mention of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos arouses memories of a tragic war and a devastated region. Some people indeed go to Southeast Asia to see this land that so filled their lives for so many years. Most go to see for themselves a region that is spectacularly beautiful and culturally interesting. The vestiges of communism are still visible, but they are overshadowed by a dedication in all the countries of Southeast Asia to capitalism and free enterprise, the driving force of change and advancement. Travel in the region is quite safe, and the inhabitants are exceptionally welcoming.
While enjoying the magnificent natural and cultural attractions of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, our visit in February 2007 focused on World Heritage Sites in the four countries. World Heritage Sites are designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization. UNESCO's credo reads: "Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration."
World Heritage Sites include such far-flung wonders as Tanzania’s Serengeti, the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and baroque cathedrals in Latin America. So too the designated World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia are part of the cultural heritage of all peoples of the world.
We began our trip with a visit to Singapore, not a World Heritage Site, but a world-class destination nevertheless. Since we were flying Singapore Airlines, we took advantage of the airline’s Singapore Stopover option. The program features hotel discounts and free or discounted transportation and admissions to the island’s major attractions. We stayed at the Albert Court Hotel and visited the Botanic Gardens and Orchid Garden, the Asian Civilizations Museum and the marvelous Jurong Bird Park. The hop-on, hop-off tourist bus is included, but use the underground (Mass Rapid Transit: MRT) when possible. Inexpensive and much faster.
From Singapore, we flew to Vietnam. East of Hanoi, past Haiphong, we found our first World Heritage Site.
Halong Bay is a perfect gem. Located on the Gulf of Tonkin, the bay is dotted with more than 3,000 limestone peaks rising from its brilliant emerald water. With its white sandy beaches and grottoes created by wind and waves, it is one of the natural wonders of Southeast Asia. The name Halong means "where the dragon descends into the sea". A legend tells about a magnificent dragon that was sent by the gods to protect the country from an invading army. The angry dragon, lashing about with his tail, formed the islands and sea passages. So says the legend. Locals still look for "tarasque", Halong's version of the Loch Ness monster.
We sailed the bay, as smooth as glass, in a modern Huong Hai junk, modeled after the original 18th century craft that plied these waters. The junks feature comfortable air-conditioned cabins with private bath, topside deck space and an on-board chef who prepares local dishes. Halong Bay was beautifully depicted in the classic movie, “Indochine.”
Back in Hanoi, we toured the city: the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where the father of the Vietnam republic lies entombed; the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which features displays dedicated to the public and private side of Ho Chi Minh’s life; the Fine Arts Museum, a large colonial building which displays contemporary Vietnamese art and handicrafts; the Temple of Literature which was the site of the first national university dating back to 1076. We ended with a visit to the notorious Hanoi Hilton, which housed both French and American captives. In the evening, we attended a water puppet show.
A short flight from Hanoi took us to Hue, a World Heritage Site.
Hue was the political capital and cultural and religious center of the
Nguyen dynasty until 1945. There are many tombs of the emperors here and
several important pagodas along the Perfume River.
Next day, we sailed down the Perfume River on a motorized sampan to visit the delightful Thien Mu Pagoda, considered the finest pagoda in Hue. It was built in 1601 after an old woman appeared to Nguyen Hoang, the governor of Hue, and said that the site had supernatural significance. Later we continued our sampan ride to Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb, set amidst pinewoods.
Leaving Hue, we traveled by bus through the picturesque Truong Son
Mountains, the former border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, to the
port city of Danang. Here we visited the Cham Museum, which houses the best
collection of sandstone sculptures of the Kingdom of Champa, dating from the
second century. Afterwards, we stopped at China Beach, a popular R&R center
for American military during the U.S.-Vietnam war. Thence by bus to our next
World Heritage Site.
Hoi An is delightful. It is a well-preserved important trading port of the region, dating from the 15th to 19th century. Its streets, architecture, markets and temples hint at the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that had a part in its development. Today the town is laid back, the pace is slow, and it is a popular destination.
We strolled the streets, lined with shops and restaurants, and walked over the Japanese covered bridge, dating from the sixteenth century. The resident Japanese community probably built the bridge to link it to the Chinese quarter. A small pagoda on the north side reportedly protects sailors. Later, we had tea at the two-hundred-year-old Tran Family Chapel, a fusion of Chinese and Japanese architectural styles and a focus for family ancestor worship.
Leaving Hoi An and Vietnam, we flew to Siem Reap.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is simply magnificent. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Extending over some 400 square kilometers, the park includes the most important structures of the Khmer Empire, dating from the 9th to the 15th century. We visited Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, including Bayon Temple with its wonderful sculptural embellishments. We marveled at the bas-relief depictions of the Ramayana, the epic Hindu poem. I must have taken two dozen pictures of the Apsaras, the graceful Heavenly Dancers.
Farther afield, we visited Sras Srang, a huge artificial lake, the enormous Ta Keo, and Banteay Srei, the “Citadel of Women”, with its magnificent sandstone friezes and carvings. It dates from the 10th century and was one of the first sites to be restored by the French. Particularly intriguing and a must-see is Ta Prohm. At the same time romantic and melancholy, the temple is only partially rescued from the forest. Huge vines and tree roots still creep down the sides of temples and walls.
Reluctantly leaving Angkor and Siem Reap, we flew via Bangkok to Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
The entire town of Luang Prabang is designated a World Heritage Site. It has been described as the best-preserved traditional village in Southeast Asia. Long the seat of local kingdoms, Luang Prabang was made the royal capital of Laos in the 14th century.
We took an early morning cruise of about 25 kilometers in a covered riverboat, enjoying the views of picturesque mountains and villages, to the confluence of the Mekong and Ou Rivers. Here we docked and climbed steps to the Pak Ou Caves that are set high in the sandstone walls overlooking the river. The caves contain thousands of ancient statues of Buddha, from a few inches to nine feet tall. Once inhabited by monks, the caves are sacred to the Lao and a place of pilgrimage. One needs a flashlight for the deep recesses of the upper cave.
The Lao devotion to Buddhism is evident everywhere in Luang Prabang. At dawn, early risers gather in streets where hundreds of barefoot, orange-robed monks make their daily walk to receive sticky rice, other food and necessities from both locals and visitors. After about an hour, the monks disappear, returning to their monasteries.
We visited the beautiful historic temples of Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai, Wat That Luang, Wat Sene, and Wat Wisunalat with its ancient wooden Buddha statues. We toured the early 20th century Royal Palace, now a museum housing a collection of royal Lao artifacts, including the ancient Phra Bang Buddha, a gold, silver and bronze casting. Or not. There is speculation that this is a copy, that the original is in a Vientiane vault or that it was given to the Soviets as compensation for their assistance.
Luang Prabang is a joy. Its main street is lined with colonial era shops, cafes and houses. It is one of the few places in Southeast Asia where one can opt out of the large tourist hotels. The place is full of guesthouses, converted homes with wonderful local charm and moderate prices. It is a place to slow down, kick back and relax.
Leaving the tranquility of Luang Prabang, we flew to Bangkok. Here we toured the Grand Palace complex, dating from the 18th century. Wat Phra Kaew, inside the palace grounds, houses the dazzling Emerald Buddha, an image thirty inches high carved from green jade. Or jasper. Or nephrite. Its origins are unknown, but the statue has nevertheless acquired a magical symbolism for the Thai kingdom.
We visited Wat Pho, or Temple of the Reclining Buddha. The image, 151’ long and 49’ tall, depicts Buddha entering nirvana. The statue is made of brick, covered with plaster and coated with gold leaf. The soles of the huge feet picture the 108 characteristics of a Buddha. The temple complex also houses hundreds of other Buddha images.
Later, we crossed the Chao Phraya River by ferry and visited Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn. Built in the early 19th century, the 269’ prang, a Khmer-style tower, is the highest in Thailand. Murals picture Buddha at various stages of his life: birth, sickness, old age and death. An interesting feature of the structure is the colorful broken Chinese porcelain that is laid into the mortar. The porcelain arrived in Thailand as ballast in Chinese ships.
I will not soon forget Wat Arun. I stupidly left my small backpack here,
filled with camera gear. Not to worry. The gear can be replaced, and the two
memory cards were empty.
Next we flew to Sukhothai in northern Thailand, our last World Heritage Site.
The Sukhothai region has been declared in its entirety a World Heritage Site. This is the reputed cradle of Thai culture and nationhood. The ancient ruins are found within two parks: Sukhothai Historical Park and Si Satchanalai-Chaliang Historical Park.
Si Satchanalai is moated and enclosed by laterite walls that were pierced by seven gates. Royal palaces and residences of court officials were located within the walled town. Townspeople built their homes outside the walls, specifically along the eastern wall, which curved along the bank of the Yom River.
We drove to nearby Phitsanulok where we visited the working temple of Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat, which houses the revered bronze Chinnarat Buddha, second in importance in Thailand only to the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. The Chinnarat Buddha is noted for its flame-like halo circling the head and torso.
Returning to Sukhothai, we stopped at the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum, then visited the moated 13th century Wat Mahatat, with its striking lotus-bud stupa. Nearby, we saw the Wat Si Sawai, also encircled by a moat. Constructed by the Khmers as a Hindu temple, it was later converted to a Buddhist shrine.
Sukothai was a fitting end to our tour. The pretty airport is constructed and landscaped in the style of old Sukothai. We continued snapping pictures.
This was a fantastic trip. Almost three weeks long, it was but an introduction to a region that demands more time and a return visit. Arrangements were by Adventures Abroad: http://www.adventures-abroad.com. The work of Serra Hughes confirms my judgment that Adventures Abroad has the best tour leaders in the business. The land-only cost of the tour—internal air included—was US$2,755 plus $92 taxes. International air from Sacramento was US$1,265 plus $290 taxes. The Singapore Stopover rate for the Albert Court Hotel was US$60 double for the first night, $68 for each additional night. The author will respond to comments and questions posted to firstname.lastname@example.org.