Southeast Asia conjures up lots of fun and exciting images for the curious traveler in all of us: sandy white beaches, towering green mountains, electrifying diverse cultures, exotic tropical food, and many more. But do you know that it is also home to 37 UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Since travelling around Southeast Asia is relatively cheap, visiting a few of these World Heritage Sites will surely accelerate your appreciation of this interesting tapestry of cultures, not to mention deepen your understanding of how past and present influences have shaped these fascinating countries.
This article will cover 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 5 countries: Penang (Malaysia), Hue (Vietnam), Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Bali (Indonesia) and Singapore Botanic Gardens (Singapore). Incidentally, Singapore Botanic Gardens was only recognized as a UNESCO site as recently as 2015.
1. Photogenic Penang
Georgetown, the part of Penang that was declared as a UNESCO WHO in 2008 certainly has lots to offer the inquisitive traveller. For starters, it exemplifies Malaysia's travel slogan of "Malaysia, Truly Asia" as Chinese temples, Muslim mosques and Indian temples are found within walking distance of one another, thus enabling travellers to experience her multi-religious harmony. In fact, it was not uncommon for Chinese men to marry Malay women then, giving rise to a minority race known as the Peranakans.
Speaking of the Peranakans, the Peranakan Museum is one of Georgetown's best sights as it showcases how Chinese and Malay customs infuse together to form an exotic culture that is uniquely Peranakan. This museum is sometimes used as the filming site for period dramas hailing from Malaysia and even Singapore, so you may just be able to observe local celebrities in action during your visit!
Next, Penang is a bustling port city, and some Penangites live above the waters. Yes, you read that right. Some Penangites live in wooden houses on stilts above the waters at Chew Jetty. Luckily, access is free for all. So you can "trespass" their grounds, observe their living conditions, and even sit down to embrace the inviting sea breeze.
In recent years, Gerogetown is made even more exciting through the efforts of Ernest Zacharevic, an Lithuanian artist who enlivened its streets with his compelling and intriguing street art. Through his art works, you can get an authentic glimpse into the lives of past and present Penangites - and of course, secure some nicely-posed selfies for your social media sites!
2. Heavenly Hue
Hue may be Vietnam's former Royal Capital from 1802-1945, but boasts an small-town charm as one can cycle his way easily around the city. Groups of Vietnamese people regularly have boisterous picnics on green fields - an interesting contrast to the rows of couples enjoying a private date while seated on their motorbikes. This lends an authentic and unpretentious air to Hue, which is nothing like you might expect from a city that contains many historic buildings of monumental value.
Explore how the Imperial Citadel absorbed Chinese influences, or admire the architecture of the seven-storey octagonal tower at Thien Mu pagoda. After your sight-seeing, complement your cultural awakening with a no-holds-barred feasting of delicious banh khoai (Hue-style fried pancakes)!
3. Awe-inspiring Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat complex has always been overrun with tourists, especially so after Ta Prohm - a beautiful temple penetrated by the massive roots of ancient trees - was prominently featured in Tomb Raider, starring no less than Angelina Jolie. Still, watching the sun slowly rise over the stately Angkor Wat (even if you do have to get up at the ungodly hour of 5am in order to catch it on time) will count as an intimately spiritual experience, as you witness how dawn breaks and ponder over the meaning of your life. Don't forget to take a reflection shot of Angkor Wat in the lotus pool.
To escape from the maddening crowd and just to enjoy a different kind of scene, take a boat ride to Tonle Sap Lake, incidentally the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. Here, you can observe the lives of the Cambodians who live on floating houses. You will definitely be impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit. This scene still remains etched in my mind: a little girl nimbly dashing from one end to the other of a motorized boat - with scant regard for her safety - holding on to a Coke bottle so that she could thrust it to tourists seated in nearby ferries and compel them to buy it.
4. Breezy Bali
Bali has gorgeous beaches and whooshing waves, so before you get lulled into spending your trip sun tanning, make your way out to the emerald-green rice terraces in places like Tegallalang, Ubud, Pupuan and Jatiluwih. Once you are there, get yourself some lunch at a restaurant that enables you to just spend some time staring at these terraces and imagine how hard it must have been for Balinese farmers to carve the terraces out of steep hill sides two thousand years ago with primitive tools.
After you are done marveling at the persistence of Balinese farmers, drop by a kopi luwak coffee (civet coffee) farm. Another of Bali's specialties, kopi luwak coffee is made via a fascinatingly gross way - local civets cats eat the coffee berries and pass coffee beans out intact as part of their poop. These undamaged beans are then washed and given a light roast so as to preserve their complex, exotic flavors.
Kopi luwak farms offer visitors free coffee tasting, so you are more than welcome to sip a cup or two and decide if the coffee appeals to your palate before you consider splurging for one of the world's rarest and most expensive coffees to bring home as a souvenir.
5. Beautiful Botanic Gardens
Singapore may be one of the smallest countries in the world, but its Botanic Gardens sure packs a punch as it contains more than 10, 000 types of plants within a mere size of 74 hectares. Once managed by the British colonial government, it is the only English-style garden in the tropics. It also spearheads innovation, especially in the area of breeding orchids (Singapore's national flower), and has till now successfully developed 2000 orchid hybrids.
Nestled within the heart of Singapore, the Singapore Botanic Gardens makes for an awesome brief respite should you wish to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the insanely crowded shopping district of Orchard and Somerset. What's more, you can boost your street credibility by visiting one of only three botanic gardens recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites! (The other two are the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Orto botanico di Padova in London and Italy respectively.)
As a Singaporean, I have been to 8 other ASEAN countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam) on numerous occasions and for varied purposes. The above list describes some of the most memorable World Heritage Sites that I have had the privilege to visit. Hence, I hope that my article gives you enough information and inspire you to think deeper about your own favorites so that you may compile your own list of "Gallivanting Around 5 UNESCO Sites In Southeast Asia"!