8 Unmissable UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has a long and rich history evidenced by the wealth of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the region.

May 20, 2024By Lisa Barham, MA & BA Fine Art

unesco world heritage sites southeast asia


Stretching from Myanmar in the west to the Philippines in the east and southward to Indonesia, Southeast Asia is a vast geographic region. It is home to some of the world’s oldest and most alluring historical sites. The UNESCO World Heritage sites offer a fascinating window into the religious practices, culture, and heritage of the people who have lived there for millennia. Here are 8 of the region’s unmissable UNESCO sites.


1. The Temples of Angkor: Cambodia’s UNESCO World Heritage Site

angkor wat cambodia
Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Source: Pexels


The Temples of Angkor are one of the world’s most iconic historical sites. The Angkor Archaeological Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. It is comprised of hundreds of ancient temples. Chief among the ruins is Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument. Angkor was at the heart of the Khmer Empire from the 9th century to the 15th century.


Founded in 802, Angkor flourished for more than 600 years under the rule of successive kings, each of whom tried to better their predecessors in their endeavors to build the grandest temple. At its height, Angkor was the world’s largest city and home to 1 million people. After more than six centuries at the center of Cambodian culture, the empire collapsed in 1431 after it was attacked by Thai forces. The city and its temples were abandoned to the jungle where they remained largely unknown for hundreds of years and nature began to take back the area. By the time it was discovered by European colonialists in the mid-1800s trees had taken root in the buildings, breaking through stone walls and growing from roofs. Today, the fusion of nature and the manmade makes the Temples of Angkor a fascinating site that attracts millions of travelers every year.


2. Sukhothai, Thailand

unesco world heritage site sukhothai thailand
Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand. Source: Pixabay


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, the monuments at Sukhothai Historical Park are early examples of Thai architecture created when it was the capital of the first Kingdom of Siam. Sukhothai was once the center of a flourishing civilization that absorbed varied influences and ancient local traditions to form what would come to be known as the Sukhothai Style. Many of the unique characteristics of Siamese culture can be traced back to the Kingdom of Sukhothai and much directly attributed to the kingdom’s most famous King, Ramkhamhaeng. King Ramkhamhaeng made Theravada Buddhism the state religion and created a spiritual and commercial center at Sukhothai. Sadly, his successors lacked his leadership skills and the newly established kingdom of Ayutthaya rose to prominence in the second half of the 14th century and Sukhothai eventually fell into ruin.


3. Hoi An, Vietnam

unesco world heritage site hoi an vietnam
The Lanterns of Hoi An, Vietnam. Source: Unsplash


The historic city of Hoi An in Central Vietnam began its life as a busy trading port in the 1400s. It was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999 and is an immaculately well-preserved example of a Far Eastern port. Sitting near the mouth of the Thu Bon River, Hoi An was an active trading post between the 15th and 19th centuries. Merchants there traded with Southeast and East Asian countries as well as other countries worldwide. The Ancient Town is a unique fusion of Indigenous and foreign cultures and it shows influences from China, Japan, and Europe.


The narrow cobbled streets are lined with timber-framed buildings, unique in their blend of elements of these different cultures, and lit with thousands of lanterns. The famous lanterns of Hoi An were introduced by Chinese and Japanese traders in the 16th and 17th centuries during the city’s trading heyday. Hoi An is also famed for its historic tailoring trade and is known as the country’s fashion capital. The city is steeped in history and rich in historic buildings, including old family homes, assembly halls, communal houses, and museums, and most famously, the Japanese Bridge.


4. Borobudur Temple, Indonesia

borobudur temple indonesia
Borobudur Temple, Indonesia. Source: The Telegraph


Borobudur, on the Indonesian island of Java, is the world’s largest Buddhist temple. It was built in the 9th century using 2 million blocks of stone. The temple was constructed as a representation of the sacred mountain Meru. The base denotes the earthly world, and the top represents nirvana. The summit is a circular platform, symbolizing eternity. The walls are adorned with reliefs telling stories from Buddhist mythology and at the top of the temple there are 432 seated Buddhas. Further Buddha images can be found on each of the 72 latticed stupas that ring the upper platforms. As with many ancient monuments in the region, Borobudur was abandoned and lay almost unknown for nearly a thousand years before being rediscovered by English explorers in 1815.


5. Georgetown & Melaka, Malaysia

red square melaka malaysia
The Red Square, Melaka. Source: Pixabay


Georgetown and Melaka in Malaysia were twinned to create the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca, inscribed in 2008. Georgetown is the cultural heart of Penang Island, known as the spice island, off Malaysia’s northwest coast. The island’s colorful capital is home to some of the most important and beautiful architecture in Malaysia. It is also known as the food capital of the country. Georgetown is brimming with buildings rich in history and culture, including the iconic Blue Mansion, and the historic Fort Cornwallis, a legacy of Malaysia’s colonial times.


On Peninsular Malaysia’s south coast is Melaka, whose strategic location made it an important trading post that was fought over by European powers during the height of colonialism. The city has been occupied by Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Chinese powers during its history. This made it a place of blended cultures and rich history. Melaka is home to Saint Paul’s church, the oldest church in Southeast Asia which was built by the Portuguese in 1521. The famous red square is filled with Dutch-era architecture, including the Stadthuys.


6. Bagan, Myanmar

unesco world heritage site bagan myanmar
Bagan, Myanmar. Source: Unsplash


The ancient city of Bagan, formerly Pagan, was the first capital of the Pagan Kingdom. It flourished between the 9th and 13th centuries and was once a center of religious and cultural learning. In the 11th century, King Anawrahta became the first ruler to unite the lands that comprise modern-day Myanmar. His legacy can be found strewn across the central plains of the country in the form of a complex of Buddhist temples on a mammoth scale. It was under Anawrahta that construction of the site began, but King Kyansittha took the building project to another level. The vast site includes more than 2,000 structures, featuring temples, stupas, and monasteries. It is sometimes referred to as the Sea of Temples and is one of Southeast Asia’s greatest archaeological treasures.


7. My Son Sanctuary, Vietnam

my son sanctuary vietnam
My Son Sanctuary, Vietnam. Source: Vietnam.Travel


The temple complex of My Son Sanctuary is the site of the most extensive Cham remains in Vietnam. It was once the heart of the ancient Champa Kingdom and a place of great political and religious importance. Founded in the 2nd century, the Champa Kingdom united clans from across Central and South Vietnam. My Son Sanctuary was an important site for the religious ceremonies of the Champa kings for almost a thousand years and the burial place of monarchs.


Construction of My Son began in the 4th century. At this time a unique culture was developing in the region that was heavily influenced by Indian Hinduism. The first temple was created to worship the god Shiva. Over the next millennium successive rulers built their own monuments. The site expanded to include more than 70 temples, which are clustered together in groups. Most were built to worship Shiva but some were devoted to other Hindu gods, including Vishnu and Krishna.


The site was abandoned for centuries and the temples were claimed by the jungle. They were rediscovered by French archaeologists in the late 19th century and restored between 1937 and 1943. Sadly, parts of the site were badly damaged during World War II and the First and Second Indo-China Wars. Today, what remains of the monuments stand as the foremost example of the Cham architectural style.


8. The Plain of Jars, Laos: Mysterious UNESCO World Heritage Site

unesco world heritage site jars laos
The Plain of Jars, Laos. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Seventy-five miles southeast of Laos’s cultural heartland Luang Prabang lies the ancient and mysterious Plain of Jars. A prehistoric archaeological site, The Plain of Jars is a vast landscape dotted with thousands of huge stone jars. There are more than 90 jar sites across the region, each with a varying number of jars from one to 400, arranged singularly or in clusters. The jars also vary in size. The origin of the jars and their purpose remains a centuries-old mystery. There are scientific theories that they were used in funerary practices, whilst local legends tell tales of a race of giants who used the jars to store whiskey to be drunk when celebrating the victory over their enemy.


The landscape bears the scars of a more recent tragic and turbulent period of Laos’ history. The country has the unenviable title of the most-bombed country in the world owing to the intensity of bombing that the area suffered during the Vietnam War. The region in which the Plain of Jars is located was one of the worst affected. Bomb craters and shattered jars bear witness to the devastation that happened here.

Author Image

By Lisa BarhamMA & BA Fine ArtLisa is a contributing writer with a background in art. She holds a BA and MA in Fine Art from the University of Kent, and has worked at Tate Modern and the National Gallery, London. She now writes full time whilst travelling and exploring new countries and cultures across the globe.