Wonderful Places To Visit in Southeast Asia

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

Amongst the grandeur of golden temples, ancient frescoed palaces, paradisiacal white sand beaches and lush kilometres of beautiful emerald jungle, Southeast Asia has some of the world’s most intriguing, off-the-beaten-path attractions to explore. From ancient temples fighting against nature in Cambodia (not that one!) to beautifully bizarre modernist artworks in Thailand, these are some of the most wonderfully strange places to visit in Southeast Asia. 

Wat Rong Khun, Thailand

Essentially a modern art piece in the form of a working Buddhist temple, the White Temple was designed and is owned by renowned Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, and is as beautiful as it is strange — and like Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia the White Temple is a work in progress. From afar, it looks a little like a sugar-coated gingerbread temple. Or a petite white palace that seems to flow effortlessly between the iconic more subdued forms of Buddhist temples and the busier characteristics of Hindu temples, all set in a patch of elegantly manicured gardens. On closer inspection you’ll find dragon gargoyles, huge tusks forming cinematic gates, elephants with wings, various sculptures set on the banks of a small reflecting lake filled with Japanese Koi, and an unexpected horror film-esque pit of hands — some holding alms bowls, some with huge sharp claws and others with webbed fingers — reaching out from the ground in front of the bridge of "the cycle of rebirth”.

Explore inside the temple and things become stranger still. On the front walls, there are various psychedelic frescoes depicting pop-culture icons such as Batman, Superman, rockets surrounded by stars, the Predator and of course Keanu Reeves’ as Neo from The Matrix decked out in his long leather jacket, staring over at a gigantic mural of the Buddha and a hyper-realistic wax statue of a monk sat in the lotus position. 

Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia

It’s difficult to think of Cambodia and not picture the mysterious, endlessly fascinating Angkor Wat —but around three hours east lies the equally stunning (though less grand) and mystery-laden Sambor Prei Kuk, a series of ruined Hindu buildings that are engaged with a slow and constant battle with nature. Here the roots of trees grip to the ochre-tinged walls of ancient temples almost entirely consuming them, pulling them in and blending them into the atmospheric forest terrain. Some have green mossy hats while others are obscured by roots forming what in some cases look like cracked and crooked doorways leading to some mystical realm found within the great trunks of gigantic timeworn trees.

An interesting architectural quirk found at Sambor Prei Kuk is the ten octagonal temples that are unique in South East Asia, and contributed to its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Plain of Jars, Laos

Recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this atmospheric destination in the Lao highland is really nothing more than a vast hilly plateau occasionally punctuated by large trees…. and a collection of huge stone jars ranging from three to ten feet in height and scattered across hundreds of otherwise empty (save for a few cows) kilometres. Local legend dictates that the jars were created as brewing vessels for celebratory Lao Lao Rice Wine after an ancient king — Khun Cheung — won a long and arduous battle. But modern theory suggests that the jars were used as a kind of ancient crematory where bodies were left to decompose before being moved to a burial site, and recent archaeological discoveries of 2500-year-old human remains buried close to the jars seem to all but confirm this. 

During the Vietnam war, the Plain of jars was off-limits as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route for North Vietnam, ran through north-central Laos. During that time the US dropped countless cluster bombs in the area destroying many of the jars and leaving unexploded ordinances that were left as they were until recent years. And while much of the area has been cleared it’s best to err on the side of caution and only travel with a knowledgeable local guide. 

Thuy Tien Water Park, Vietnam

An abandoned water park in central Vietnam doesn’t, perhaps, hold the same allure as others on this list, but much like that found in Sambor Prei Kuk, there’s a certain sense of mystery here that captivates those who seek out abandoned places. Here, water slides are caught up in long vines and children’s pools are now filled with thick clusters of algae, while the leviathan-like dragon that forms the central piece of a great lake is murky and covered in graffiti. Inside it, a warren of passageways leads to a huge mouth that doubles as a viewing platform where one can leer at the astonishingly pretty views over the lake whose banks are lush and overgrown with flora. 

It’s easy enough to reach Thuy Tien Water Park without a guide as it’s just a short bike or motorbike ride away from Hue. Once there the park feels a little like a piece of installation art. In the forests, there are colourful cars decorated with scales and odd modernist sculptures of large heads reminiscent of those found on Easter Island. There’s an abandoned amphitheatre with a body of water in front of it — but whatever the crowds came to watch has long since left. It’s not uncommon to see locals fishing in the waters of the park, and there are generally always other travellers exploring… possibly even more than when the park was open.

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