Many of the ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples of Southeast Asia are popular tourist destinations, and for good reason: The temples’ architecture, craftsmanship and execution are awe-inspiring. The fact that so many are still standing today is remarkable, as both man and nature have ravaged many of the temples for centuries. Luckily, their significance has been acknowledged and they have been preserved – or even rebuilt in some cases – with the help of their UNESCO World Heritage status (Bagan is the only site on this list without UNESCO status).
If you’re headed to Southeast Asia, make time to visit some of these impressive ancient temple complexes.
Angkor The 400-square-kilometer area known as Angkor Archaeological Park encompasses what remains of the ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire, dating as far back as the 9th century. The most well-known temples are Angkor Wat (a popular destination for sunrise and sunset), the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom (known for huge faces carved into stone that adorn the temple) and Ta Prohm (recognizable for being overtaken by trees and as one of the locations where the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed).
You can opt for a 1-, 3- or 7-day pass to explore all the temples scattered around the ancient city of Angkor. Base yourself in nearby Siem Reap and hire a tuk-tuk to maximize your time there.
Sukhothai In the 13th century, Sukhothai became the first capital of the Siamese Kingdom. Today, Sukhothai Historical Park is divided into five zones that visitors can explore. You’ll see impressive chedis (Buddhist shrines), postcard-worthy temples and large sitting and standing Buddhas.
Rent a bicycle to cover ground faster, and you can see most of the sites in a day or two. You probably can’t make it a day trip just based on the park’s location. It’s a 7-hour bus ride from Bangkok and four hours away from Chiang Mai.
Ayutthaya The Historic City of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and became the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom. It flourished for centuries as a global commerce hub until the Burmese invaded and burned it down in the 18th century. Its ruins remain, known as Ayutthaya Historical Park, and provide a glimpse into this once-prosperous city.
To maximize your time in the park, rent a bike or hire a tuk-tuk for the day. This makes a for a great day trip from Bangkok, as it’s only 90 minutes north by bus.
Bagan The vast area that makes up the Bagan Archaeological Zone in Myanmar is filled with thousands of Buddhist temples and shrines that date as far back as the 9th century (at which time Bagan, then known as Pagan, was the kingdom’s capital). The temples contain murals, statues of Buddha and intricate sculpting work that give visitors a glimpse into local art and architectural trends of the time.
Horse-drawn carriages and rented bikes are the best options for getting around the large area. Base yourself in Nyaung U, which is just outside the archaeological zone. The closest major city is Mandalay, about a 4-hour bus ride away.
Prambanan On the island of Java, the Buddhist and Hindu temples and shrines that make up the Prambanan Archaeological Park were built starting as far back as the 8th century. The entire complex contains more than 500 temples; 240 of which are part of the Prambanan Temple alone (a Hindu temple). Some temples are in ruins, but many others are very well-preserved, revealing the incredible skill and attention to detail of the craftsmen who built them.
You can easily get around the archaeological park on foot. It makes for a perfect day trip via bus or taxi from Yogyakarta, as it’s only 11 miles northeast of the city.
Borobudur The massive Borobudur Temple Compounds, also on Java, dates back to the 8th century. It contains three tiers and covers a surface area of 2,500 square meters. At the top (115 feet high), there are dozens of stupas (Buddhist shrines) on three levels that encircle one grand stupa that rises high above the others. The original structure contained 504 Buddha statues, though some have been damaged or stolen over time.
Visit during sunrise to see Borobudur Temple at its most majestic moment, then you can just walk around the grounds. The temple is 25 miles northwest of Yogyakarta and can be reached by bus or minibus.