The time is ripe to discover South-east Asia’s lesser-known yet impressive historical sites – as the region’s tourist trails swell for the 50th anniversary of ASEAN this year.
1. Beng Mealea, Cambodia
Angkor Wat attracts masses of visitors who want to catch those first rays of sun over the temples. To escape the crowds, head to Beng Mealea, which resembles Angkor Wat’s jungle temple Ta Prohm – without the roped-off areas and cut tree limbs. Ramps traverse the site, which is filled with lichen-covered temple blocks and hidden passageways. Arrive at this atmospheric spot early and hire a guide to lead you through the overgrown ruins a la Indiana Jones – something you can’t do at other temple sites in Siem Reap.
Get there: Beng Mealea is about a 90-minute drive from Siem Reap.
2. Quaipo Church, Philippines
San Agustin (General Luna Street) in Manila is one of four churches noted for their Baroque architecture. However, Malate Church dates back to the 16th century and has a mix of Islamic and Mexican Baroque design features. Then there is Quiapo Church, which contains an ebony statue of Jesus Christ bearing a cross – it is paraded through the streets of Quiapo during the annual Feast of the Black Nazarene (January 9).
Get there: Malate and Quiapo are about a 20-minute and 10-minute drive from Manila’s City Hall respectively.
3. Ipoh, Malaysia
To experience colonial charm with a fraction of the tourists who throng cities such as Malacca and George Town, head to former tin-mining capital Ipoh. Buildings such as Kellie’s Castle (31000 Batu Gajah, Perak, Tel: 60 5365 3381; above), a mansion built by a Scottish planter, and the more-than-a-century-old Ipoh Railway Station (Stesen KTM Ipoh) are just two of the Neoclassical structures you’ll find in and around the city. The Old Town also has murals by Ernest Zacharevic, the artist responsible for much of Penang’s street art.
Get there: Ipoh Railway Station is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Penang; Kellie’s Castle is about 30 minutes from Ipoh by car.
4. Tirta Empul, Indonesia
The Subak rice-terraced landscape dotted with water temples is beautiful, but just outside Ubud, Tirta Empul (Jalan Tirta, Tampaksiring, Manukaya, Kabupaten Gianyar) is a Hindu temple with a holy spring that’s said to have healing properties. The long rectangular bath here is fed by 12 fountains, and an inscription dates the founding of the temple to AD926. If you visit on a festival day, you’ll see families enjoying the holy water. Travellers can use the segregated public baths.
Get there: Tirta Empul is about a 30-minute drive from Ubud.
5. Ninh Binh, Vietnam
While most visitors head to Halong Bay, those in the know visit what locals affectionately term the “inland Halong Bay”. Ninh Binh, a city on the main highway south of Hanoi, is home to the serpentine Tam Coc river. It flows into dark grottoes and is flanked by towering karst formations and rice paddies. There is also the bonus of being ferried around by local boatmen, who manoeuvre the vessels using their feet. This allows them to eat, drink and take photos while paddling.
Get there: Ninh Binh is about a 90-minute drive from Hanoi.
6. Savannakhet, Laos
While Luang Prabang is the latest hotspot for its elegant French colonial and traditional architecture, Savannakhet is a relatively undiscovered alternative that’s equally charming. Take a tuk tuk to the historic quarter in the city centre to admire grand old 20th-century French villas, or check out the ancient Wat Sainyaphum, the oldest and largest monastery in southern Laos that features beautiful carvings.
Get there: A two-and-a-half-hour flight from Vientiane.
7. Thonburi, Thailand
The ruins of Thailand’s ancient capital, Ayutthaya, make up one of its main UNESCO attractions, but you don’t even have to leave the present-day capital, Bangkok, to get a glimpse of Thai cultural history. Head across the Chao Phraya River to Thonburi, where you will find Santa Cruz Church (112 Thesaban 1 Road, Wat Kalaya), an architectural treasure around which the Thai Portuguese community is based. The Portuguese were the first foreigners to set foot in ancient Siam, arriving as traders in Ayutthaya in the 1500s. After the old capital was sacked, they were granted land along the river and built the church, a square around it, and simple teak-wood homes above canals branching off the river. Other attractions in Thonburi include the ancient royal temple Wat Arun, traditional Thai puppet shows and small local floating markets.
Get there: A 10-minute boat ride from the city.
This article was originally published in Silverkris August 2017.