For me, one of the highlights of travelling in Asia is seeing history embodied in elaborate ancient temples and ruins. Here are some of my favourite temples and ruins in Asia, including Angkor Wat, the erotic temples of Khajuraho and the ancient city of Ayutthaya.
Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)
Do you watch romantic comedies and think they all seem the same? This could also apply to Bagan, but instead of boy meets girl, boy and girl argue and eventually get reunited, it’s temple meets temple meets temple, thousands of times. Where is the conflict or the up-lifting ending? Seeing thousands of temples that all look similar doesn’t sound too appealing, but climbing to the top of one of the higher ones and looking out over a plain packed with temples is more uplifting than any Katherine Heigl movie. There is also a cool temple filled with bats. Surprisingly, the best way to cure a fear of bats is to have hundreds of them flying around your face while you crawl through a dark, tiny and extremely hot tunnel. Bruce Wayne probably wouldn’t agree though.
From a distance, the temples in Khajuraho look like all the other Hindu or Jain temples you might have seen in India. Look closer though, and you’ll find a rich tapestry of erotic scenes carved into the side of the temples. These sexual scenes feature many strange positions and styles — the temples of Khajuraho are unlike anything else you’ve seen before.
FURTHER READING: Ancient Erotica: The Sexually Explicit Temples in Khajuraho, India
This small town in Madhya Pradesh, India, is home to some beautiful temples, palaces and ruins. The chhatris (large, temple-esque cenotaphs) are particularly impressive. One of the best things about Orchha is that it’s so quite. Gia and I had the whole set of riverside chhatris to ourselves one night — it was so romantic and exotic that I decided to propose to her there. Orchha is only around five hours from Agra (where the Taj Mahal lives) but sees a fraction of the tourists — pencil it into your itinerary if you have a few days to spare.
FURTHER READING: Introducing Orchha, a Small Town Full of Ruins, Temples and Palaces in India
Jain Sculptures, Gwalior, India
Around halfway between Agra and Orchha, Gwalior is home to one of the nicest and most colourful palaces in India. While walking up the hill to see it we passed by some giant rock cut sculptures in the hills lining the road. These towering statues depict the 24 Jain teachers and date back to the 15th century. It’s a really impressive sight and again, it’s a place that not many people make it to. India is home to some of the best temples and ruins in Asia, but we only had time to visit a few of them. We’ll be back to explore more (I’m especially looking forward to Hampi).
The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
The temples of Angkor are probably the most popular ancient ruins in Asia. Unlike Bagan, the look and feel of these temples in Cambodia vary wildly. The godfather, Angkor Wat, is the largest religious building in the world. Seeing it at sunrise is recommended, as long as you don’t mind joining scores of other tourists crowding around a small pond fighting for the best spot. There is a lot to explore, and while some people will only need a day, if you have a real interest in this sort of thing a three-day ticket is a must. A tuk-tuk tour is the easiest way to see them, but try and hire a bicycle for at least one day and stop off at some of the less visited temples.
FURTHER READING: Siem Reap, Cambodia: Soul Searching in the Temples of Angkor
Ayutthaya is often thought of as a poor man’s Angkor Wat, even though they are in different countries, built by different empires to worship different gods. To the untrained eye they may look similar though, but it’s well worth visiting Ayutthaya regardless whether you’ve been to Angkor or not. The crowds are small and the ruins are spread throughout a real, functioning town, giving them a lived-in feel. It’s a bonus that while exploring the temples you are also exploring a small Thai city, which means discovering the kinds of restaurants and neighborhoods you might normally miss. Don’t believe the lack of hype — Ayutthaya is home to some of the best temples and ruins in Asia and shouldn’t be missed!
FURTHER READING: Cycling to the Ruins in Ayuttaya, Thailand
Lopburi is like a magical world where monkeys, tourists and locals play together in the shadow of temple ruins. OK, maybe it’s not so magical to see monkeys masturbating, fighting and trying to steal food from anyone with a rustling plastic bag, but it is certainly an interesting place to visit. The temple ruins in Lopburi date back as far as the Khmers (who built Angkor Wat) and they are scattered throughout out the town — it’s close to Bangkok and Ayutthaya and is one of the more unique towns in Thailand.
FURTHER READING: Exploring the Ruins in Lopburi, Thailand’s Ancient Monkey Town
Many people claim Sukhothai is the most impressive set of ruins in Thailand, and while I don’t agree (Ayutthaya is better in my opinion), it is a great place to explore. The real stars of the show in Sukhothai are the massive Buddha statues. The best way to explore Sukhothai is by bicycle — there’s a lot to see but it can easily be done in a day. Some of these Buddhist ruins date back to the 13th Century and have stood the test of time pretty well.
Wat Phu, Laos
These Khmer ruins complex is a far smaller and more compact version of the Angkor temples. These temples and palaces are worth seeking out though, both for their intricate details and for the stunning hilltop views. On a clear day you can see the Mekong River in the distance. It only takes an hour or two to explore these ruins and it makes a great stop off while journeying overland through Southeast Asia. If you’re in the area make sure you head to Don Det, in the 4000 Islands region of Laos. It’s a really laid-back little river island and the sunsets there are amazing.
FURTHER READING: A Tour of Wat Phu: Crumbling Khmer Ruins in Laos / Don Det: One of the Best Places to Relax in Southeast Asia
Plain of Jars, Laos
Nobody knows quite what these massive stone jars were used for, or who built them, which forces you to use your imagination while walking around this former minefield in central Laos. The mines have all been cleared (although you can still see evidence of explosions), but the mysteries remain. The Plain of Jars are a bit of a detour for most people travelling in Laos but the sheer scale of the area and the age of the jars makes this is a must-see destination for those with an interest in history.
FURTHER READING: The Mysterious Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, Laos
My Son, Vietnam
It’s not quite on the same level as some other sets of ruins in Southeast Asia, but My Son is definitely value for money. It’s cheap (the entrance ticket is around $6), simple to access and the ruins, while small, are easy on the eye. If you have already seen the others then you may be disappointed, but as it was my first set of ruins in Asia I loved it. I noticed that the tours have received some abuse on Wikitravel because they just herd people around the site like tourist sheep, but I had a pretty good experience. I managed to escape the dull tour guide who went on and on about each temple and instead explored them on my own. It’s a small site and a couple of hours is probably enough to see everything yet not be too rushed. I recently visited My Son again and hired a car / driver — we had the ruins almost all to ourselves and it was a far different experience.
FURTHER READING: My Son Ruins: Take a Tour or Do it Yourself?
Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, the ancient ruined city in Sri Lanka, isn’t on too many people’s must view list, which means smaller crowds and the opportunity to be smug when you realise no one you know has been there. Best seen by bicycle, Polonnaruwa can be explored in around half a day. In varying degrees of disrepair, a lot of these temples have dissolved down to their foundations, which makes for a nice change from the overly restored feel that some ruins in Asia have. The town of Polonnaruwa is a great place to spend a couple of days, and if you do make it there, make sure you head to the tank (man-made lake) at sunset to see thousands of bats flying across the sky.
FURTHER READING: Backpacking in Sri Lanka: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Lion Rock (Sigiriya), Sri Lanka
This giant rock in central Sri Lanka used to be home to a huge palace / fort, of which little remains today. The views of the rock from below, as well as the amazing panoramic view from the top, make this one of the top tourist sights in Sri Lanka. Ancient ruins in Asia don’t get much more scenic than the Lion Rock — I wouldn’t recommend it for people with a fear of heights though!
FURTHER READING: Climbing the Lion Rock in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
This massive structure in central Java, close to Jogjakarta, is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Dating back to the 9th century, Borobudur is a supremely detailed masterpiece that looks out over some awesome rural scenery. I visited Borobudur while travelling through Java and it was really busy — try and go early if you can!
Central Java is also home to this impressive set of 10th century Hindu temples. They are similar to ones you’ll see elsewhere in Southeast Asia but who could ever get sick of ancient temples like these? I visited Prambanan just before sunset and it was the perfect time to see the temples. The main site is quite small but there are other temples scattered around — it’s worth seeking them out if only to avoid the bigger crowds in the central section.
FURTHER READING: Volcanoes and Temples: A Week in Java, Indonesia
That brings me to the end of my ancient temples and ruins in Asia round-up. Have I missed any of your favourites? Which ones would you like to visit? Let me know in the comments below!
Note: This is an update of a much older (and much shorter) post from 2013.
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Tuesday 14th of January 2020
I'm living vicariously through your travels. I wish I could be there now, especially at Bagan, looks so amazing! When do you plan to go back and what's your #1 priority?
Tuesday 14th of January 2020
Thanks Lorie! I'll definitely return to Bagan one day, such a cool place! This year I'm planning a big trip to Europe / Jordan -- pretty exciting!
Wednesday 14th of August 2019
I love to explore old ruins, I'm always impressed that people were able to built these amazing temples with their bare hands, when they didn't have the equipment we have right now. It's fascinating. I've only been to Europe, but now I'm planning my first trip to Asia to see some of the ancient temples, just can't decide whether to go to Thailand or Cambodia... and now I've also added Bagan in Myanmar to my list, after reading your article! :) Can you give me any recommendation which place to visit on my first trip? (what I have in mind is mostly the ease of getting there, ease of getting around and how much you can visit on-site)
Thank you for making this list, it's very helpful! :) Zooey
Friday 16th of August 2019
Hey Zooey, yeah these places are so much fun to wander around! I'd go for Angkor Wat if I were you -- there's heaps to see (a lot of people spend three days at the temples) and it's easy to get around / organise cheap tuk tuk tours. Siem Reap, the town near the ruins, is also pretty cool and very geared up for tourists. You can also fly there from places like Bangkok so it's a good option. Ayutthaya is great too and only a couple of hours from Bangkok, so I guess it depends how much time you have and where you're flying into etc. Good luck!
Friday 2nd of June 2017
Bagan! Temples paired with an incredible sunset and hot air balloons -- one of the best views ever in Asia!
Friday 2nd of June 2017
I'd love to do the hot air balloon flight one day, I can't remember seeing them back when I visited -- a long time ago now!
Paula Wheeler @ A Travelers Postcard
Friday 3rd of October 2014
I haven't made it to Asia yet, but it's on the list. Thank you for the insight to these wonderful places.
Friday 15th of August 2014
beautiful, have been to a few of those and want to now see Sri Lanka and also Indonesia to see Burobudor
Thursday 11th of September 2014
Sri Lanka is great if you're into history (or beaches, mountains, food, wildlife etc)