Southeast Asia is known around the world for its gorgeous beaches, stunning scenery, charming temples, delicious food and superior hospitality. However, for architecture lovers, there is an extra reason to love the region: impressive heritage. Just like elsewhere in the world, most of this heritage relates to religious sites. Buddhist and Hindu temples can be seen all around the region, while mosques mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia and churches in the Philippines. However, there are a few cities in Southeast Asia that have preserved their impressive civil historical architecture.
Major Cities in Southeast Asia with Historical Architecture
All of the current Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Thailand, were at a point colony of one or several European countries. Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore were British, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam French, Philippines Spanish and Indonesia Dutch. Likewise, the region has historically been heavily influenced by the Chinese and Japanese cultures. Our favorite cities in Southeast Asia with historic architecture are Luang Prabang, Hoi An, George Town, Malacca City and Vigan. They all host some very fine examples of residential and commercial buildings, testament of the region’s rich history.
Luang Prabang, Laos
The former seat of the Kingdom of Laos, Luang Prabang is a fascinating place. Hundreds of temples adorned with golden stupas and charming French colonial villas hide behind lush vegetation. The Old town, located in a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and the colonial influences of the 19th and 20th centuries. What’s more, nice backyards and hidden temples dot the entire city.
What to See in Luang Prabang
To enjoy the nicest views of Luang Prabang climb on top of Phousi Hill, south of the city center. You’ll love the unobstructed views of the peninsula and the Mekong River. Luang Prabang’s most important temple Wat Xieng Thong (The Temple of the Golden City) is at the end of the peninsula. This 16th-century temple is one of the most sacred places in Laos. The city’s oldest temple Wat Wisunalat is south of the old town. It is famous for its stupa with a rounded dome, That Pathoum. Also, don’t miss the Royal Palace where you can learn about Laos’ past.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
In Luang Prabang stay at The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel, on the shore of the Mekong River. The location is fantastic: away from the noise but close enough so you can walk to the temples. They have complimentary bikes for their guests and pretty big rooms with views of the river. Another great choice is The Satri House Secret Retreats, a compound of beautiful houses. Rooms, set in lush gardens, are tastefully decorated. They have a spa and a sophisticated open-air restaurant.
Hoi An, Vietnam
The Beautiful city of Hoi An still retains the spirit of an ancient port town, with buildings dating from the 15th to 19th century. Its Old Town is a witness of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences. Hundreds of old houses and temples have been restored and opened to tourists. Additionally, Hoi An has an exquisite location on the Thu Bon River, 5 km from the sea, which gives it an atmospheric charm. Unlike other major cities in Vietnam, life here is relaxed, interrupted only by the waves of tourists.
What to See in Hoi An
All important sites in Hoi An are within the historic old town. Get the heritage ticket that gives you access to five historic buildings. Our favorite is the early 16th century Japanese Covered Bridge. It used to connect the Japanese community with the Chinese quarter. Amongst religious sites, the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation is the most interesting one. Additionally, there are several ancient family houses and chapels. The Tan Ky House from the 19th century is especially interesting.
Where to Stay in Hoi An
In Hoi An stay at the Vinh Hung Heritage Hotel tucked in a quiet street in the middle of downtown. The house is over two-centuries-old and was turned into a fantastic hotel. Their rooms are spacious, and you can use the pool at their nearby sister hotel. The Ha An Hotel is a grand mansion set in an even bigger garden. They have an onsite pool and complimentary bicycles. Whichever hotel you choose you will get premier service!
George Town, Malaysia
To us, George Town is the nicest city in Southeast Asia. With several layers of Portuguese, British, Chinese, Malay and Indian culture plus pretty cool modern graffiti, shops and bars, the city is paradise for those of us who are architecture lovers. As one of the famous Strait Cities, its residential and commercial buildings downtown are the result of hundreds of years of trade between east and west, especially during the British rule at the end of the 18th century. On top of that, lush hills and beautiful beaches surround the city.
What to See in George Town
George Town has loads of interesting places to visit, including Buddhist temples, mosques, churches, street art, colonial mansions, and even a floating village. Among the numerous beautiful mosques, the grandest is Jalan Kapitan Kelin, the former state mosque. The Kek Lok Si Temple is probably the coolest Buddhist temple in town. It mixes Chinese, Thai, and Burmese influences. For a glimpse of local Chinese life visit the Clan Jetty, a group of six floating villages. Finally, don’t forget to search for Georg Town’s colorful street art, especially around Armenia Street.
Where to Stay in George Town
In George Town, we stayed at the Royale Chulan Penang and had a great time. They’ve updated a beautiful colonial building from 1892 with state of the art facilities, including a pool. Ask for a top floor room for sea views. Another top choice within the UNESCO listed center is the Blue Mansion. The historic building has 5 gorgeous courtyards and one of the best restaurants in town.
Malacca City, Malaysia
Very few cities in Southeast Asia boast such rich history and have managed to preserve its architectural heritage as Malacca. A Sultanate in the 15th century, it was later dominated by the Portuguese and Dutch during the 16th century and the British in the 19th century. Nowadays, there are several large scale projects in progress, but it still possesses a distinct traditional charm. In Malacca, several cultures were able to live together in harmony. Fantastic examples of Buddhist and Hindu temples lay next to churches and mosques in a wonderful mix.
What to See in Malacca City
Malacca City has a collection of architectural masterpieces of different cultural backgrounds. On the town square, you’ll find the Dutch Stadhuys (City Hall), the Christ Church, and three nice museums. On a hill close to the square there are two remnants of the Portuguese past: the ruins of Saint Paul’s Church and the Famosa Fortress. On the other side of the river, you’ll find the Cheng Hoong Teng, Malaysia’s oldest Chinese temple. Don’t forget to visit the unique Kampung Kling Mosque either.
Where to Stay in Malacca City
As you’ve probably noticed, we love staying in historic buildings. In Malacca City, we recommend the Sterling Boutique Hotel, in the middle of the heritage zone. Even if you don’t stay there, go for dinner at their rooftop restaurant for delicious food and great views. The Muk by Victoria Home, a boutique hotel, is another great option. Once again, they are in the historic quarter so you can walk everywhere. Since it’s a small hotel, they offer personalized service.
The biggest island in the Philippines, Luzon, has probably the richest colonial heritage. Several important medieval churches dot the island, with the city of Vigan as the crown jewel. The city is great, full of crumbling Spanish colonial buildings and alive, inhabited by charming locals who organize events all the time. Established in the 16th century, Vigan is the best-preserved example of a Spanish colonial town in Asia, blending perfectly with the cultural elements of the Philippines, China and Europe.
What to See in Vigan
There are countless beautiful colonial houses in Vigan. All you have to do is search for them. Crisologo Street, Vigan’s main drag, is colonial central. The St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral is between two of the city’s main squares, Salcedo and Burgos. The 17th century Baroque cathedral incorporates Neo-Gothic, Romanesque and Chinese influences. North of the city center, across the river, the Bell Tower of Bantay Church is the oldest structure in the region.
Where to Stay in Vigan
In Vigan stay at the Ciudad Fernandina Hotel. The house goes back to 1758 and has been part of Vigan’s history ever since. We have to admit that they’ve done a great job refurbishing the building. Their onsite coffee house is superb. Another option in the core of the UNESCO listed center is Hotel Veneto De Vigan. Their comfortable rooms overlook the cobbled streets and the patio. Both places are in a safe clean neighborhood: we even walked late at night!
Other Cities in Southeast Asia with Historical Architecture
Five big national capitals still possess some of their Colonial heritage; Yangon (ex capital), Kuala Lumpur and Singapore British, Jakarta Dutch and Manila Spanish. These are fairly large metropolis so such heritage does not define their character. Our favorite is Yangon, with hundreds of great examples of rich colonial past and its easy going atmosphere. Singapore and KL are the ones that have done a better job at protecting their buildings, plus it’s very easy to move about and enjoy both cities. Behind the chaos of Manila and Jakarta, you will find impressive buildings that are for sure worth visiting.
In Yangon, you’ll find British colonial heritage in the large city center north of the Hlaing River. Though most of the colonial residential buildings are in a dilapidated state, there are several interesting temples and public buildings. The whole area revolves around Sule Paya, where the main square is. The Yangon City Hall and the Yangon High Court are there. Other interesting buildings in the center are the Yangon Secretariat, the Bogyoke Market, the Yangon General Hospital, and the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. The famous Schwedagon Pagoda is not part of the British legacy, but is Yangon’s most important site!
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
British, Chinese, and Arab influences perfectly blend in Kuala Lumpur. Chinatown and Little India in the city center have the most historical buildings. Take your time around Merdeka Square. Our favorite building in the city, Sultan Abdul Samad Building, is there. Close to the square, you’ll find the Masjid Jamek, one of the oldest mosques in the city. The Moorish style Kuala Lumpur Train Station is another great example of historic architecture. The city’s most famous landmark, Petronas Towers, is from a different period.
Fortunately, Singapore recognized the value of its heritage and has preserved several areas belonging to different ethnicities. Chinatown is the largest, where the monumental Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is. Little India is where the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple is. Kampong Glam is the Muslim area, where you’ll find the grand Sultan Mosque. On the other hand, the center is colonial. The Old Supreme Court, the Fullerton Hotel, and the Victoria Theatre are fantastic examples of British architecture. Though the Gardens by the Bay are brand new, you should not miss them!
Unlike the abovementioned cities, Jakarta did not take good care of its old town, Kota. Its splendid architectural heritage comes from when Jakarta was the capital of the Dutch East Indies. The epicenter is the old town’s main square Fatahillah, where the former city hall, now the Jakarta History Museum is. The Bank of Indonesia, the Museum Mandiri, and the Museum Wayang are nearby too. Don’t miss the Old Harbor or the Chicken Market Drawbridge either. In the center, far from the old town, you’ll find the National Museum of Indonesia.
Intramuros (inside the walls) is the only section of Manila’s colonial old town that survived. Fortunately, the city walls are intact. Its highlight is the lavish Fort Santiago, a Spanish citadel from the 16th century. The nearby Manila Cathedral, also from the 16th century, is the city’s main church. Another interesting colonial building is the beautiful San Agustin Church. Don’t forget to visit the attached museum of San Agustin. The nearby Casa Manila is relatively new but is a faithful copy of a 19th-century house.