15 February 2017
Asia possesses some of the world’s most sought-after cultural attractions, many of which have been topping travellers’ bucket lists for decades, perhaps centuries. However, how many of us truly know the wonders Asia holds? Today we’re putting this exotic part of the world on centre stage and showcasing the five best cultural sites.
Angkor Wat - Siem Reap
A trip to Angkor Wat, often listed as the world’s number one cultural sight, is a truly unforgettable experience. Built over the course of 30 years in the 12th century, the world’s largest religious monument is known as the earthly abode of ancient gods and the heart of Cambodia.
Angkor Wat looks impressive from afar, but seeing it up close allows you to really appreciate the level of detail. Intricate carvings teach of historical and mythological events, and every one of the 3,000 nymphs etched into the walls is unique.
It’s said that those who walk through Angkor Wat travel back to the age of gods and creation, first passing the 190-metre-wide moat and rectangular outer wall with hair offerings from pilgrims. Lotus buds sit atop each tower in the central temple, home to the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, and the uppermost level (Bakan Sanctuary) can only be entered by those with arms and knees covered.
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Taj Mahal – India
Built between 1632 and 1653, the Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most extravagant romantic gestures. Then Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, had it built as an eternal resting place for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, creating what is now considered one of the New7Wonders of the World.
Almost eight million people visit the Taj Mahal each year, more than six times the population of Agra, where it is located. The story behind it typically plays second fiddle to the incredible architecture and mesmerising decorations, which have led to it being considered “the jewel of Muslim art”.
An incredible amount of history and culture can be discovered beyond that iconic facade. Be sure to read the Quran verses inscribed on the southern red sandstone gateway and admire the thousands of semiprecious stones laid across the central Taj building. Venture beneath the main dome to visit the replica Centoph of Mumtaz Mahal.
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Great Wall of China – Beijing
The Great Wall of China has been the subject of many myths and legends over the years, but the truth behind this ancient behemoth is much more fascinating. The Ming parts of the Great Wall are easiest to explore, but are divided by natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers, so travellers typically only visit one.
Beijing functions as a gateway to the Great Wall, launching visitors to three main sections: Badaling, Simatai and Jinshanling. Badaling is the most frequented section and the easiest to walk. Locals selling artisan goods sit along its length, and it is here visitors can see the famous Ming Tombs. Simatai offers steeper climbs, but also the highest and most picturesque viewpoints, while Jinshanling takes you back in time across undeveloped remains and undulating countryside.
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Bagan – Myanmar
Often mentioned alongside Angkor Wat, Bagan is an ancient city that served as the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan between the 9th and 13th centuries. Nowadays, millions of travellers visit each year to witness more than 2,200 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. These are spread across a 104-square-kilometre expanse, which is why tickets last for five days.
In a single visit you can see such famous landmarks as the 52-metre-high Ananda Pahto with gilded spires, the mysterious Dhammayangyi Pahto where numerous murders have occurred, and the world-famous gilded Shwezigon Paya with enormous bronze Buddhas.
Sunsets are best enjoyed on a river cruise or from Shwesandaw, a white pagoda with panoramic views of Bagan. You can also organise a hot-air balloon ride, which gradually unveils this remarkable region one temple after the other.
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Borobudur Temple - Indonesia
Tucked inside a breathless expanse of trees and seemingly endless hills stands the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Constructed in the 9th century on the island of Java in Indonesia, Borobudur Temple reveals the true depths of Indonesian culture, art and indigenous traditions.
A central dome rises from the middle of almost 600 Buddha statues, marking the end of a pilgrimage that begins at the temple’s base. Visitors ascend Borobudur Temple through stairways and corridors adorned in Buddhist reliefs (sculptures and carvings), which lead them past three realms – desire, form and formlessness – from which they emerge reborn.
The entire journey from base to peak is best taken at a slow pace, allowing time for you to appreciate the various nuances and architectural feats throughout the temple. Once at the top, you’re rewarded with uninterrupted views of the countryside and a better understanding of Indonesia’s rich history.
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By Ben Stower