Top 10 Cultural sites in Indochina

"Indochina is one of the most culturally interesting and diverse areas in the world, with tourists travelling from all four corners of the globe to uncover its secrets."

March 2017 • Jules Verne

Top 10 Cultural sites in Indochina

Indochina is one of the most culturally interesting and diverse areas in the world, with tourists travelling from all four corners of the globe to uncover its secrets. It seems to many that Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Burma are untouched by the modern era, locked in a timeless state. Each has fascinating cultures and histories waiting to be explored. With so much to see, it’s hard to decide which are the most important sites to cover on one trip to Indochina. To help you choose, here are our recommendations of the top 10 cultural sites in Indochina.

Angkor Wat Temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat is one of the most famous sites in Indochina. The temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world, on a site spreading over 402 acres. The name itself is derived from the Khmer for “City of Temples”, a fitting name for this immense ancient site.

The stunning diversity of architecture combines both temple-mountain and galleried temple styles, and is noted for its grandeur. The complex is an important part of the modern culture of Cambodia and the country is understandably proud of this incredible site –  it has featured on the Cambodian flag in every iteration since its first design.

Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

One of many spectacular buildings on the site of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, this remarkable temple is an example of the cultural richness that can be found in Indochina. This beautiful building is just one of many that make the grounds of the Royal Palace a cultural goldmine to explore.

What sets the Silver Pagoda apart are the treasures it contains, including gold and jewelled Buddha statues. A life-sized Maitreya Buddha covered in nearly 10,000 diamonds gazes across the temple. It was handcrafted by goldsmiths in the early 20th century. However, most notable is a tiny green crystal Buddha, known as the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia. The provenance of this gem is unclear, but its flawless beauty is indisputable.

Hue Imperial Citadel in Hue, Vietnam

The imposing palace and citadel at Hue has stood since the1800s, when thousands of workers toiled to create a wall and moat almost 10 kilometres long. The Purple Palace, one of the largest in the Citadel, comprised many buildings interwoven with courtyards and gardens. The site was compromised during the Tet Offensive, despite attempts by American troops not to cause damage to the Imperial City.

Having survived termite infestation and cyclones, as well as the Tet Offensive, extensive repairs were carried out to the10 remaining major sites of the initial160 buildings. The Imperial City is a kind of living history, where vast swathes of Vietnamese history and culture can be observed in carved wood and stone.

My Son Ruins in Vietnam

The ruins at My Son are thought to be the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina. The cluster of abandoned Hindu temples was built largely between the 4th and 11th centuries, as a religious site and a burial place for royalty and heroes. Intricate stone slabs documenting the influence of the Champa kings also stand on the site.

As the use of the site developed, further buildings were added. After the fall of the Champa, Mai Son fell into disrepair, largely forgotten, until it was restored by colonising forces in the 19th century. Sadly, much of the architecture of the site was destroyed in the 1960s during the US Carpet Bombing known as Operation Thunder. Nevertheless, these enthralling ruins are an unmissable cultural site.

Lech Dzao Village in Sapa, Vietnam

Over fifty distinct groups are recognised by the Vietnamese government, each with its own distinct language, lifestyle and cultural heritage. Many ethnic minority groups such as the Hmong, Dao, Giay, Pho Lu and Tay peoples reside in the northern region of Vietnam. This makes Sapa and surrounding villages, like Lech Dzao, fascinating to visit.

Visitors to this remote mountainous region are sure to love the colourful clothing and accessories that the local people create and wear. Visiting Sapa is a chance to observe and learn about cultures that you can’t see anywhere else in Vietnam or the wider Indochina region. It’s a unique experience that you won’t forget.

Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, Laos

The Royal Palace in Luang Prabang reflects the colonial French influence on Laos.  Its architecture mixes traditional Lao and French Beaux Arts styles. The decorative choices compliment this; murals in the King’s Reception Room were painted by a French artist but depict scenes from traditional local lifestyles.

The former palace was turned into a museum following the communist uprising. It houses an exhibition of diplomatic gifts bestowed on Laos by foreign governments. The collection includes awe-inspiring pieces, from a Buddha cast of gold, silver and bronze alloy thought to be gifted to the king in the 14th century, to a piece of moon rock donated by the USA following one of the Apollo missions.

Tagbat Alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos

The cultural phenomenon of Tagbat Alms giving is one not to be missed. Locals and tourists alike rise at the crack of dawn to take part in this unique experience.

Those who arrive earliest hire small plastic chairs and buy supplies, before taking their place at the roadside. As they have done for generations, monks dressed in saffron robes take to the streets with their alms bowls. These are quickly filled with offerings of fruit, sticky rice, and money. Following the procession, the monks are driven back to the monasteries in a fleet of brightly coloured tuctucs.

The Alms giving ceremony is believed to be a way of building good karma. Even those who do not subscribe to the local faith find the experience very rewarding.

Wat Sisaket in Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, is perched on the banks of the Mekong river, near the border of Thailand. The city is the economic centre of Laos and a traditional religious hub. Unfortunately, invaders from Siam looted and burned much of the city in 1827.

The Wat Sisaket survived, thanks to its Siamese architecture: a surrounding terrace and ornate five-tiered roof. It is now the oldest standing wat in Vientiane. One of the cloisters has been turned into a museum that houses over 10,000 images of the Buddha, many of which are in niches in the surrounding walls. The oldest date back to the 16th century. Every year, the images are ceremonially cleaned by monks who live in the grounds.

Inle Lake in Burma

Inle Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Burma, is home to one of the most unusual cultures in the world. The whole lake, with an estimated surface area of over 40 square miles, could be considered one vast cultural site.

The lake is home to many indigenous people who live not only in cities clustered around the shores, but also on homes on the lake itself, which sit on bamboo structures above the water. Local fishermen known as leg-rowers have perfected a distinctive technique. Balancing on the stern of the boat, with one leg wrapped around the oar, they have unparalleled views across the water. This famous practice gives the lake its cultural importance.

Bagan in Burma

Bagan is one of the most ancient cities in the Indochina area. During the height of the Kingdom of Pagan, over 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the area. Many were completed between the 9th and 13th centuries.

Luckily for the modern visitor, over 2,200 of the religious buildings survive today. The landscape of the area is studded with structures of unrivalled historic architecture. This is now a hub for the country’s budding tourist industry, flourishing after generations of seclusion. It is easy to see why many flock to the area – the sun sets dramatically over the horizon pierced by the silhouettes of religious buildings as far as the eye can see, the gilding glinting magically in the dying sun.

If you have been inspired to visit Indochina, discover this majestic area for yourself on a Jules Verne tour. Get even more travel inspiration on our blog.