Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today
Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Wander Through the Ruins of Angkor in Cambodia
With over 1,000 temples spanning 400 square kilometers, the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of the most impressive ancient sites in all of Asia. Dating back to the 9th century, this vast complex was the seat of the mighty Khmer Empire. At its peak in the 12th century, Angkor was one of the largest pre-industrial cities in the world. Today, the breathtaking temples stand as a testament to the ambitious urban planning and architectural feats of the ancient Khmers.
A visit to Angkor offers the chance to imagine life in this ancient kingdom. As you meander along shaded pathways, it's easy to picture the temples bustling with activity centuries ago. Priests would have worked inside the inner sanctums, royal officials governed from the libraries and galleries, and dancers performed on open-air platforms. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat, considered a masterpiece of Khmer architecture. Built in the early 12th century for King Suryavarman II, this UNESCO World Heritage site is renowned for its elaborate bas-reliefs depicting Hindu legends and heavenly dancers.
In addition to Angkor Wat, other must-see temples include the faces of Bayon, the jungle-strangled Ta Prohm (famous as a Tomb Raider film location), and the pyramid-shaped Pre Rup. For an iconic view, make the steep climb up Phnom Bakheng hill to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat and the surrounding forest and rice paddies. It's an unforgettable sight.
Visiting Angkor takes some planning due to its massive scale. Purchasing a multi-day pass allows you to explore the complex at a relaxed pace. Tuk-tuks and bicycles can be hired for transportation between temples. Early mornings and late afternoons are the best times to avoid crowds and beat the heat. Pack plenty of water, sun protection, and insect repellent. Entrance fees fund preservation efforts, so visiting responsibly helps ensure these ancient wonders endure for future generations.
What else is in this post?
- Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Wander Through the Ruins of Angkor in Cambodia
- Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Marvel at the Terracotta Army in Xi'an, China
- Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Explore the Ancient Khmer Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
- Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Trek to Bhutan's Cliffside Tiger's Nest Monastery
- Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - See the Megalithic Structures of Sukhothai, Thailand
- Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Climb the Steps of Sigiriya Rock Fortress in Sri Lanka
- Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Discover the Buried Cities of Taxila and Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan
- Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Witness the Grandeur of Persepolis in Iran
Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Marvel at the Terracotta Army in Xi'an, China
Ranking among the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, the Terracotta Army in Xi’an offers an unbelievable glimpse into the military might of China’s first emperor. Accidentally unearthed by local farmers in 1974, this subterranean army consists of over 8,000 lifesize terra cotta figures, along with hundreds of horses and chariots. Crafted over 2,000 years ago to guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, strolling through the excavated pits provides a jaw-dropping face-to-face encounter with the emperor’s ghostly warriors.
Visiting the Terracotta Army is an essential activity for anyone traveling to Xi’an. The site covers over 20 square miles, although only a fraction has been excavated so far. Pits 1, 2 and 3 are the most impressive, housing thousands of warriors lined up in battle formation. Painstakingly crafted from clay, each figure exhibits a distinct facial expression and hair style. Originally painted in bright pigments, traces of color remain on some figures. The level of detail is extraordinary, right down to theeres of the soles of their shoes. More intricate figures represent generals and commanders.
Beyond the warriors are pits containing terracotta horses, which experts believe were modeled on Ferghana horses from Central Asia. The horses are poised as if leaping into action, complete with saddles, bridles and full cavalry dress. Nearby, a bronze chariot displays incredible sophistication in its engineering. These discoveries provide a window into the military power, material wealth and funerary customs of the Qin Dynasty.
It is believed the Terracotta Army was constructed both to bolster the emperor’s power in the afterlife and to safeguard his tomb from looting. The figures were arranged to recreate the real command structure and military formations of the imperial army. Multiple visits are recommended to fully appreciate the site’s scale and detail. Try to visit early morning or late afternoon to avoid the largest crowds. A museum onsite displays weaponry and two magnificent bronze chariots excavated from the tomb.
Visiting the museum and pits takes around 3-4 hours. Also allow time to admire the craftsmanship up-close by wandering along the covered walkways above the excavation. The sheer volume of figures is astounding. Every face is distinct and some are quite humorous. Kids will love spotting different hairstyles and regalia. Friendly guides are on hand to answer questions and bring the emperor’s eternal army to life.
Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Explore the Ancient Khmer Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Rising from the central Burmese plain, the temples of Bagan number over 3,000, representing the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist architecture in the world. As the capital of the ancient Pagan Kingdom between the 11th-13th centuries, Bagan was a center of religious devotion, boasting over 10,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas within its city walls. Today, over 2,200 structures remain, offering travelers a magical journey into Myanmar's past.
Wandering amid these mammoth relics transports you to the heyday of Bagan’s power and grandeur. The reddish stones and soaring spires seem to glow in the warm light, creating an ethereal atmosphere. While Bagan lacks the restoration efforts seen at Angkor, this crumbling aesthetic only adds to the mystique. Largely undeveloped, the archaeological zone maintains a tranquil, timeless ambiance. Oxen carts, bicycles and horse-drawn carriages remain the main forms of local transport.
The sheer number of temples can feel overwhelming at first. Focus your explorations on these must-see highlights: Ananda Pahto, Gawdawpalin Temple and Shwezigon Pagoda. Ananda, built in 1105, is considered Bagan’s finest surviving masterpiece. Its distinctive architectural style features a central tunnel lined with hundreds of Buddha images. Climbing the steep stairs rewards you with panoramic views over the temple-studded plains.
Meanwhile, Gawdawpalin’s stepped terraces are reminiscent of a pyramid. The crowning stupa soars 60 meters, the second tallest in Bagan. Late afternoon creates spectacular lighting over this photogenic temple. Lastly, Shwezigon Pagoda stands as a prototype for later Burmese pagodas. Believed to enshrine a bone and tooth of Buddha, its gilded stupa shines brilliantly.
For an unforgettable Bagan experience, Wake up early and watch the sunrise from atop one of the larger temples. Popular viewing spots include Shwesandaw and Pyathada Paya. Afterwards, escape the midday heat while appreciating the architecture’s workmanship and spiritual details up close. Lacquerware paintings and intricate Buddha statues adorn many shrines. As sunset approaches, find a riverside temple to enjoy the day’s final rays.
Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Trek to Bhutan's Cliffside Tiger's Nest Monastery
Perched precariously on a granite cliff 900 meters above the Paro Valley, Tiger’s Nest is one of the most breathtaking Buddhist sites in all of Asia. Also known as Paro Taktsang, this iconic Himalayan monastery clings impossibly to a sheer rock face. Completing the steep uphill trek rewards intrepid travelers with astounding views and a uniquely spiritual experience.
Tiger’s Nest has entranced visitors for centuries, but became globally famous when featured in the 1993 movie Seven Years in Tibet. Today it remains Bhutan’s premier attraction, enticing thousands annually to make the strenuous trek. Don’t let the challenging hike deter you – the payoff views are life-affirming.
The trailhead near Paro town leads through pine forest with tantalizing glimpses of the monastery ahead. After about two hours the impressive Tiger’s Nest finally comes into full panoramic view – a sight that will take your breath away! The complex’s whitewashed walls and sloping roofs seem to magically emerge straight from the cliffside. Prayer flags flutter in the wind, adding vivid pops of color.
Continuing upwards on steps carved from stone, you’ll pass through a waterfall cave before reaching the photogenic viewpoint overlooking the monastery’s main courtyard. From here, the intimidating degree of Tiger Nest's verticality becomes apparent. Visually trace the path the monks take up and down daily, appreciating their dedication to spiritual seeking.
For those up to the final climb, traversing the stone steps above the waterfall leads to Tiger's Nest entrance. Inside, centuries-old temples and meditation caves create a transcendent mood. Murals depict religious icons and the monastery’s legendary founding by the saint Padmasambhava, who is said to have arrived here on the back of a flying tigress.
Tiger’s Nest rewards travelers in peak physical condition who relish hiking challenges. Acclimatizing in Paro town for a couple days helps considerably with the altitude. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon for optimal light and cloud conditions. Aim for clear skies, as low clouds will obscure views.
Pack plenty of water and snacks to refuel. Walking sticks aid balance on the inclined stairs. Budget about six hours round-trip, allowing ample time to rest and soak in the scenery. Guests must store bags and cameras at the monastery entrance, so come prepared with essentials only.
Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - See the Megalithic Structures of Sukhothai, Thailand
Tucked away in the lesser-visited northern reaches of Thailand, Sukhothai Historical Park contains the atmospheric ruins of the former capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom. Flourishing in the 13th-14th centuries, this kingdom was one of the region’s first powerful Thai states. Today, ancient Sukhothai offers travelers a quiet escape to wander among evocative old temples, gigantic Buddha figures and serene reflecting ponds.
Renting a bicycle is the ideal way to explore sprawling Sukhothai Historical Park. Pedaling leisurely along shady pathways transports you back centuries, when this city of temples formed the beating heart of the Sukhothai Kingdom. It’s easy to visualize the former hustle and bustle of monks, merchants and craftsmen. Now, a hushed tranquility presides, with crumbling temple structures and foliage-entwined walls exuding faded grandeur.
At the park’s core, Ramkhamhaeng National Museum provides an excellent primer on Sukhothai’s history and key structures. Outstanding examples of artistic mastery are also on display, including beautiful Sangkhalok ceramic ware. Afterwards, don’t miss these majestic highlights while cycling around: Wat Mahathat temple complex, Wat Sa Si, Wat Saphan Hin, and Wat Chang Lom.
The showstopper is Wat Mahathat, where 200+ chedis and Buddha statues rise gracefully from the earth. Here, climb stone steps to view seated Buddha figures framed by slender columns, a signature of Sukhothai artistic style. Nearby, Wat Sa Si awes with a 15-meter standing Buddha, who seems to gently bless all who pass by. Wat Saphan Hin perches on a hill reached by a neighboring staircase of 200+ steps. The climb is rewarded with a breathtaking outlook over ancient Sukhothai. Lastly, Wat Chang Lom amazes with its enormous stupa completely surrounded by Buddha statues set within smaller stupa-shaped alcoves.
In addition to temples, no visit to Sukhothai is complete without admiring one of Asia’s most colossal Buddha figures. Located just outside the main park, Wat Si Chum contains a 15-meter Buddha that barely fits inside the low-slung mondop structure housing it. Built in the classic Sukhothai style, this giant seated figure conveys grace and serenity. Its elegant fluidity reflects the artistic heights reached during this influential era of Thai culture. To fully appreciate the Buddha’s enormity, get up close to examine the gracefully carved fingers and toes.
Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Climb the Steps of Sigiriya Rock Fortress in Sri Lanka
Rising dramatically from the jungle floor, Sigiriya Rock is an astonishing sight to behold. This colossal column of red stone soars nearly 200 meters skywards, crowned by the ruins of an ancient Sri Lankan stronghold. As you crane your neck, it’s hard to fathom that a fortress once existed atop this mammoth rock monolith. Yet in the 5th century AD, King Kasyapa ambitiously constructed his royal capital up there, complete with lavish gardens and brilliantly painted frescoes. Today, the formidable staircase leading to Sigiriya’s summit remains the most famous aspect of this remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Brace yourself, because climbing Sigiriya Rock’s 1200+ steps is a thrilling yet demanding endeavor. The stone stairs, built alongside the rock face, were engineered over 1500 years ago and still stand as an incredible feat of ancient ingenuity. Sections of steps were cantilevered out from the sheer vertical surface, using wooden beams that extended up to 30 feet. Only the rectangular holes where beams were seated remain visible today.
The initial ascent is pleasantly gradual, passing under shady outcroppings with views expanding over the surrounding garden plains. Pause to admire the famous “Mirror Wall” graffiti left by ancient visitors, preserved beneath generations of glistening calcite. The real challenge begins as the stairs steeply zig-zag up the rock’s final sheer stretch. Here, sensational views unfold to keep you motivated.
Approaching Sigiriya’s summit, you’ll pass between two colossal lion paws carved from the rock face. These paws are all that remain of a monumental lion staircase that once led the final distance to the royal palace - as if ascending into the beast’s gaping mouth! It’s easy to appreciate why ancient visitors referred to Sigiriya as the “Lion Rock.”
Finally conquering the staircase rewards you with far-reaching vistas across central Sri Lanka’s cultural heartland. Take time to explore the plateau, where foundations and moats represent the once-sprawling royal complex. The exposed site perfectly complements the view overlooking verdant jungle as far as the eye can see. It’s the ideal place for reflecting on king Kasyapa’s reign over 1500 years ago, when Sigiriya stood at the center of Sinhalese civilization.
Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Discover the Buried Cities of Taxila and Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan
Tucked away in northern Pakistan, the ancient cities of Taxila and Mohenjo Daro transport travelers back over 2,000 years to when the Indus Valley Civilization thrived. As two of South Asia’s most significant archaeological sites, these long-buried urban centers reveal the advanced culture, architecture and trading networks that defined one of the world’s earliest civilizations.
Much like Pompeii, these cities were remarkably well-preserved by the sands of time, remaining undisturbed for centuries until excavations began in the early 1900s. Wandering through the unearthed streets, homes and workshops, it’s incredible to visualize everyday life in these once-bustling metropolises millennia ago.
Beginning in the 5th century BC, Taxila flourished as a major center of trade, religion and learning in Gandhara (now northern Pakistan). Strategically situated along trade routes between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, merchants from Greece, Persia and China all passed through Taxila, fostering cross-cultural influences. In its heyday, Taxila was home to over 10,000 students studying at renowned universities.
Exploring the sprawling ruins today, highlights include the lofty Dharmarajika Stupa and remains of several monasteries still adorned with exquisite Gandharan sculptures and friezes. The archaeological museum harbors stunning artifacts shedding light on Taxila’s artistry and global connections.
Meanwhile, the remarkably advanced Indus Valley city of Mohenjo Daro existed around the same time as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Founded in 2600 BC, the city featured sophisticated urban planning including a grid layout and advanced sanitation systems. The Great Bath stands as the centerpiece - a 12 x 7 meter public pool demonstrating the importance of water and ritual bathing. Intricately carved seals and toys attest to the period’s artistic talents and trading links reaching far across Asia.
While Taxila can be visited on a day trip from Islamabad, Mohenjo Daro requires more effort, situated further afield near Larkana. However, those willing to brave the journey are rewarded with a humbling look into the Indus Valley’s architectural mastery and thriving cosmopolitan society over 4,000 years ago.
Step Back in Time: 12 Ancient Kingdoms Across Asia That You Can Still Explore Today - Witness the Grandeur of Persepolis in Iran
Rising majestically from the arid Marv Dasht plains, the magnificent ruins of Persepolis stand testament to the grandiosity and might of the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire. As the ceremonial capital founded by Darius the Great around 500 BC, Persepolis was conceived to awe visitors with its sheer scale and artistic splendor. Walking amid the towering columns and monumental staircases today, it’s easy to envision the pomp and pageantry that once filled these palaces and audience halls.
Of all ancient sites in Asia, Persepolis ranks among the most stirring to explore. Despite its antiquity, the palatial complex still conveys a powerful sense of the unrivaled imperial power held by Persian rulers 2,500 years ago. Intricately carved reliefs depict solemn rows of robed dignitaries from across the vast dominion paying tribute to the Persian King of Kings. The scale of the ruins highlights the unprecedented resources marshalled by Darius to erect his ostentatious capital in the middle of the desert.
Indeed, the grand vision for Persepolis extended far beyond just impressive architecture. It was designed as a showcase for the multicultural diversity and artistic sophistication of the empire’s subjects. Delegations from lands as far as Egypt and India would have passed through Persepolis bearing gifts of the most precious metals, fabrics and livestock. Many of the most valued artifacts now filling the world’s top museums originally came from Persepolis.
Yet today, it is Persepolis’ monumental staircases and imposing gateways that never fail to impress visitors. Most iconic is the enormous Apadana staircase, lined by carved reliefs of Achaemenid soldiers, leading up to a vast columned reception hall for receiving regional delegates. The intricacy of the reliefs will astound you, down to the exquisite details of the flowing robes. Likewise, the imposing Gate of All Nations still standing 13 meters tall gives a true sense of arrival into an imperial city.
Other highlights include the grand Council Hall, featuring enormous carved bulls, and the residential palaces where the king and his family lodged. Climbing up to the elevated Treasury yields panoramic views over the sprawling ruins. For history buffs and photographers, it's easy to spend hours examining the artistic mastery evident throughout Persepolis.
Travelers rave that walking through Persepolis feels like stepping directly into ancient Persia. While some carved faces have been damaged over the centuries, what remains of the reliefs and sculptures reflects remarkable preservation unmatched at similar sites. Even in ruin, Persepolis stands out for its massive scale and intricate details that will leave you awestruck imagining its former glory. Visitors say the sunset views looking back across the ruins are simply magical.