Southeast Asia is an incredible region to visit at any time of year and is known mainly for its stunning beaches, delicious cuisines and friendly local culture. However, this Asian region is also a paradise for ancients temples and religious monuments with Buddhist, Hindu and even Christian temples still in active use to this day. A visit to an ancient temple is like taking a step back in time and puts you in awe of the ancient cultures that built them.
The colonial architectural heritage in Southeast Asia has rarely been emphasized by tourism authorities. The lack of interest was likely due to the difficulty in assimilating the legacy of foreign cultures as an element in a country’s identity. And also because colonial powers did not always leave fond memories…
But times change and with a new generation in power, Southeast Asian governments are less reluctant to promote their colonial legacy. With architecture being the most tangible heritage from colonial times, authorities see it now as an asset for tourism. The variety of colonial architecture is, in fact, unique to Southeast Asia. No other part of the world has been witness to so many foreign influences and this diversity is still visible today.
The following list features the most impressive and “visit-worthy” colonial cities not to be missed in Southeast Asia, in no particular order.
The most impressive city for colonial architecture in Indonesia is certainly Bandung in West Java. Due to become Indonesia’s new capital at the time, the city enjoyed a construction boom from the late 19th century until Indonesia’s independence. The result is amazing: Bandung has hundreds of Art Deco buildings, probably the world’s second largest collection after Miami Beach! Gedung Sate -the current administration office of the West Java Governor- is the most iconic, while Gedung Merdeka is of significant historical importance; location of the ratification of Indonesia’s independence.
Hanoi likely epitomises it best as the French spared no effort to turn the city into an Indochina replica of Paris. And with stunning results, today Hanoi is still dominated by leafy grand boulevards bordered by beautiful colonial villas, mansions and impressive public buildings. And like a jewel, the stunning Opera House holds court in the city centre, emulating in its details the Paris Opera house.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang is considered to be the best preserved village in Southeast Asia. It used to be the capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom in Laos. This gorgeous historic town is made up of no less than 33 temples, caves filled with Buddha statues and several colonial buildings. Luang Prabang is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and to top it off, it is also an excellent hiking destination.
The States of Perak and Penang along Malaysia’s west coast have a rich colonial heritage. Taiping is probably the most British of any Malaysian city but Ipoh and Georgetown in Penang have to impose Victorian or Edwardian structures. In Penang, Saint George is Asia’s oldest Anglican church and an excellent example of Georgian architecture.
In Malaya and/or Myanmar, the British colonists covered cities with neo-gothic, neo-renaissance or Tudor-style buildings. Yangon (Rangoon) probably has the most authentic Victorian atmosphere in the region. Yangon has dozens of elegant buildings such as St. Paul’s English High School, St. Mary’s Cathedral or the State Railways Administration. Unfortunately, most of Yangon’s buildings are in a sorry state, but the fading colours and decay only add to their charm.