Photo: Stunning light at Prambanan in Java.

While today the borders of Southeast Asia are relatively clear-cut, historically they were somewhat more flowing, as power shifted from one empire to another.

These shifts can be explored by incorporating visits to some of the stunning historical monuments that dot the region while on your trip—serious history lovers sometimes plan their entire trips around attractions like Bagan, Angkor Wat, Borobudur and Wat Phu, among others.

Burma

The earliest kingdoms in Burma were those created by the Pyu, more or less in the middle of the country, and the Mon further south. Comprising a series of walled cities that shifted over time, the grandest (and last) of the former was Sri Ksetra (near Pyay), which was sacked by a Bagan king in the 11th century. Modern Thaton is thought to have been the early capital of the latter, before it shifted to Bago around the 13th century.

While the origins of the Bagan empire existed contemporaneously with those of Pyu, upon the sacking of Sri Ksetra, Bagan went from strength to strength until the late 13th century, when it collapsed at the hands of Mongol invaders.

Before the fall, historians believe that more than 10,000 religious monuments were constructed on the plains of Bagan. Many of these (though not all!) can be visited today. It is a highlight for many who visit Burma.

Cambodia

The maritime trading empire of Funan was dominant in this region for around the first six centuries CE, with trading links to China and India. Funan was located in southeastern Cambodia and the Mekong Delta with its main port corresponding to the present-day ruins at Oc Eo in Vietnam's An Giang province. The capital Vyadhapura is considered by most archeologists to have been at Angkor Borei near Takeo in Cambodia. By the mid-sixth century, Funan had merged with or fell under the control of the inland Kingdom of Chenla, which had its capital at Sambor Prei Kuk (near Kompong Thom) from the mid-sixth to late seventh centuries.

A period of internal strife saw ancient Chenla re-emerge as the Khmer Empire by the late eighth century. Thought to have been founded by Jayavarman II in 802, the empire grew to become Southeast Asia’s greatest, leaving monuments sprinkled across the region, including the most prestigious of them all, Angkor Wat. The remains of Jayarvarman II's earliest cities can still be seen on Phnom Kulen and at Rolous near Siem Reap. It wasn’t till 1431 that the Siamese well and truly sacked Angkor, but at its height, the empire had extended as far west as today's Kanchanaburi and Lopburi, north to Phimai (all in Thailand) and also north to Wat Phu (in southern Laos).

While today the greatest concentration of monuments is centred around Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, ruins from this empire can be seen across the region, including Muang Singh, Phanom Rung, Phimai, Preah Vihear and Wat Phu.

Indonesia

The seventh to 11th centuries saw the rise and heyday of the Srivijaya empire, which while centred in Palembang, Sumatra, reached as far as central Java, southern Thailand and all of Peninsular Malaysia. Evidence of the empire can still be found in northern Malaysia’s Kedah State. The kingdom played an important role in the expansion of Buddhism across the region; this was actually its real long-lasting impact, as otherwise few physical remains exist. By the 13th century, under pressure from Javanese expansion from the east and the growth in Islam radiating out from Aceh from the west, Srivijaya faded from view.

Over on Java, near Semarang, Candi Gedong Songo was built during the Medang kingdom, while the Dieng Plateau, approachable from Yogyakarta today, is thought to date to the seventh or eighth century, making these some of the oldest standing structures in the country.

A little later, the Buddhist-focused Sailendra dynasty rose to prominence in the eighth century and was responsible for the construction of the spectacular Borobudur in the ninth century. It was abandoned in the 14th century as Java shifted from Buddhism to Islam. The nearby site of Prambanan is believed to have been built around the same time as a Hindu answer to Buddhist Borobudur. It was later abandoned and collapsed in an earthquake in the 16th century.

Later still, from the late 13th to late 15th century, the Majapahit empire held sway, with its capital at Trowulan near Surabaya. While the core of the empire rested in central and east Java, its network of vassal states encompassed all of Sumatra, modern-day Peninsular Malaysia, southern Sulawesi and much of the east of Indonesia, including Timor and Ambon.

Laos

Arguably the preeminent archaeological site in Southeast Asia, the enigmatic Plain of Jars, near Phonsavan, has been dated to the Iron Age. Scattered across grassy hills and valleys, the jars are thought to be funerary, but really nobody is sure.

At the other end of the spectrum (and country), spectacular World Heritage-listed Wat Phu formed a part of the Khmer and pre-Angkor Chenla empires from the fourth century onward, though it is believed structures existed on the location far earlier. Most of what you can see here today was built in the 11th century.

Thailand

Thailand got going with the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati, whose period of influence ran from the sixth to the 13th centuries. Its sphere is thought to have encompassed most of central and northern Thailand, along with significant portions of the northeast. Today this is evidenced via artefacts in museums rather than standing monuments.

The kingdom was captured by the Khmer empire in the 11th century, and it wasn’t till the 13th century, when the Khmers were rolled back, that Sukhothai held fast. The monuments from the era, which ran ran from 1238 till the mid-15th century (when it was incorporated into Ayutthaya) are easily visited today from New Sukhothai.

Many Thais consider their golden age as the period of Ayutthaya's ascendance, from 1351 to 1767, when the Burmese invaded. As with Sukhothai further to the north, a collection of monuments harking back to these great days can be visited in the modern-day city of Ayutthaya, just north of Bangkok. Unlike Sukhothai (where the ruins are in a historical park), in Ayutthaya the ruins are dotted across a living city.

Thailand also has a wide variety of Khmer monuments; we mentioned them in the Cambodia section above.

Vietnam

Vietnam’s rich archaeological history reaches back into the Iron Age with the Dong Son culture, whose brass drums have been found as far afield as Alor and Bali in Indonesia. No physical evidence of this culture remains standing in Vietnam today, though artefacts feature in museums.

The Hindu Champa kingdom, which stretched across much of the coastal strip of Vietnam from the second century onwards, was responsible for most of the ancient monuments you’ll see in Vietnam today. These are namely My Son, near Hoi An, along with a scattering of temples that can be seen near Qui Nhon, Mui Ne, Nha Trang and Phan Rang That Cham.

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