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Unearthing Historical Structures

To truly appreciate historical sites, travellers need to move beyond merely soaking up beauty, and dig deeper to understand the motivation behind their creation. Here, we ‘excavate’ interesting facts on some of the world’s most amazing UNESCO world heritage sites.

Words: Efi Hafizah Hamzah


• Lam Dong Province, Vietnam

• UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009


Image: Getty Images

Da Lat town resembles a quaint French village, and aptly so as it was a refuge for French troops, civil servants and administrators fleeing the muggy air of the Mekong and coastal plains in the late 19th century. Set about 1,500 metres above sea level with temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius all year round, the city is known as the ‘city of eternal spring’.

FASCINATING FACTS: Not quite as old as other cities in Vietnam, Da Lat was founded in the late 1890s. The construction of the Da Lat Railway Station was proposed in 1908 by Paul Doumer, the French Indochina Governor. However, the actual design was only approved in 1932, and it was later built and opened in 1938. It is the station’s French art deco architectural style that makes it a landmark and a true attraction. The three-roofed entrance was designed to represent the three peaks of Da Lat’s well-known Lang Biang Mountain and, the overall design of this little railway station is reminiscent of the Trouville-Deauville Station in Normandy. The handiwork of architects Moncet and Reveron, the station is the fi rst colonial-styled structure in the area. The Vietnam War saw the Viet Congs destroying railway tracks rendering the Da Lat Railway Station useless by 1968. An abandoned beauty for over 20 years, the station was revived in the 1990s with only a seven-kilometre track as a tourist attraction connecting Da Lat to a nearby town called Trai Mat.

THE REAL STUNNER: The train ride from Da Lat to Trai Mat is scenic. Da Lat is beautiful and French, and its wellmaintained railway station is equally so with polished floors and flowerbeds of geraniums at the entrance. The train may only have a couple of carriages, but it is possibly the prettiest train ever!

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


• Siem Reap Province, Cambodia

• UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992


Image: Corbis

Of the many temples around the world, the Angkor Wat is considered one of the best preserved. Built in the early 12th century by the order of King Suryavarman II, it remains one of the most significant religious centres – first, in Hinduism, and now, Buddhism – worldwide. It’s also the largest religious monument in the world, and the only temple oriented to the west (the direction associated with Lord Vishnu); other Khmer temples face east. 

FASCINATING FACTS: This monumental structure is decorated with extensive bas reliefs – almost 1,000 square metres worth along the gallery wall alone! Based on modern calculations, the amount of sandstone used to build the Angkor Wat may be over five million tonnes. Theories as to why the Angkor Wat was built in Cambodia continue to be debated; some cite its strategic location to protect from warring enemies, while others refer to more spiritual grounds. Through modern technology and the use of computer simulations, it was discovered that the ground plans for the Angkor Wat complex mirrored the stars in the Draco constellation during the spring equinox in 10,500 BC. Experts refer to a quest for harmonisation of Earth and the stars.

THE REAL STUNNER: According to scriptures, the Angkor Wat was built in 40 years. However, using modern calculations, engineers estimate that it would take 300 years to build such a phenomenal structure today!

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Siem Reap from Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


• Lintong District, Shaanxi Province, China

• UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987


Image: Corbis

Many historians believe that it took 70,000 craftsmen to create the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an. About 40,000 bronze weapons including spears, battle axes, crossbows and arrowheads were unearthed from the terracotta pits. All these pieces have been exquisitely preserved by a protective layer of chromium plating. This technology was thought to have been invented by the Germans and Americans in 1937 and 1950 respectively, but it turns out to have existed in China as far back as 2,200 years ago!

FASCINATING FACTS: Also known as the Terracotta Army, the site was first discovered by local farmers in 1974. Archaeologists then discovered that the sculptures depicted the army of China’s fi rst emperor, Qin Shi Huang (circa 221 BC-210 BC). The army of men, chariots and horses, were part of a funerary art. They were sculpted alongside Emperor Qin to protect him in the afterlife. From historical scriptures written by historian Sima Qian, it seems that Emperor Qin feared death greatly, and was perpetually on a quest to procure potions for immortality. He even sent out over 8,000 people to look for a magic elixir for everlasting life. While awaiting the discovery, he took mercury pills believing they would preserve his health. Unfortunately, this led to his early demise at the age of 50.

THE REAL STUNNER: Emperor Qin’s tomb is believed to contain a splendid array of gold and jewels and rivers of silver to depict the kingdom’s waters. However, it remains intact today as scripture warns that the tomb has been rigged with arrows to shoot trespassers.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Xi’an from DMK, Bangkok. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


• Bandar Hilir, Melaka, Malaysia

• UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008


Image: Inmagine

A Famosa, meaning ‘the famous’, is a fortress erected by the Portuguese fleet commander Alfonso de Albuquerque upon his defeat of the army of the Melaka Sultanate in 1511. The fortress was built on the hills along the sea coast as a means of protection. The commander believed that Melaka would be an important port linking Portugal to the spice route in China.

FASCINATING FACTS: It remains an important historical icon in Melaka and is the most photographed structure in the state – next to the Stadhuys, a neighbouring historic site built by the Dutch who invaded Melaka in 1641. When the Dutch handed Melaka over to the British in 1794, A Famosa was set to be destroyed by the British East India Company because their main base was to shift to Penang. But Sir Stamford Raffles intervened in 1808, saving what remains of A Famosa today. A culmination of all the powers that have colonised Melaka, the fort is rich in historical value. In the Hikayat Abdullah written in the 1700s, legendary writer and native of Melaka Munshi Abdullah described structures within the fort: a church built by the Portuguese and later claimed by the Dutch, and a nearby garden filled with fruit trees and flowers, and nurtured by the British East India Company.

THE REAL STUNNER: The Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians of Melaka, each under their own kapitan or leaders, raised arms and helped the Dutch to fight Raja Haji of Bugis, who had brutally taken over most of Melaka save for the central part where A Famosa stood. Raja Haji was finally shot, and the Dutch then buried his remains in a spot that according to Hikayat Abdullah was actually a pig sty!

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Kuala Lumpur from various destinations. Melaka is about 120kms from Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


• Gifu & Toyama Prefectures, North Japan

• UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995


Image: Inmagine

Cut off from the rest of the world, the natives of these villages lived an isolated life right through to the 1970s, doing what they do best: cultivating mulberry trees and rearing silkworms. Today, their houses remain traditional with thatched roofs – the only structures of their kind in all of Japan! While the country has been through various economic upheavals, the villagers here demonstrate the adaptability of traditional living.

FASCINATING FACTS: These areas were initially opened up in 8 AD as a place for ascetic religious mountain worship. Mount Hakusan was the central location for an ascetic order practising a fusion of ancient pre-Buddhist beliefs and esoteric Buddhism. In the 13th century, the influence of the Tendai Esoteric sect took over, and after that the Jodo Shinshy sect. The influence of the latter remains woven in the lives of the villagers, especially in the social structure based on the kumi system of mutual care and cooperation among households. However, the most unique aspect of their heritage is their architecture. Of note are 117 houses designated as historic buildings alongside seven other structures: Gassho style buildings erected during the 19th century, and two old Buddhist temples built in the 20th century: Myozen-ji and Honkaku-ji. Presiding over the serenity of the villages is the Shinto shrine of Hachiman Jinja. 

THE REAL STUNNER: Back in the day, the villagers also produced nitre for gunpowder, but production was halted by the 19th century as it was cheaper to import saltpetre from Europe.

GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies to Tokyo and Osaka from Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


• Manila, Philippines

• UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993


Image: Adam Lee

The Spaniards gave Intramuros its Latin name, which means ‘within the walls’. Also known as the Walled City, it was built in 1571 during Spain’s 300-year colonisation of the Philippines, and is the oldest district and a historic core of Manila. Hundreds of years may have passed, but the imprint of the Spanish remains in the architectural styles of the buildings within the Walled City, as though adhering to the blueprints of the past.

FASCINATING FACTS: Almost all of the structures within Intramuros were destroyed during WWII when the Americans bombed the Walled City whilst at war with Japan in 1945. Fortunately, the San Agustin Church survived the bombing as the Red Cross was based there. In 1951, the Intramuros was declared a National Historical Monument, and reconstruction works began on its entrance walls. The rebuilding of the attractions within the Walled City continues till today, overseen by a governing body called the Intramuros Administration (IA). Also known as Old Manila, the area is less than one square kilometre; within are 28 churches and chapels of different religious orders such as Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, Recollect and Jesuit. Besides the obvious bustle of religious activities, Intramuros has become an exciting cultural centre and tourist attraction. It offers performing arts, exhibits, flea markets, book fairs, music and art contests. Various chambers have been restored and converted into commercial outlets like restaurants, and handicraft and souvenir shops.

THE REAL STUNNER: The Manila Cathedral within Intramuros is the original marker known as KM0 (as in kilometre zero). So, if you see a sign that says KM50, you’ll know that you are 50 kilometres away from central Manila.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Clark (Manila) from Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Singapore and Hong Kong. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


• Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia

• UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991


The Borobudur is said to be the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia today. It was built by the Sailendra dynasty (Mahayana Buddhists of Central Java) roughly around the end of 7 AD and early 8 AD. Borobudur is neither a temple nor a tomb, but a vast monument of Buddhism with divine architecture. 

FASCINATING FACTS: The vast 55,000 square metre Borobudur set out in three tiers is essentially a carving of a lotus – the flower of Buddha. It offers 1,460 narrative reliefs along its walls. The lowest level depicts cause and effect in life, while the middle level tells the stories of Buddha’s life from the Jataka tales. However, there are no reliefs or decorations on the highest level, only stupas; within the 92 stupas are statues of Buddha with specific mudra (hand gestures or attitudes) depicting the five directions and cores of life that people should aspire to: east with the mudra of calling the earth to witness; south with the mudra of understanding blessings; west with the mudra of meditation; north with the mudra of living without fear; and the most important of them all, in the centre, the mudra of teaching. There are 504 carvings of Buddha here, and each one is carved out of a single block of stone. Adding up the numbers five, zero and four, you get a nine, which is a number of infinity in Buddhism.

THE REAL STUNNER: Borobudur was built in about 75 years. Led by an architect named Gunadharma, builders used no machines, excavators or reinforced steel cables – just brute strength and determination.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Yogyakarta from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


• Rupandehi District, Nepal

• UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 


Lumbini, where the Hindu prince Siddharta Gautama was born around 623 BC (sources vary although the majority cite this year) is a sacred pilgrimage site for Buddhists. At 29 years old, Siddharta Gautama left Lumbini in search of answers to life’s mysteries and miseries. Through meditation, he was awakened and became the Buddha (which means ‘enlightened one’ in Sanskrit), laying down the teachings of Buddhism.

FASCINATING FACTS: Buddha was born under a sala tree when his mother, Queen Maya Devi, went into labour on the way to her father’s kingdom. The site of his birth became a place of peace for many, especially King Asoka of the Mauryan Empire of India hundreds of years later. When King Asoka, who was a royal Hindu by birth, realised the bloodshed he had caused in the 263 BC Battle of Kalinga – one of the bloodiest wars in the history of India with over 100,000 deaths – he repented and sought peace. Finding Buddhism, he embraced Buddha’s teachings in 260 BC, and established a temple at the exact spot of Buddha’s birth. Right up till he passed away, King Asoka dedicated his life to spreading the teachings of Buddha.

THE REAL STUNNER: In 1896, the site was excavated for the first time by German archaeologist, Dr Alois A. Fuhrer. However, it wasn’t until 1985 that a rare discovery was made at the Maya Devi Shrine: A terracotta panel depicting Prince Siddharta (before he became the Buddha) at ease with his wife, Princess Yosodhara in their royal chambers.

GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies to Kathmandu from Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


  • Jacqueline Kennedy visited the Angkor Wat during the Vietnam War, fulfilling her lifelong dream of seeing the historic site.
  • It was believed that all the people who worked on the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’An were put to death to keep the mausoleum a secret.
  • Only the emperor of ancient Rome was allowed to wear purple as the colour was made from a rare seashell that cost a fortune.
  • It was calculated that in the last 3,500 years of civilisation, we have only had 230 years of peace throughout the world.
  • Many men who worked as guards along the Great Wall of China in the Middle Ages spent their whole lives there; born and bred there, many were eventually buried within the walls.
  • The Great Pharoah Ramses II fathered 160 children.