From the imposing mountain fortresses of Sri Lanka to sacred towers of Vietnam to walled outposts of ancient Thailand — these are my favorite Lost Cities of 2019.
During the past year, I have had the continued privilege of exploring those ancient kingdoms and civilizations that have fascinated me for years. While 2018 brought me to several new countries and some of the most ancient and monumental sites in Paths’ history so far, 2019 became more focused on consolidating such information and deciding how to portray it so as to best entertain and inform readers.
From these considerations, a new format of post came about; one which aims to provide readers with something more substantial than personal ramblings about “I went to X, saw Y and Z. Here are the pictures.” I hope these new series of articles—as well as forthcoming revisions on older ones—will provide those seeking ancient locales and curious places a proper introduction to the cultures behind them, what they can expect to find should they travel there, and practical information on how to make such a trip.
My personal favorite in this new format is 2019’s article on Wiang Suan Dok (the ancient Lawa walled city that was subsequently renovated into a garden temple by the conquering Lanna Kingdom) and this has served as the main template going forward. With the year behind spent documenting several cultures, particularly the Khmer, Cham, and Dvaravati, I hope to have similar articles for their ancient settlements and ruins in the coming months.
So what are some other locales readers can look forward too? Here are the 10 Lost Cities topping my list from 2019:
10) Patan Durbar Square | Lalitpur, Nepal
From the moment you set foot in Nepal, there is a sense of being thrown back in time. Ancient sites are not to be found in ruins as they are elsewhere, but rather shrines and temples have remained in use for centuries and are often difficult to discern from the modern cityscape of Kathmandu.
Although it has long since been absorbed into Kathmandu’s urban sprawl, Patan’s Durbar Square was once the capital of 3 competing kingdoms found within the Kathmandu Valley. The royal square holds a number of large Hindu monuments dating back hundreds of years, while the former palace has been preserved in the form of a museum, displaying artifacts from the country’s long Buddhist and Hindu past.
Even when leaving the Patan Square (the traditional term for a public courtyard in Nepalese kingdoms), the surrounding neighborhood retains the same close-quarters ruggedness as the ancient monuments they envelop. This imbues the entire experience of walking the city streets a quasi-surreal feeling as you are surrounded by lively markets, ruins, and urban activities filled with a wholly different sensation than more touristed countries like Thailand and Vietnam.
9) Si Thep Historical Park | Phetchabun, Thailand
Si Thep is a mostly forgotten city often overlooked within the multilayered tapestry of Thailand’s history. This is understandable, given the historical park’s relative remoteness. There are no airports or even towns of any significance within 3 hours in any direction. Upon arrival, there is little in the way of accommodation, hotels, or transport of any kind. Due to this, although I’d wanted to go since 2012, I hadn’t made it to this site until this year.
The ancient city is considered an integral outpost of the Dvaravati culture in its transition into the Isaan region (northeastern Thailand). The settlement boasts a double moat, including the characteristic Dvaravati rounded moat and earthen fortifications, which it seems were later extended in order to expand the city. Within the inner city is a rectangular Dvaravati stupa along with several later Khmer prangs.
However, the most impressive monument is Khao Klang Nok, a massive pyramidal Dvaravati stupa to the north of the city, which was found buried underneath what seemed to be a natural hill. Its excavation revealed a monument on par with stupas found near Bagan, Myanmar. Not far from Khao Klang Nok are more Khmer ruins which are maintained by a modern Thai Buddhist temple.
The city of Si Thep was recently submitted to UNESCO for consideration as a World Heritage Site.
8) Tháp Chăm Khương Mỹ | Tam Kỳ, Vietnam
The Cham Towers of Vietnam are consistently overshadowed by their Khmer counterparts found radiating out from Angkor, however, the history of the Champa nation and its monuments is no less interesting. Stemming from some of the first Indianized cultures in Southeast Asia, the Cham established themselves along the southern coast of Vietnam, where their iconic towers played centerpieces to their Hindu faith.
The towers at Tháp Khương Mỹ are among the largest to be found in the Cham’s domain. Lying on the southern edge of the little-visited town of Tam Ky, their boxy design and rough appearance contrast with some others to be found further south, but they still remain some of the tallest structures in the area to this day.
Accessing the Khương Mỹ towers is relatively simple compared to the remoteness of most of the others in the country, even if Tam Ky is not widely popular. They are protected by a small street-side fence with an admission gate. There is also a small worship hall in the front of the towers, and while this looks older than the normal style of Vietnamese temples, it was unclear if this worship hall was contemporary or added at a later date.
7) Ritigala Forest Monastery | Palugaswewa, Sri Lanka
Even after visiting, Ritigala remains somewhat of an enigma to me. Unlike most ancient sites in Sri Lanka, which at some time or another inevitably seems to be the kingdom’s mercurial capital, Ritigala is classified as a monastery. However, it is an unusual one at that.
The archaeological site consists of multiple levels of paved stone walkways connecting ever-ascending religious rooms. However, these rooms show very few signs of the typical Lankan monastery design found in other ancient or contemporary sites around the island. There are no stupas, no idols, and very few other common elements.
In fact, the first sign of anything ancient is actually a massive stepwell-reservoir made of quarried stone. This is exceptionally impressive, given that all these stones had to be transported into the mountains. Past this reservoir, stone stairs and bridges lead you to the pathways, which ascend higher and higher until reaching an abrupt end. The whole complex exudes an odd amalgam of minimalism and elaborateness which will keep you wondering well after you have left this quiet jungle mountain.
6) Yapahuwa Rock Fortress | Maho, Sri Lanka
When you think of Sri Lanka’s fortress-palace founded upon a sheer cliff, the Yapahuwa Rock Fortress may not be the first thing that comes to mind, However, this walled city found near the remote Maho Junction is just that: a former fortified capital of the island kingdom which once played host to the notorious Temple of the Tooth.
There is no convenient way to access Yapahuwa, and very few places to stay nearby. However, the effort to get here and explore is well worth the reward. Unlike its more famous predecessor (covered later), most of Yapahuwa’s construction, including the king’s palace, were at ground level. These ruins are still found within the city’s imposing wall. They are accompanied by a modern temple housing ancient cave murals painted onto the rock itself.
A highly ornate, megalithic stairway leads up the cliff to the former location of the Temple of the Tooth. Beyond this, more ancient paths and staircases lead the hot and tiring way to the top of the rock, where you can find scattered monastic ruins and a grand view of the entire region.
5) Phimai (Vimayapura) | Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Nakhon Ratchasima province played both the frontier and the crossroads of every major culture which once controlled modern Thailand. Phimai (formerly Vimayapura) was a walled Khmer city and frontier outpost of the Angkorian Empire.
Phimai lay at the far end of Angkor’s famous Dharmasala Route, a paved pilgrimage road which led directly from Angkor Thom and was marked by 17 dharmasalas (“fire houses”) which provided shelter to travelers along the road. Upon reaching Phimai, they would find themselves bearing witness to the Prasat Hin Phimai temple, a large walled complex standing at the center of the city.
Today, most of the wall has vanished. However, 3 of the city’s gates are still mostly intact and the 4th eastern gate can be found in ruins. The city is also dotted with several Khmer-era reservoirs and even a hill-sized Thai Buddhist stupa from the Ayutthaya period.
The pride of the city is Prasat Hin Phimai temple, which constitutes the largest Angkorian ruins in Thailand. The massive restored shrine to Mahayana Buddhism is enclosed on all sides by two sets of sanctuary walls and multiple libraries and accompanying monuments. Inside are intricate carvings depicting all manner of stories including the Jatakas (epics from former live of the Buddhas) as well as some Hindu epics (despite the sanctuary’s Buddhist observance). Sitting beneath the central tower is a Gautama Buddha figure enshrouded by Nagas — reenacting the legend of the serpent king shielding the Buddha as he obtained enlightenment.
4) Panduwasnuvara Kingdom Ruins | Kurunegala, Sri Lanka
Panduwasnuvara holds neither the title of largest, grandest, or oldest of any of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals. In fact, it’s well off the map of anyone not looking for it, and I only happened upon it by accident while planning the way to Yapahuwa. That said, Panduwasnuvara was my introduction to the ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka.
Compared to the long and extensively documented histories of Sri Lankan capitals such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy, there is relatively little information about Panduwasnuvara available. Most of the ruins currently visible date back to 700-900 years ago during an era in which Sri Lanka was divided among several kingdoms. Despite this, there are legends (mostly based on the name of the ruins) which place them as far back as 2300 years old—however, there is no evidence to support this.
The Panduwasnuvara complex is divided into three main areas, the walled palace citadel, a monastery area that is still used by some modern temples, and a narrow row of ruin temples connecting the two. The walled palace compound will be of the most interest to visitors, as it contains the most variety in the ruins. This includes some curiosities that most would not think of in an ancient royal palace, like an attached toilet only a few meters from the throne.
3) Ancient Champasak | Champasak Town, Laos
The historical significance of Champasak as a crossroads of cultures—both ancient and modern—is disastrously overlooked in the overall stage of Southeast Asia. Not only has it played host to some of the great kingdoms of the region, including the Chenla, Angkor, Siam, and Lao, but it holds some of the most impressive and least-visited ruins within the Angkorian realm. Likewise, it is today a crossroads of travellers passing through this narrow borderland of modern Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
While the modern capital of Pakse sees most of the attention today, the quiet Champasak Town only 30km to the south holds the jewels of the area’s long history. Set on a tranquil stretch of the Mekong River, the entire ancient city straddles the base of Phou Khao mountain, known historically as Lingaparvata, due to its perceived resemblance to a Lingum, the holy symbol of the Hindu god Shiva.
There are still a few traces of the pre-Angkor walled city of Champasak (known by its settlers as Shrestapura) to be found. However, the most impressive sites are from the Khmer Empire’s rule over the region. These ruins scale the mountain by way of reinforced terraces and stone stairways to a Buddhist (originally Hindu) shrine at the peak.
However, it is behind this later Angkorian shrine are the real points of interest to be found all the hilltop. To the south of the temple is a natural spring, which is still regarded as a pilgrimage site from which to obtain water blessed by the natural lingam of Lingaparvata. To the north of the temple is a plenitude of rock-carved megaliths taking the shape of animals (elephant, crocodile, snake), geometric shapes, and even a large carved platform — all of which have been strewn about into chaos long before the Angkorian temple was built.
2) Sacred City of Anuradhapura | Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Considered the first and most ancient capital of Sri Lanka, there is no shortage of sights to see within Anuradhapura. The island nation’s ‘sacred city’ goes back more than 2000 years, which also makes it one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Anuradhapura boasts many fascinating and well-marked historic sights, however, some of the most fascinating places were when I managed to wander off from these high-traffic locations and encountered amazing ruins alone in the forests.
Found within the assorted ruins of the city are massive stupas such as the Jethawanaramaya Stupa (which was curiously one of the tallest buildings in the world until the 20th Century). These stand alongside more tranquil stepwells, shrines, and structures taken back by surrounding nature, or in the cases of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi or my personal favorite spot, the Kaludiya Pokuna, incorporating nature into the design itself.
The modern city of Anuradhapura is squeezed between a single main street and the largest of several lakes surrounding the ancient city. There are many buses, trains, and private transportation options available to all parts of the country from Anuradhapura, making it easily accessible to any travellers looking to take in one of the most fascinating eras of the island’s ancient past.
1) Sigiriya Rock Fortress | Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya is an awe-inspiring ancient site that should top the list of any history enthusiast or traveller. Like the previously-mentioned Yapahuwa (which Sigiriya is cited as the inspiration for), Sigiriya is a vastly imposing mountaintop fortress secluded behind broad fortifications at ground level. It bears similarities to the multitudes of mountain fortresses found from later eras on the Indian mainland, however, it predates these by several centuries.
Like many other remarkable ancient locations, Sigiriya has sadly been co-opted by pseudohistorians seeking to make it fit into several modern mythologized histories — be they ancient astronauts or Hindu nationalism — by disregarding the available evidence in lieu of fanciful interpretations stemming from the “it looks like” method. Meanwhile, an onsite museum located at Sigiriya does an outstanding job of portraying the entire history of the ancient city from its original construction and appearance, to its eventual rediscovery and preservation efforts at a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There is a small tourist village running alongside the southern edge of the ancient with hotels and homestays run by very friendly hosts. However, there is little else to do in the immediate area, less some drinks and questionable elephant activities alongside this main road. Because of this, most people are usually in and out within a couple of days, contributing to the quite curious sight of seeing tourists driving their own tuk-tuks pulling into this Main Street — something I’ve only ever seen in Sri Lanka.