Twelve things about Southeast Asia you probably didn’t know

As a regio

1. Angkor Archeological Park is the world’s largest religious monument

Sprawled across more than 400 acres in the ancient city of Angkor (near Siem Reap, Cambodia), and encompassing more than 1000 temples, this archeological park is the largest temple complex in the world! The most famous temple in the complex is the Angkor Wat (meaning Temple City), dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu. Not only is it the largest Hindu temple in the world, but it is also the world’s largest religious monument.

Angkor at Sunrise

2. The real name of Bangkok

Although ‘Bangkok’ is now the officially accepted name of the city, the original and ceremonious name that was coined by King Rama I while establishing the capital city was something completely different.

This name, which is “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit,” has been recognized as the longest city name in the world! Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Most children in Thailand still learn this name in school, but they can’t explain the meaning as the words are archaic.

Cruising along the Bangkok riverside

3. Indonesia leads the world in volcano statistics

Lying between two of the most active seismic belts in the world, it’s no surprise that Indonesia is home to almost 130 active volcanoes which have caused over 1200 eruptions till date. In fact, two of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history are of Mt. Tambora and Mt. Krakatau in Indonesia, in 1815 and 1883 respectively, which caused climatic changes and unusual winter-like conditions globally. Today, the volcanoes of Indonesia have become huge tourist attractions in the country and trekking on active volcanoes is a popular adventure sport.

Sulphur fumes of Mt. Ijen billowing in the wind at daybreak

Coming up soon: My favourite volcano treks of Indonesia

4. The world’s largest cave is in Vietnam

Discovered in 1991, the Son Doong Cave, meaning “mountain river cave” is located in the Quang Binh province in Vietnam and today, it is noted to be the largest cave in the world. According to explorations that began in 2009, it is almost 6 miles long, and has its very own jungle and river inside!

The cave has been open to the public since 2013, and for safety and conservation purposes, the government allows only one tour operator called Oxalis to bring tourists inside.

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Exploring the world’s largest cave (Credits: Nguyen Tan Tin)

5. Plain of Jars is one of the biggest mysteries of Southeast Asia

Located in Laos, this plain is home to hundreds of stone jars scattered all around, weighing 3 to 7 tonnes. Experts believe that it may have been an ancient burial ground, but no one can really confirm who created it, and why. Asia’s very own Stonehenge, right?

Plain of Jars, Laos (Credits: Nick Hubbard)

6. The smelliest fruit in the world can be found only in Southeast Asia

Touted as the King of Fruits, the Durian is extremely popular all over Southeast Asia. People don’t just eat it as a fruit – they have durian ice creams, cakes, pancakes and what not. It is also the unofficial national fruit of Singapore  and the locals love it!

When asked to describe the smell, most people are at a loss but they all agree on one fact – that it smells awful. In fact, it is so smelly that most elevators and public transportation have a sign saying “No Durians Allowed”.

A durian stall in Singapore


7. World’s 3rd most horrific genocide was in Cambodia

The Cambodian Genocide is one of the most overlooked crimes in history. We have all heard about Hitler and the terror he caused in the 1940s, yet not many know about the atrocities that took place in Cambodia less than 40 years ago.

Incarceration, starvation, forced labor, inhumane torture, live burials, mass executions – these are just some of the brutalities the Cambodians were subjected to from 1975 to 1979. In this four year period, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, massacred more than 2 million civilians (almost one fourth of the country’s population). Why? To get rid of what was ‘rotten’ which apparently referred to intellectuals, businessmen, foreigners and minorities. The worst part is that even though all this is over today, the perpetrators have still not been convicted and brought to justice.


To know more about the genocide, click here and take a walk with me through Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

8. The world’s largest residential palace is in Brunei

The small but exceedingly rich country of Brunei, located in Southeast Asia, is best known for its vast oil and gas reserves. What many people don’t know, however, is that it also holds the Guinness World Record for having the largest residential palace in the world!

The ‘Istana Nurul Iman’ or ‘Palace of the Light of Faith’ is spread over 200,000 square meters and contains 1,788 rooms, making it the largest royal residence in the world. The palace is only open to the public for 3 days every year during Eid al-Fitr. On other days, you can only see it from outside.

Istana Nurul Iman: the residence of the Sultan of Brunei


9. Laos is the most bombed country, per capita

What gave the country such a title? Well, as history tells us, it’s because of the ‘Secret War’ between USA and Laos in the 1960s for a period of 9 years where the United States dropped more than 250 million tons of cluster bombs all over the country.

While all eyes were on the Vietnam War, there was an unknown battle going on behind the scenes, a diplomatic struggle to prevent Laos from becoming communist. This is a battle Laotians are still paying for, since one third of the bombs dropped didn’t detonate at the time. Over the last 40 years, unassuming civilians have become handicapped, or even worse, died, by mistakenly stepping on unexploded ‘bombies’ as they are called.

Bombs used in the Secret War

10. Rafflesia is the world’s largest flower

With a diameter of approximately 40 inches and a bud as big as your dinner plate, the Rafflesia is beyond doubt, the largest flower in the world. It can be found only in Southeast Asia – in the rainforests of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines.

You have to be lucky to view a Rafflesia in full bloom because not only does it take almost 9 months to develop, but it remains in full bloom only for 3 to 5 days. Don’t even consider taking one home as a souvenir though – it emits a foul odour, of rotting flesh to be exact.

Rafflesia in full bloom (Credits: Mike Prince)

11. Witchcraft in the Philippines still exists

For centuries, the tiny island of Siquijor in the Visayas has been synonymous with witchcraft, sorcery and even black magic. According to the locals, there are two types of witches in Siquijor – the ‘shamans’ who cure ailments or illnesses, and the ‘sorcerers’ who inflict illnesses or death.  The shamans, or ‘healers’ as they are now known, use magic stones, herbal potions and special rituals to cure their patients. They congregate every year on the Holy Friday of Lent, to prepare their brews and potions for the entire year and are popular among locals as well as foreigners. The provincial tourist department and hotels have a list of all the healers on the island as well.

The sorcerers, however, are another matter altogether. Most people and officials deny their existence, but there are sorcerers such as Mang Edol who claim to have helped clients exact revenge or get justice by causing serious illnesses.

Magic and supernatural powers have always been a debatable topic, but whether true or not, this island is indeed mystical.

Traditional bolo-bolo healing technique (Credits: Sidney Snoeck)

Note: If you’re planning to visit, please check if Mang Edol is still alive and practising

12. Each country in Southeast Asia has its own version of the Ramayana

The Ramayana is one of the greatest Indian epics, written in the 5th century B.C. by Valmiki. Although the tale was conceived in India and is an integral part of Indian literature and culture, today it is also a fundamental aspect of Southeast Asian culture.

Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar – they all have their own versions of the epic, where the main theme is the same, but with regional characteristics and modifications. In Thailand, for instance, they call it the Ramakien and the tale is set in the historical Thai city of Ayutthaya. Furthermore, the characters have Thai names, and Rama is not a divine form of Lord Vishnu, but a Thai prince. There are numerous versions of Ramakien within Thailand too, and the tale is depicted on temple and palace walls all over the country.

The story of Ramayana painted on the walls of the Grand Palace, Bangkok

How many of these little known facts did you know before reading this article? Tell me in the comments below!

Note: Content and photos on this blog, unless credited, belong to the owner of this blog. Reproduction or usage without prior permission is prohibited.

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