The lost cities of Southeast Asia

The Wat Chaiwatthanaram is one of Ayutthaya's most impressive temples. Source: Shutterstock

LOST cities have always been the stuff of intrigue and legend. Once thriving metropolises, lost cities by definition fell into decline at some point throughout history, eventually becoming completely uninhabited.

Some remain nothing more than shadowy myths, like the lost continent of Atlantis, first mentioned by Plato and said to have been swallowed up by the sea. Others have been lost to time, engulfed by the jungle, only to be rediscovered years later and then placed firmly on the tourist trail.

Nowadays some former lost cities in Southeast Asia have been resurrected from a pile of ruins, while many are nothing more than the subject of disputed theories and prolonged yet unfruitful historical research.

Here are some of the most famous lost cities of Southeast Asia:

Angkor – Cambodia

The sprawling 162ha Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia is the largest religious monument in the world. Source: Shutterstock

Probably the most famous former lost city in Southeast Asia is the mighty Angkor in Cambodia.

From as early as the 9th to the 15th century AD, Angkor would have been one of the main religious centers of the vast Khmer Empire, starting off a Hindu site before being converted to a series of Buddhist temples, in addition to the main city.

In its heyday Angkor would have been able to accommodate half a million residents and sprawled over an area of 400 square kilometers. It’s not exactly clear when Angkor became abandoned, although it was probably in the early 1400s when the site was attacked by marauders from neighboring Ayutthaya.

The complex was then returned to the jungle before being rediscovered in 1860 and eventually declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992. Now it is one of the most famous attractions in the world and sees more than a million tourists every year.

Gangga Negara – Malaysia

An 8th-9th century bronze Buddhist Avalokitesvara statue of Gangga Negara found in Bidor, Perak, in 1936. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gangga Negara in Malaysia translates as ‘a city of the Ganges’ and is referenced in the Malay Annals, although its status as a lost city is still disputed.

It is believed that Gangga Negara would have been located in what is now Perak State and would have been a thriving city from the 2nd to the 11th century.

It is said that the city was attacked by King Rajendra Chola of India in 1025 after which it crumbled to the ground. The only clues that Gangga Negara may have truly existed have been found in the form of carved tombstones and glass beads at archaeological sites in places in Perak like Kuala Selinsing, although it is unlikely that the true history of this city will ever be rediscovered.

Ayutthaya – Thailand

A snapshot from the Ayutthaya Historical Park, an archaeological site comprising palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries and statues. Source: Shutterstock

Ayutthaya in Thailand dates from 1350 when it would have been one of the famous capitals of what was then Siam. By the 18th century, Ayutthaya was thought to be the biggest city in the world and had over a million residents, although unfortunately its size failed to protect it when it was attacked by Burmese marauders in 1767.

The city was razed to the ground during the attack and quickly fell off the map as one of the most important cities of its time.

It was only in 1991 that the ruins were properly rediscovered and recognized for their historical and cultural importance and the city is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Ma-i – Philippines

Ma-i in the Philippines is also sometimes known as Maidh or Mayi and is thought to have been founded around 971 AD. The reason why Ma-i is so important in the history of the Philippines is that it was the first place in the country to be documented in the History of Song, a historical text from the Song Dynasty, and is referenced again in historical literature from the Sultanate of Brunei in the 10th century.

Ma-i is said to have been an important trading port in the Philippines and was famous for its cotton, textiles and turtle shell products, which were instrumental in its rise to fame in the region.

It is still unclear exactly what happened to Ma-i but some theories claim it was attacked by the Sultanate of Brunei in the 1500s or was destroyed when the Spanish arrived in the region in 1570. Nowadays however nothing remains of Ma-i, but is thought to have been located on what is now Mindoro Island, or at Bay or Laguna.