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Ancient Cities in Asia That Will Transport You Back in Time

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Ancient Cities in Asia That Will Transport You Back in Time

Lirene CilliersBy Lirene Cilliers   Posted 12th Mar 2024

In this article, we lace up our adventure boots and step into the echoes of footsteps left by kings, warriors, explorers, and visionaries. We’ll journey back in time as we traverse eight ancient cities scattered across Asia. 

These historic cities aren't merely fragments of the past contained within stone and rubble. Rather, they are proud hosts to the world's most awe-inspiring temples that bear silent testament to civilizations that were surprisingly advanced for their time. 

Ancient cities in Cambodia 

Angkor Wat: The most famous ancient city in Southeast Asia 

Tucked away deep in the Southeast Asian jungles, within the modern borders of Cambodia, lies a remnant of a massive ancient city from the time of the Khmer Empire, active from the 9th to 15th centuries. This location houses the iconic Angkor Wat, recognized as one of the globe's most expansive religious edifices. The Khmer Empire was an advanced civilization, outshining its contemporary medieval European cities. It had a complex irrigation system, sophisticated engineering, and extensive road networks. 

Angkor Wat, the 8th Wonder of the World, is a symbol of Cambodia and an iconic example of Khmer architecture. Its massive size and intricate bas-relief carvings will astonish even the most seasoned globetrotters 

Yet, what many fail to appreciate is that Angkor Wat is merely the crown jewel in a much larger archaeological expanse. The wider Angkor region is, in fact, dotted with over a thousand temple structures. New research indicates that the Angkor Empire may have pulsed with life, housing somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 inhabitants during the city's zenith in the 13th century—a population density strikingly similar to that of ancient Rome during its most populous period. 

Visiting Angkor Wat: 

When visiting Angkor Wat, you can navigate independently on a rented bike or tuk-tuk, hire a local guide, or maximize your experience with a professionally curated bike tour. Here are the top 3 experiences you shouldn't miss: 

  • Angkor Wat Sunrise: Prepare for a spectacle of light as the dawn paints the spires of Angkor Wat in breathtaking hues, a phenomenal sight that is etched in every traveler’s memory. 
  • Cycling to Hidden Temples: Hop on your bike and pedal through jungle tracks, uncovering hidden temples that lie away from the crowded tourist trails, alongside the more famous landmarks. 
  • Bayon Temple: Be awed by the serenity of the massive stone faces at Bayon Temple as they silently narrate tales of ancient Khmer architecture, leaving behind a lasting impression. 

Don't just see Angkor Wat; experience it! Explore our all-inclusive tours in Cambodia

Ancient cities in Vietnam 

Hoi An Ancient Town 

Once a thriving principal port of the Champa Kingdom, Hoi An held a prominent position in Southeast Asia as a significant center for the spice trade between Indonesia and China. The lively town was a powerful testament to the skilled merchants and craftsmen of the time, who significantly contributed to the region's history. 

Wandering through Hoi An's ancient town—now a UNESCO World Heritage Site—you are taken back to an era spanning across the 15th and 19th centuries. The port, with its rich cultural diversity, served as a melting pot for civilizations from distant lands. The streets still echo with the tales of merchants who set sail to trade their precious goods. 

Today, Hoi An stands as an exceptionally well-preserved gem, where the legacies of these intrepid adventurers live on through the iconic yellow building that line the old town. The city’s intricate buildings and the well-planned street layout display a harmonious blend of indigenous and foreign influences. The blend of Chinese, Japanese, and European architectural styles creates an unforgettable atmosphere, connecting visitors to the town's rich past. 

Visiting Hoi An: 

While exploring Hoi An, you can meander through its narrow lanes by bike, set out on foot, or join a guided bike tour that offers depth and meaningful cultural connections. Here are the top 3 experiences not to be missed: 

  • Food Sampling: Dive into Hoi An's food scene, famous worldwide for its diversity and flavor, and ensure to try the signature dish, Cao Lau! 
  • Coffee Tour: Revel in a unique coffee tour where you can learn about the coffee-making process from bean to cup, discover a host of local brews, and even try the world-renowned "Vietnamese Egg Coffee" for a decadent experience. 
  • Cooking Class: Venture to the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An for an immersive gastronomic experience. Under the guidance of expert chefs, learn to prepare signature Vietnamese dishes, gaining insights into the culture and history that shape Vietnam's renowned cuisine. This is the perfect way to extend your Vietnamese journey right into your home kitchen, allowing you to recreate the magic of Hoi An's food scene long after your trip. 

Delve even deeper into Hoi An's rich history and culture on our intimate, guided bike tours of Vietnam. 

Ancient cities in Thailand 

The Old City of Chiang Mai 

If you've already had a taste of the sun-kissed beaches of Southern Thailand, it's time to head North. Unlike the familiar tropics of the South, Northern Thailand welcomes you to a whole different world. 

With roots extending back to 1296, the Old City of Chiang Mai, also known as the 'Rose of the North', was once the flourishing capital of the Lanna Kingdom – a vast monarchial state that ruled over Northern Thailand for centuries. Later, it sat at the helm of the Kingdom of Chiang Mai.  

Today, encapsulated in the heart of the modern city, the ancient city exists within the remnants of square-shaped walls and a moat, the results of endeavors to protect it from potential invasions. 

The Old City spreads over nearly one square mile and is home to more than 30 temples, each filled with intricate woodwork, naga (serpent) motifs, and gilded chedis or stupas. Some of these, like the 14th-century Wat Phra Singh, are as old as the city itself—its wí·hăhn (sanctuary) houses the famous Phra Singh Buddha, an invaluable symbol of the Lanna Kingdom. 

Visiting Chiang Mai: 

Chiang Mai is an amazing mix of history and nature, with exciting night markets and great food. Here are some top things to do when visiting: 

  • Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: Perched majestically on a mountain, it stands as one of the most hallowed temples in Northern Thailand. Showcasing the distinct beauty of Northern Thai architectural design, the temple is accessible via a 306-step staircase, guarded by mythical Naga Sea serpents.
  • Visit the Night Markets: Try authentic dishes such as red curry, spicy papaya salad, classic pad thai, and mango sticky rice. Is your mouth watering yet? 
  • Visit Araksa Tea Plantations: Located outside of Chiang Mai, but absolutely worth this visit! Araksa is not just a tea plantation; it's a beautiful landscape of lush, rolling hills filled with rows of bright green tea bushes. Plus, there's nothing like savoring a fresh cup of tea while overlooking the very fields where it was harvested.  

Chiang Mai's landscape does have its share of hills, and the best way to navigate these is with an eBike. It allows you to cover more ground with less effort, ensuring that you don't miss any of the city's many treasures. Explore our guided e-bike tour of Thailand

Ancient cities in Laos

Luang Prabang 

Tucked away in the northern region of Laos, Luang Prabang sits on the meeting point of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Numerous myths surround the founding of the city, including one where the Buddha, during his travels, smiled as he rested in this area, foretelling that it would become a prosperous and influential city.  

Known as Muang Sua and later Xieng Thong, between the 14th and 16th centuries, it was the capital of the mighty Lane Xang kingdom (Kingdom of a Million Elephants) which owed its wealth and power to its strategic position along the Southern Silk Route.  

Luang Prabang is surrounded by a stunning range of mountains that add an additional layer of magnificence to this ancient city. These mountain ranges are not just picturesque backdrops but serve a significant role in defining the region's climate, biodiversity, and local lifestyle. 

In 1995, thanks to its rich cultural and natural treasures, Luang Prabang was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This status grants it global recognition and endeavors to preserve the city's unique historical features. 

Visiting Luang Prabang: 

Luang Prabang is a city you won't soon forget. Explore by bike or foot and ensure not to miss these three must-try experiences: 

  • Participate in the Monks Alms Ceremony: A revered custom that dates back centuries. Every morning at dawn, monks walk through the streets accepting donations of food and essentials from locals and travelers. It's considered to be a great honor to make an offering, and participating in this tradition can provide a deep sense of spirituality and connection with Laotian culture. 
  • Bike Ride to Wat Xieng Thong: Luang Prabang’s royal temple and one of the most important Buddhist monasteries in Laos. The temple dates back to the 16th-century and was where Lao kings were crowned. Its historical importance, coupled with its intricate carvings and mosaics make it a definite must-visit. 
  • Visit the Enchanting Kuang Si Waterfall: Escape to the remarkable Kuang Si Waterfall, where clear, aqua-blue waters cascade over limestone formations into stunning pools. Swim in the waterfall's pools, picnic on its banks, or just marvel at its awe-inspiring beauty.  

Delve deeper into Luang Prabang's history while cycling past stunning karst mountains, alongside rivers and through remote hill-tribe villages on our guided bike tour in Laos

Ancient cities in Myanmar  


Situated in the Mandalay region of Myanmar, Bagan stands as an iconic ancient city, testament to the prosperity of the Pagan Kingdom - the first to unify what is now modern-day Myanmar. 

Serving as the capital of the kingdom for approximately 200 years, between the 9th and 13th centuries, Bagan experienced a boom in Buddhist temple construction during this golden era. Over 10,000 temples, pagodas, monasteries, and other religious structures graced the city, signifying the spiritual fervor and architectural prowess of the times. 

Today, more than 2,000 of these structures extend their legacy, scattered across the 26 square mile Bagan Archaeological Zone. Positioned on the east bank of the magnificent Irrawaddy River, this zone offers a breathtaking panorama, featuring an ethereal landscape punctuated by the spires and domes of these ancient structures. 

In recognition of its incommensurable historical and cultural worth, Bagan was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. 

Visiting Bagan: 

When you step into Bagan, you step into a living sepia postcard. As you explore, on foot, bicycle or even hot-air balloon, be sure to carve out time for these unique experiences: 

  • Bagan Temple Hop: With over 2,000 temples, monasteries, and pagodas, you are spoiled for choice! Make your way through some of the most iconic temples, like Ananda Temple, Dhammayangyi Temple, or Shwezigon Pagoda.  
  • Hot Air Balloon Ride: Embark on an unforgettable hot air balloon ride over the sprawling historical sites of Bagan. Doing this at sunrise or sunset provides the most visually impressive experience as the light paints an otherworldly scene of shadows and colors across the thousands of temples. 
  • Sunset Boat Ride on the Irrawaddy River: Bagan is famed for its magical sunset and sunrise moments. Enjoy a serene sunset boat ride along the Irrawaddy River.  

Ancient cities in India 


Rajasthan, Land of the Kings, was once a fragmented region ruled by various Rajput clans known for their bravery and warrior ethos. As these clans battled, conspired, and allied over centuries, they left a landscape adorned with astounding palaces, robust forts, and enthralling temples that echo the grandeur of their reign. 

Nestled in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan is filled with cities that each have their unique color which tells a story about its history and people. 

First up, we have Jaipur, known as the "Pink City". Back in 1876, the city was painted pink as a sign of welcome to Prince Albert. So, when you walk around Jaipur, the pink buildings and walls aren't just beautiful, they're a symbol of the city's friendly spirit and royal past. 

Next, there's Jodhpur, also called the "Blue City". A lot of the buildings here are painted blue, which not only keeps them cool in the desert heat but also creates a beautiful blue skyline. Originally, this color was specific to the houses of Brahmins, the priestly class, but now it's a defining feature of the city. The town also features the impressive Mehrangarh fortress which dates back to the 13th century and towers 122 meters above the city and surrounding plain 

Jaisalmer, known as the "Golden City", has a shine that can be credited to its yellow sandstone structures. The golden-colored buildings stand strong against the harsh desert surroundings, showcasing the city's resilience. 

Finally, we have Udaipur, the "City of Lakes," known for its white buildings and serene lakes. The white color represents purity and brings a sense of calm, being surrounded by the peaceful waters of its lakes. 

Visiting Rajasthan 

As you explore, whether by foot, jeep, or bicycle, be sure to carve out time for these unique and immersive experiences: 

  • Mehrangarh Fort: Stand atop the 15th-century Mehrangarh fortress, overlooking the blue city of Jodhpur. Immerse yourself in its grandeur and enjoy the mesmerizing cityscape that unfurls beneath you. The blue houses, juxtaposed with the golden desert, present a view you won't soon forget! 
  • Jeep Safari: Embark on a jeep safari to the remote villages of the Bishnoi tribe. Step back in time as you witness their centuries-old traditions and way of life. 
  • Cycling Through Aravalli Hills: Enjoy the change in backdrop as you cycle past small hillside hamlets, villages and see traditional ox-drawn wells. 

Experience Rajasthan up close on our all-inclusive bike tour. Ride through rural farmlands, desert scrubland, and mountain passes, and along the way, stay in historic palaces, fortresses, and Havelis.  

Ancient cities in Sri Lanka 


Galle, a charismatic city located on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, carries a rich history closely tied to its strategic location as a port.  

Known primarily for the Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the story of the fort dates back even further than the 16th century, when the Portuguese built the first ramparts. The Dutch arrived later and heavily fortified the settlement, and then eventually along came the British.  

Through these many changes of rulers, the ethnic makeup of the city was born through its significant role as a trading port. Today, the families who live in the fort have, in most cases, lived there for many generations. 

The city doesn't just stop at offering history. It also presents a vibrant array of arts, culture, and natural beauty. One of Galle's main attractions is its azure beaches, particularly the Unawatuna Bay, known for its stunning coral reefs and biodiverse marine life. 

Visiting Galle: 

Galle offers the perfect balance between a rich historical journey and serene relaxation. Here are 3 must-do experience: 

  • Galle Fort Walk: Take a walk through the historical fort, soaking in the fusion of European and local architectural styles. Visit the Dutch Reformed Church, the Old Dutch Hospital, and the Maritime Museum to get a taste of Galle's rich history. 
  • Beach and Snorkeling: Spend time relaxing on the golden sands of Unawatuna Bay. 
  • Visit the Lighthouse: Built in 1938, the Galle Lighthouse stands within the fort's walls, offering breathtaking views of the coastline. It's a great spot to watch the sunset and bask in the city's serene sea views. 

Experience all of this and more as you bike, hike, and safari on our multi-day tours in Sri Lanka.  

Ancient cities in Uzbekistan 


Samarkand is a captivating city located in the southeastern part of Uzbekistan. It is thought to be one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in Asia, and while it is hard to say exactly when it was founded, it is steeped in the legends of conquerors, scholars, and trade routes along the famous Silk Road. 

At the heart of Samarkand lies Registan, a stunning architectural masterpiece and the city's central public square. The three madrasahs surrounding the square, each adorned with intricate tilework and mosaics, showcase the grandeur and achievements of the Timurid Empire.

Visiting Samarkand

The city boasts several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here's 3 you absolutely must visit: 

  • Registan Square: Explore the architectural jewel of Samarkand, marveling at the intricate details of the three madrasahs — Ulugh Beg, Sher-Dor, and Tilya-Kori — that encompass the square. 
  • Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum: Visit the iconic mausoleum of the great conqueror Tamerlane, featuring mesmerizing blue domes, delicate tilework, and stunning calligraphy. 
  • Bibi-Khanym Mosque: Discover the grandeur and stories behind this enormous mosque, which stands as a testament to Tamerlane's devotion to his wife and the architectural prowess of his empire. 

Discover the long-lost land on our guided cycling tour of Uzbekistan. Bike back into a time of powerful empires, feuding Sultans, assassins, thieves, and nomadic traders who roamed the land centuries ago. 

Bike Through History 

Ancient cities hold a magical allure, serving as a living testament to our multifaceted past. They stir a sense of awe and wonder, narrating tales of civilizations, conquerors, and cultures that once thrived and have faded into the mists of time.  
Now, we all know that history books are great, but what if you could live history instead of just reading about it?  

Whether you navigate the narrow lanes bustling with local life or cruise alongside majestic centuries-old ruins, there's simply no mode of exploration quite as intimate as from the seat of a bicycle.
Pedal at your own pace, immerse yourself in the vivid colors of busy markets, breathe in the essence of serene landscapes, and engage in heartwarming interactions with the local people. 

So, why wait? Take a ride through our fully supported bike tours, delve into Asia's rich history, and connect with humanity's collective past. Adventure, after all, is timeless. 

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