CAMBODIA When all the votes were counted, the no.1 sight was the undisputed champion by quite some margin. In electoral terms, it was a complete landslide. So, how did Angkor Wat beat the competition to take the crown?
As the world’s greatest temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat might seem a bit off the grid in Buddhist Cambodia, but this magnificent monument is the greatest treasure of a Hindu kingdom that once stretched as far as Burma, Laos and southern China. Even in a region as richly gifted with temples as Southeast Asia, Angkor is something out of the ordinary – a literal representation of heaven on earth, hewn from thousands of sandstone blocks and carved floor-to-ceiling with legends from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.
Even better, Angkor Wat is the crowning glory in a complex of more than 1000 temples, shrines and tombs that forms a virtual city of spires in the jungles of northern Cambodia. International flights drop into nearby Siem Reap, so it would be hard to describe Angkor as ’undiscovered’, yet every visitor who steps among the ruins, where tree roots tear through ancient walls and the heads of forgotten deities poke out from between the vines, feels like Indiana Jones, peeling back the foliage for the first time.
Over Angkor’s long centuries, the residents of this celestial city traded Hinduism for Buddhism, leaving many temples fusing mythologies. Few experiences can match arriving at the ruins of the Bayon at dawn and watching dozens of benevolent faces of the Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, appearing slowly out of the mist like heavenly apparitions. Indeed, Angkor offers so many hard-to-match experiences that many travellers spend weeks soaking up the glory of all the temples and ruins.
Angkor Wat itself is the undisputed highlight, a massive representation of Mt Meru, the mountain home of the gods of Hinduism, executed in stone blocks adorned with bas-reliefs of such delicacy and grace that they could almost have been carved in the presence of the divine. Travellers feel similar emotions when exploring the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm, a 12th-century temple that was almost completely consumed by the jungle, left much as it was when European explorers first ventured to Angkor in the 17th century.
Away from this central hub are sacred pools and stone bridges that have handrails depicting demons holding monstrous serpents, as well as a panoply of crumbling temples, scattered over an area of more than 400 sq km. Some of these outlying groups have become must-see sights in their own right – the complex at Banteay Srei features some of the finest stone-carving at Angkor, and the artistry continues underwater at nearby Kbal Spean, the river of a thousand linga (Shiva symbols).
More than anything else, Angkor is a powerful reminder of the soaring ambitions of human creativity, the fundamental human need to leave something permanent behind, and the very Buddhist realisation that nothing material is eternal, and that given time, all will be reclaimed by the jungle. Angkor isn’t just an interesting ruin – it’s a spiritual epiphany in stone.
Australia Second place in our list goes to a natural wonder stretching for more than 3000km up the northeastern coast of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef hardly needs an introduction. But here are some facts: this is the world’s largest network of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral and 1500 species of fish. Some 30 kinds of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been spotted here, along with six species of sea turtles and 17 kinds of sea snake.
If that doesn’t convince you to hop on a plane to Oz, there’s this: the reef may not be around for much longer, at least in its present state of glory. Rising sea temperatures have been bleaching and killing the coral, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. But for now, the reef is a psychedelic underwater playground for divers and snorkellers. Even above the surface, and closer to the Queensland coast, this vital ecosystem enthrals all who visit, with abundant bird life and countless tropical islands and beaches.
Peru Just a handful of votes separates second and third spot in our list. But they could not be more different... Gawping down at Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate after a lung-busting four-day hike along the Inca Trail is a rite of passage for travellers to Peru. But it’s not the outrageously dramatic Andean setting, nor the way that the city clings to impossibly precipitous slopes that makes Machu Picchu so mind-blowing – it’s the fact that no-one really knows what happened here. You’ve found a proper enigma.
There are theories aplenty – from royal retreat and temple for virgins, through to alien landing pad – but they remain just that. Theories. Even Hiram Bingham, the American amateur-archaeologist who stumbled across the ruins in 1911 and spent years excavating them, didn’t know what he was looking at. (Bingham died, claiming erroneously that he’d found a different site altogether – Vilcabamba, the fabled lost city of the Incas.)
Today, you can wander wide-eyed around the mysterious mountain metropolis in a liberating knowledge vacuum, forming your own ideas. Be sure to climb Huayna Picchu, the Andean shard towering over the ruins, with its mettle-testing trail to the Temple of the Moon.
China Every country has its must-see monument – in China, that monument covers most of the country. The Great Wall of China is not just one wall but an awe-inspiring maze of walls and fortifications stretching for an astonishing 8850km across the rugged landscape of the north of the country.
Constructed in waves over more than a thousand years, the Great Wall ultimately failed in its objective of keeping the Mongol hordes out of China, but it became the defining symbol of the Ming Empire, the greatest power to rise in East Asia until the arrival of Chairman Mao. It’s a myth that you can see the Great Wall from space, but when confronted by the sight of this endless structure stretching off into infinite distance, it seems almost impossible that this wouldn’t be true.
A few rugged souls trek the entire length of the wall, but even if you pick just one section, you’ll be humbled by its aura of indestructibility. Which part you choose to explore depends on whether you’re after imperial grandeur (near Beijing), military precision (in Gansu) or timeless desolation (in Inner Mongolia).
India How do you achieve architectural perfection? Start with acres of shimmering white marble. Add a few thousand semi- precious stones, carved and inlaid in intricate Islamic patterns. Take a sublime setting by a sacred river, in jewel-like formal gardens. Apply a little perfect symmetry, and tie up the whole package in an outlandish story of timeless love. And there you have the Taj Mahal.
Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj has been attracting travellers to India for centuries. Ironically, the emperor spent his final years incarcerated in Agra Fort by his ambitious son, with just a view of the Taj to remind him of everything he had lost.
Despite the incredible multitudes of visitors it draws, the Taj Mahal still presents a misty window through time. The ghosts of Mughal India wander the gleaming marble courtyards, drifting like shadows under archways and floating behind latticework screens. There’s no other building in India that so perfectly encapsulates the attitudes and atmosphere of its era.
USA Stand before this vast rent in the earth’s crust and you’re looking down at two-billion years of geologic time. That fact does something funny to the human brain. Lit by flaming sunsets, filled with billowing seas of fog and iced with crystal dustings of snow, the mile-deep, 277-mile-long Grand Canyon is nature’s cathedral. You’ll feel tiny yet soaring, awed yet peaceful, capable of poetry yet totally tongue-tied.
As the explorer John Wesley Powell once said, ’The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.’ But we had to try anyway. Come here to hike, to raft the wild Colorado River, to spot condors, black bears and elk, or simply to marvel.
Italy There’s nothing like a feisty Roman monument to rev up your inner historian, and the Colosseum performs brilliantly. A monument to raw, merciless power, this massive 50,000-seat amphitheatre is the most thrilling of Rome’s ancient sights. Gladiators met here in mortal combat, and condemned prisoners fought off wild beasts in front of baying, bloodthirsty crowds. Two millennia on, the hold it exerts over anyone who steps foot inside is as powerful as ever.
The Colosseum really is colossal and it is this that first impresses (although the amphitheatre was named not after its size but after a nearby statue of Nero, the Colosso di Nerone). Simply navigating the 80 entrance arches through which the audience entered and could be seated within minutes is a complicated affair – imagine the other 49,999 spectators who, in Roman times, would have been jockeying simultaneously for a spot alongside you and the mind boggles. Magistrates and senior officials sat in the lowest tier nearest the action, wealthy citizens sat in the middle tier, and the plebs on the highest tier. Women, being even more 2nd-class citizens than the plebs, were relegated to straining their necks to watch from the cheapest sections on the top tier.
Despite the gruesome shows that went on here, there’s no denying the majesty and grace of the arena. Less glam is what went on backstage: guided tours (a must) take the historically curious into the subterranean guts of the Colosseum where the full grunge, gore and filth of Roman gladiator combats come uncomfortably to life. Known as the hypogeum, this underground labyrinth of corridors, animal cages and ramps beneath the arena floor is vast and complex. Chuck in the bestial noise, stench, chaos of wounded men and dead or injured animals and you realise how gut-wrenching and bloody those Roman performances were.
BRAZIL–ARGENTINA The Guaraní name for the point where Río Iguazú plummets over a plateau just before its confluence with the Río Paraná is a great understatement: Big Water. Big? These falls are mind-bogglingly mighty: tourist boats that ply the foaming plunge pools below look like matchsticks. Boardwalks also get you thrillingly close. The whole thing is glimpsed through a stretch of subtropical rainforest forming a 55,000-hectare national park replete with wildlife, including jaguars.
Spain The palace complex of Granada’s Alhambra is one of the most extraordinary structures on the planet, perhaps the most refined example of Islamic art anywhere in the world, and the most enduring symbol of 800 years of enlightened Moorish rule in medieval Spain. From afar, Alhambra’s fortress towers dominate the Granada skyline, the sheer red walls rising from woods of cypress and elm, set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada’s snowcapped peaks. Inside is a network of lavishly decorated palaces and irrigated gardens, which are the source of scores of legends and fantasies.
It’s the combination of intricate detail and epic scale that gives Alhambra its breathtaking appeal. The perfectly proportioned Generalife gardens vividly evoke the Moorish vision of heaven, while the creations at Alhambra’s heart are beautiful beyond belief. The many rooms of the Palacios Nazaríes, the central palace complex, are the pinnacle of Alhambra’s design, a harmonious synthesis of space, light, shade, water and greenery that sought to conjure up an earthly paradise for the rulers who dwelt here. Expanses of tile, muqarnas (honeycomb) vaulting and stucco work adorn the walls, while the Patio de los Leones is a masterpiece of Islamic geometric design. Put simply, this is Spain’s most beautiful monument.
Turkey Church, mosque and museum in one, Aya Sofya is a structure unlike any other on the planet – defying easy categorisation just as it defied the rules of architecture when it was built almost 1500 years ago. The man behind it all was Byzantine Emperor Justinian I: he demanded a cathedral to eclipse the wonders of Byzantium’s sister city, Rome, and moreover, one that would mimic the majesty of the heavens on earth. He got his wish, and Aya Sofya still dominates the skyline in modern-day Istanbul. It is a huge, almost cosmic space, with a sense of vastness unmatched in its ancient era. Inside, the building reveals her treasures in stages: firstly, soaring columns borrowed from ancient Greek and Roman cities; secondly, lofty galleries adorned with glittering mosaics. Then, the grand finale: the famous dome, teetering high over the smooth marble below. Looking up at the dome, it’s worth remembering that its form was meant to imitate the vault of heaven (it’s perhaps best not to remember that it’s also collapsed once or twice over the years).
Almost as extraordinary as the building itself is its history – few structures have undergone as many career changes as Aya Sofya. After being looted during the Crusades, it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman capture of Istanbul in 1453. Four giant minarets remain as a testament to this, and remarkably, new mosques around Istanbul (including the famous Blue Mosque) took their cue from its design. In 1935, Aya Sofya was deconsecrated and designated a museum, yet stepping inside remains a spiritual experience – be it watching the evening light sparkle on a gold-leaf fresco, or seeing Christian artwork and Islamic calligraphy side by side. Like the beautiful city in which it stands, Aya Sofya represents a unique crossroads of continents and faiths.