Pirates! Murderers! Ghosts! Asia’s 10 Most Incredible Citadels House Strange Pasts
These citadels have quite a history.
Pirates, monks, murderers, and ghosts—the citadels of Asia have had a huge variety of influences. There are dozens of walled cities spread across this continent, some of which remain in fine condition, others which have been ravaged by time. They stand as reminders of a more violent past, when these communities had to be protected from the persistent threat of invaders approaching by land or sea. From the Korean stronghold born out of tragedy to Japan’s haunted castle, the Sri Lankan fort that withstood a tsunami, and the Thai outpost that protected the cradle of the nation, here are 10 of Asia’s most interesting citadels.
WHERE: Suwon, South Korea
Just 19 miles south of downtown Seoul sits a masterpiece inspired by murder. While Hwaseong Fortress is very attractive, its backstory is undeniably ugly. This mighty walled city was built in the late 1700s by Korean King Jeongjo in honor of his father, Crown Prince Sado, who died of starvation after his own father locked him inside a rice chest.
Blending elements of European and Chinese fort design, Jeongjo created a walled city so magnificent that it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fortunately, it remains in terrific condition, with more than 30 towers, bastions, gates, and bunkers open for exploration by visitors.
WHERE: Himeji, Japan
Screams echo through the hallways of this enormous 17th-century castle, according to local legend. That pained voice is owned by Okiku, a woman who was executed here in the Japanese city of Himeji and whose ghost now haunts this complex.
This spirit has a fine home. Not only is Himeji the largest castle in Japan, but it is at the heart of a citadel consisting of 83 buildings spread across 265 acres which was recently afforded a meticulous five-year restoration. Visitors can access many of these rejuvenated towers, shrines, halls, and abodes while wandering the manicured grounds of this citadel.
WHERE: Galle, Sri Lanka
When the Dutch erected giant stone walls around the Portuguese-built settlement of Galle Fort in the 1700s, they didn’t know that almost 300 years later these ramparts would save many lives from a non-human enemy. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed up to 35,000 Sri Lankans and devastated the city of Galle.
But the historic, UNESCO-listed community of Galle Fort was spared destruction due to its lofty perimeter walls. As a result, visitors can still admire this neighborhood’s ornate Dutch churches and pretty Portuguese mansions, which line the narrow streets of this popular tourist precinct.
WHERE: Tainan, Taiwan
Almost 400 years ago, the Dutch took over swathes of Taiwan and built this oceanside fort in the country’s southwest region. In doing so, these colonial invaders lit a fuse under their ongoing conflict with Chinese rivals.
Anping Fort was a key trading center for the Dutch for 30 years before it was conquered by Chinese pirates, although thankfully this fort wasn’t demolished during this battle and many later skirmishes. Tourists can visit the outer walls that remain from the original fort, as well as the bastions and towers rebuilt after World War II.
WHERE: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat has become the icon of not just Cambodia but also of the nation’s monumental ancient capital of Angkor. That famous 12th-century temple complex has managed to overshadow the commanding citadel that was at the heart of the capital–Angkor Thom.
Built in the late 1100s, it was one of the most advanced cities in the world at that time, boasting sophisticated urban planning and sanitation and stately architecture, best exemplified by the colossal temple of Bayon. All of this was protected by a wide moat and six miles of tall stone walls, some of which still stand today, alongside the remains of intricately-designed temples, pagodas, gates, and military towers.
WHERE: Kamphaeg Phet, Thailand
Thailand’s own version of Angkor is the comparatively unknown ancient city of Sukhothai. Built as the first capital of Thailand, almost 800 years ago, Sukhothai was protected by another citadel—the military outpost of Kamphaeng Phet.
While the jungle has reclaimed much of this walled city, there are dozens of fascinating ruins in Kamphaeng Phet, including former palaces, temples, pavilions, pagodas, and monasteries. The most appealing of these remains is the Buddhist temple of Wat Phra Kaeo, with its tall central stupa.
Until Macau became dotted by skyscrapers, the hilltop Monte Fort owned the best view of the city-state. It was this wide vista that helped the Portuguese defend their new settlement—they held on to Macau for more than 400 years, until it returned to Chinese control in 1999.
Overlooking the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral—of which only the façade remains—Monte Fort is a symbol of how the Portuguese built the first European settlement in China. This trapezoid-shaped granite fort is now used as a tourist attraction and as the home to the Macau Museum, which explains the citadel’s history and the tale of this city.
WHERE: Manila, Philippines
Manila’s huge citadel of Intramuros wouldn’t exist if not for Chinese pirates. In 1574, Spanish-controlled Manila was besieged by these pirates, prompting the Spaniards to build 20-foot thick walls around a 146-acre community home to the city’s most prized colonial buildings.
Some of these structures are now major tourist draws, including the colossal Neo-Romanesque Manila Cathedral, the smaller but equally ornate Baroque-style San Augustin Church, and the remains of Fort Santiago. In addition to its dense history and striking architecture, Intramuros appeals to tourists thanks to its pace of life, which is noticeably slower than in most parts of this hectic city.
WHERE: Hue, Vietnam
As a tourist destination, Hue is often overlooked in favor of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hoi An. It is, however, one of the most important cities in Vietnam’s history. For 143 years, up until 1945, Vietnam’s last Imperial dynasty ruled from within a mammoth citadel here on the country’s mid-west coast.
This is comfortably the largest and most splendid walled city in Vietnam. Most of its six-mile-long walls are still in fine condition, and at the heart of the citadel lies the Thai Hoa Palace, an imposing building with a rich melange of Chinese and Vietnamese architecture.
WHERE: Jaipur, India
From a distance it appears to be an ugly, hulking structure, built to defend rather than dazzle. Then you pass through the giant gates of Jaipur’s red sandstone Amber Fort to find an interior so elaborate, so intricate in design that it is obvious why such great effort was made to protect it.
Complicated geometric patterns and floral motifs decorate the walls, floors, and ceilings of the fort’s halls, courts, and mansions. This was the headquarters of the Kingdom of Amber for almost 400 years until the mid-19th century. Now, it is Jaipur’s chief tourist attraction thanks to its remarkable size and opulent Mughal and Hindu architecture.