Dungeons and dragons

The mythology behind some of Southeast Asia’s most iconic sites

Southeast Asia Globe
February 14, 2013
Dungeons and dragons

The mythology behind some of Southeast Asia’s most iconic sites

They say that Vietnam’s Halong Bay was created by dragons, while Malaysia’s Mount Ophir is believed to be home to a mystical princess and balls of fire have been spotted rising up out of the Mekong near Vientiane. Southeast Asian history is interwoven with fantastical legends and titillating myths of origin. Passed on from generation to generation, locals will gladly recount the fascinating stories that are said to account for some of the most magical landscapes on the planet.

Isles: Halong Bay means 'descending dragon bay'
Isles: Halong Bay means ‘descending dragon bay’

Majestically stretched out amid an ash-covered wasteland, the chilling Mount Pinatubo has become one of the Philippines’ prime trekking destinations. This volcano on the island of Luzon has inspired the people living on its slopes for centuries. In 1991, Pinatubo violently erupted, in one of the greatest volcanic events of the 20th century – locals claim the mountain was angered by oil drilling – creating a crater that has since filled up with water and is now a magnificent aquamarine lake. Legend has it that the god of Mount Pinatubo entered into a bitter rivalry with the goddess of the nearby Mount Arayat. Ruthlessly battling each other, they spread giant boulders throughout the area, creating the magical landscape that has since enthralled scores of travellers.
Another impressive remnant of ancient battles is the Plain of Jars in Laos. Thousands of urns, carved out of limestone megaliths are spread across the Xiang Khouang Plateau and make up Laos’ foremost archaeological site. The historical purpose of these jars continues to puzzle scientists, but folklore requires no proof: A race of giants under the rule of King Khun Cheung used to roam these highlands. The jars, in which these giants stored rice wine to celebrate their battle victories, were left scattered around the Laotian plains to remind future generations of their numerous conquests.
Although it was only ‘discovered’ by the British in 1811, the Javanese had known of the existence of the lustrous Prambanan temple complex for centuries. Its 240 temples make up the largest Hindu sanctuary in Indonesia. As the Indonesians will tell you, only a fraction remains of the original 999 temples built by Bandung Bondowoso. The warrior-prince was madly in love with a local princess who had thought up an impossible prerequisite for their impending marriage: he had to build 1,000 temples in one night. Invoking the help of demons, Bondowoso almost succeeded, when the desperate princess resorted to trickery. She told the women in the village to light a fire and go to work as if it were morning already. And so, when the rooster crowed, Bondowoso had only finished 999 temples. Infuriated by her betrayal, Bondowoso turned the princess into stone. Her statue remains one of the highlights of the wondrous Prambanan complex.
Sleeping giant
When tours began in 1999, the six-hour trek to Lake Pinatubo was reserved for more experienced hikers. Today it has been reduced to a two-and-a-half-hour drive through the moonscape of Crow Valley and a manageable two-hour hike to the crater. Tours can be booked in advance and leave from Manila or from the historical town of Capas.

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