Since UNESCO began building their list of the world’s most magnificent World Heritage sites, travellers to Asia have an endless list of fascinating destinations to visit. But some of Asia’s most spectacular “sights” aren’t destinations at all – but remnants of heritage in people, traditions and art. Dubbed by UNESCO as “Intangible Cultural Heritage”, this special list of cultural elements can’t be pinpointed on a map – they must be experienced instead.
Just because Intangible Cultural Heritage isn’t as easy to tick off of a bucket list doesn’t mean they aren’t well worth seeking out. When putting together your top spots in Asia for your next trip, make sure to keep these unforgettable experiences on the top of your list, too!
Nha Nhac, Vietnamese Court Music
Meaning “elegant music” in English, Nha Nhac is one of Vietnam’s most historic music styles, and draws its roots from dynastic courts as long ago as the 13th Century, until the Nguyen Dynasty in the 20th Century. You’d be unlikely to find Nha Nhac performed without an accompanying kaleidoscope of traditional costumes nowadays, but in ancient Vietnam, it was an important element of religious festivals and royal ceremonies.
Nha Nhac usually includes some of Vietnam’s most distinct instruments: the ken bau (conical oboe), dan ty ba (pear-shaped lute), dan nhi (two-stringed fiddle) and the sao truc (bamboo transverse flute), just to name a few. In modern Vietnam, you’ll quite literally have to travel back in time with a visit to the imperial city of Hue to hear Nha Nhac for yourself – the UNESCO-recognised royal tombs and temples here are the perfect backdrop.
The Space of Gong Culture
Vietnam’s Central Highlights are home to seventeen ethnic minority groups and several provinces whose livelihoods still rely heavily on agriculture. These fascinating cultures are distinct from Vietnamese ethnic locals, and have crafted traditions and beliefs that are wholly unique in the area. One of the most unique traditions of these groups is the belief in gongs, and their connection with divinities. Many in these communities believe that gongs are the tool to speak a privileged language between men and the supernatural world, and behind every gong hides a god or goddess that grows more powerful as the gong ages. Though only certain parts of Vietnam still have this historic practice, remnants of gong culture exist throughout Vietnam, too.
The Wayang Puppet Theatre
Wayang Puppets were recognised as a UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage in 2003, thanks to its important place in Indonesian culture. Even though wayang is used to refer to many kinds of traditional theatre, wayang puppetry includes both intricately designed “puppets” manipulated behind a screen, alongside a traditional gamelan orchestra – an iconic instrument in Indonesian music. Wayang puppets themselves can take weeks to craft, and though they’re mainly used in the performance itself, they’re also a great souvenir to take home! Some of the best places to see Wayang Puppet Theatre is in the historic town of Yogyakarta.
An important element of Acehnese culture in Indonesia, the Saman Dance dates back to the life of its creator, Sheikh Saman in the 16th Century. The dance originates from the Gayo ethnic group in the Aceh province, and is still an important part of celebrating important occasions. Performed by a group of dancers, adorned in bright and colourful local clothing, is intended to illustrate a poem or story. Equal parts interpretive dance and musical performance, Saman dance includes not just harmonious movements, but plenty of claps, pats and thigh slaps in unison. Nowadays, the best place to see Saman Dance is in the place it was born – Aceh Province in beautiful Sumatra!
Though Batik painting is a popular art form throughout Southeast Asia, Indonesian Batik is often considered the most famous and iconic of the practice. Batik is created by “painting” intricate patterns onto white cloth with wax, and then dying the cloth to leave the wax designs untouched. The process creates some of Indonesian Batik’s iconic patterns, which are used in clothing and even some souvenirs. The practice itself – including the process and the quality of craftsmanship – was included in UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in 2009, and remains an important part of Indonesian culture. Visitors to places like Ubud and Bali will likely see plenty of Indonesian Batik, and even have the chance to take some home for themselves!
The Dragon Boat Festival
The Festival of Tuen Ng, or Duanwu, is one of the most important (and downright fun) festivals celebrated in China, and is based upon the Chinese lunisolar calendar. The celebration is based around the summer solstice when the sun is thought to be the strongest, which like the Chinese dragon, is a symbol of masculinity. To celebrate, Chinese locals take to the waterways to enjoy zongzi (sticky rice treats) and rice wine, as well as race dragon boats. If you’re visiting China around the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (usually in June), make sure to head to Hong Kong or Beijing, where enormous celebrations centre around the races!
China’s 5000 years of history are part of what makes Chinese calligraphy such an important art form, since this special skill was revered long before traditional painting in China. Chinese calligraphy isn’t just writing – the art form demands not only a command of thousands of characters, but a near-perfect illustration of complex strokes using only paint, a brush and a steady hand. Visitors to China can still see the masters at work creating pieces of work that demand so much patience and skill that calligraphers often train for decades to perfect the art.
Unlike China’s lengthy history, Peking Opera actually only dates back about 200 years, but in that time has become one of the most iconic genres of Chinese performance art. Somewhat like Beijing Opera, Peking Opera is a special brand of storytelling that uses ornate costumes, intricately painted faces and lots of imagination. Most plays only include a few props that are used in multiple ways – a table serving as a seat, a bed and even a cloud in a single performance. Peking Opera used to consist of 24 acts – which would translate to years of rehearsal and days to perform – but performances now are in more manageable doses while still living up to its extravagant roots.
Xi’an Wind and Percussion Ensemble
Lovers of orchestral music will find something magical in the beautiful city of Xi’an, where the sounds of traditional instruments intertwine with a backdrop of ancient history. Xi’an wind and percussion music is a traditional combination of drums and wind instruments, historically played for temple fairs and religious occasions. The command of these instruments has been passed down through generations, and there are an estimated one hundred and fifty volumes of hand written score that are still in use today. The best place for visitors to see a performance is at the Xi’an Drum Tower, one of the most iconic landmarks in all of China.
The Royal Ballet of Cambodia
The word “ballet” likely conjures up images of point shoes and tutus, but the Royal Ballet of Cambodia is entirely different. This traditional Khmer art form found its roots in royal courts, and became an important part of religious ceremonies. It was usually accompanied by a traditional orchestra and highlighted with slow and figurative gestures and poses intended to entrance audiences, usually to enact an epic poem or story. The most vivid element of Cambodian ballet, though, is most certainly the costumes – gold spires rise up from ornate headdresses worn by performers. Now, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia is one of the best ways to experience Khmer history and art – so much so, that the Royal Ballet often sells out theatres as far away as the United States during their tours!
Sbek Thom, Khmer Shadow Theatre
Similar to Indonesian wayang shadow puppetry, Sbek Thom is a different form of shadow puppetry that includes live actors as well as ornate props. Khmer shadow puppets are sometimes up to two-metres high when held, and are made of a special leather that’s carved to beautiful effect. Khmer Shadow Theatre nearly vanished during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, but is finding a new renaissance since its inclusion in UNESCO’s list. New troupes are beginning to re-invigorate the tradition of shadow puppetry, and visitors can see this new rise of Sbek Thom for themselves in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
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