UNESCO has been adding sites of historical, cultural and scientific significance to the World Heritage List since 1978. Since then, hordes of tourists have flocked to the most famous among them, such as the Great Wall of China or Angkor Wat, but there are many lesser known sites that are equally worthwhile to visit. We hope that this list inspires you to travel beyond the beaten path and visit some of the world’s most interesting and underappreciated UNESCO sites in Asia.
1. Sangiran Early Man Site – Indonesia
Over half of the world’s hominid fossils were uncovered at this site in Central Java, making it one of the most important discoveries for understanding human evolution and the origins of early man. The site became famous after the first excavations in 1936-1941 uncovered stone artefacts and over 100 Homo erectus remains. However, the area receives relatively few visitors despite its archaeological and scientific significance.
The island in itself is an incredible place to study the development of human civilization. The abundance of Java’s population is made possible by the island’s incredibly fertile, nutrient-rich volcanic soil. Starting with populations of pre-humans, which called the area home more than a million years ago for the same reason, Java’s connection to the human story is profound.
For anyone even remotely interested in culture or history, Java is a must-visit destination. If your curiosity about ancient hominids is not satiated after a visit to Sangiran, the Liang Bua Caves on the island of Flores provide the opportunity to learn more about Homo floresiensis, also nicknamed the “hobbit”.
2. Sacred Shrines in the Kii Mountain Range – Japan
These three holy sites (Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan, Yoshino and Omine) are connected by an ancient pilgrimage route, leading through the dense forests of the sacred Kii Mountains. For generations, Shinto worshippers have traveled along these mountain paths, passing rivers and waterfalls to visit mountain-top shrines and enjoy the blessings of nature.
The whole mountain range is an area of outstanding natural beauty and a perfect place for hiking. The Kii Mountains receive up to 15 million visitors annually, but it is still easy to imagine yourself travelling back in time in this seemingly endless forested mountain landscape.
This is definitely an ideal destination for nature lovers and those interested in the culture and religion of Japan. Combining a visit to Kyoto with a hike in the Kii Mountains provides a solid foundation for appreciating the spirit of ancient Japan.
3. The Temple of Preah Vihear – Cambodia
This incredibly well-preserved temple from the 11th century A.D., is dedicated to Shiva and is an outstanding example of Khmer architecture. Due to its remote location, the site has remained relatively untouched and does not suffer from many of the conservation issues of other temples.
Built on the top of a steep cliff in the Dangrek Mountain Range, this site offers a panoramic view of the surrounding plains and is one of the most spectacularly located temples in Cambodia. The temple is situated on the border with Thailand and for many years it was the subject of intense conflict between the two countries. The area is now considered safe to visit and is most easily accessible from Thailand.
If you are visiting the Preah Vihear Temple from Thailand, it is also a good opportunity to see the Khao Phra Wihan National Park in the northeastern Sisaket Province. This National Park is littered with Khmer ruins and is a great place to explore.
4. Mount Emei and the Leshan Giant Buddha – China
One of Buddhism’s holiest sites in China, the temples of Mount Emei were established here in the 1st century A.D., making them some of the earliest Buddhist temples in the country. Located in Sichuan Province, Mount Emei is one of the “Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains” of China.
The main attraction on Mount Emei is the Leshan Giant Buddha carved into the mountainside. At 71 meters tall, it is the largest stone Buddha in the world. The legend surrounding its construction is as fascinating as the statue itself. The Buddhist monk Hai Tong, who helped start the construction of the monument in 713 A.D., is said to have gouged out his own eyes to prove his dedication when the project was threatened by a lack of funding.
The rich biodiversity of Mount Emei, combined with the ancient multi-layered pagodas and terraces carved into the rock, gives the visitor an impression of travelling through a Chinese scroll painting or an exquisite scene painted on antique porcelain.
5. Singapore Botanic Gardens – Singapore
Founded in 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens are as much a site of historical and scientific interest, as they are a haven of tranquility and beauty in the heart of the “Lion City”. The style and structures of the garden are reminiscent of the colonial era in which they were built and evolved from a British “pleasure garden” into a scientific and educational institution.
The botanical and horticultural research done here also had an economic purpose. The studies done in tropical gardening and agriculture allowed the development of the rubber plantations, which were an important natural resource for the British Empire.
The National Orchid Garden (founded in 1995) is situated on a hill within the Singapore Botanic Gardens and contains over 60,000 orchid plants. The huge variety of species and hybrids offer a cornucopia of colour that is sure to please the eye. The gardens are dotted with fountains and other features, which make them an ideal place for a pleasant and relaxing stroll.
6. Pyu Ancient Cities – Myanmar
These three ancient cities (Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra) represent the pinnacle of the Pyu Kingdoms, which thrived for over 1000 years in the Irrawaddy River Basin area. From between 200 B.C. to 900 A.D. these settlements practiced intense irrigation of the arid plains and built magnificent palaces, imposing monuments and towering Buddhist stupas.
The Pyu culture is said to have been the earliest permanent foothold of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. They conducted extensive trade and were influenced to a large extent by the religion, literature and architectural style transmitted from India. Today, the local people still venerate the religious monuments built by this early civilization and practice agriculture on the same irrigated fields as their distant forefathers.
It is possible to combine a visit to these cities with a cruise along the Irrawaddy River, famously referred to as the “Road to Mandalay” by British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling. Myanmar is unique in its preservation of a culture and a natural landscape, which has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.
7. Historic Centre of Macao – Macao
Many people associate Macao with gambling and being the “Las Vegas of Asia”, but this strategic port city has a fascinating history and an immense cultural influence on the entire region. Macao was administered by the Portuguese who first settled here in the 1550s. In 1999 it was transferred to Chinese authority, making it the last European colony in Asia.
The historic streets and buildings of old Macao reflect this history of cultural fusion and are reminiscent of the most beautiful port towns in Portugal, with an Asian twist. This unique blend of culture, religion and architecture make it a fascinating testament to the meeting of Eastern and Western civilization.
If you are visiting Hong Kong, it is only a short trip to Macao. Although this is the most densely populated region in the world, the streets in the Historic Centre of Macao are relatively wide and the many plazas make this a charming diversion from the bustling excitement and modernity of Hong Kong.
8. Complex of Hué Monuments – Vietnam
Built under the Nguyen Dynasty in 1802, the citadel of Hué functioned as the political, religious and cultural center of Vietnam until 1945. The Nguyen Dynasty were the last royal dynasty of Vietnam and were known for implementing the spread of Chinese clothing and customs. The structures at Hué are arranged according to cosmological principles of the “Five Cardinal Points”, “Five Elements” and “Five Colours”.
In addition to military and administrative structures, this site contains several beautifully preserved palaces such as the Royal Residence and the Forbidden Purple City. This enclosure was reserved solely for the Emperor, his concubines and eunuchs. The entire complex is interspersed with gardens and moats, which complement the natural beauty of the surroundings.
The city of Hué is bisected by the Perfume River and offers many other attractions to visitors. Among the many monuments, also included in the World Heritage Site, are the Temple of the Roaring Elephant and the Celestial Lady Pagoda.
9. Kinabalu Park – Malaysia
Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Malaysia and overlooks the natural wonder that is Kinabalu Park. This national park contains a diverse range of habitats, from tropical jungle to sub-alpine coniferous forest. It is home to a multitude of animals unique to this area, as well as sun bears and orangutans.
This park is one of the best places to experience the rich biodiversity of Asia, containing species of flora and fauna representative of China, Australia and the Himalayas. A botanical survey found that the region contained an incredible 5000 to 6000 species of plants.
Kinabalu Park is located on the northern tip of Borneo. If you are skilled a mountaineer, it is possible to obtain a rock climbing permit through one of the lodges owned by Sabah Parks. The Sabah Parks conservation organization is responsible for the management of protected areas in Sabah, Malaysia and Borneo.
10. Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements – Laos
This Hindu temple complex in southern Laos was part of the Khmer Empire, which famously built the site at Angkor in present-day Cambodia. Located in the Champasak Province of Laos, the site is over 1000 years old and mostly in ruins. However, it receives relatively few tourists in comparison with Angkor Wat and is therefore more reminiscent of the atmosphere you would expect to have greeted early explorers.
The shrine was originally dedicated to Shiva and contained a lingam which would be ritually bathed. Today, Vat Phou is used as a place of worship by followers of Theravada Buddhism. The intricate carvings of Hindu deities are now attended by images of the Buddha. This synthesis of history and beliefs goes very well with the original purpose of the temple, which symbolized the relationship between humans and nature.
Laos is one of the least visited countries in Southeast Asia, despite its rich history and natural beauty. While visiting Luang Prabang and Vientiane, it is highly advised to make an excursion to Vat Phou in order to experience this great example of a lesser known World Heritage Site.
Do you know any less well-known UNESCO sites in Asia that we missed? Please let us know in the comments.