Top 10 UNESCO sites in Southeast Asia

Top 10 UNESCO sites in Southeast Asia
January 23 08:28 2020

Once a property is declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, it becomes greatly valued as a place that has brought significant impact to humanity. The sites can be structures, cities, jungles, lakes or a land simply deemed culturally and naturally important to the world. Southeast Asia teems with UNESCO sites! Currently, there are dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites across the 11-nation area.

The region is considered one of the most inherently and traditionally diverse areas in the world. From mosques, temples to cathedrals, the elaborate places of worship are as varied as the natural vicinities heavily relied on by locals for food and survival, such as ports, rivers and reefs. These ritually rich places of interest are exactly what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) seeks to protect and preserve.

Here is a selection of the 10 most spectacular UNESCO World Heritage sites found in Southeast Asia today, some of which receive very few tourists.


USESCO site: Pyu Ancient Cities

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Pyu Ancient Cities

Dating back almost 2,000 years ago, the Pyu ancient cities of Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra around the confluence of the Irrawaddy River provide the earliest testimony of the introduction of Buddhism into Southeast Asia. They reflect the Pyu Kingdoms that flourished for over 1,000 years between 200 BC and AD 900 in Upper Burma. Various remains of the cities include excavated palace citadels, burial grounds and manufacture sites, as well as monumental brick Buddhist stupas, partly standing walls and some water management features that are still in use today, all exhibiting a rich and organized Buddhist agricultural system.


USESCO site: Temple of Preah Vihear

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Temple of Preah Vihear – by Austin King

A lesser known Angkorian temple is the 9th century Preah Vihear temple, which sits a mere 100-metre away from the border of Thailand and Cambodia. Nicknamed ‘Temple on a Cliff’, it was inscribed a heritage site in 2008 but due to its remoteness as well as being the focus of border conflict, only a few tourists have descended on these series of sanctuaries dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The high land around Preah Vihear has recently been declared Cambodia’s and although hostility ensued for a while, the site is now considered safe to visit. The far-flung location has also helped to preserve the temple complex, which features exceptional carved stone decoration still in relatively good conditions.


USESCO site: Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape

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Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape – by Wikimedia Commons

Another planned landscape connected to the reign of the Khmer Empire is Laos’ Champasak cultural landscape, developed between the 5th and 15th century. The over 1,000-year-old property houses the Vat Phou Temple complex, which was formed to express the Hindu vision of harmony between man and land.

Vat Phou exhibits this remarkable expression of intense religious conviction and commitment by using an axis from a mountain top to the river bank in order to lay out the stunning settlement. The result is a geometrical pattern of structures and waterworks, offering the perfect terrain for shutterbugs obsessed with photo-symmetry.

The best part? Laos is one of the least visited countries in Asia and still away from the masses of tourists visiting neighbouring Cambodia or Thailand. It is also a great and safe place to travel solo, especially Luang Prabang.


USESCO site: Baroque Churches of the Philippines

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Baroque Churches of the Philippines – by Shubert Ciencia

The four significant baroque Roman Catholic churches were constructed by Chinese and Philippine craftsmen under the Spanish rule between the 16th and 18th century. They are located in separate areas of the Philippine archipelago and collectively establish a building style that was adapted to the physical conditions in the country and had an important influence on later church architecture in the region.


USESCO site: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park

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Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park – by Q Phia

In the centre of the Sulu Sea, about 50 km southeast of the Philippines’ Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, lies one of Southeast Asia’s most pristine atoll reefs, hosting a great diversity of marine life. From whales to sharks, dolphins to Napoleon wrasse, there are almost 500 species of fish found here. The reef ecosystems, considered one of Philippines’ oldest, also encompass 350 species of coral thriving around two islands, lagoons and an impressive 100-metre perpendicular wall. Trips to Tubbataha are only attempted from mid-March to mid-June and are all via boat, with journeys taking up to 12 hours from Palawan. In fact, its remote distance is good for conservation and draws many environmentally-conscious travelers, mostly divers who are aware of their responsibility to protect the reefs for future generations.


USESCO site: Hoi An Ancient Town

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Hoi An Ancient Town – by J Durok

Located in the middle of Vietnam, the international commercial port of Hoi An was in full swing in the 15th up till the 19th century.

Traders from all over the world used to flock the streets, leaving behind a characteristic town, containing 1,107 timber frame buildings with brick or wooden walls. The surviving domestic and commercial structures, such as an open market, ferry quay and pagodas, present a traditional townscape sans modern materials like concrete or corrugated iron.

As the city declined in importance suddenly, the structures were left almost as-is and preserved until today making Hoi An an amazing place to visit standing still in time.

You will need a few days there to explore the town and surroundings as well as take day trips to nearby UNESCO sites. Here is a great guide to where to stay in Hoi An to help your research.


USESCO site: Trang An Landscape Complex

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Trang An Landscape Complex – by Tuấn Mai

Flat cultivated deltas and valleys of the Red River meet sudden swells of karst limestone peaks. That is the standard setting of the Trang An Landscape Complex in Vietnam. Past explorers who digged deeper and scoured the many caves in the area also found archaeological traces of human activity dating back to more than 30,000 years, providing significant information on the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

We visited some of Vietnam’s UNESCO sites ourselves, check them out in our itinerary!


USESCO site: Gunung Mulu National Park

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Gunung Mulu National Park – by Paul White

The most studied tropical karst area in the world is the Gunung Mulu National Park, located in Malaysia’s state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Its caves are the result of the dissolution of rocks in humid climate, including the Sarawak Chamber, which is the largest known cave chamber in the world. However, the park is mostly distinguished by the sandstone pinnacle of Gunung Mulu, rising at 2,377 metres above sea level.


USESCO site: Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra

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Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra – by Luke Mackin

The three national parks that make up this heritage site are home to the distinctive biodiversity of Sumatra, including endemic species. Gunung Leuser National Park is where many will find the world’s largest flower as well the Thomas-Leaf monkey while the collective three heritage areas, including Kerinci Seblat National Park and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, present outstanding scenic landscapes, with mountain backdrops, developed lowlands and numerous waterfalls.


USESCO site: Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries

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Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries – by Tontantravel

Large mammals like elephants, tigers and bulls roam the Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries, situated along Thailand’s border with Myanmar. Relatively intact, the vast sanctuaries also contain almost all of Southeast Asia’s mosaic of forest types, with sweeping spectacles of colours, forms, and foliage. Habitats and biological features include limestone habitats, mineral-licks, wetlands, and sinkholes.

We had a great time in Thailand- during a road trip in Phuket!

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Featured image by Luke Mackin

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Singapore n Beyond
Singapore n Beyond

Sharing getaway and itinerary ideas in Asia and insider knowledge of Singapore

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