10 of the best UNESCO sites in Asia

written by Kiki Deere

updated 16.07.2019

From spectacular temples to awe-inspiring natural wonders, the world’s largest continent is home to UNESCO sites aplenty. Its sheer size makes it exceptionally diverse – culturally, ethnically and in terms of its natural environment.

From Russia’s subarctic areas to the equatorial south, Asia is home to unique geographical features, while over millennia thousands of civilisations have left their mark on the peoples and cultures of the continent.

Here are some of Asia’s most impressive UNESCO sites, both natural and man-made.

1. The rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, Philippines

Located in the Cordillera region of Northern Luzon, these spectacular rice terraces were carved into the mountainside over 2000 years ago by the Ifugao people. The stone and mud terraces feature complicated engineering systems that harvest water from the mountaintops.

Knowledge of the rice terraces has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries, and to this day rice deities are placed in the fields to fend off malignant spirits.


© R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock

2. Angkor, Cambodia

One of Southeast Asia’s most important archaeological sites, Angkor Archaeological Park comprises innumerable temples, hydraulic systems and communication routes of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries.

The most notable temple complex of all is Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest religious monument that dates back to the early twelfth century.

Lying deep in the forest of Siem Reap province, it was built with sandstone blocks quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, and transported here by raft along the Siem Reap River.

3. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The emerald green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in north-eastern Vietnam are sprinkled with awe-inspiring limestone formations covered by rainforest.

Legend says that when the country had to fight against invaders a dragon descended to the sea (Ha Long translates as “descending dragon”) and scattered emeralds from its mouth to form a defensive wall. Over thousands of years the wall crumbled and turned into the majestic pillars of different shapes and sizes that we see today.

Comprising 1600 islands and islets, most of which are uninhabited, the karst landforms are characterised by coastal erosional features including grottoes and arches.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam © Pixabay

/ CC0

4. Volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia

On the eastern fringes of Russia lies the Kamchatka Peninsula, home to an exceptionally high density of active volcanoes. Its location between the Pacific Ocean and a sprawling landmass make it rich in wildlife and natural features including a coastline, lakes and rivers that harbour the largest diversity of salmonoid fish in the world.

The fish attract scores of birds including the white tailed eagle, peregrine falcon and the Stellar’s Sea Eagle, while sea otters and brown bears are abundant too.

5. Historic Centre of Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Dating back over 2000 years, the Uzbek city of Bukhara is located on the Silk Road. Once one of the largest cities of Central Asia, its strategic location at the crossroads of trade routes made it a hub for merchants and travellers.

It was long a centre for culture and religious studies, becoming a prosperous and renowned centre of Islamic learning. Among the city’s wonderfully preserved buildings is the Ismail Samanid Mausoleum, a magnificent example of tenth century Muslim architecture.

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6. The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, Japan

The imperial capital of Japan from 794 AD until the nineteenth century, Kyoto was the centre of Japanese culture for a thousand years. Religious and secular architecture flourished between the eighth and seventeenth centuries, while its garden designs influenced countries around the world from the nineteenth century.

The city is characterised by traditional Japanese wooden architecture and beautiful Japanese gardens, and is home to impressive Buddhist temples, grand palaces and state-of-the-art museums.

7. The Great Wall of China

Measuring over 20,000km, the Great Wall was built from the third century BC to the seventeenth century to defend numerous Chinese empires from invaders from the north.

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8. Mountain Railways of India

Opened between 1881 and 1908 during British colonial rule, India’s three mountain railways are testament to the outstanding engineering skills of the time. The construction of the railways linked rural villages and provided access to the plains and plateaus of the Indian mountains, greatly impacting the areas in which they were developed both socially and economically.

Today still fully functional, these timeless machines are as majestic as they were over one hundred years ago, burning energy with explosive rhythmic sounds. You can experience them in Darjeeling, Tamil Nadu's Nilgiri hills and Shimla.

9. Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka

Located in central Sri Lanka, this cave monastery is the island’s largest and best preserved. Its five sanctuaries are nestled under towering rock, and are embellished with statues and religious murals depicting Buddhist scenes. It has been a pilgrimage site since the first century BC.


© saiko3p/Shutterstock

10. The tropical rainforest heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia

Comprising three national parks and covering a total area of over two million hectares, Sumatra’s tropical rainforest harbours a spectacular array of flora and fauna, including 10,000 species of plant, 201 mammal species and over 550 species of bird.

The parks’ awe-inspiring landscape includes caves, tumbling waterfalls, glacial lakes and Indonesia’s highest volcano, while thousands of species such as Sumatran tigers, elephants and Malayan sun bear call the forests their home.

Featured image Pixabay / CC0.

Kiki Deere

written by Kiki Deere

updated 16.07.2019

Raised bilingually in London and Turin, Kiki Deere is a travel writer specialising in Italy. She has seen her work published in a number of magazines and UK broadsheets, including The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Lonely Planet online. She has completed numerous guidebook writing assignments for Rough Guides that have taken her to far-flung corners of the globe, from the Brazilian Amazon to the remotest province of the Philippines. Follow her @kikideere on Instagram and Twitter.

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