Asia’s Top 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Writer Catharine Nicol | Published November 3, 2014

Earth is an extraordinary place. While we shouldn’t need reminding of this, it is all too easy to get caught up in our own distracting, routine, small worlds. But there is so much extraordinary beauty and wonder to be explored. UNESCO counts 1,007 places of outstanding beauty and culture, 231 in Asia, where the visual fireworks of Mother Nature and the breathtaking genius of human beings serve as galvanising reminders. Travel. Be inspired. Pay it forward.

  • Borobudur, Java, Indonesia

    Most people bus in from Yogyakarta for a day trip to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. However, stay in the surrounding sweet, sleepy village for a night or two and you’ll get to experience the magic of Borobudur at sunrise, sunset and from a distance. The Buddhist temple was built in the ninth century, and is estimated to have taken 75 years to construct. It clocks up impressive statistics: at its base six square platforms support 504 Buddha statues, higher up three circular platforms around the central main dome are home to 72 seated, stupa-sheltered Buddhas, and the whole is decorated with 2,672 panel reliefs. Depicting the indigenous cult of ancestor worship and the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana, the three symbolic levels take pilgrims through Kamadhatu, the world of desire, through Rupadhatu, the world of forms, to Arupadhatu, the world of formlessness (aka nirvana).

    You’ll experience a kind of nirvana on earth if you stay at Amanjiwo. Book an early morning elephant safari for a picnic breakfast with a temple view or their paddy field sunset martinis watching the sun go down behind the stupas.

  • Ayutthaya, Thailand

    This 1350-founded city’s history began as an escape from smallpox, while more recently its temples played background to a different kind of death and destruction in the 90s series of martial arts movies Mortal Kombat. Back in the 14th century, King U Thong found sanctuary in Ayutthaya as he fled disease in Lop Buri. Following his decree that it should take over as Siam’s second capital, by 1700 it was estimated to be one of the world’s largest cities with approximately a million inhabitants. As a centre of diplomacy and commerce, it attracted international merchants and was full of architecture and art influenced by Asia and Europe. The city between three rivers was known as the ‘Venice of the East’, and was ruled by 35 kings in its time before it was destroyed by the Burmese army in 1767. Wat Ratchaburana is considered one of the most significant Buddhist temples. The central dome or prang has been restored and is a fine example of stucco work; while you’re inside, don’t miss the beautifully faded frescoes.

    While the Wat is ancient, a newcomer to Ayutthaya is the sleek and luxurious Sala Ayutthaya, where pool suites and the river restaurant overlook the water and pagodas dot the opposite banks.

  • Jeju, Korea

    A popular honeymoon island renowned for holidaymakers wearing his-and-hers outfits, Jeju is also home to some spectacular nature. Its volcanic past has created a lava tube cave system that is seen as the most impressive of its kind. Manjanggul Cave, for example, is one of the largest in the world and was formed 2-300,000 years ago. More than cathedral-big, its walls and ceilings are decorated with stalactites and mites, and while the walkway only takes you one km in past the largest known lava column in the world, the network of tunnels stretches for more than 13. A word of caution – you’ll be sharing the echoing space with over 30,000 bats and the Jeju cave spider. There’s also the beautiful Seongsan Ilchulbong, also known as Sunrise Peak, the 5,000-year-old volcano with a beautiful bowl crater. It’s a challenging climb up, but well worth it for views over the ocean.

    Stay at the Shilla Jeju where their own private beach also fills the lungs with sea air, and activities include hiking the island’s coastline and glamping.

  • Jantar Mantar, Delhi, India

    Created to calibrate the movement of celestial bodies like the sun, moon and other planets, from here on earth, Jantar Mantar is old world astronomy in surreally ginormous form. Created by Maharaja Jai Singh II in the early 1700s as requested by Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, the ‘Temple of Instruments’ resembles a playground, but for light and time. It is said that Jantar Mantar, along with similar observatories Singh created in Ujjain, Varanasi and Mathura, was built to this scale as he found existing instruments too small to be accurate. Among other structures here, there is the time-telling sundial of Samrat Yantra, the hemisphere of Yauaprakash Yantra for aligning the position of a star, and the Misra Yantra, which among other things determines the longest and shortest days of the year.

    Close by, The Imperial is one of Delhi’s most luxurious and cultural hotels, and besides celebrity chef Veena Arora’s The Spice Route restaurant and a spectacular spa, the hotel offers guided tours to Jantar Mantar, explaining the sophisticated site in scintillating detail.

  • Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

    The heady energy of Kathmandu and the bustling sites of Durbar Square in the city are beautifully balanced by a trip out to Boudhanath Stupa. The site of rest and prayer has long attracted Tibetan merchants travelling the ancient trade route to the Kathmandu Valley, and a city of monasteries has sprung up around it. The exact date of construction remains under debate, but whenever it started its life, it’s still the most important place of pilgrimage for local Buddhists, who chant and pray as they circumnavigate the site, the symbolism denoted by the 13 rings from the base to the pinnacle representing the path to enlightenment.

    Admire the stupa from your Hyatt Regency Kathmandu hotel room or The Terrace restaurant, then take the shortcut through the hotel’s back gate to experience your own journey towards enlightenment.

  • Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, China

    Described by Pico Iyer as “some of the most intense spiritual monuments in the world”, the residence of the Dalai Lamas and the seventh-century temple are the ultimate Buddhist double act. Between 1653 and 1889, the 13-storey Potala Palace was allegedly the tallest building in the world, and it still retains the title of the highest, with foundations that start 3,700 metres above sea level. Together they mark the end of a journey of hundreds of miles via prostration for some, while at the same time they offer the potential for a new life journey for all. The stillness of the Potala Palace and its many murals creates a marked contrast with the life and soul of the Jokhang Temple, where the dimly flickering yak-butter candles, the turning of prayer wheels and the buzz of prayer enhance the tangible presence of spirit. It is here that time spent in mindful stillness feels extraordinary, emotionally profound, life changing, important, all about the now and yet somehow timeless.

    Stay with a view of the Potala Palace and the Himalayas at the Shangri-La Hotel, Lhasa, where you can come to terms with the altitude at the Oxygen Lounge. Allow your body to relax with reflexology or a massage at Chi, The Spa and acclimatise your mind with a copy of Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

  • Angkor Archeological Park, Siem Reap, Cambodia

    It’s not exactly a secret destination, even if Angelina made it look like you’d get Ta Prohm to yourself bar a ghost or two in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. But despite the inevitable crowds, the 400-sq-km Angkor Archaeological Park is still extraordinary; a fascinating testament to an exceptional civilisation in the past and a spiritually humbling experience in the present. The foundations of the Khmer Empire were laid by Jayavarman II in the ninth century, but it was his son Yashovarman who established the ordered, artistic and symbolic capital of the Khmer Kingdom. The ‘City of Temples’ includes the famous three-domed Temple of Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei and the romantically ruined Ta Prohm. In the 13th century, the complex became Buddhist and the Bayon was dedicated to Buddha. There are, of course, many more buildings and temples, with those that take you far from Angkor Wat itself, allowing for more peace and contemplation.

    One modern way to experience the complex is to sign up for the bi-annual marathons or half marathons that take you past the temples. Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor’s Marathon and You package includes two nights‘ stay, plus a carb-loading dinner the night before and a recovery reflexology foot massage after.

  • Kyoto, Japan

    The capital of architecture and garden landscape design from the eighth to the 17th centuries, Kyoto played a very central part in the making of modern Japan. Kyoto’s narrow canals and alleyways, picture-perfect teashops and central food market make the historic geisha town a big tourist pull. Add 17 UNESCO sites, one of which is the Zen Buddhist Temple of the Golden Pavilion with its ornate Muromachi style gardens of precisely placed rocks, bridges and plants. The Kinkaku-ji villa, named after the gold leaf that adorns the top two storeys, originally belonged to a statesman before and was expanded into a larger complex, then converted into a temple. Fire gutted all the buildings so the remaining structure only dates back to 1955. The three floors depict the three styles of Shinden, Samurai and Zen architecture and reflect beautifully in Kyoko-chi (the Mirror Pond).

    Stay at the riverside Hoshinoya Kyoto, a mix of traditional ryokan with modern design, reached only by private boat. It boasts 25 rooms, all offering panoramic views of river life including locals fishing with cormorants.

  • Wulingyuan, China

    Simultaneously the very embodiment of a traditional Chinese watercolour and the influence for the futuristic floating islands in Avatar, Wulingyuan National Forest’s quartz-sandstone spires were formed by a unique combination of glacial and environmental erosion, quakes and tectonic shifts. Hike or gondola up and absorb the constantly changing natural poetry of the surrounding mist.Explore the emerging craggy spires via walkways, steps and bridges that create a sky world that’s over 1,000 ft above the ravines and gorges far below, where lush greenery is carved by streams and waterfalls, pools and caves.

    You can stay overnight in park guest houses, which is a great way to have the mesmerising views to yourself after regular tourist hours. Alternatively, return to the resort luxury of the Pullman Zhangjiajie. Here you can learn how to cook local food by watching the chefs at Open Kitchen and then let your step-weary legs relax in the spa’s hammam or with a massage before heading to bed to dream of misty mountains.

  • Bagan, Myanmar

    Feast your eyes on a forest of temples at Myanmar’s most loved and revered destination Bagan, the ancient capital of the Burmese empire. Its haunting beauty, incredible space and over 4,000 pagodas and temples have been placed on the tentative list to be potentially nominated to become the next UNESCO site, making it an unmissable experience. While Myanmar is opening up and getting tourist-busier day by day, here it is still very possible to cycle out to a pagoda, find a place to sit and absorb the incredible energy of the area. For company, sunset at Shwezigon Pagoda draws visitors each evening to the 11th-century gold leaf-gilded stupa standing out against the darkening blue sky. Another favourite is 12th-century Ananda Temple, nicknamed the ‘Westminster Abbey of Burma’, which shows strong leanings towards Indian architecture and is also home to four gold-leafed Buddhas.

    Very close by is the colonial sanctuary that is The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate, where a tea leaf salad lunch under whirring ceiling fans on the terrace or a dip in the pool is the best way to recharge for more temple hopping. Here you can book a crack-of-dawn balloon ride to see Bagan at its most magical.