As the largest continent and most populated region in the world, it should be no surprise why there are so many remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia. From stunning temples to natural wonders and a history that traces far back into ancient times, picking UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia to visit can be tricky. Only because there are so many to choose from! Here are our top picks. Which ones have you seen already? And which ones are on your bucket list?
1. Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, Philippines
Never thought there would be rice terraces more impressive than the ones in Bali? Built over two millennia ago by the Ifugao people, the rice terraces of the Cordilleras were carefully hand carved into the mountainside and feature complicated engineering systems that harvest water from the mountaintops. Knowledge of care, maintenance and agricultural methods have been passed down from generation to generation. However, it is also one UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia to be inscribed in the List of World Heritage in Danger. This was due to threats caused by deforestation and climate change. Additionally, many younger Ifugaos choose to move to the capital for work instead of following the farming tradition. Thankfully, efforts were put in to restore the area, and the site was removed from the endangered list in 2012.
2. Mogao Caves, China
Also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Mogao Caves form a system of 500 temples, all painstakingly hand carved. Historically, wealthy officials and traders were the main sponsors of the carvings. They did so as a way to gain good karma and pray for a safe journey ahead through the treacherous lands of the west. Along with the world’s oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, Mogao Caves also contain the world’s largest collection and evolution of Buddhist art. In order to reduce the impact of mass tourism, only 20 of the caves are open to the public and 6,000 visitors are allowed each day. Photography is also prohibited, thus the only way to get a glimpse of its majestic wonder is to visit this UNESCO site in person!
3. Hill forts of Rajasthan, India
India has the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia, and the hill forts of Rajasthan are not just one, or two, but six different UNESCO sites. These forts, some up to 20 kilometres in circumference, are witnesses to the power of the Rajput princely states during the 8th to 18th centuries. Within their defensive walls are major urban centres, palaces, temples and other buildings, where an elaborate courtly culture developed that supported learning of the arts. Some of the urban centres, temples and sacred buildings within the fortifications have survived, and the extensive water harvesting structures are also still in use today.
4. Itsukushima Shrine, Japan
Itsukushima Shrine is known for its dramatic torii gates that look like it’s floating in the water during high tide. It has become so iconic, it is nearly synonymous with Japan, or at least Shinto. The shrine is dedicated to three Shinto goddesses of seas and storms, and it almost looks like a luxury beach villa for the goddesses that ‘live’ there. The dozens of different halls, stages and buildings are designed to merge with the surrounding nature. The tides bring water into the shrine and out again, creating a natural flow between the landscape and the structure. Every piece of the shrine’s architecture has meaning to it, from symbolic lacquer paint to unique lanterns, mirror ponds, winding halls for funerary practices, and curving surfaces that plays on the natural surroundings.
5. Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak
Gunung Mulu National Park is famous for its limestone karst formations and some of the most spectacular caves on earth. The Sarawak Chamber is the world’s largest cave system, and the park is also home to brilliant old-growth tropical rainforest and deep gorges with crystal clear waters. There are few national parks in the world that’s filled with so many natural wonders in such a small area and it is a site that meets all four of the World Heritage natural criteria. Most visitors come here for the caves, but there are also good jungle and mountain trekking options. You have to get a guide for all cave visits and most treks.