The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes sites of historical, geographical, cultural, scientific, or other significance. World Heritage Sites are legally protected under an international convention. They may incorporate ancient ruins, historical buildings, or monuments, lakes, forests, mountains, and wilderness areas.
UNESCO protects sites of outstanding value to humanity, conserving them for future generations. When UNESCO compiled its first list of World Heritage Sites in 1978, the organization named just 12 protected areas:
- The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
- The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
- Mesa Verde National Park, USA
- Quito, Ecuador
- Nahanni Park, Canada
- L’Anse aux Meadows, Canada
- Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
- Krakow, Poland
- Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland
- Aachen Cathedral, Germany
- Yellowstone National Park, USA
- Island of Goree, Senegal
Although no Asian sites made the original list, today there are 41 World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia alone. In this article, we explore four of the most culturally, naturally, and historically significant sites on the Asian continent.
1. The Forbidden City – China
Cited as a priceless testimony to Chinese civilization, the Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial seat of power for over five centuries. Occupying 720,000 square meters, the Forbidden City is three times larger than the Louvre in France and required an estimated 1 million laborers to complete.
The Forbidden City comprises 980 buildings and more than 8,700 rooms. This masterpiece of Chinese architecture is the world’s largest collection of intact medieval wooden structures, with some buildings dating back to 1406. At the time, no one could enter or leave this walled city without permission from the emperor. Still, 40 percent of the complex remains off-limits to visitors today.
Home to 24 Chinese emperors over the years, the Forbidden City was the stronghold of both the Qing and Ming dynasties until the abdication of China’s last emperor in 1912, when the country became the Republic of China.
2. The Tropical Rainforest of Sumatra – Indonesia
Covering 2.5 million hectares and three national parks, Sumatra’s tropical rainforest harbors a spectacular selection of plant and animal life, including more than 200 mammal species, 580 bird species, and over 10,000 plant species. Rare and important species found in the UNESCO World Heritage Site include the Sumatran elephant, rhino, tiger, orangutan, and the Malayan sun bear.
Once populous throughout Southeast Asia, with numbers estimated to be in their hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, orangutan populations dwindle today, with only a few thousand believed to remain in the wild. Indonesia’s rainforests are some of the most biodiverse on Earth, encompassing the third-largest area of rainforest on Earth after the Congo Basin and Amazon.
Located on the main spine of the Bukit Barisan Mountains, a region known as the Sumatran Andes, the area affords breathtaking views across the surrounding jungle. The Tropical Rainforest Heritage site is home to Lake Gunung Tujuh, Southeast Asia’s highest lake, along with numerous other glacial high-altitude lakes, waterfalls, volcanoes, and cave systems.
3. Ha Long Bay – Vietnam
Located in Northeastern Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin’s emerald-green waters are dotted with gargantuan jagged outcrops of rock, each shrouded in lush rainforest. Comprising 1,600 islands, most of which are uninhabitable, these vast limestone formations are famous for their enchanting erosional features, incorporating mighty arches and mystical grottoes.
Ha Long, which in Vietnamese means “descending dragon,” was once home to a fearsome dragon, according to legend. The awe-inspiring creature was said to defend Vietnam from invaders by scattering emeralds from its mouth, forming an impenetrable wall. Over thousands of years, the wall crumbled, resulting in the majestic karst pillars we see today, or so the myth goes.
4. Angkor Wat – Cambodia
Covering 1.6 square kilometers, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument on Earth. It achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1992, sparking an international effort to save the ancient temple complex.
Featured on the Cambodian national flag since 1850, Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Toward the end of the 12th century, it gradually evolved to become a Buddhist temple. The site is revered by both Buddhist and Hindu devotees to this day.
The monument is comprised of 5 million tons of sandstone blocks quarried from Phnom Kulen, a mountain located more than 50 kilometers away. The construction materials used to build Angkor Wat are believed to have been floated on rafts down the Siem Reap River, an impressive logistical feat given that Angkor Wat dates back more than 800 years.
Construction of the site is believed to have commenced during the reign of Suryavarman II, and according to inscriptions at the site, it took 6,000 elephants, 300,000 laborers, and 35 years to complete.
Thousands of storytelling bas-reliefs still decorate Angkor Wat’s temple walls, representing deities and important figures from the Buddhist and Hindu faiths as well as historical events and traditions.