From The Straits Times    |

There are 33 Unesco World Heritage Sites in South-east Asia. Indonesia leads the pack with eight, followed by Vietnam with seven and Thailand and the Philippines with five each.

Singapore is making a bid to join them. The Republic has sent its initial application to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or Unesco, for the 154-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens to be considered. A Unesco World Heritage Site is one considered to have outstanding cultural or natural heritage value.

Asia's Unesco treasures: 5 world heritage sites to visit
The ruins of the historic city of Ayutthaya in Thailand. PHOTO: TOURISM THAILAND

Travel agencies here say Unesco sites are often a big draw for travellers.

CTC Travel’s senior vice-president of marketing and public relations, Ms Alicia Seah, 49, says: “Whether it is cultural or natural, these sites are usually the ‘must-see’ and ‘must-visit’ places in the world. So it makes the destination more attractive.”

Chan Brothers’ marketing and communications manager, Ms Jane Chang, 30, says: “Unesco World Heritage Sites are places of outstanding universal value, so the accreditation is extremely significant.”

Here’s a look at five such heritage sites in Asia.


Asia's Unesco treasures: 5 world heritage sites to visitListed as a World Heritage Site in 2000, Gunung Mulu National Park is located in the heart of the island of Borneo in Sarawak, near the city of Miri.

It occupies about 53,000ha and is known for its high biodiversity and karst features, or geological formations shaped by layers of soluble bedrock that erode over the years.

The park is dominated by Gunung Mulu, a 2,377m-high sandstone pinnacle, and has at least 295km of explored caves.

The park also contains many tropical river caves and speleothems, or structures formed by the deposit of minerals.

One of its most famous features is the Sarawak Chamber, the largest cave chamber in the world at 600m in length and 80m in height. It also contains about 12m cu m of water.

A spokesman for the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, which manages the park, says it receives about 20,000 visitors every year.

Among the top attractions: tours of the many caves and the 50m-high limestone spikes called the Pinnacles.

Take note that access to many areas of the park is not permitted without a guide. All visitors to caves within the park will also need a guide.

Getting there: You can fly to Gunung Mulu from Kota Kinabalu or Kuching, which takes between one and 11/2 hours. A flight from Singapore to either of these cities takes between 11/2 and 21/2 hours.

Admission: A five-day pass for foreigners costs RM30 (S$12).



The Baroque Churches are a series of four Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines built by the Spanish colonialists, starting in the late 16th century.

Located in Manila, their architectural style is considered unique, being a reinterpretation of European Baroque by Chinese and Philippine craftsmen. They were inscribed as Unesco World Heritage Sites in 1993.

Asia's Unesco treasures: 5 world heritage sites to visit Asia's Unesco treasures: 5 world heritage sites to visit
The Unesco accredited Baroque churches in the Philippines.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin Church stands in the historic walled city of Intramuros in Manila.

Santa Maria Church is located in Santa Maria in the province of Ilocos Sur, while San Augustin Church can be found in Paoay in the Ilocos Norte province.

The final structure, the Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva (above) is located in Miag-ao, in the province of Iloilo.

Mr Charles Leong, a marketing director with the Philippine Department of Tourism, says: “For Catholic visitors, the appeal of visiting the churches lies in seeing their variety in terms of size and locations and understanding the history of the Spanish colonialist period, when these expressions of the wealth and power of the Catholic religion were implanted there.”

Getting there: Cebu Pacific Air flies directly to Iloilo and Manila from Singapore. Both Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte are an hour’s flight from Manila.

Admission: Free



Dating back to the 11th century, Preah Vihear is a unique temple complex that spans an 800m-long axis.

Asia's Unesco treasures: 5 world heritage sites to visitLocated in a remote area east of the Dongrek Mountains in Preah Vihear province, it sits on the edge of a giant cliff more than 600m above sea level.

Its remote location has also meant that its ornate stone carvings are well preserved.

It was the Angkor king YasovarmanI who began the construction of Preah Vihear in the early 9th century.

Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, it was completed only in the middle of the 12th century. It has four levels and four courtyards.

Preah Vihear was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. But it has also been the subject of a lengthy territorial dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

Though the temple was awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962, the ongoing dispute has sometimes resulted in periodic outbreaks of violence as recently as in 2011.

It was reported by Xinhua news agency that Preah Vihear welcomed almost 100,000 visitors last year as military tensions between the two countries eased.

Getting there: The temple can be reached by crossing the Cambodia-Thai gateway border from Ubon Ratchantani in Thailand. A 65-minute flight from Bangkok on Thai Airways will take you direct to Ubon.

Admission: The entrance fee is US$5



Founded in 1350 by Ayutthaya’s first king, U Thong, it grew to become a centre of global diplomacy and commerce. For more than four centuries, it flourished, becoming known for its distinctive prangs (towers) and monasteries. Once upon a time, the historic city of Ayutthaya was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom. Located 76km north of the Thai capital Bangkok, it covers an area of 289ha.

Asia's Unesco treasures: 5 world heritage sites to visitFor a time, it was the trading capital of Asia and even became one of the largest cities in the world with a population of one million.

Attacked and destroyed by the Burmese army in 1767, the ruins of the city were declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1981. Many temples (right) and palaces still remain.

Highlights of the site include Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest temple in Ayutthaya, and Wat Phra Mahathat, a large temple with rows of headless Buddhas and a tree that has grown around a Buddha head.

Financial consultant Molly Yong, 25, has been to three Unesco sites so far: Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Ayutthaya. She visited the Thai site in 2011 and came away highly impressed. She says: “It really surprised me as I didn’t know there was such a place in Bangkok. It’s really grand and beautiful.” Getting there: There are hourly trains from Bangkok Railway Station to Ayutthaya, as well as half hourly buses from the Northern bus terminal on Phaholyothin Road.

Admission: Most of the temples in Ayutthaya do not charge for admission, but some cost 50 baht (S$2.10) to enter.



Located in the Nusa Tenggara region of Indonesia, the Komodo National Park covers an area of more than 1,800 sq km. Established in 1980, it consists of three major islands – Komodo, Rinca and Padar – as well as numerous smaller islands.

Asia's Unesco treasures: 5 world heritage sites to visitAn unspoilt, remote area, the park, as its name suggests, is famous as the home of the Komodo dragon. It is the only place in the world where the creatures, the largest living species of lizards, are found. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1986.

The park also has a rich marine life and other wildlife species such as the Timor deer and fruit bats.

Diving and snorkelling are popular activities on Komodo Island, which also boasts the famed Pink Beach, one of only a handful of beaches in the world with pink sand.

Dr Teresa Wong, 27, took a day trip to the park with a group of friends last year and says its Unesco status was a big part of the draw for them.

“The best part was being so close to the Komodo dragons. It was thrilling because they can be dangerous. It was an eye-opening experience,” says Dr Wong, whose group was accompanied by two rangers.

Her friend, Dr Shanty Ongkowidjojo, 29, says: “The Komodo dragons roam freely in their natural habitat. They were sometimes as close as a few metres away. We even saw a pair of them fighting.”

Getting there: Labuan Bajo in West Flores is the main starting point to explore the park. Regular flights operate from Bali to Labuan Bajo and take slightly more than an hour. The travel time from Labuan Bajo to Komodo Island is four hours by boat and two hours to Rinca Island. A flight from Singapore to Bali takes about 21/2 hours.

Admission: The price of admission starts from 50,000 rupiah (S$6.50) for the entrance fee and a 20,000 rupiah conservation fee. Bringing in a camera will set you back by another 50,000 rupiah, while the service of a guide costs the same amount.

Do note that it is neither permitted nor advisable to explore the park without a guide.



For the full list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, go to

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on April 7, 2013. For similar stories, go to You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.