UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia
If you travel to Kathmandu, a visit to one of Nepal's ancient kingdoms, Bhaktapur, located 30-45 minutes from the capital, is worth a visit. Bhaktapur is on the World Heritage list, and no cars or buses are allowed inside the gated neighbourhood. There are beautiful ancient monuments, temples and snake pools, and if you move away from the touristy Durbar Square and stroll down the small winding streets, you will experience a completely different and amazing world. Here, you will find local people performing their daily chores, goats on porches, lots of small traders, beautifully decorated doors and fantastic colourful food markets.
Sagarmatha National Park is on the Natural World Heritage List and covers an area of approximately 1150 kmÂ² in the Himalayan mountains. The park's mountains have heights ranging from 2800 to 8840 m (Mount Everest peak), and it is this area you trek through if, for example, you go to Mount Everest Base Camp. You get nothing less than a breathtaking moment when, after many hours of hard trekking - typically from the town of Namche Bazaar, you spot the first sight of the Everest mountain range and Mount Everest itself. The best time to trek in this area is in October, when you will have the best chances of fine weather and sunshine.
This extraordinary underground river is part of a 25 km long cave system, whereof 8.2 km is a river. To add to its uniqueness, the river also outflows directly into the sea. You can only visit on a tour and those will "only" venture 3 km into the river. But it's truly spectacular to be paddled through the darkness with only the boatman's headlamp to point out rock formations, stalactites, stalagmites and bat colonies. The Underground River, which official name is Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, is not just an UNESCO World Heritage Site, but was also voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. The tours are well organised, but by doing it from Sabang, and not Puerto Princesa or El Nido, you can be one of the first in the cave.
At the summit of this mountain peak is a rock with a huge "footprint" in it. The legend goes that it was Adam's when he was kicked out of heaven. Others believe it belongs to Buddha or Shiva, but in any case it's a major sacred site that many, old and young, visit at least once in their lifetime. It's a 7 km (normally about 3-4 hours) ascent on stairs with several fellow pilgrims. Many choose to do it at night, so they can experience the famous sunrise from the summit. Though the sunrise is nice and anticipated after a very cold night, the shadow the mountain casts in the early morning light is even more spectacular and so is the view over a good chunk of Sri Lanka. It's a magnificent experience, especially on Poya (holy) days, where the number of pilgrims can exceed 20,000 and extend the journey by several hours.
Over the flat plain of central Sri Lanka rises a small hill of rock. Since the 1st century BC it has been used as a Buddhist cave temple, with more than 80 smaller and bigger caves. There are five main caves, all dimly lit with ancient Buddha statues and precious wall paintings, along with the usual religious mismatch of statues of Hindu gods and old kings. The Buddhist monastery, which is believed to be from the 2nd or 3rd century BC, is still functioning to this day and local visitors still use the caves to pray. By being such an impressive historical place, Dambulla Cave Temple was of course declared an UNESCO site. As a bonus, you have a magnificent view from the top and Sigiriya Rock can even been spotted in the distance, 19 km away.
Galle, which is pronounced "Gawl", is an old trading town 120 km south of Colombo. Its history goes way back, but the boom time was under the Dutch colonial period in the 17th and 18th century. Built on an island stands the impressive Galle Fort. It was built by the Dutch in the 17th century upon an old Portuguese fortress. The fort is actually a walled city with narrow streets, beautiful restored houses, churches, temples and even a mosque for the later arrived Muslim traders. The iconic lighthouse is a bit newer, namely from the British colonial time in early 20th century. Though Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is still inhabited by ordinary people, probably some with colonial ancestors, and some of the beautiful houses have been turned into classy boutique hotels, swanky cafes and art shops for the few tourists. The wide encircling wall is a favourite place for snogging among young couples.
Besides being a huge rock on a flat plateau, it's also the place for the ruins of the spectacular Lion Fortress built on the summit by King Kasyapa in the end of fifth century. After the fall of the kingdom, the rock fortress turned into a Buddhist monastery and was later totally forgotten until rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century. Halfway up, there are some 1500-year-old rare rock paintings showing a couple of fairly sexy ladies. Maybe it was more a penthouse than a fortress for king Kasyapa...
Sri Lanka has pretty much everything: beaches, temples, colourful culture, friendly people, misty tea plantations, colonial towns, civil war, wild life, and jungle. Sinharaja belongs to the last category and is a hilly virgin rainforest hosting an impressive range of endemic species, including most of Sri Lanka's bird species, butterflies, insects, and reptiles. Though a paradise for tree huggers and birdwatchers, the bigger wildlife is close to impossible to encounter, for the jungle is simply too dense. There are mountain ridges that rise above the tree tops and give magnificent views over the whole jungle. Be prepared for muddy trails and leeches.
Ayuthaya was the crown jewel and powerhouse of ancient Southeast Asia. It was the majestic capital of Siam (name of ancient Thailand) and a major trading centre for the whole Asian region. Its size and splendour were unmatched at the time. Unfortunately, this made the neighbouring Burmese envious, so in 1767 they raided the city, smashed it to pieces and burned the rest. This means of course that today the only surviving structures from the glory days are the ones that were made of bricks, like monasteries and towers. But there are still heaps to see and it is still darn splendid. And all this is just a tranquil day trip from buzzing Bangkok.
The origins of Merv are prehistoric, possibly as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. Leaders came and went but Merv kept growing. There's even a claim to fame that it was the largest city in the world in the 12th century. Today, little remains. Essentially, there are several small walled cities that became amalgamated into one. The few ruins are rather scattered and a car is almost a necessity for a visit. For the few that actually make it to the areas, a visit is well worth it. Rarely does one have the opportunity to roam around a UNESCO world heritage site with quite literally nobody else around (it is Turkmenistan after all).