A continent steeped in history and rich in culture, Asia is home to more than 100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Having visited dozens of them during my years living in Asia, I’ve found some of the little-known UNESCO sites were generously underrated while several much higher-profile sites were seriously overrated.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Mumbai, India)
The worst UNESCO site I’ve ever visited. It’s just a train station.
Yes it looks quite nice from the outside thanks to its Victorian Gothic Revival architecture but inside it is ugly, messy and heaving with commuters.
A far more magical UNESCO site in India is the extraordinary Ajanta Caves, a huge complex of hand-decorated Buddhist caves dating back more than 2000 years.
Hwaseong Fortress (Suwon, South Korea)
The remains of this former imperial site are quite extensive but also far less impressive than you can find in myriad other locations across South Korea, Japan and China.
Don’t take a daytrip from Seoul to Suwon, where Hwaseong Fortess is located, just stay put and visit Seoul’s true UNESCO marvel Changdeokgung Palace.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Hiroshima, Japan)
The devastation caused in Hiroshima in 1945 by the dropping of the first atomic bomb is gut wrenching, and this memorial was one of few structures that survived.
The question, as with Poland’s infamous nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, is whether you can handle the disturbing history you’ll be confronted by at this site.
I found my visit an extremely unnerving and unpleasant experience which I could have done without.
Kyoto’s UNESCO-listed historic monuments, scattered across this gorgeous Honshu city.
Historic centre of Macau (Macau)
Packed to the brim with noisy tour groups, and with key selling points of soulless casinos and a cluster of mostly uninspired Portuguese architecture.
Actually going to Portugal, or to Las Vegas, or better still to one of mainland China’s incredible cities such as Beijing, Hangzhou or Shanghai.
Halong Bay (Vietnam)
Halong Bay is undeniably beautiful but it’s also crowded, marred by unpredictable weather and a pain to get to from Hanoi.
Thailand’s own haven of karst-spiked islands, Phang Nga Bay, which has much better beaches and far superior weather.
Gyeongju (South Korea)
Sprawling across the peaceful landscape in this small city (pictured at top) are the remnants of its time as an imperial capital more than 1000 years ago.
Temples, palaces, pagodas, gardens, monuments — it is stacked with historic attractions. Better still, there are no crowds and hardly any other tourists there.
Quite possibly Japan’s best-kept tourism secret.
Just 45 minutes from the country’s second-largest city, Osaka, Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital and sports generous remains of this period, which are scattered through a beautiful forested park where wild deer roam.
The mix of man-made and natural splendour is truly breathtaking.
The former capital of Thailand is less than two hours drive from Bangkok and boasts a huge collection of remarkable ruins, from grand temples to monasteries, stupas and royal residences.
Yet, for some reason, relatively few tourists include it on their Thailand itinerary, flocking instead to Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park (Palawan, Philippines)
The second longest underground river in the world, it disappears deep into a cave amid some of the lushest tropical scenery you can imagine on the Philippines’ wildest island — Palawan.
Strap on a flashlight helmet, hop in a rowboat, look out for bats, and cruise for kilometres deep into this dark world.
Town of Luang Prabang (Laos)
The most beautiful town in all of South-East Asia, Luang Prabang fuses wonderfully well-preserved French colonial architecture with grand, golden Buddhist temples.
Because Laos is such a low-key tourism destination, this town is largely overlooked.
It would be overrun with travellers if it were located in a more touristy location such as Thailand or Bali.
You may also like
Our World: Hais and Laos of hilltribe lifestyle
RONAN O'CONNELL imbibes the Khmu people's culture
Arrivals & Departures: Gardens dazzle, day and night
MOGENS JOHANSEN visits Singapore's Gardens by the Bay
The Travel Club Show : Japan for first-timers
The first-time visitor to Japan arrives with a lot of baggage, including the cultural variety. All those preconceptions we have about a place like Japan which, from a distance, can seem intense yet calm, modern yet traditional, compact yet spacious.
Maybe it's all these. Just think: Boys Love Manga and woodblock prints. Maid cafes and geisha tea houses. Anime and kabuki. Bullet trains and rickshaws. Crowded cities and serene villages. Hamburgers and sushi.
But the biggest thing confronting the first-time visitor is the unknown...