Non UNESCO World Heritage Sites Worth Visiting
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9 Sites That SHOULD Be Included In the UNESCO World Heritage List (But Are Not)

Thanks to the wonderful list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, we know which world-class sites we should visit on our next vacation. We also appreciate the strict qualification process which encourages countries around the world to preserve the authenticity of their sites, because there’s nothing worse than zinc roofing on centuries-old temples.

That being said, there are amazing places all around the world that don’t have that coveted status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Should they be included in the list? Maybe not. Are they worth a visit? Absolutely yes.

1. Batu Caves, Malaysia

Inside Batu Caves near KL on Thaipusam CC BY 2.0 Dennis Sylvester

Conveniently located just outside Kuala Lumpur, Batu Caves is one of the most iconic attractions in Malaysia. Hosting a series of caves and cave temples, it is also famous for being one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India. The limestone forming the caves is estimated to be around 400 million years old. But even with all these cultural and geological feathers in its cap, Batu Caves doesn’t meet the requirements to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sadly, Batu Caves doesn’t fulfil even one of the 10 criteria listed by UNESCO. Ouch! This is thanks to the addition of structures that are not in harmony with the caves themselves. Efforts by the Batu Caves temple committee to ‘beautify’ the area, such as last year’s colorful paintwork of the 272 steps outside the caves, don’t really help either.

Despite all this, Batu Caves is still an interesting site worth the visit. For an immersive experience, visit Batu Caves during the vibrant festival of Thaipusam. The festival is usually held within the month of January or February in the Gregorian calendar and is reputed to be the biggest festival in the world dedicated to the Hindu god Murugan.

EXPERIENCE KUALA LUMPUR: AirAsia offers the lowest fares to over 130 destinations. Book your seats, accommodation, holiday packages and activities now at airasia.com.

2. Kaieteur National Park, Guyana

Kaieteur Falls From Plane Guyana CC BY 2.0 amanderson2

Guyana is one of the few countries in South America that do not have any UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is a fact that can make the locals get salty about it, especially because Guyana’s neighbouring countries of Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname all have UNESCO World Heritage Sites to their names.

Guyana was hopeful when it nominated Kaieteur National Park in 2000. The park is home to the most diversified life zones in the country and among the highest levels of endemic species found in South America. But the nomination was rejected as the area was deemed too small, especially when compared to the Central Suriname Nature Reserve in the neighbouring country. And yes, the reserve has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But the national park is worth the visit, even if it’s only for Kaieteur Falls, the world’s widest single-drop waterfall. Falling a distance of 226 metres, the falls is a sight to behold.

GETTING THERE: You can check for available flights at Kiwi.com

3. Lidsky Castle, Belarus

Lida Castle CC BY 2.0 Michał Huniewicze

The case of Lidsky Castle (also Lydski) is a warning for all governments out there: there’s such a thing as overrestoration.

Also known as the Gediminas Castle or Lida Castle, Lidsky Castle was built in the 14th century for protection against crusaders. Things went really bad for the castle in the 19th century when local people started to vandalise and disassemble the castle. Restoration works to return the castle to its former glory spanned around 20 years, but it ignored the authenticity principle that UNESCO holds in high esteem. As a result, the castle now looks too perfect even for modern world standards.

It is also said that Lydski Castle doesn’t really stand out as it just looks like any other European castle. Yet, the fact that it looks so ‘normal’ is also part of its charm, which makes it a great place to catch a glimpse of what life in the medieval era was like. In fact, Lydski Castle is now a popular venue for medieval style festivals, attracting participants not only from Belarus, but also from other European countries.

GETTING THERE: You can check for available flights at Kiwi.com

4. Kota Tua, Jakarta

Jakarta History Museum CC BY 2.0 Brian G

Myanmar is far from being the only Southeast Asian nation struggling with conservation, as Indonesia has also the same problem. The country has been trying to nominate Kota Tua (Jakarta Old Town) with its collection of Dutch colonial buildings to UNESCO World Heritage List but to no avail.

The government’s effort to revamp Kota Tua has been met with mixed results. They upgraded the public spaces and modernised the facilities, but all of these changes were merely cosmetic with little consideration of the historical side of the area. As a result, UNESCO has deemed Kota Tua to be unqualified as it lacks integrity and authenticity.  

Still, the Old Town is not the worst place to be in the Big Durian. Jakarta’s Kota Tua has some interesting museums, authentic street snacks, as well as modern cafes and nostalgic eateries.

EXPERIENCE JAKARTA: AirAsia offers the lowest fares to over 130 destinations. Book your seats, accommodation, holiday packages and activities now at airasia.com.

5. Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, Oman

Oryx Battle CC BY 2.0 Keith Rope

The status of World Heritage Site is a serious commitment, because UNESCO wouldn’t hesitate to remove a site if and when it sees fit.

In 2017, Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary became the first site to be removed from the list. A shame, as it had been a World Heritage Site since 1994. But the decision came after the government reduced the sanctuary’s size by 90 per cent and turned most of it over to oil drilling. There’s also the problem with the decline of the Arabian oryx population in the sanctuary.

Now that oil prices are plunging, the government is starting to pay more attention to the large antelopes once again. Their number in the sanctuary has climbed to around 742, and the local authorities have high hopes that the ‘Arabian Unicorn’ can help attract more visitors to the country.

GETTING THERE: You can check for available flights at Kiwi.com

6. Drukgyel Dzong, Bhutan

Drukgyel Dzong, near Paro, Bhutan CC BY 2.0 Richard Mortel

Bhutan is known to be a country that continues to make deliberate herculean efforts to remain closed off to the rest of the world in order to protect its unique identity. Since UNESCO is all about preservation and authenticity, you’d think that you’d bump into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in every corner of Bhutan. But no, the country doesn’t even have a single entry on the list.

Nominations to the World Heritage List will not be considered unless they have already been included on Tentative List. Being an isolated country, the year 2012 marked the first time Bhutan submitted eight sites to the list and they are yet to be recognised as full-fledged UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Bhutan’s Tentative List has some interesting sites, but the Dzongs are arguably the most intriguing ones. A Dzong is a complex of fortified buildings, which served as a principal seat of a Buddhist school, usually found at special locations. Drukgyel Dzong is particularly important because it was built to commemorate the victory over Tibetan and Mongol invasions. It was destroyed by fire in 1951, but even in ruins it serves as a reminder of the country’s struggles to maintain sovereignty.

GETTING THERE: You can check for available flights at Kiwi.com

7. Kpatawee Waterfall and Lake Piso, Liberia

Liberia is known as the first and oldest independent state in Africa, blessed with many natural tourist attractions. So one would wonder why Liberia is not a major tourist destination, especially when compared to other African countries?

The government wants to change this by nominating sites like Kpatawee Waterfall (also spelled as Kpatawe Waterfall) and Lake Piso as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Unfortunately, the lack of research done on the sites’ core areas, endangered species and biodiversity have resulted in rejection. But all hope’s not lost as Liberia can always nominate them again, preferably after developing a strategic management plan to back up the nomination.

GETTING THERE: You can check for available flights at Kiwi.com

8. Kamakura, Japan

Great Buddha of Kamakura CC BY 2.0 Ik T

Japan is rich with culture, so you’d think UNESCO would just give its stamp of approval to anything that comes from the country, from epileptic seizure-inducing anime to crazy inventions like the head umbrella. But history recorded that in 2013, Japan decided to give up on nominating Kamakura as a World Heritage Site after many attempts since 1992. It was the first time ever for Japan to drop its UNESCO World Heritage Site bid.

Kamakura was nominated for its reputation as the seat of a samurai government in 12th to 14th century, but a lack of assets directly linked to the influence of the medieval samurai warrior class was cited as the reason for its rejection.

Yet, no self-respecting Japanophile would want to miss visiting the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, the iconic Buddha statue of Kamakura Daibutsu, as well as experiencing the Zen rituals and tea ceremonies Kamakura is known for.

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9.  Holy Tops, Ukraine

Holy Mountains National Nature Park contains a wealth of archaeological, natural, historical and recreational sites. A noticeable feature of the landscape is the chalky rock outcrops and cliffs. It is also a place of cultural importance, as the hill tops are crowned with churches which overlook the plains.

Unfortunately, UNESCO doesn’t find Holy Tops (Svjati Gory) to be that unique after all. More impressive chalk cliffs can be found elsewhere, and the geomorphological features of the Holy Tops are not of global importance.

World Heritage Site it is not, but the nature park is recommended for nature lovers of every level. It is convenient to do everything from hiking to camping, as approximately 85 per cent of the park is available for public use.

Bonus: Bagan, Myanmar

Bagan valley at sunrise CC BY 2.0 Paul Arpse

Anyone who has been to Bagan would rave to their friends about how impressive the site is. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the stories would tell you how annoying it is when it happens. An ancient city that covers an area of 104 square kilometres and home to more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments, Bagan is a place of great archeological value, so many would be surprised to find that it’s missing from the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO criticised the new constructions and restoration projects undertaken by the government as they are seen as compromising Bagan’s architectural and archaeological integrity. New structures had been built on top of old structures and old ones had been reconstructed completely, drawing the ire of many archaeologists.

The Myanmar government is still trying to get Bagan recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but in the meantime tourists keep pouring in. Who can blame them, what with the breathtaking views of the temple and monastery ruins that are scattered around the ancient plain, especially when seen during sunset and sunrise?

EXPERIENCE MANDALAY: AirAsia offers the lowest fares to over 130 destinations. Book your seats, accommodation, holiday packages and activities now at airasia.com.

*At the time of writing, Bagan had not been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Following the announcement in July 2019, Bagan had been named a new UNESCO World Heritage Site.

GETTING THERE: You can check for available flights at Kiwi.com

Featured Image: Chew Win Win

Albeit claiming to be a vegetarian, this self-professed culture vulture says that he’s willing to make an exception every time he is in an exotic place, as trying the local food is essential to widening a traveller’s horizon. But then each and every single place in the world outside of his hometown in Indonesia’s South Borneo counts as an ‘exotic place’...

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