UNESCO World Heritage sites in Southeast Asia you can’t miss include everything from the near perfectly preserved historic centres of Luang Prabang in Laos and Hoi An in Vietnam to the spectacular sprawling temple sites of Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia, Sukhothai Historical Park in Thailand, and Bagan Archaeological Zone in Myanmar.
Southeast Asia is home to 41 of the planet’s 1,121 UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in nine of the region’s 11 countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Cambodia, for instance, has just three UNESCO listings despite having scores of archaeological sites, as well as exquisite Khmer Empire temples in Thailand’s Northeastern Isaan region.
While Southeast Asia’s 41 UNESCO World Heritage sites aren’t all that much compared to the rest of the world’s 1,080 site, unless you have all the time in the world, what UNESCO sites should take priority on a Southeast Asia trip?
While I am very much anti ‘bucket list’ and the idea of rushing through places just to tick off sights, instead advocating for slower travel, lingering longer, settling in, and digging deeper, I have to confess that on our early travels through Europe and the Middle East, I made sure we saw as many UNESCO World Heritage listed sights as we could.
On our first trip to Syria in 1999, we explored all the country’s UNESCO sites: the old cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Bosra, Crac des Chevaliers castle, the magnificent ruins of Palmyra, and the ancient villages of Northern Syria, now sadly on UNESCO’s Heritage in Danger List. That same year, over a summer’s month in Greece, we got to most of its UNESCO sites, the rest some years later as guidebook authors for Lonely Planet, updating the Greece guide.
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) established the World Heritage List in 1972 to preserve and protect places of universal value to humanity – places that are so special, the world would be heartbroken if they were damaged or disappeared. Those places have to meet one of 10 criteria covering cultural or natural heritage, or a combination of both. Some sites have met many criteria.
The first UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in Southeast Asia were inscribed in 1991 at the 15th session of the World Heritage Committee in 1991, while the most recent were added in July 2019 at the 43rd session, when Bagan Archaeological Zone in Myanmar and the Plain of Jars in Laos were inscribed.
While some sites are endangered due to surrounding development, that’s not necessarily a requirement for listing and once on the UNESCO World Heritage list, sites don’t necessarily stay there. Sites can be de-listed for various reasons, such as over-development and unsustainable tourism.
UNESCO World Heritage listed sites are a magnet for travellers. In fact, there are travellers whose main goal is to tick off as many UNESCO listed sites as they can. They call themselves ‘World Heritage Travellers’ and there are websites where they can register, count the sites they’ve visited, and leave reviews of heritage sites.
World Heritage sites become bucket list destinations that draw people to places they might never have dreamt of going. Syria, in peace time, is a great example. In many cases, visiting a UNESCO heritage site is the very reason that travellers venture to a place and it can often be the only sight that they see there.
That’s especially the case with our base of Siem Reap, which for many travellers is the only place they’ll go in Cambodia. For those same travellers it’s little more than a launching pad for excursions to UNESCO listed Angkor Archaeological Park, home to Angkor Wat, despite boasting an abundance of things to do, from cooking classes and street food tours to museum- and gallery-hopping.
Sukhothai and Ayutthaya in Thailand, both home to significant archaeological sites; the Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes near Yogyakarta in Indonesia; and Bagan archaeological zone in Myanmar are a few more examples of places that people go specifically for their UNESCO World Heritage sites.
UNESCO heritage status can be credited with raising awareness of a sight and indeed going as far as to make the location of a site a tourism destination, but it can also be partly blamed for over-tourism of that place. Hoi An in Central Vietnam is a prime example.
Although outside the peak late afternoon-early evening period, when the day-trippers have left, it’s possible to experience Hoi An’s historic port town without the crowds – just as it’s possible to see Angkor without hoards of tourists if you go outside high season.
While you can certainly try to see all 41 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Southeast Asia, not everyone has that luxury of time or money, so we’ve narrowed them down to the very best UNESCO World Heritage sites in Southeast Asia that you have to visit. I you have more time, I’ve added suggestions for UNESCO sites nearby.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia You Can’t Miss
Luang Prabang, Laos
Beautiful Luang Prabang in Laos is at the top of my list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you can’t miss because it’s my favourite kind of UNESCO World Heritage listing – a whole town – and an exceptionally well preserved town at that. Visiting Luang Prabang is like stepping back in time, such is the near-perfect state of the preservation of its buildings, which explains why UNESCO inscribed it for outstanding universal value, the reason most of the sights on my list are on UNESCO’s list. Located in northern Laos on a leafy peninsula formed by the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River and surrounded by lush forested mountains, Luang Prabang is a lovely low-rise town that is a delight to stroll. The sleepy streets are lined with exquisitely decorated pagodas, traditional Lao wooden houses and handsome French colonial architecture. From the 14th to the 16th century, Luang Prabang was the capital of Lane Xang, ‘Kingdom of a Million Elephants’, and an important centre of Buddhism, which explains the abundance of glittering, mosaic-covered pagodas that dot the historic core. Allow at least a few days in Luang Prabang, more time if you have it.
How to Get to Luang Prabang
There are direct flights to Luang Prabang from Hanoi, Siem Reap, Bangkok, and other Southeast Asian destinations. You can also travel to Luang Prabang by boat from Thailand along the Mekong River. There is a fast boat and a slow boat and we recommend the latter. We loved our few sultry days cruising down the Mekong on the Luang Say boat.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang has an abundance of atmospheric lodgings that ooze history, including splendid colonial-era residences of late kings, a former royal summer house, and lodgings located in the old French Governor’s residence, including the 3 Nagas, Maison Souvannaphoum, Belmond La Residence Phou Vao, and Satri House. For more, see our guide to Luang Prabang’s best boutique hotels. Luang Prabang is also home to luxury hotels such as Amantaka and Luang Say Residence.
Things to Do In Luang Prabang
Do a guided tour of the temples, visit the Ock Pop Tok weaving centre, learn about Lao cuisine on a market walk and a Lao cooking class at Tamarind, and hike up Phousi Hill in the late afternoon for sweeping vistas of Luang Prabang, the Mekong River and surrounding mountains. Most visitors want to participate in the early morning alms giving to the monks; we recommend doing it with the locals or observing from a respectful distance.
More UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Laos
Venture south to discover UNESCO listed Vat Phou and associated ancient settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape, not far from the Cambodian border.
Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia
If Luang Prabang didn’t exist, Angkor Archaeological Park would top my list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you can’t miss, as it’s my next favourite type of heritage sight – a sprawling archaeological site. Just fifteen minutes by charming tuk tuk from the riverside city of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia, Angkor is not only one of Southeast Asia’s most significant archaeological sites, it’s also the largest, spread over approximately 400 square kilometres of forest, fields and savannah. The area contains the stately ruins of various Khmer Empire capitals, dating from the 9th to the 15th century, including two of the most magnificent walled cities, surrounded by wide moats, Angkor Wat and neighbouring Angkor Thom, home to the rather surreal Bayon temple with its enormous carved smiling face towers. In addition to the scores of intricately carved temples, towers and shrines, also of outstanding value are the impressive hydraulic structures, including canals, reservoirs and dykes, which you’ll spot as you trundle through the countryside. Allow a minimum of three days and make an effort to get out of the Park to see more off the beaten track ruins, such as Banteay Chhmar, an ancient garrison city with walls covered in bas-reliefs and a lotus-filled moat near the Thai border. See our guide to lesser visited temples for more inspiration, along with this archaeologist’s guide to Angkor Archaeological Park and more Angkor tips from a local archaeologist for getting the most out of the temples. Allow at least three days for exploring Angkor Archaeological Park and a few more days for visiting more remote temples.
How to Get to Angkor Archaeological Park
There are flights from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and other Southeast Asian cities to Siem Reap, the departure point for excursions to Angkor Archaeological Park. For more, see these posts on how to get to Siem Reap, our ultimate Guide to Angkor Archaeological Park (which covers how to get from Siem Reap to Angkor), and exploring Angkor Wat and other temples. There are more tips in this post answering Angkor FAQs.
Where to Stay Near Angkor Archaeological Park
The nearest town to Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park is Siem Reap, where you’ll find a mind-boggling array of hotels, resorts, apartments, guesthouses, and backpacker hotels. We love stylish, intimate boutique hotels with swimming pools and superlative service, such as Sala Lodges, Viroth’s, Maison Polanka, and Templation. Peruse our guides to Siem Reap’s best boutique hotels and luxury for less in Siem Reap for more recommendations.
Things to Do In Siem Reap
See our comprehensive guide to things to do in Siem Reap, which includes temple touring, spending a night at the fantastic Phare Cambodian Circus (no animals, just talented performers), watching the enchanting Sacred Dancers, shopping for beautiful gifts and handcrafts, grazing on delicious street food, dining at Siem Reap’s best Cambodian restaurants, and doing Cambodian cooking classes. See our itineraries for one day in Siem Reap and a weekend in Siem Reap.
More UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cambodia
Explore UNESCO World Heritage listed Sambor Prei Kuk, the Pre-Angkorian site of ancient Ishanapura, which was inscribed last year, and Preah Vihear, perched on the edge of the Dangrek Mountains. Not on the list yet, but worth exploring is the so-called ‘lost city’ of Mahendrapavarta on Mount Kulen. Stay overnight at Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel to experience Preah Vihear and Mahendrapavarta over two days. More here on remote archaeological sites, how to visit them, and the new archaeological discoveries of recent years.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An is another of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you can’t miss because, like Luang Prabang, the whole old town has been inscribed on UNESCO’s list. Located near the mouth of the Thu Bon River in Quang Nam province in Central Vietnam, Hoi An’s ancient town is considered to be an exceptional example of a small Southeast Asian trading port with beautifully preserved buildings dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Although Hoi An is in fact much older: the earliest settlement of Hoi An on the outskirts of the current city, was established by the Sa Huynh peoples, whose culture dates back to 1,000 BC. While Hoi An still functions as a bustling little commercial centre – its shopping is outstanding – it has its decline as a major port in the late 19th century to thank for its remarkably preserved town plan and buildings, which reflect a fusion of local and foreign architectural styles, including Chinese, Japanese and French. There are 1,107 charming wooden and brick houses, pagodas and temples lining the narrow pedestrian streets and a lovely wooden Japanese bridge housing a tiny pagoda dating to the 18th century. We went to Hoi An for a few weeks and stayed a few months, so we could be biased, but allow at least a few days in Hoi An.
How to Get to Hoi An
The nearest airport to Hoi An is at Danang, a 30-minute drive away. There are direct flights to Danang from many Southeast Asian destinations, such as Siem Reap, as well as regular flights from Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Try airlines such as Vietnam Airlines, VietJet, Air Asia, and Cambodian Angkor Air.
Where to Stay in Hoi An
To really soak up all that history, you need to stay in the ancient town, and there are only a few options: book one of the front rooms at the Vinh Hung Heritage Hotel in a centuries-old timber merchant’s house in the heart of the ancient quarter. If you need a swimming pool reserve a riverside room at the colonial-style Anantara Hoi An on the edge of the historic centre, and just a fifteen-minute stroll to the Japanese Bridge and Hoi An’s other heritage sights.
Things to Do In Hoi An
You could easily spend a week seeing Hoi An’s centuries-old pagodas, temples and wooden merchants’ houses, many now doubling as museums. Punctuate these visits with bowls of Hoi An’s legendary noodles and other local specialties, cooking classes and food tours, fantastic shopping, breaks to linger in charming cafes and tea houses, sundowners on balconies at bars and craft beer pubs, and meals at Hoi An’s best restaurants. See our itineraries for one perfect day in Hoi An and two days in Hoi An.
More UNESCO World Heritage Sites Near Hoi An
You can easily visit nearby UNESCO listed Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary, established by the Champa dynasty, which ruled Central Vietnam from the 4th to the 12th centuries. (Battles between Khmer and Cham soldiers are depicted in bas reliefs on various Angkor temples, above). Plenty of travel companies offer half-day My Son tours from Hoi An and Danang.
Borobudur Temple, Java, Indonesia
Located in the lush Kedu Valley on Indonesia’s island of Java and considered to be one of the world’s greatest Buddhist monuments, the stupendous temple of Borobudur in southern Central Java was built during the 8th to 9th centuries under the reign of the Syailendra Dynasty. Boasting a pyramidal base, three tiers with circular platforms and terraces, and a monumental stupa on top, Borobudur would be impressive enough for its size, but it is also ornately decorated. The temple’s walls and balustrades feature elaborate bas reliefs that cover a massive surface area of some 2,500 square metres, while there are 72 stupas, each with a statue of Buddha, on the circular platforms. The three levels represent the universe in Buddhist cosmology, which is believed to be divided into three spheres of desire, kamadhatu, rupadhatu, and arupadhatu. Borobudur is the most outstanding monument of the Syailendra Dynasty, which ruled Java for some five centuries, but there are also two smaller temples to the east, Mendut and Pawon, that are worth visiting. Together, the three monuments, representing phases in the attainment of Nirvana, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you can’t miss. Begin with sunrise at Borobudur, then visit the smaller temples, take a break for lunch, and in the afternoon visit Prambanan, below.
How to Get to Borobudur
Fly from Jakarta or Denpasar to Yogyakarta on Java with Garuda or Indonesia Air Asia or travel over land and sea from Bali, which makes for a memorable adventure. More information here on how to get to Yogyakarta from Bali. From Yogyakarta, we recommend hiring a driver and car or doing a private tour to Borobudur.
Where to Stay in Yogyakarta
Most travellers to Borobudur stay in the nearest city, Yogyakarta, where there’s everything from luxury resorts with pools and hip boutique hotels in the city’s heart to atmospheric heritage hotels in the leafy suburbs and nearby villages, such as beautiful D’omah Yogya Hotel, 15 minutes away, and Rumah Mertua, a 25-minute drive, both decorated with Javanese furnishings and handicrafts. See our guide to where to stay in Yogyakarta for more recommendations.
Things to Do in Yogyakarta
Visit the old city’s fascinating sights and museums, devour Yogyakarta’s delicious food (don’t miss the turmeric-laden soto ayam noodle soup), shop the markets for spices and basketware and the batik stores for Java’s beloved textile, where you can watch it being made and get batik lessons. Read more here about why we love Yogyakarta.
More UNESCO World Heritage Sites Near Yogyakarta
While Borobudur is special, World Heritage listed Prambanan is also a must. On the outskirts of Yogyakarta, the Prambanan Temple Compounds came as a complete surprise to us and were in some ways more impressive for their size and the intricate detail of the carvings. You can easily experience both in one long hot day.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Another confession: the reason I first wanted to experience Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam wasn’t because it was one of those UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you can’t miss. It was because of a movie: the 1992 French film Indochine, starring the beautiful French actress Catherine Deneuve, in which Halong Bay stole the spotlight. A beguiling landscape of lush islands, limestone karsts and schist outcrops rising out of deep green waters, Halong Bay has been immortalised in legends, folk tales and poetry, as well as on the cinematic screen. It is one of those enchanting destinations that captures the imagination and never lets go. It’s because of Halong Bay’s outstanding scenic beauty, as well as its great geological interest, that it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. Ha Long Bay, as it’s more correctly written, sprawls some 120 kilometres along Vietnam’s coastline from China in the north to the Gulf of Tonkin southeast and Cát Bà island in the southwest. There are some 1,600 islands and islets, most of which are uninhabited and unaffected by a human presence. It’s this multitude of drowned limestone karst forms, sculptured by nature in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and their spectacular pillars, arches and caves, that make Halong Bay a place of outstanding value and sublime beauty. (By the way, I include Halong Bay on our Vietnam Cuisine and Culture Tours).
How to Get to Halong Bay
Luxury Halong Bay cruises include transport from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Other cruises charge an additional fee for transfers from Hanoi to Halong Bay. If you’re travelling on a budget, you could take a bus from Hanoi to Haiphong, where you could catch a ferry to Cat Ba Island.
Where to Stay on Halong Bay
Choose from red-sailed wooden Chinese junks to sleek white cruise ships, but whatever boat you choose make sure you stay at least two nights to fully experience Halong Bay. See our guides to the best Halong Bay cruise boats (I’ve tested out seven boats so far) and how to choose the right Halong Bay cruise for you.
More UNESCO World Heritage Sites Near Halong Bay
Bagan Archaeological Zone, Myanmar
Boasting a mind-boggling 3,595 Theravada Buddhist monuments, dating from the 11th–13th centuries, spread across eight sites – including monumental temples, splendid pagodas, monasteries, stupas, and shrines, as well as sculptures, inscriptions, bas-reliefs, murals, and cloth paintings – Bagan Archaeological Zone is undoubtedly another one of those UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you can’t miss. Located in the dry centre of Myanmar, on a bend of the majestic Ayeyarwady River, Bagan, like Angkor, is not just an archaeological sight, but a complex, layered, cultural and sacred landscape, incorporating living communities that continue to practice Buddhist activities such as merit-making and worship, as well as other cultural traditions. UNESCO inscribed the site not only for its impressive collection of architecture and art, which reflects the strength of this early Buddhist empire, but also for the level of artistry and quality of craftsmanship. Allow at least a few days to discover the vast site of Bagan, best explored on a private temple tour with a qualified archaeological guide. There are myriad transport options, including on two wheels on a bike tour, by horse and cart, and by boat on a sunset cruise.
How to Get to Bagan
There are flights to Yangon from Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, and a whole host of other cities with Thai Airways, Air Asia and Nok Air, among others. From Yangon, a handful of domestic airlines will get you to Bagan, as well as buses, trains, luxury Irrawaddy River cruises and more basic ferries, such as this cruise from Royal Mandalay to Ancient Bagan.
Where to Stay in Bagan
The Hotel at Tharabar Gate has a swimming pool set amidst manicured lawns, and you can dine alfresco overlooking an illuminated stupa. Mid-range Villa Bagan is one of the more understated and tastefully decorated Bagan hotels with traditional textiles on the beds, a pool, and more stupa views. Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort has a stunning riverside pool and alfresco dining overlooking the pool and river. Bagan Lodge has glamping-style suites and a large swimming pool. Close to the airport and surrounded by ancient temples, Aureum Palace Hotel and Resort is opulent, with an enormous pool and lotus-filled lake.
Things to Do in Bagan
After exploring the temples on the ground, take to the air in a hot air balloon ride, one of the most popular things to do in Bagan. You could go shopping – lacquerware is the best thing to buy in Bagan, best purchased from the artisanal family-owned workshops in the Myinkaba area, while Mani-Sithu Market is a terrific one-stop shop for beautiful handicrafts, textiles, and longyis. Or simply find a spot to down cold beers as you watch the sun go down.
More UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Myanmar
You could also see the UNESCO World Heritage listed Pyu Ancient Cities, the archaeological sites of three walled and moated cities, Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra. Also located in Myanmar’s dry Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River basin, they date to between 200 BC and AD 900, and while they are only partly excavated, you are able to see remains of stupas, walls, and burial grounds.
Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns, Thailand
Thailand is blessed with two of the most beguiling UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia you can’t miss, which are comparable to Angkor and Bagan for their beauty. They are Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns and the Historic City of Ayutthaya, but I’m going to recommend you give priority to Sukhothai and here’s why: Sukhothai was an outpost of the Khmer Empire before it rebelled against Angkor and went on to became the capital of the first Kingdom of Siam (Thailand) in the 13th and 14th centuries. While you’ll recognise Khmer influences in the architecture and art if you’ve been to Angkor, Sukhothai is also home to some stupendous monuments that you won’t see elsewhere, including massive Buddha images, such as the colossal seated Buddha statue at Wat Si Chum or the Temple of the Bodhi Tree in the northern part of the Sukhothai park. While Sukhothai became the political and administrative capital of Siam, nearby Si Satchanalai was the spiritual centre and is the location of more Buddhist temples and monasteries (it was also a hub for Siam’s significant ceramic production), while Kamphaeng Phet, on the southern frontier, was a military town that served to protecting Siam from foreign invaders. Allow at least two to three days to discover Sukhothai, preferably with an archaeological guide.
How to Get to Sukhothai
You can fly direct to Thailand‘s capital Bangkok from most major capitals in the world, then take a flight from Bangkok to Sukhothai Airport (around one hour and 15 minutes). From the new city of Sukhothai it’s around 20kms to Sukhothai Historical Park. Get a taxi there and then hire bicycles, which is the best means by which to get around Sukhothai.
Where to Stay In Sukhothai
The better resorts are located closest to Sukhothai, such as the stunning Legendha Sukhothai Hotel, near Wat Chang Lom, with a gorgeous swimming pool and activities that include Buddha amulet making, weaving, almsgiving, and a Thai cooking class, and lovely Tharaburi Resort, which has an eclectic sense of style and interiors filled with a combination of vintage and contemporary pieces. In New Sukhothai, Ruean Thai Hotel is a traditional timber style mid-range hotel with a swimming pool in its centre courtyard, while Nakorn De Sukhothai Hip Hotel is more contemporary and in a lively part of town.
More UNESCO World Heritage Sites Near Sukhothai
Ayutthaya is closer to Sukhothai, and if you have another day, should be your next priority. But if you have more time, while they’re not yet on UNESCO’s list, the captivating Khmer Empire temples in Thailand’s Isaan region, which we’ve explored while road-tripping through the northeast, are worth visiting for their enchanting settings, symmetry of form, and intricacy of their detailed carvings. We adore Prasat Phanom Rung, Prasat Muang Tam and Prasat Hin Phimai. See our Northeastern Thailand itinerary, a 2-week road trip through the Isaan region, for how to visit them.
Click through for the full UNESCO World Heritage list.
What do you think are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia that can’t be missed? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.