Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple

Location: Gyeongju, South Korea

Bell in BulguksaVisited: Sept, 2010 / March, 2011 / Oct, 2013

Site Type: Cultural

Inscribed: 1995

Background and Opinion:

This, Korea’s oldest UNESCO site, is actually a dual submission of ‘two temples’ which are adjacent to each other, the large Bulguksa Temple, and the smaller cave temple of Seokguram. Bulguksa was first built in the 8th century during the Silla period and serves as one of the few remaining examples of their architecture.

Seokgatap Pagoda
Dabotap Pagoda

One particularly impressive part of the temple is the set of two stone pagodas known as Seokgatap and Dabotap. While nothing has ever been found (officially) inside of Dabotap, the former had a number of relics dating back from the construction of these structures in 750 CE. One of these relics was a piece of the oldest known remaining woodblock print of the Mugujeonggwang Great Dharani Sutra. The two pagodas, the relics and five other structures account for a total of 8 national treasures in Bulguksa alone, 7 of which still remain on site today. Read more

Temple of Preah Vihear

Preah Vihear 2Location: Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia

Visited: August, 2014

Site Type: Cultural

Inscribed: 2008

Opinion and Background:

It is not every day that UNESCO causes a war, but that is exactly what happened in 2008 with the inclusion of Preah Vihear to the World Heritage List. The history is long and complicated, but in short, reports coming from the UNESCO meeting in Quebec, Canada exacerbated a century long dispute between Thailand and Cambodia about where exactly their border lies. This led to a number of cross border clashes between 2008-2011, making Preah Vihear only recently accessible for tourists to see.

The Path to Preah Vihear Read more

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto

Location: Kyoto, Kansai, Japan

Visited: Sep. 2013

Site Type: Cultural

Inscribed: 1994

Background and Opinion:

When I first decided to come to Japan, it wasn’t the anime, the subcultures, the seemingly inexhaustible amount of video games, or the massive metropolitan areas that peeked my interest. While those are all reasons why I love Japan,  first and foremost, I wanted to see Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital for over a thousand years and as such, is widely considered the historical and cultural center of Japan.

Historical kyoto
The view from Kyoto Station

Upon exiting that surprisingly quick train ride from Osaka, I headed for the first site. The first thing I noticed upon entering the so called ‘Golden Pavilion’ was the serenity, that feeling you get when everything is slow, the wind is blowing in your hair, and you are in no hurry. It felt like I was stretched out on a hammock, sipping on a coconut on a tropical island! Don’t be silly, I hate coconuts.

Japanese garden kyoto

Anyways, where was I…? Oh yeah: This was very surprising, considering how busy Osaka seemed. Don’t get me wrong, having lived in Seoul for three years now, I happen to be a big fan of a busy city with lots to do, but every now and again, it is nice to be left with ones own thoughts. There were quite a few people, but since Kyoto’s highlights are scattered throughout the city, no one place is overwhelmed with tourists.

Some guy was nice enough to take a rare Julio picture.
Some guy was nice enough to take a rare Julio picture.

Next, I headed from Kinkaku-Ji (Golden Pavilion) to Ryoan-Ji, the place made famous by its stone garden. According to legend (read: some lady at the gift shop), no one is sure of the meaning of the garden, but it has some power to induce meditation and clarity. I don’t know if I buy all that mumbo-jumbo, but I did experience something strange here. I was in a hurry as there is way too much to see in Kyoto, but for some reason, I felt compelled to just sit and… think. I really don’t know how long I was there as I opened and closed my eyes for long periods of time, but oddly enough, many people around me (Japanese and foreign) were doing the same thing. I left feeling good inside, so I guess the temple did its job.

Rock garden kyoto

I decided to trust Google Maps on this one and despite not being named one of the top places to see, I headed to Ninna-Ji (if you haven’t figured it out yet, ‘ji’ means temple). Although I have seen many since, this was the first place I saw statues of the Four Heavenly Kings, guardians of the world. They have human-like bodies with beastly faces, each assigned to protect a cardinal direction (north, south, east, and west). Although it was a bit expensive, it was very quiet and calm, where I again stopped, sat down, and took it all in.

Ninna-ji guardians kyoto
For a while, I thought these were ninjas, thus NINJA-JI…

I did make it to the Nijo Castle but arrived at the Imperial Palace a bit late. Despite this failure, I am glad I didn’t rush things and took it one step at a time. I did manage to look around the palace for a while and spotted a lot of Japanese style gardens and small shrines. Overall, Kyoto was everything I expected and much more.

Kyoto shrine ducks
This old man is defying the ancient Kyoto Code: Don’t feed the ducks! What a rebel.

Evaluation: (Criticism Time!)

1) Completeness and Originality (15 out of 15): At the insistence of American Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Kyoto was removed as a potential target for the atomic bomb. It remains one of the few Japanese cities that has many pre-WW2 buildings.

2) Extensiveness of the Site (15 out of 15): In a day, I would say I covered about 30% of the highlights in Kyoto. However, the site includes the remains in the cities of Uji and Otsu and would take the greater part of a week to see it all. This might be one of the most massive sites on UNESCO’s list.

3) Cultural Significance (13 out of 25): There is no doubt that the flourishing of Japan influenced world events. They tried to take over a third of the planet for heavens sake. But, take away Kyoto and you still have a pretty awesome country.

4) Personal Impact (12 out of 15): I still think about Kyoto a lot and hope to come back some day. Seeing how I went on this trip alone, I probably took more out of it than I would have otherwise.

5) Logistics (6.5 out of 10): Incredibly easy to reach and walk from temple to temple. The prices of some of these places can add up though. Every temple charges 400-800 yen and even extra to view ‘additional rooms.’

6) Uniqueness (13 out of 20): As much as I’d like to say I’ve never seen anything like it, that is only part true. Given, the scale of Kyoto and difference between the things to see is amazing, but most are temples and temples are a dime a dozen in eastern Asia.

Combined Score: 74.5/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.

[FUN FACT: Kyoto’s sister city is Guadalajara, Mexico, where I was born!]

Whats up at Angkor Wat?

The place that most people think about when they plan a visit to the ancient city of Angkor is Angkor Wat. Built in the 1100s, Angkor Wat has stood the test of time by remaining mostly intact and extremely well preserved over the past nine centuries, given Cambodia’s turbulent past. It is the largest religious structure in the world and looks more like a huge walled city than a temple.
Read more