Mike MacEacheran | Off-the-map UNESCO sights, Singapore Airlines
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Off-the-map UNESCO sights, Singapore Airlines

Angkor Wat? Been there. The Taj Mahal? Done that. The Colosseum in Rome? Bought the T-shirt and the souvenir fridge magnet. At the latest count there are more than 1,000 World Heritage sites*, so it’s harder than ever to know where to begin. Here’s a few lesser-known ones worthy of your attention.

Leshan Giant Buddha, Sichuan, China
The Chinese have always built big. Long before they packed up the cranes at the new Shanghai Tower, the 632m-high pinnacle that now dominates Pudong, the Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi and Yan dynasties worked their loyal subjects to the bone to build structures that would strike fear and awe into all that looked upon them. We all know about the lengths they went to, to build the Great Wall of China (an estimated one million died during the construction of the Qin section in 220BC) and the Terracotta Army, which depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. More of an oddity is this stone-carved Buddhist monument, the tallest pre-modern statue in the world. It was started in 713 by a Chinese monk named Haitong during the Tang era, but what’s most striking about it is its location. Hewn out of a cliff at the confluence of three rivers – the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi in the heart of the sacred Mount Emei Sacred Area (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) – it’s a colossus of pre-modern engineering, imagination and devotion. Its shoulders are 28 metres wide and the average sightseer would do well to even peer above the smallest toenail. It’s that big. As for the Chinese, they’ll keep on building. If it’s completed on plan and to schedule, the city of Changsa’s proposed 838m Sky City tower will soon take over the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to become the tallest building on Earth.

Okavango Delta, Botswana
This expansive area of wetlands in southern Africa isn’t what most people think of when they think of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ruins? Sure. Temples and religious monuments? Of course. But the permanent marshland and flooded plains of northern Botswana? Maybe not. Still, they became the 1000th site inscribed on the World Heritage list back in June. What makes it so jaw-dropping is it’s an exceptional example of climatic, biological and hydrological behaviours, the result of annual flooding, which – somewhat bizarrely – takes place in the dry season. If that weren’t worth the admission price alone for nature lovers, then it’s also one of the very few places on the planet where you can see the planet’s most endangered collection of safari mammals, including African wild dogs, white and black rhinoceros and cheetah all from the comfort of a makoro canoe. Now they don’t have that in Kenya.

Ellora Caves, outside Mumbai, India
Picture an archaeological site like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or Tikal in Guatemala, but built inside a series of monumental caves (and with no tourists) and you’ve got a rough idea of what the Ellora Caves are all about. There are 34 of them in total, dotted across a 2km-wide site, most of which were built during the 6-9th centuries. A mixed bag of rock-cut temples and monasteries, each represents one of three different Indian faiths: Buddhist, Hindu or Jain. Each also has its own personality – the Indra Sabha, for example, is a Jain temple with a gigantic intricate carving of a lotus flower on its roof. Still, there is no doubt as to the unrivalled masterpiece of the complex. That’s the Kailasa temple, one of South Asia’s best-preserved examples of vertical excavation – a technique that saw teams of carvers start at the top of the rock and chip downwards. It’s two-storey gateway opens to a U-shaped courtyard edged by a lofty arcade punctuated by sculpted panels and alcoves containing enormous sculptures of every Hindu God you could ever think of. Sound impressive? Be prepared to have your socks blown off.

Rietveld Schroder House, The Netherlands
Very much an odd one out compared to the pin-ups of the World Heritage List, the Rietveld Schroder House is essentially a suburban dwelling in Utrecht built in the 1920s. The twist is it’s the first modernist open-plan house built without walls. The idea was that of Gerrit Rietveld, a Dutch furniture designer and architect who became one of the principal members of the De Stijl movement. Championing strict geometry, they kept things simple, focussing on primary colours and reducing complex designs to straightforward horizontal and vertical lines. Based on these principles, Rietveld created his house as a three-dimensional, abstract composition. For those who get architecture, it’s a lesson in the principals of what you can achieve when you think outside the box (or in this case the living room walls). For those that don’t, it’s a lesson in what makes Dutch designers world-beaters.