Thursday, February 12, 2015

15 Unforgettable UNESCO Heritage Sites

Often, I have been asked what my dream job would be. Being able to travel the world discovering beautiful places wouldn't a bad gig.  However, I'm not talking about being a travel writer, but working for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. 

UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) that promotes international collaboration through education, science, and culture in order to further fundamental human rights, justice and freedom all over the world.  As part of this effort, UNESCO catalogs and preserves sites of outstanding importance, either cultural or natural, to the common heritage of humankind with the purpose of bringing awareness of their significance to the world. 

Each year, nations that choose to participate may nominate sites to be added to the list, and listed properties must meet at least one of 10 criteria like representing a "masterpiece of human creative genius," or that it is an area of "exceptional natural beauty." However, when you visit any one of these 936 locations, it becomes exceedingly apparent why they are considered of value to humanity.

I had the pleasure of visiting and seeing quite a few UNESCO Heritage Sites around the world, and here are some of the most unforgettable places.

There are three things I remember distinctly about my trip to Cambodia: the overwhelming heat, the temples, and the ever-present aftermath of Khmer Rouge.

I knew so little about Cambodia prior to my trip, and even now, after visiting and seeing most of the significant sites, I’m still uncertain as if I have grasped the enormity of the atrocities the Cambodian people were subjected to for nearly three decades.

There are two faces to Cambodia: one shiny and happy, the other dark and complex, but such is the yin and yang of Cambodia, a country that inspires and confines.

It’s hard to overlook the magnitude of People’s Republic of China, a country where over 1.3 billion people reside, almost 130 different languages are spoken (excluding dialects or sub-dialects), and where there are more than 55 ethnic groups.

China has always intrigued me, and it has been on my bucket list of travel for as long as I could remember. The Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and of course, Tienanmen Square, where the 1989 protests took place, the image a man standing in front of a column of tanks forever etched in my mind. It was an epic travel experience that I'd always dreamt of.

So, when Beijing was chosen as the site of the 2008 Olympics, I knew I had to make my pilgrimage to this land of one of the world’s earliest and greatest ancient civilizations.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (Japan)
Japan is known as the "Land of the Rising Sun", but for me, it will forever be the land of the most spectacular sunset. It’s also a place where I’d spent one of the most tranquil and peaceful New Year’s Eve.

No country embodies a wonderful diversity in landscape, culture and people of Southeast Asia like Malaysia, and it has everything that one can hope for in vacation destination, a great mixture of cultures, history, people and some of the most delicious food I've had in SE Asia!

Malaysian cuisine is as diverse as its people, and the mélange of Chinese, Malay and Indian and even German (Café Edelweiss) dishes I had in Georgetown were some of the best I’ve had in the world.

Of course, no trip to Malaysia would be complete without visiting Melaka, a charming little town about 3 hours north of Singapore.

My favorite part of Malaysia, however, was the warmth of its people, and there are only few countries in which I have traveled where I was treated with such remarkable hospitality, kindness, and generosity (S. Korea & Turkey being the other). I've found the Malaysian people to be genuine in their approach to foreign visitors, another fine byproduct of the underdeveloped tourism industry, and unlike other countries in SE Asia where the majority of tourists tends to be Westerners, in Malaysia, most of the vacationers and tourists were Malaysians, which I really appreciated and enjoyed.

Overall, our 3 weeks in Malaysia was an absolutely unforgettable experience ... one we hope to repeat someday soon!
Seoul is FABULOUS! Over the past three decades, I have witnessed my homeland transform itself from the rubble of the Korean War to become an economic powerhouse not only in Asia but worldwide, and no city in South Korea epitomizes and reflects this transition like its capital, Seoul. From the concrete jungles of the 80’s and 90’s to the softer-edged 21st century urban oasis that it has become since the new millennium, largely thanks to its visionary Mayor, Seoul is not only one of the most interesting and exciting cities in Asia but also the most tourist-friendly.

Seoul is a cosmopolitan city that equals, and in some respects, surpasses the likes of other megapolis in the world like New York City and Tokyo. Everywhere you look, there’s a reflection of prosperity that has been built from sheer determination and dedication of its citizens. From the upscale high-rises in Gangnam district to the chic boutiques in Apgujeong; or the rows galleries filled with fine art in Samcheongdong district to the regal omnipresence of Gyeongbokgung, Seoul is a sophisticated traveler’s dream come true.

Great thing about Seoul is that, like NYC, another favorite city of mine, it’s ever-changing and ever-evolving, and every time I return to the city, I’m reminded that the best is yet to come.
Sometimes, traveling is more about people than places, and I fell in love with Istanbul long before I arrived in Turkey. I was first introduced to the warmth and the generosity of the Turkish people while living in Frankfurt, Germany, also known as “little Istanbul”.

From market vendors to restaurateurs, classmates to language teachers, the vibrancy and kindness I had experienced from almost every Turkish immigrant I’d encountered was a welcoming contrast to the austerity and aloofness of the local Germans.

I’d always heard from travelers returning from Turkey that you arrive in Turkey as a guest and leave as a friend, and my experience in Istanbul was no different. Everywhere I went, I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of just about everyone I’d come across.

Needless to say, I had a wonderful time in Istanbul, an amazing city full of extraordinary history and culture, breathtaking scenery, and excellent cuisine. So, teşekkür ederim ... thank you Istanbul for an unforgettable trip.

Salzburg (Austria)
The hills may not be alive with the sound of music, but Salzburg, in my opinion is the most beautiful town in Austria.  Despite the inaccuracy of the Von Trapp family’s escape route, this birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart boasts itself as being the Golden City of High Baroque, which becomes self-evident as soon as you step into its Altstadt.

Being in Salzburg is like being in a fairytale.  Standing beside the fast-flowing Salzach River, the Altstadt’s mosaic of graceful domes and spires, the formidable cliff-top fortress and the mountains beyond will enchant you even before you get to the old town.  Everywhere you go, you’re overwhelmed by the breathtaking scenery, the skyline, and the history.

The best time to visit Salzburg is during Christmas, when the tradition and the festivities of the holiday highlight its beauty.  You’ll be charmed by the wonderful Christmas Market on the Cathedral Square, the traditional stalls, the stars overhead and the quality of the products, and enchanted by traditional craftsmanship, delicious Christmas cookies, aromatic tree ornaments and many arts and crafts of the season.  It’s definitely an experience that you should not miss.

Bruges, Venice of the North as it’s called, is a city straight out of a fairytale with its picturesque medieval architecture and gorgeous landscape reminiscent of the works of Flemish masters – and one my favorite little cities in Europe.

My first trip to Prague was when Europe was experiencing one of the coldest winters in almost a century. Although I was used to the cold winters in NYC, I never felt the kind of wind chills and frosty conditions that I'd faced in Europe. It was absolutely brutal and so cold that even my teeth hurt.

Despite the syberian weather, I was determined to travel and experience places in Europe that I’d always dreamt of. Prague had been on my travel bucket list for some time, and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.

Being there in the winter, it seemed that my husband and I had the whole city to ourselves. We strolled through the empty streets, admiring the dream-like scenery, stopped at little cafés straight out of Tolstoy novels, and as we crossed Charles Bridge, I felt as if we’ve been transported to another time and place. It was beauty beyond my imagination, and its alluring skyline left me breathless.

Not surprisingly, there are over 30 UNESCO Heritage Sites in France, and as a self-proclaimed Francophile, I’ve spent the past decade traveling and discovering everyone one of them. From the picture perfect country sides of Alsace to the magnificent beaches of Dune de Pyla, I love all the wonders that the country has to offer: breathtaking scenery, charming villages and towns, spectacular beaches (mostly the western coast and not the proverbial Cote d’Azur) and mountains, the divine selection of wine, the scrumptious cuisine … and the list goes on and on.
Mont Saint Michel
Pont du Gard
Tuscany (Toscana) in the Northwestern region of Italy is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. That’s perhaps the reason why my husband and I've had our doubts about visiting Tuscany for awhile. However, considering that it is possibly the greatest repository of art in the world, and home to world class wine and cuisine, we could no longer resist the temptation of visiting these beautiful parts of Italy.

It would be hard to find a more idyllic town in Europe than Bern (Berne).

I'd visited Berne during my first trip to Switzerland, and when the train pulled into the central station, I thought I was looking a mirage.  I had to get off the train to see whether the picture perfect town outside my window wasn't a figment of my imagination.

What a beautiful city it turned out to be! A city that I’ve never even heard of until I opened my guidebook. Having arrived in the city at sunrise, I strolled through the quiet and empty streets alone, feeling as if I was walking through pages in a fairytale. Then, just as the cafes and markets were opening, I found a quaint little cafe at the edge of the Nydeggbrucke (Nydegg Bridge) near the Bear Pit.

I must say, it was a dream-like experience, and although I’ve visited Bern several times after moving to Europe, the first time was the best, and the most unforgettable.
Quito & Cuenca (Ecuador)
Traveling is like falling in love. Although I can’t put into words what it is about a place that I’m drawn to, I know it and feel it as soon as I find it, and as soon as I landed in Ecuador, I was captivated!

Sitting on the equator between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador may be one of the smallest and less-known countries in South America, but it’s packed with the most startling contrasts of scenery.

Everywhere we went, we were surrounded by breathtaking scenery, think majestic mountains of Switzerland alongside the tranquil beauty of the Greek Isles. The eye-catching colors of Ecuador leap out from every corner of its diverse landscape.

Although the country’s greatest draw are the Galápagos Islands, the rest of Ecuador shouldn’t be seen merely as a stopover. Thanks to its compact size, traveling around Ecuador is easy, and this friendly and vibrant country truly is a microcosm of South America. For me, Ecuador was a wonderful introduction to the continent that I hope to see and discover more of in the future.

My first introduction to Mexico was no different than for millions of American college students. My best friend and I’d decided we wanted to get in on the beloved tradition of going to Cancun during spring break - a rite of passage so to speak, and boy, did we get exactly what we were looking for, plenty of partying and sun.

But even through the haze of all the partying and sun, what I remember most about Mexico was the enchantment of seeing and experiencing a culture that was none like I’d ever known. Whether you’re soaking up the sun on the breathtakingly beautiful white sand beach or marveling at the wondrous Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá; dancing the night away at a trendy high-energy night club in Cabo or enjoying one of its delectable traditional dishes, which has been deemed also as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, Mexico is adept at satisfying everything we look for as travelers.

French poet André Breton famously called Mexico the surrealist country par excellence, and every time I’m in Mexico, I’m reminded that what is ordinary there is truly extraordinary.

Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Taos Pueblo, Carlsbad Cavern National Park (The U.S.) 
"America's national parks are a treasure house of nature's superlatives – 84 million acres of the most stunning landscapes anyone has ever seen. They became the last refuge for magnificent species of animals that otherwise would have vanished forever; today, they remain a refuge for human beings seeking to replenish their spirit." - PBS, The National Parks


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