Thailand World Heritage Sites on UNESCO’s list are at present limited to 3 cultural and 2 natural sites. A rather meagre result we feel, considering the country’s rich history and magnificent and highly varied flora, fauna and landscapes. Of the 3 cultural sites, we’d also point out that early Bronze Age Ban Chiang, while of undoubted great archaeological significance, represents to a casual visitor nothing more than a collection of pottery in a small, albeit well-presented provincial museum.
The other 2 listings are the obvious choices of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya, Both these ancient cities have been inscribed since 1991 (Ban Chiang in 1992) so, zero cultural sites have been added to the Thailand World Heritage list in 28 years. (We reckon Thailand’s overdue for a bit of a run.)
The 14th- to 18th-century former capital of Ayuthaya, lying just north of Bangkok, and 13th-century Sukhothai in the lower north region are both well-known and regularly-visited sites with the latter, set in parkland amid lotus ponds, being a particularly picturesque spot.
The 2 very worthy natural sites are the Thung Yai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries Complex and Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest. The former covers some 6,000 square kilometres of mountains and jungles in a remote region of western Thailand, along the border with Burma (Myanmar), making it not only the country’s largest, but one of Southeast Asia’s most extensive protected areas. This area is often known as the Western Forest Complex while similarly-sized Dong Phayayen (containing 5 contiguous national parks and sanctuaries) forms the Eastern Forest Complex. Between them, they provide some of mainland Southeast Asia’s best-preserved forest areas and are home to numerous endangered and critically endangered species so, well done to both UNESCO and the Thai government.
Great listings then but to put it into some kind of perspective; France – approximately equal to Thailand in surface area – has no less than 45 World Heritage Sites. (A situation that, to our minds, isn’t just curious but downright ridiculous!)
Logically then, we’d expect to find a lengthy roll-call on the Tentative List. Alas, as of 2020 UNESCO’s proposed candidates for Thailand World Heritage Sites stands at a grand total of 6 cultural entries and 1 natural.
We’ve already used the term shoo-in for several Cambodian and Lao sites but nowhere fits the description better than Phnom Rung. The Ensemble of Phanom Rung, Muang Tam and Plai Bat Sanctuaries – to give it UNESCO’s full and catchy title – is located in northeast Thailand’s Buriram Province and consists of the spectacular 12th-century mountain top temple of Phnom Rung itself, along with the nearby 10th to 11th-century Muang Tam and smaller Plai Bat shrine. Unlike many Angkor period temples in Cambodia, Phnom Rung has evaded any substantial damage over time and represents one of the best-preserved sites, from the height of the Khmer civilisation, to be found anywhere in Southeast Asia. The setting, atop an extinct volcano (despite UNESCO’s description Phnom Rung simply means volcano in Khmer), is spectacular and complemented by its slightly earlier, but equally well-preserved, neighbour Muang Tam. The 3 associated temples of Ta Muan, located a short distance south and including a pair of later, Jayavarman VII, constructions should also be included.
An earlier site, associated with the Mon Dvaravati civilisation as well as the early Angkor period, are the remains of the city of Si Thep in central Thailand’s Petchabun Province. A pleasant rather than spectacular site, Si Thep is certainly of great archaeological value as little remains or is known about, this important early Southeast Asian culture.
Another, particularly complex historical site, featured on the list since back in 2004, is Phu Phrabat Historical Park in northeastern Udon Thani Province. This sacred hill, or small mountain and surrounding forest park cover centuries of history with an eclectic collection of menhirs, rock paintings, natural rock formations, caves and shrines.
A pair of individual temple sites appearing on the list consists of Phra That Phanom – a highly prestigious Buddhist temple complex near the banks of the Mekong in the far northeastern Nakorn Phanom Province (Thais prefer to add an A to the Khmer word Phnom) – and Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan in south Thailand’s Nakhon Si Thammarat Province. The former site has housed sacred structures for some 2,000 years while the latter dates from the 13th-century when Nakhon was the capital of an independent kingdom known as Tambralinga.
Since UNESCO individually lists most of France’s cathedrals why not, although both candidates are certainly trumped by Chiang Mai’s ambitious effort. We’re not sure how much of this lengthy proposition is written by UNESCO and how much by Chiang Mai city council and tourist board but the proposed package certainly includes everything bar the kitchen sink. The north Thai city’s claim comprises of; the old town plus all its ancient temples and associated sites, the inner city wall, city gates, forts and moat, the Mae Kha stream that feeds the moat, numerous temple sites outside of the fortifications plus the outer city wall, (Kamphaeng Din), neighbouring Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park, Wat Doi Suthep and even the road to the top of Suthep Mountain. (Which was apparently constructed in 1935 by a revered monk!) Some filtering probably required here but it does look like an inarguable proposition.
The final candidate is the simple but strong option of Kaeng Krachan National Park. 3,000 or so square kilometres of well-preserved, often primary, forest and a wealth of wildlife including numerous rare and endangered species is to us, a clear-cut proposition.
In our opinion then 1 natural and 1 cultural site that should have been added years ago; 2 worthy historical sites – Si Thep and Wat Mahathat Woramahawihan – are deserving of listing and resources while the complicated candidature of Chiang Mai requires serious editing before acceptance. Phra That Phanom may well originally date to the first century CE but with 2 thousand years of upgrades, makeovers and paint jobs it’s hard these days to see beyond the glitz and gaudiness and it certainly doesn’t seem to be in urgent need of any financing. We confess to not knowing Phu Phrabat and while it looks like a great spot for a visit we’re sceptical about its heritage value on a world scale and there may be more urgent candidates to prioritise.
Not on the List
As with its neighbours, we favour increasing the number of natural sites on the Thailand World Heritage list as these are often the most difficult to protect yet the most in need. Not only from encroachment, logging etc but in the case of certain popular parks the results of tourism or over-tourism. In this respect somewhere like Koh Phi Phi may well be beyond hope but other vitally important and much-visited natural areas such as the Similan Islands, Koh Chang National Marine Park, Thale Noi and Khao Sok National Park could use some management assistance. Thailand has a huge number of national parks and protected areas – many of which could come under consideration – with Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary immediately springing to mind.
For cultural sites, we’d strongly recommend northern towns such as Nan, Phrae and Lampang which have that Luang Prabang combination of ancient, Lanna Buddhist temples along with, (particularly in the case of the latter 2), impressive stocks of 19th-century ‘Gingerbread’ style architecture. (Although Thailand was never officially colonised it does possess a fine stock of period European architecture.)
We’d assume Bangkok’s Grand Palace is a complicated candidate as it is still the official, private residence of the Thai king but there’s also the nearby historic and prestigious temples of Wat Phu and Wat Arun to consider. Recognition and protection may also be in order for some of the capital’s suburban areas such as Amphawa where a very traditional, but rapidly disappearing life-style of canals lined by stilt teak houses clings on.
In our opinion, there’s no shortage of potential candidates for Thailand World Heritage Sites but the post’s getting long so we’ll move on to a brief rundown on sites featured on our Thailand tours.
On our Tours
Firstly we’ll need to point out that Thailand is a relatively large country (in Southeast Asian terms) and some of the sites and tentative sites are far-flung. Furthermore, it’s forested natural sites are vast and impractical to fit into any standard tour itinerary. There are no convenient jeep safaris through scrub or savannah as per Africa or even Sri Lanka and wildlife spotting in a jungle environment may require several days’ hiking, camping, hides and so-on and are more suited to specialist animal or bird watching programmes.
We have run several tailor-made tours to Thung Yai, Kaeng Krachan and Khao Yai national parks while the more manageably sized Khao Sok features on our south Thailand tours Mountains and Rainforests and Jungle and Islands Family Tour. (Both also include stops in Amphawa.) Sukhothai, Lampang and Chiang Mai are all included in our Hidden Thailand tour while, last but not least, Phnom Rung and Muang Tam are visited in our Emerald Triangle, Thailand and Laos tour. See here for details of all our Thai tours and extensions.