4 Unesco World Heritage Sites Pinoys can visit visa-free

When it comes to ease of acquiring visas, a Filipino passport does have its limitations. You cannot simply book a flight to Europe and see the Eiffel Tower, walk the streets of Prague or the Old Town of Regensburg in Germany without going through a rigorous screening process to secure a Schengen Visa, for example. (READ: 15 destinations around the world for Filipino travelers

Southeast Asia has its own charming UNESCO Heritage Towns that Filipinos can visit without worrying about a visa. (READ: Why I'm proud of my Philippine passport)

These sites have historical and cultural significance tied to their colonial and ancient past that will inspire the traveler in you. (READ: 9 types of trips you must take in your 20s)

Let’s take a look:

George Town

George Town is the capital of Penang, Malaysia.  Georgetown traces its history as early as the 1700s, but the city began to flourish when Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang under the East India Trading Company. The city, along with Melaka, played a crucial role in the trade between East and West along the Straits of Malacca spanning 500 years.

Its eclectic mix of European and Asian influence is prevalent when you walk its streets. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008, a stroll down town will take you back in time. There are decades, some even centuries old, houses, forts, temples and mosques built by the Chinese, Indians and British.

Named after Charles Cornwallis, Fort Cornwallis is one of Penang’s most renowned landmarks. The fortress is home to many original structures built more than a century ago such as the original flagstaff, chapel, prison cells and ammunition storage.

Built more than a century ago in the 1890s, Kek Lok Si temple is home to verdant gardens, towering 120-foot bronze statue of Guan Yin and the 7-story pagoda of Rama VI draws domestic and foreign tourists alike. (READ: 5 tips for your budget trips)

Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic revitalized the old town’s streets with wall paintings depicting local life, from rickshaw drivers to children playing.

George Town is a fusion of East and West with British-inspired forts and centuries old temples, and an artist’s enclave with art bringing the old buildings to life.

How to get to George Town: There are direct flights from Manila to Kuala Lumpur. From Kuala Lumpur, there is a connecting flight to Penang. Alternatively, there is a 5- to 6-hour bus ride from the city to Penang.

Melaka

Malacca or Melaka is the third smallest Malaysian state; the state’s historical city center has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list since 2008. The state is part of the strategic and historic Straits of Malacca trade route of East and West.

Unlike its busier counterpart in Georgetown, Melaka charms visitors with its laid-back and lost-in-time ambiance with many structures built by its Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and Muslim inhabitants decades or centuries ago. Stores close early, some before 6pm, traffic trudges by at a languorous pace and city life is a leisurely experience.

Christ Church is the oldest Protestant church in Malaysia. Built by the Dutch in 1753, the enormous white cross and distinctly red color makes it one of the most prominent landmarks in town.

Stadhuys, situated near the church, is a pinkish-red governor’s residence and town hall, said to be the oldest Dutch structure in the East.

St. Paul Church, built in 1521, is a vestige of the town’s colonial past. St. Francis Xavier used the church as his base for missionary work to Japan and China. In 1952, a statue of the saint was built in front of the ruins to commemorate his 400-year anniversary in Melaka.

Between the historic structures are charming Chinese and Malay shops and houses, and walls with colorful murals depicting Malaysian culture and diversity.

Weekends add vibrancy to this laidback town as Jonker Street lights up for the Night Market. Walk the street and purchase souvenirs, listen to karaoke, or eat all sorts of street food such as chicken satay, chicken rice ball or the colorful and delicious ice cendol (similar to halo-halo).

The eastern and western influences created a hodgepodge of cultures seen in old, ruinous forts and churches, and restored Malay and Chinese houses that make Melaka a premier tourist destination.

How to get to Melaka: There are direct flights from Manila to Kuala Lumpur. Once in the city there are buses that go to Melaka; the journey takes approximately 3 hours.

There are other noteworthy UNESCO listed sites near Penang and Melaka. The Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley in Perak contains records of early man outside Africa. The newly inscribed botanic gardens in Singapore offer a breezy and relaxing getaway from the bustle of the city. 

Hoi An

Made part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999, Hoi An is a well-maintained trading port active between the 15th to 19th centuries which was widely used for trading in the region, East Asia and with the rest of the world.

Since its days as a bustling trade center, Hoi An has transformed into a tourist destination in Central Vietnam. The tourism boom has not affected this small town’s way of life. Many of the traditional wooden buildings and original street plan remains the same.

Upon entering town, the locals and guides, and the view of the traditional houses lining the streets will take you back to its glory days as a trade route. The frenetic pace of rapidly developing Vietnamese cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City contrast with the relaxed pace of Hoi An.

Quaint, old houses sell colorful lanterns in hues of red, blue, orange and green. Foreign and local visitors alike can also have a suit or dress made, as Hoi An is known as a top-rate tailoring destination in the country.

The small town comes to life when the sun sets, as locals cast lit lanterns down the river. Have a taste of a well-known local dish, cao lau (made of noodles, pork and greens) while the river lights up in different shades of yellow and red.

How to get to Hoi An: There are direct flights from Manila to Ho Chi Minh City. Once in Saigon, get a connecting flight to Da Nang then ride a bus or a taxi to Hoi An.

Alternatively, there are buses that travel from the city to Hoi An, and the trip may take approximately 18 hours one way.

After exploring the ancient town, book a tour or rent a motorbike to the UNESCO listed Champa ruins of My Son. Head further north to visit some of Hue’s monuments such as the royal tombs of Khai Dinh and Minh Mang or walk the streets of the royal palace, which are also listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Vigan

You don’t have to leave the country to explore a UNESCO Heritage Town, as we have one 9 hours away from Manila.

Vigan, established in the 16th century by colonizers, is an example of a well-preserved Spanish colonial town in the region. The architecture of the buildings combines influences from Europe and China, making it a unique destination.

Inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1999, the cobblestone streets of Calle Crisologo, the clopping of horse-drawn kalesas, and the old shops, churches and houses take you to Spanish era Philippines.

The old houses turned souvenir shops lining the streets combine traditional Filipino housing design and Chinese architecture. The homes have a stone-built lower portion, a timber-framed upper section and a tiled roof. The exterior walls of the upper story have window panels made of wood and kapis shells, which homeowners slide back for ventilation.

The aroma of bagnet, longganisa and empanada will tickle your taste buds and will lead you to the nearest local restaurant.

The best time to visit the old town is early in the morning as crowds have yet to arrive. You get to see the cobblestone streets and old houses with little to no tourists taking photos. Calle Crisologo gets a romantic ambiance when the sun sets as light orange bathes the streets.

How to get to Vigan: There are several buses from Manila to Vigan, bus liners such as Partas, Dominion Bus and Florida travel this route. The trip takes approximately 8 to 9 hours one-way. Alternatively, there are direct flights from Manila to Laoag, from Laoag travel by bus to Vigan.

Nearby UNESCO Heritage Sites, include the Ifugao Rice Terraces and the Paoay Church. If you’re up for trekking and adventure, head to Batad’s verdant, amphitheater-like terraces.

Filipinos don’t have to apply for a visa to get to these UNESCO Heritage Towns. Each site has ties to eastern and western influences that will take you on a cultural and historical sojourn as you taste the food, explore the streets, and discover the attractions. Enjoy! – Rappler.com

Joshua Berida is a full time writer, part-time wanderer with insatiable wanderlust. He plans his next trip during a current one. He plans on exploring the Philippines and beyond. Read about his adventures on thewanderingjuan.net

Photos by Joshua Berida unless otherwise indicated. 

Hoi An photo by Aoshi VN, Kek Lok Si photo by Gwoeii, street art photo by darkpurplebear, via Shutterstock