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9 Cool UNESCO Experiences That Aren’t Places

By Sara Button

Jun 15, 2020

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According to Burundian tradition, the powerful ritual dance of the royal drum summons ancestral spirits and drives out evil ones.

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According to Burundian tradition, the powerful ritual dance of the royal drum summons ancestral spirits and drives out evil ones.

Sometimes treasured World Heritage sites aren’t sites at all.

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For more than 40 years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has highlighted heritage sites of “outstanding universal value” to further cultural preservation around the globe. Well-known places like Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat are on that list, as well as plenty of lesser known—but still important—sights.

In 2003, UNESCO established a convention to safeguard intangible cultural heritage, too, which includes knowledge and practices, plus the related “objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces” that groups consider part of their cultural heritage and identity. The goal is to help spread awareness in order to preserve these activities, which could be dance or artisanry or even how to make a type of instrument or food (for example, the tradition of making kimchi was inscribed first in 2013). The committee will be meeting this December to choose the next additions. Here are a few designations to date that caught our eye. 

Haenyeo (women divers) sing their traditional work song

Culture of Jeju Haenyeo 

South Korea
Inscribed in 2016

On an island off the southern coast of South Korea, a group of women divers, known locally as haenyeo, dive without breathing equipment—sometimes staying underwater for up to two minutes, sometimes going as deep as 10 meters—to harvest seafood by hand. Their average age is 75. The first mention of female divers occurred more than 200 years ago, and the tradition has continued, although their numbers are dwindling. At the Haenyeo Museum, travelers can learn about the tradition’s history.

Marble carvings adorn a home on the Greek island of Tinos.

Tinian Marble Carving

Greece
Inscribed in 2015

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The ancient sculptor Phidias may have put Greece on the map for his intricate marblework at the Parthenon in the 5th century B.C.E. But on the Cycladic island of Tinos, the artistry is not only ancient. To this day, master sculptors on the island mentor apprentices who learn how to craft the stone into beautiful fountains, buildings, and monuments. Travelers who want to take the trip from Athens (it’s only a couple hours away by ferry) can check out the Museum of Marble Crafts and make a purchase from some of the artisans themselves. 

Drummers of Burundi play in Gishora Village, where a famous sanctuary is located.

Ritual Dance of the Royal Drum

Burundi
Inscribed in 2014

If you’ve never heard of the drummers of Burundi, get to YouTube, stat. The dance of the royal drum combines poetry, song, and synchronized movement, all set to powerful beats and played by more than a dozen drummers, always in an odd number. The ritual—performed as a VIP welcome and during special feasts—is an incredible display of energy, with percussionists often leaping high in the air. An ensemble called the Drummers of Burundi (sometimes the Master Drummers of Burundi or the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi) has toured for performances all over the world and also recorded multiple albums. 

Shrimp fishermen ride on horseback into the sea.

Shrimp Fishing on Horseback

Belgium
Inscribed in 2013

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Twice a week from about April through November, a small group of fishermen in the town of Oostduinkerke ride their sturdy Brabant horses into the surf of the North Sea to collect shrimp. Dragging a chain over the sand creates vibrations that spur the shrimp to jump into the horse’s net. Although only about a dozen families participate in this age-old tradition, the community appreciates their commitment—especially during the annual Shrimp Fest, which usually takes place in June.

A woman demonstrates weaving of a toquilla hat in Cuenca, Ecuador, during a parade.

Toquilla Weaving

Ecuador
Inscribed in 2012

What you might think of as a “Panama hat” has never really been a product of Panama. In fact, the toquilla comes from Ecuador. The brimmed hats are handwoven from the straw of the Carludovica palmata, a palm-like plant with sturdy fibers found in Ecuador and surrounding countries. Families pass down the traditions not only of weaving but of harvesting, too. 

Schoolchildren in Hebei Province learn about the mechanics of traditional Chinese shadow puppetry.

Shadow Puppetry

China
Inscribed in 2011

Master carvers meticulously craft intricate puppets from leather stained with pigments in this tradition dating back more than 2,000 years. A cloth is illuminated from behind, functioning as a “stage” for the puppets, which are controlled by the puppeteers of a troupe. These music-filled performances take place at special events such as weddings, religious holidays, and birthdays.

A dancer performs in Lima, Peru.

Scissors Dance

Peru
Inscribed in 2010

Clad in bright baggy pants and fitted jacket adorned with fringe, beading, embroidery, and sequins, dansaq (scissors dancers) perform acrobatic leaps and movements in a challenge against one another, always stepping in time with the harp and violin that accompany their ritual. In their right hand, they strike together scissors-like iron rods in time to the music. The scissors dance—which reportedly began in pre-Columbian times and can last for hours—is still performed today during holidays and festivals.

Tango students perform at a cafe in Buenos Aires in 2006.

Tango

Argentina and Uruguay
Inscribed in 2009

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From the working classes of Montevideo, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, rose one of the world’s most iconic and seductive dances. Influenced and spread by several groups (including descendants of enslaved Africans and European immigrants) living in urban areas of the Rio de la Plata basin, the dance became popular in Paris and other cosmopolitan capitals; it has evolved with the musical and social landscape while maintaining its cultural importance to its countries of origin. The International Tango Festival and World Cup typically takes place every August in Buenos Aires, where travelers and locals can watch (and learn from) the pros.

The Khmer classical dance form started in the country’s royal courts more than a thousand years ago.

Royal Ballet of Cambodia

Cambodia
Inscribed in 2008

To learn the thousands of specific gestures that represent different symbols or concepts, dancers begin training as children, sometimes as early as five years old. Clad in elaborately embroidered costumes and hefty gold headdresses (depending on the character type, of which there are four main ones), dancers of Khmer classical dance tell a wordless story with their movements. Different poses convey different meanings, like “love” or elements from nature.

>>Next: UNESCO Cities of Literature Every Book Lover Should Visit

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