There is an endless wealth of things to do and see in the paradise that is Southeast Asia. Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are stunning countries to visit if you want to experience history by exploring ancient temples and world heritage sites. Many of these countries have fascinating and unique Buddhist, Hindu and even Christian temples that are still used to this day, and they’re certainly worth a visit as well. Visiting an active temple and then visiting an ancient temple the next day can be like taking a trip back in time. A visit to one of the many archeological sites or religious temples of the region will fill you with a sense of unmatched Zen and make you feel truly in awe.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed 33 world heritage sites in Southeast Asia, and many of these sites are historic religious temples, too. Some of the destinations on this list are in places like Thailand – which see tens of millions of foreign visitors each year – while some are in places like Myanmar, which has just recently seen an influx of visitors thanks to a rapidly expanding tourism sector. The pilgrimage to one of these breathtaking sites will be well worth the trip, and when you arrive you may wonder why you didn’t escape the soul-crushing hustle and bustle of the big cities sooner. Unfortunately, the splendor of these locales is not something that can simply be captured with a photograph or a postcard; you have to visit these places in person to feel truly inspired. But to get a vague idea of just how rich are the archaeological and spiritual wonders of Southeast Asia, have a look at ten of the best and most fascinating religious temples you can visit in the region.
10. The Baroque Churches of the Philippines
These four churches, located in Manila, Santa Maria, Paoay and Miagao, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Their importance stems from the role they played in spreading Christianity to the islands, but they are also important because they acted as political hubs during the Spanish rule of the nation.
9. Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam
More of a philosophical temple than a religious temple, the Temple of Literature is dedicated to Chinese philosopher Confucius. The significance of this temple is evident by its place of the 100,000 Vietnamese Dong bill. The temple features five courtyards, and the layout of the site replicates that of the temple in Qufu, China which is the birthplace of Confucius. One hundred and sixteen stelae were erected on the site in 1484 to commemorate 1307 graduates of 82 triennial royal exams held by the Le Dynasty in the period from 1442 and 1779. Today, 82 of the stelae remain depicting the names and birthplaces of exemplary graduates.
8. Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand
This temple is less than 20 years old, but that doesn’t mean it’s not spectacular. Often referred to as “the White Temple,” this Buddhist temple can be found in the far north of Thailand just outside the city limits of Chiang Rai. Designed by millionaire Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat and funded using his own money, the temple is unlike many other temples because it is not government sponsored in any way. The artist plans to devote the rest of his life to perfecting the temple, which began construction in 1997. “I wished to build a temple like heaven. It is paradise on earth, the human world can touch,” says Kositpipat about the meaning of the temple.
7. Pura Besakih in Bali, Indonesia
This site features 23 separate Hindu temples and was built on the southern slope of the volcanic Mount Agung. There are no less than 70 festivals held here every year. In 1963, the temples were almost destroyed when the volcano erupted, but the lava flow narrowly missed the temple site by only a few metres. This makes the attraction even more spectacular since its fragility was once thrown into such stark relief.
6. Wat Arun in Bangkok, Thailand
Located in the Bangkok Yai district of the Thai capital, this Buddhist temple can be visited by traveling by ferry across the Chao Phraya River. It is known for it’s reflective porcelain-covered tower surface, which glows as the sun rises. Foreigners must pay an entrance fee of 50 Baht, approximately $1.55 US, to visit.
5. Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos
Known as “the Temple of the Golden City,” this Buddhist temple in the north central city of Luang Prabang, the ancient capital, in Laos is filled with numerous structures such as pavilions, shrines and even homes. It is known for breathtaking gardens filled with ornamental flowers, trees and shrubs. Xieng Thong was built in 1559, and before 1975 it acted as a royal palace. In the 1960s, the wat was remodeled and features a glass mosaic of the tree of life. The entire city of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is home to numerous other temples that are well worth a visit such as Wat Hosian Voravihane and Wat Tham Phousi.
4. Pha That Luang in Vientiane, Laos
Located just outside the city centre of the capital of Laos, this Buddhist stupa was originally a Hindu temple, and it is regarded as a national symbol of the country of Laos. This golden monument has a very interesting history. It is believed to have been built in the 3rd Century as a temple to house the breastbone of Lord Buddha. In the 13th Century it was rebuilt as a Khmer temple. The Khmer temple became ruined and it was rebuilt again in the 16th Century under the decree of King Setthathirat. It was rebuilt yet again in 1900 after it was destroyed in 1828 by Thai invasion.
3. Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Located in the Gombak district, 13 kilometres north of the Malaysian capital, this system of cave temples is the best Hindu temple outside of India. The largest statue of Hindu deity Murugan can be found just outside Batu Caves and the largest cave in the system, the temple cave, can be reached by making a steep trek up a flight of stairs with 272 steps. Ramayana cave features a 50-foot tall statue of Hindu god Hanuman.
2. Bagan Temples in Myanmar
This ancient city houses the remains of over 2,200 Buddhist temples and pagodas. From the 9th Century to the 13th Century this area served as the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and over 10,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas were constructed during that time. This destination is practically undiscovered and untouched compared to the other locales on this list because tourism was very limited in Myanmar before 2012 due to political unrest. The Bagan Temples are a fantastic place to watch the sunrise with the temples creating an amazing silhouette against the orange and yellow sky. The main temples on the Bagan site are the Gawdawpalin Temple and the Dhammayangyi Temple.
1. Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat is the largest religious temple in the entire world, and it has history as both a Buddhist and Hindu temple. In the Khmer language Angkor Wat translates as “City of Temples.” Located five and a half kilometres outside the town of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is the number one tourist destination in Cambodia, and it saw over 2 million visitors last year alone, which was a 20% increase over the previous year. Because Angkor Wat faces the west as opposed to the east, like most other Khmer temples, historians believe it served as a funerary temple. Angkor Wat and the surrounding ancient city, Angkor Thom, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.