The birthplace of Buddhism and Hinduism, Asia is a land shrouded in spirituality. Places of worship vary widely, from humble brick-and-plaster shrines to extravagant pagodas sheathed in gold, but all are revered. Here, our list of 10 temples and temple complexes around Asia worth a visit. Don’t forget the camera!
Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto, Japan
Built as a villa for a 14th-century shogun, this stunning pavilion became a Zen Buddhist temple after his death. In 1950 a monk burned it down in an incident that inspired a novel by the renowned author Yukio Mishima. It was quickly rebuilt, and in 1987 the top two stories were re-embellished with gold leaf five times thicker than the original layer. The magnificent grounds are perfect for a quiet afternoon. www.jnto.go.jp/eng
Tip: Drop in at the Sekka-tei teahouse for a cup of matcha.
Decades of misrule have kept this ancient city off the radar, but that is slowly changing as the country reforms. For the uninitiated: Located on the central plains along the Irrawaddy River, Bagan rivals Cambodia’s Angkor in magnificence and scale. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, it served as the capital of the Pagan Empire. Of its 4,400 temples and pagodas, more than 2,000 have survived; highlights include the Ananda Pahto, Dhammayangyi and Shwezigon Paya.
Tip: Bagan covers 26 square miles, and the midday heat can be scorching. From October to March, Balloons Over Bagan (easternsafaris.com) offers an unforgettable—and comfortable—way to view the temples.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
“A beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun” is how Rudyard Kipling described the 2,500-year-old pagoda. There’s little wonder the Englishman was dazzled: The bell-shaped stupa, or shrine, is covered in more than 60 tons of gold leaf and topped with thousands of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and other gems. Visible from most parts of Yangon, it’s both the city’s spiritual heart and prime social gathering spot. The entrance fee ($5) includes an elevator ride, but climbing one of the 4 staircases is more evocative.
Tip: The 8 posts around the stupa, each holding a marble statue of the Buddha, represent the days of the week (Wednesday is split in two). If you know on what day you were born, find that Buddha and pour water over it for good fortune.
Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Founded in the 9th century by King Jayavarman II, the Hindu-Buddhist Angkor empire was once the greatest power in southeast Asia. In the 12th century its capital, Angkor Thom, was home to a million people, a population larger than that of any European city at the time, and was filled with temples and palaces. Some 70,000 workers built nearby Angkor Wat, the magnificent temple complex famed for its honeycomb towers. Today 1.6 million tourists a year descend on the temples to explore the sandstone galleries filled with elaborately carved bas-reliefs.
Tip: The best time to travel is the May through October rainy season; you’ll avoid the crowds.
Meenakshi Sundareswarar, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India
Twelve towers covered in a writhing mass of brightly painted stucco gods, beasts and demons mark the entrances of one of southern India’s most impressive Hindu temples. Follow the crush of pilgrims through the eastern gate, which leads to the shrine to Shiva, one of the main gods worshipped here. The 16th-century Hall of a Thousand Pillars lies farther inside the complex. The maze of shrines may seem daunting at first, so take your time to wander and soak up the lively scene. Nearby is a market selling marigold garlands, miniature deities and other offerings. maduraimeenakshi.org
Tip: Time your visit for the raucous 12-day Chithirai festival in April, which celebrates the wedding of Shiva and the goddess Meenakshi.
Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand
Thailand’s hyperkinetic capital may seem to have little time for spiritual matters. But take a closer look and you’ll see evidence of the strong beliefs held by the mostly Buddhist population: spirit houses with fresh garlands, banyan trees wrapped in sacred cloth, and monks on their early-morning alms-gathering rounds. The city is filled with golden-spired temples, but this relatively austere shrine along the Chao Phraya River offers a respite from the hectic pace. At its heart is a 260-foot spire that visitors can climb. watarun.org
Tip: Though it’s called the Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun is best right before sunset. Afterward, cross the river to the rooftop bar of the Arun Residence (arunresidence.com) for an unbeatable view of the temple illuminated by floodlights.
Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China
Built at the same time as the Forbidden City, this compound of altars and temples is Beijing’s most stunning example of classical Chinese architecture. The Ming and Qing emperors performed rites here during the winter solstice to help ensure a good crop for the year to come. Sacrifices are no longer allowed in officially atheist China, but the 659-acre park is a favorite among Beijingers. The centerpiece is the Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests, a wooden chamber with a cylindrical blue-tiled roof.
Tip: If you go in the early morning, you can join locals in tai chi and other traditional activities.
Paro Taktsang, Paro Valley, Bhutan
Religion dominates everyday life in Bhutan, the Himalayas’ last remaining kingdom. Homes are filled with images of the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche, an 8th-century spiritual leader credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet. Prayer wheels, stupas and monasteries dot this tiny mountain country. The most famed monastery, Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, got its name from the legend that Guru Rinpoche once flew to the cliff-side site on the back of a tiger. For mere mortals, it’s a 2-hour hike to the monastery, which hovers nearly 3,000 feet above Paro Valley.
Tip: Stop at the cafeteria at the midway point for tea and photo ops—cameras aren’t allowed inside the monastery.
Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet
A fortress-like structure topped with a gilded bronze-tile roof adorned with deer and dharma wheels, this 1,300-year-old temple is regarded as the holiest site in Tibet. Pilgrims travel great distances to prostrate themselves in front of the golden image of the young Buddha and leave offerings of yak butter and votive candles. Though it was spared from destruction during the turbulent Cultural Revolution, Jokhang remained closed until 1979.
Tip: Follow the crowds walking clockwise—in Buddhist practice, circumambulation is always performed in this direction.
Tanah Lot, Bali
Clinging to black lava rock above the Bali Strait, this 16th-century temple is one of Bali’s most revered spots. Tourists are barred from the temple itself, but the dramatic setting is worth the trip. The Balinese practice an idiosyncratic form of Hinduism, freely mixing in Buddhism, animism and ancestor worship. Watch for worshippers dressed in traditional finery and carrying golden parasols and baskets of rice.
Tip: Tanah Lot is justifiably famous as a spot to view the sunset, but the throngs of tourists are distracting. Best to visit in the early morning.