Asia offers a western visitor an exciting, exotic change of culture. The abundance of gilded temples in Asia earned this region the nick name ‘The Golden East’.
Religious structures in Asia encompass some of the most spectacular architecture ever built, from modern temples bustling with worship and activity to evocative, crumbling ruins whose ancient stones tell of thousands of years of history, Asia’s temples offer a visitor a tantalising glance into a different way of life, religion and fervent belief.
Personally, immersing myself in the atmosphere, architecture and spirituality of Asia’s most stunning temples is a highlight of my travels around this fascinating region. No where does temples quite like Asia.
12 of The Best Temples in Asia to Visit
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Spectacular Angkor Wat is a symbol of national pride for Cambodia and even features on the flag. The temple, constructed in the early 12th century, was initially a Hindu temple designed to represent Mount Meru and be literally ‘heaven on earth’. Later Angkor Wat was converted to a Buddhist temple.
It is thought to be the largest religious structure in the world and Angkor Wat is just the start! The Temples of Angkor cover a huge site that previously formed a very advanced civilization and the largest city in the world before the industrial revolution.
An array of magnificent temples are scattered across 400 sq kilometres of verdant countryside in different styles and degrees of ruin, including the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple at Ta Phrom that is being slowly taken back by nature and the huge, enigmatic faces of Bayon.
Also Try: Preah Vihear, Cambodia
Borobodur, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia
Borobudur is a 8th- 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist temple situated majestically on a hillside in Java, Indonesia. Borobudur took 75 years to build out of an estimated 2 million blocks of stone without any kind of cement or mortar and is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.
As visitors climb up through the tiers and explore the temple the 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues represent the life of Buddha and take the pilgrim along through the journey to enlightenment.
Also Try: Nearby Prambanan, Indonesia
The Golden Temple in the Punjab region of India is the holiest place and most sacred shrine of Sikhism. The tank of water that surrounds the golden, gleaming central shrine is believed to have healing powers, and attracts Sikh pilgrims from all across the world to bathe in the sacred waters.
The Golden Temple is a glimmering, mesmerising blend of Islamic and Hindu architectural styles. The temple’s atmosphere is kept electric by priests and musicians that keep up a continuous chant from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahid.
Also, don’t miss the spectacle of 60,000 to 80,000 pilgrims who eat for free each day after praying at the Golden Temple – a humbling demonstration of the Sikh hospitality.
Also Try: The Taj Mahal, Agra, India. (Actually a mausoleum not a temple but a spectacular sight that cannot be missed)
Wat Rong Khun (or the white temple) in Chiang Rai is no ordinary temple. It glitters like something from a winter wonderland fairytale, it is mystical but also slightly spooky.
Wat Rong Khun is Thailand’s answer to Gaudi’s Sagarada Familia in Barcelona, construction of the contemporary, unconventional white temple began in 1996 and is expected to take nearly 100 years to complete. It is not expected to be finished until long after the artists death, but he is still impressively dedicating his life to it.
Last year an earthquake damaged the temple and it is being painstakingly rebuilt. The aim is to create the most beautiful temple in the world that will showcase modern Thai Buddist arts and will become an international tourist attraction to rival India’s Taj Mahal and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
I’ve never seen anything else like this.
Temples of Bagan, Burma
Bagan is an ancient capital city from the 9th – 13th century near Mandalay in Burma (Myanmar). Over 4,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains by the Irrawaddy river.
Now 2200 temples and pagodas still survive, scattering the plains to create an magnificent site which is especially atmospheric at sunrise and considered by many to be as impressive as the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Also Try: Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
The Wat Phra Kaew, better known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is located within the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace. These glittering gems are the jewel of all Thailand’s dazzling temples and, for good reason, Bangkok’s most famous attraction.
The temple is literally dripping with a mesmerising riot of gold, glittering mosaics and amazing mythical creatures with stunning details and elaborate splendour everywhere you look. Thailand’s most precious national treasure is housed here – The Emerald Buddha, a jade statue adorned in gold clothing which is one of the oldest and most famous Buddha statues in the world.
Also Try: The Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The sprawling, spectacular and fascinating Kek Lok Si on the historical, mixing pot, island of Penang, Malaysia showcases an excellent example of Malaysia’s beautiful diversity. Construction began in 1890 and it grew into the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and it is still growing and being added to.Kek Lok Si is crazy, colourful and a mixture of all kinds of architectural styles. Despite being a Buddhist temple it’s drastically different from any of the Buddhist temples in Thailand.
The temple incorporates many signs and symbols I had seen before in Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Chinese ancestral temples and Taoism all mixed together in a riotous array of colour, sculpture, design and harmony of both architecture and worshipping activities. It is a truly fascinating, inspiring temple which offered a surprise around every corner.
The temples at Khajuraho were built in the 10th century and are now a UNESCO world heritage site that is best known for the explicit erotic sculptures that adorn the ancient temples. Actually, the majority of the stunningly intricate freezes and sculptures that run all along and around the temples and up the flamboyant spires depict scenes of everyday medieval Indian life.
The rural setting, amazing architecture, style and detail of these temples are worth seeing, the erotic carvings just provide extra titillation in a normally very conservative country.
Also Try: Hampi, Karnataka, India
Boudhanath Stupa (or Bodnath Stupa) is the largest and most stunnning stupa in Nepal, and all of Asia, and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. A stupa was first built around AD 600, as, Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetan king converted to Buddhism.
Apparently the stupa was constructed as an act of penance after unwittingly killing his father, however, the current stupa is a more recent construction. Still the scene pulses with life as thousands of pilgrims gather every day to make a ritual circumnavigation of the dome, beneath the watchful eyes of the Buddha.
The whitewashed dome, gilded tower painted with the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha and fluttering coloured prayer flags are perfectly proportioned and symbolise the Buddha’s path towards enlightenment.
The Temple of Heaven is an Imperial Sacrificial Altar in Beijing. Built in 14th century by Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (who also built the Forbidden City) as his personal temple. The layout symbolizes the relationship between earth and heaven, the human world and God’s world, which forms the heart of Chinese cosmogony.
The Temple’s architecture is interesting because everything that represents Heaven, is circular whereas the ground levels, which represent the Earth, are square. The emperors held the Heaven Worship Ceremony here, where, as interlocutors between the human and the celestial realm, the emperor offered animal sacrifices to heaven to atone for the sins of his people.
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, is the highest ancient palace in the world and chief residence of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century, although he had to flee from Tibet during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. The imposing Potala Palace is built on top of the Red Mountain in Lhasa, Tibet, at an altitude of 3,700m by the first emperor of Tibet in 637 CE.
Even though it is now a state museum and can be a politically fraught region to travel in, it still symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and is a towering, fortress-like architectural wonder that still manages to beautifully integrate into the surrounding striking mountain landscape.
Bali is known as the ‘Island of the Gods’ and an island of ‘One Thousand Temples’ however this is a massive understatement as actually every house in Bali has a temple and watching a temple procession is a highlight of a visit to beautiful Bali. The island is a Hindu enclave within Muslim Indonesia but these temples differ greatly from India’s Hindu temples.
Besakih is the oldest, largest, holiest and most important temple in Bali, known as the mother temple. Besakih sits majestically in the shadow of the revered volcano Gunung Agung and offers a complex of over 80 temples and stunning views that narrowly missed destruction from an eruption of the volcano.
Also Try: Tanah Lot and Ulu Watu, Bali, Indonesia.
Learning about different religions provides a big insight into the culture and beliefs of different countries and can heighten your understanding of these intriguing Asian cultures.
Although these are some of the top temples in Asia, sometimes the spiritual atmosphere in these sacred places can be ruined by hordes of tourists.
Sometimes, just wondering off the beaten track and discovering a little, local temple that is unknown to other tourists can be a most authentic and rewarding surprise so get out there and explore.
Let me know – do you know any other amazing temples in Asia that I really must visit?