Scattered across Southeast Asia are seven Buddhist temples worth a look. Soak up the gorgeous architecture, embrace the atmosphere and connect with the Buddhist faith. More than a pretty picture, they enhance your spiritual being by welcoming you into their sanctums.
Considered one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand, Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn, is located in the Bangkok Yai District of Bangkok. It’s documented to have been founded before 1656 BE, at the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, and is named after Aruna, the Hindu god of dawn. It is meant to represent Mount Meru, a sacred mountain located near Pamirs, north east of Kashmir in India, that is deemed the center of all universes in Buddhist cosmology.
The architecture of the temple is unique, with rows of demons and monkeys encompassing the towers. The four prangs (spires) that are placed strategically around the temple hold statues of Phra Phai, the god of wind. The entire temple is covered in glistening pieces of broken porcelain, said to be remains of ballast from Chinese boats.
Whether you watch it glow off the shore of the Chao Phraya River at sunset or gaze at its powerful stance during the day, its beauty can be appreciated at any angle.
Pha That Luang
“The Great Stupa” serves as the most important national monument in Vientiane, Laos. It was originally built in 1566 and reconstructed in 1930 after damage from invasions. Not only is it a sanctuary for the Buddhist religion, but also the Lao Sovereignty, the historical aspect of the city. In order to appreciate and show gratitude, there is an annual festival held during the full moon of the 12th lunar month. The festival, That Luang Festival, is a three-day religious ceremony devoted to Buddhism followed with a week of festivities. It’s an opportunity for people to immerse themselves into the culture; there are carnival rides, craft stations, traditional music and costumes, and parades.
Surrounded by valleys and hills, Borobudur Temple is on the island of Java in Indonesia. It was built on the Kedu Plain in the 9th century during the reign of the Syailendra Dynasty. History says the plain was originally a lake and the temple represented a lotus flower drifting in the water. Because of the political situation in Central Java around the 11th century AD, the temple was abandoned for centuries and eventually succumbed to the volcanic eruptions from Mount Sumbing and Mount Sundoro. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that Lieutenant General Thomas Stamford Raffles, who was governor at the time, took interest in the mysterious and forgotten foundation. Over 100 years later, in 1956, it was fully restored to replicate its original stature.
The temple was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1991 and is still used as a place of worship and pilgrimage. Fun fact: Borobudur is the largest Buddhist structure in the world, each side of its square foundation measuring 387 feet.
Wat Rong Khun
Want to surprise your group with something unique? Take them to Chiang Rai, Thailand, home to the extremely detailed and all-white Wat Rong Khun temple. Nicknamed the “White Temple,” it represents the purity of Buddha. It was constructed and designed by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997, with a goal of incorporating a modern twist into Thai art. Look for a mural representing the Twin Towers, designs of Freddy Kruger and even Hello Kitty.
While walking over the bridge, “the cycle of rebirth,” to enter the temple, there are hundreds of white stone hands reaching from the grounds that symbolize desire. They represent the crossover of death into rebirth, a state of tranquility and peace that will be found once inside. Much of the land is scattered with various figures such as demons and hanging heads, which all signify a deeper meaning. Despite its pop culture references, Wat Rong Khun is undeniably a place of worship and one definitely worth seeing.
Shwedagon Pagoda Shrine
Acknowledged as the holiest shrine in Myanmar, Shwedagon Pagoda Shrine was built 2,500 years ago in the capital city, Yangon. Myanmar is often referred to as “The Land of Gold,” referring to this great piece of architecture that is covered in solid gold. Legend says that Tapussa and Bhallika, two merchant brothers, were given eight hairs of Buddha by Buddha himself and told to enshrine them in Burma, which they dutifully did.
The upper part of the temple is coated in over 2,000 carats worth of diamonds. Its base has four large pagodas surrounding 64 smaller ones containing sculptures of elephants, men kneeling, lions, serpents and ogres.
The shrine provides a majestic view for all to see and a fine presence once inside. Don’t forget to remove footwear out of respect and walk around the shrine in a clockwise manner.
The Temple of Clear Water was established in 778 and is located in Kyoto, Japan. It is named after the Otowa Waterfall, which flows nearby. The temple offers outstanding views from a large balcony that juts out from the side overlooking thousands of cherry and maple trees and the city of Kyoto in the distance.
At the base of the temple is the waterfall, which offers visitors a chance to engage in cultural legend. Feel free to catch and drink the water for wish granting powers or visit the Jishu Shrine, dedicated to the gods of love and matchmaking, said to give luck and fortune to those looking for love. Journey through the Higashiyama District to reach the temple, a well-known and preserved historic district that offers shops, restaurants, pottery and traditional foods to try.
For an even more fascinating and worthwhile view, visit the temple in late November to see illuminations projecting from the trees, changing the colors of everything in its path. There are also evening illuminations during the annual Hanatoro event in mid-March.
Kek Lok Si
Known for being the largest temple in Southeast Asia, the Temple of Supreme Bliss is located in Air Itam, Malaysia. Built in 1890, this heavily commercialized and popular temple overlooks the village and was inspired by the chief monk of the Goddess of Mercy. The seven-story tower was completed in 1905. The outer design of the pagoda is an accumulation of three separate cultures—Burmese at the top, Thai in the middle and Chinese at the bottom. The iconic Pagoda of 1,000 Buddhas is a city landmark. The Chinese community takes great pride in this temple and holds festivals there.
Basking in Buddhist culture and divine spirituality, these temples all serve to honor and praise the great Buddha. Whether you’re looking to explore the Buddhist faith or just want to see and experience religious history and architecture, visiting any one of the temples will definitely not disappoint. Are there any other must-see temples and/or shrines out there that we missed? Please leave a comment below to let us know!
By Hannah Kiehl