The wealth of beautiful sights and fascinating histories supplied by the temples of Southeast Asia will be enough to dazzle even the most seasoned traveler. No expense or time was spared in creating these monuments to spiritual belief, and their tremendous variety means there’s always something new to discover.
Traveling in Southeast Asia
Most Southeast Asian countries are very welcoming to Western visitors and, because prices are low, they are a popular choice with backpackers. Many people choose to start in Pattaya, Thailand, where there are plenty of low-cost places to stay, and where the friendly locals guarantee a warm welcome. Once the journey starts in earnest, long-distance buses make it easy to travel between tourist sights, though some people prefer to hitch and get to know the locals, while others opt to cycle or ride motor scooters. While this article looks at some of the most spectacular places to visit, there are many smaller ones, including local village shrines dating back millennia.
When visiting temples, it’s important to note that many remain active places of worship, of deep importance to local people. One should normally remove one’s shoes before entering and make sure upper arms are covered, and women should be careful not to make physical contact with monks, even brushing past them, as this can be seen to compromise the monks’ religious purity.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Probably the most famous temple complex in the region, Angkor Wat is built on ruins thought by some to be as much as 13,000 years old, one of the oldest manmade structures in the world. It was significantly extended in the 12th century on the orders of King Suryavarman II and is the largest religious monument anywhere in the world, so it can take days to explore it all. Although it may not feature the gold or bright colors of other temples in the region, its distinctive Khmer architecture has majesty of its own, looking particularly impressive at dawn and dusk.
Batu Caves, Malaysia
Hewn out of a limestone hill just north of Kuala Lumpur, these remarkable cave temples are really something different. They’re presided over by a towering golden statue of the war god Murugan (an avatar of Kartikeya) and entered via an equally towering set of steps. Inside, the immense caverns house a temple devoted to the monkey god Hanuman, and the Ramayana Cave has murals depicting the story of Rama. The best time to visit is during the festival of Thaipusam in late January or early February (heralded by the full moon), when local Tamils celebrate Murugan’s vanquishing of the demon Soorapadman.
Pura Luhur Uluwatu, Bali
Perched on a precipice above the breaking surf, Pura Luhur Uluwatu is visible for miles around. It was built in the 11th century, along with eight other temples, to protect Bali from evil spirits. The coral walls of its interior are covered in animal carvings (with both real and mythical beasts), and the Hindu people who worship there show respect for the local wild animals by bringing them food. Visitors are often invited to feed the monkeys. At sunset, people gather to watch the traditional Kecak dance in the temple grounds.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Dominating Yangon, the golden stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda, set atop Singuttara Hill, is an awesome sight and is surrounded by porticos of gold and white, each with its own elegant spire. It incorporates 90 tons of gold in all, plus a spectacular diamond. Inside, it’s just as magnificent, with many small but elaborate shrines and smiling Buddha statues, and it houses sacred relics of the Buddhas. At 2,600 years old, it is thought to be the oldest surviving pagoda in the world.
Wat Arun, Thailand
The magnificent stepped pyramid of Wat Arun (also known as the Temple of Dawn) is covered in intricate carvings and surrounded by several galleries from which one can look down to the Chao Phraya river below. Brightly-colored porcelain tiles line its many roofs and prang (spires) and look dazzling in the sunlight. Its central Buddha, in the ordination hall, was created by King Rama II and guards his ashes. Below, six Chinese-style green granite pavilions welcome visitors who have crossed the water while, above, the seven-pronged Trident of Shiva pierces the sky.
Văn Miếu, Vietnam
Also known as the Temple of Literature, this Confucian shrine remains an island of peace in modern Hanoi, its five courtyards are the perfect place to rest or simply to gaze in wonder. Less elaborate than the other temples listed here, it is no less impressive thanks to its elegant design, with red brick roofs curving like wings and long, low walls perfectly complemented by the surrounding foliage. It was built in 1070 to replicate the birthplace of Confucius, the Qufu temple in Shandong, China, and over the centuries it has served as a university for the religious and social elite. The best time to visit is at Tết, Vietnamese New Year (in late January or early February), when it fills up with calligraphers writing wishes as beautiful works of art.
Miagao Church, Philippines
This elaborate Baroque church, now listed as a World Heritage Site, represents the collision of Christian architecture in one of its most dramatic forms with the very different but equally magnificent traditions of Filipino art. Also known as Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church and as the Fortress Church (since it was used to defend the town against Muslim raids), it was built in 1787 and has since survived full scale war, earthquakes and a massive fire. Inside is a gold-plated sanctuary that recalls the Buddhist and Hindu temples of the region.
Wat Rong Khun, Thailand
Looking like an elaborate snowflake, Wat Rong Khun is a modern structure very much in keeping with the spectacular tradition of temples in the region. It is almost entirely built of mirror glass and it sparkles a dazzling white, topped with intricate structures that give it an ethereal quality. It is entered via a bridge over a gleaming lake. Designed by the esteemed painter Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997, it is dedicated to the Buddha but draws inspiration from a wide range of sources, with interior murals depicting Batman, Superman and scenes from the Predator movies.
Wherever you choose to go, there is no shortage of beautiful temples to discover in Southeast Asia, and visiting them will give you fresh insight into the dynasties and empires that have shaped this remarkable part of the world.