Southeast Asia is a region famous for its pristine beaches, mouthwatering food, welcoming people, fascinating cultures, easygoing atmosphere, and some of the world’s most beautiful and remarkable temples and religious structures. These archaeological wonders are now in ruins but still have the power to evoke feelings of awe. Others, dating back centuries, are still in use as places of worship and houses sacred relics.
Many of Southeast Asia’s temples have become major travel drawcards and rightfully so. These temples represent not only the belief but also a culture’s history and phenomenal creativity. These impressive religious complexes provide visitors a glimpse into the past as well as the opportunity to gain a broader understanding of the present and insight into the future. Here are 19 of the most stunning and most noteworthy temples in Southeast Asia.
Prambanan, situated in Central Java, is a Hindu temple that dates back to the 9th century. Also called Rara Jonggrang, it is the biggest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the most expansive temple complexes in Southeast Asia. Prambanan – listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – features typical Hindu architecture and is easily recognizable by its towering, pointed individual temples.
Just 42 kilometres northwest of Yogyakarta in Java, Borobudur is another UNESCO-listed 9th-century temple in Indonesia. Recognized as the largest Buddhist temple in the world, the awe-inspiring temple is a must-visit for Buddhist pilgrims. It is adorned with 504 Buddha statues and close to 3 thousand relief panels. The monument’s central dome – perched on top of a mountain – is encircled by 72 statues of Buddha, each of them set within a perforated stupa.
Built in 1827, Sri Mariamman is one of Singapore’s most popular tourist attractions. The religious monument is located in busy Chinatown. Featuring Dravidian architecture and decorated with six tiers of ornate, brightly painted sculptures of deities, it is a sight to behold and a must-see for every first-time visitor in the city-state.
Kek Lok Si
Bordered by scenic landscapes and the magnificent rolling hills of Penang, Malaysia, Kek Lok Si is one of the most beautiful temples in Southeast Asia. The temple is a crowd-puller, especially during Chinese New Year, when thousands of lights and lanterns transform it into a shimmering spectacle.
Famous worldwide for it massive, 160-foot-long reclining Buddha, Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is one of Bangkok’s top attractions. Just a stone’s throw away from the Grand Palace in the city’s Phra Nakhon District, it is home to a large number of Buddha images. The sprawling temple complex is also one of the oldest wats in Bangkok. Additionally, it is considered Thailand’s first university and houses the center for the preservation and teaching of traditional Thai massage, which is taught and practiced with the temple complex to this day.
Another religious monument with a UNESCO World Heritage status is Angkor Wat. Set within the Angkor Archaeological Park approximately 6 kilometres from the city of Siem Reap, is believed to the largest religious structure ever built. It is one of Cambodia’s national icons and has always been the leading reason why travellers from the world over flock to the country. Due to its immense popularity, Angkor Wat is always packed with tourists. So if you want to capture its captivating beauty in photos, be prepared to begin queuing up at the break of dawn.
Wat Rong Khun
Located in Chiang Rai, Thailand, Wat Rong Khun or the White Temple is arguably the city’s most interesting attraction. It was built in 1998 by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famed visual artist and painter, who wanted the temple to be a place where people can meditate and learn about the Buddha’s teachings. Painted in white, it symbolizes Buddha’s purity. It is also filled with sections and details that represent various Buddhist teachings and also has a main prayer room decorated with thought-provoking murals. To date, construction is still ongoing at Wat Rong Khun.
Set in the plains of Bagan in Myanmar, the Bagan Temples are a must-see when travelling across Southeast Asia. Between the 11th and 13th centuries during the height of the Pagan Kingdom, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, monasteries, and pagodas were built in Bagan. Presently, only 2229 temples and pagodas have survived but these religious monuments still make the Bagan Archaeological Zone one of the richest, largest, and most significant archaeological sites in the world. For a mind-blowing adventure, see the impressive collection of historic monuments on a thrilling hot air balloon ride. It is an experience like no other.
Pura Ulun Danu Bratan
Built on the shores of Lake Bratan in the mountains near Bedugul, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan
is a leading Shaivite water temple in Bali, Indonesia. Dating back to 1633, it is dedicated to Dewi Danu, Bali’s beloved water, lake, and river goddess. The magnificent temple complex also houses an 11-storey principal shrine dedicated to Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Built on Doi Suthep Mountain about 45 minutes from Chiang Mai’s city centre, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most beautiful temples to explore in the region. A cherished symbol of the Lanna culture, the historic and beautiful temple is considered of the most sacred places of worship in Thailand. Climb the 306-step staircase leading to the mountaintop temple and be rewarded with impressive panoramic views of Chiang Mai.
One of Myanmar’s major tourist attractions, the Shwedagon Pagoda or the Great Dragon Pagoda is a 99-metre-tall stupa on Singgutara Hill in Yangon, Myanmar. Believed to house relics of the four Buddhas – Kakusandha’s staff, Konagamana’s water filter, a piece from Kassapa’s robe, and eight strands of hair from Gautama’s head.
Aside from its immense cultural and religious significance, the Shwedagon Pagoda is also famous for its design. The gilded temple has a base made of bricks but the brick structure is wrapped with genuine gold plates. The stupa’s crown is covered with thousands of diamonds and rubies.
Bali has seven sea temples and Tanah Lot, perched on a rocky outcrop amidst gorgeous sunset backdrops and crashing waves, is one you can’t afford to miss. The famous landmark is easily the most photographed temple in Bali.
Sukhothai Historical Park is located near the modern city of Sukhothai, about 4 hours away from Chiang Mai. Located within Sukhothai Historical Park are about 193 ancient monuments spread over 70 kilometres. Explore the archaeological site and see magnificent chedis and temples from different eras – Khmer, Sukhothai, Singalese, Mon Haripchunchai, and Ayutthaya. Sukhothai also includes images of Buddha in different postures and positions.
Established in 1350, the Historic City of Ayutthaya was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom, after Sukhothai. For centuries after it was founded, it was a flourishing trading capital until the Burmese mercilessly burned it down in 1767. What’s left of the once-prosperous capital city is a collection of restored and preserved monasteries, temples, and statues all located on an island bordered by three rivers. Only a 1.5-hour bus ride from Bangkok, Ayutthaya – also a UNESCO World Heritage Site – makes for a great cultural day trip when visiting Bangkok.
Pha That Luang
Located in the heart of the capital city of Vientiane, Pha That Luang is a gilded Buddhist stupa that’s regarded as the national symbol of Laos. Believed to have been built during the 3rd century, the stupa boasts spectacular architecture, from its stunning pagoda to the beautiful courtyard. It houses many Buddhist statues and the stupa itself features several terraces symbolizing Buddhist enlightenment, from materialism to the state of nothingness.
In 1828, Pha Tat Luang was destroyed by invading Thais and went through a few reconstructions approximately 100 years later. Visit Phra That Luang to gain a deeper appreciation of Buddhism and insight into the culture of Laos.
Bai Dinh Temple
Bai Dinh Temple is a sprawling compound of Buddhist temples in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam. The temple complex is composed of the old Bai Dinh Pagoda and a newer temple spanning a 700-hectare area. The new temple complex is built between 2003 and 2010. An important site among Buddhist pilgrims, Bai Dinh Temple is home to the Bai Dinh Temple Festival, a big and popular festival that is celebrated on the 6th day of the first month of the lunar calendar.
Wat Rong Suea Ten
Wat Rong Suea Ten or the Blue Temple is located just outside Chiang Rai. It a newly built temple and construction work is still ongoing. What makes the temple fascinating is the large white Buddha that’s accentuated by the temple’s stunning blue interiors and ornate carvings.
Believed to be around 400 years old, Batu Caves is a complex of caves and cave temples in a limestone hill in Gombok, Selangor, Malaysia. The most popular Hindu Shrine in Malaysia, Batu Caves is dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan. A 140-ft high statue of Murugan – the tallest Murugan statue ever constructed – stands on the base of the hill just outside the Batu Caves. The biggest cave – Cathedral Cave – has a number Hindu Shrines under its 100-metre high ceiling. To reach Cathedral Cave, you must climb 272 steps up the hill.
Another must-visit temple in Bali, Indonesia is Uluwatu Temple, a seaside temple that sits on top of ruggedly beautiful cliffs. The temple appeals to local and foreign tourists looking to experience spectacular sunset views and watch local dancers perform Kecak – a traditional Balinese dance – amidst ethereal views.
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By: Brendelyn Balaga