Temples in Asia have long drawn travellers from all over the globe to witness their distinct allure and charm.
Some remain completely shrouded in mystery. Others seem to be breathtakingly frozen in time, telling stories from realities that have ceased to exist. And there are modern temples in Asia that continue to contribute to world heritage to this day.
I don’t know about you, but my fascination for these often gargantuan markers of the past reached peak geekery thanks to Nickelodeon’s defunct game show, Legends of the Hidden Temple. But I should stop myself there lest I reveal my age.
Were you one of those mobile gamers hooked on Temple Run a few years back? Or are you an adventurer with a penchant for Asian history? Either way, you’ve come to the right place. Give out some serious Indiana Jones and Lara Croft vibes by visiting neighbouring countries known for the most beautiful temples in Asia. Here’s our top 15 — how many have you ticked off your list so far?
1. Angkor Thom, Cambodia
It’s no secret that Cambodia is home to some of the most well-known temples in Asia. A mere 10 minutes away from the popular Angkor Wat complex, Angkor Thom is another Cambodian temple complex that is just as iconic. What sets it apart is the genius of its design and the parcel of history its particular aesthetic represents.
Its most unforgettable feature? The gigantic faces etched into the stone structures of Bayon, one of the temples within Angkor Thom. Being surrounded by these unmoving heads can be eerie at times, but the experience sure makes for one great photo op. Historically, Angkor Thom is also known as “the last capital of the Khmer empire”. So you can just imagine the events that transpired within its walls.
2. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The first thing that tourists will notice about Angkor Wat in Cambodia is its sheer size. The complex is considered the “largest religious monument in the world” at around 400 sqm! (For comparison, the Angkor Wat complex is larger than Quezon City). It then makes sense why its name translates to capital or city of temples. It’s literally a centre that houses several places of worship. Aside from temples, the Angkor Wat premises also house gardens, open grounds, communication routes, and even water supply systems.
Of course, Angkor Wat is a poster child for temples all around the world — which is why it’s also one of the world’s most visited temples. The best part? It’s so big that even if crowds of tourists are present during your visit, you’re more likely to have a corner of the historical site all to yourself.
3. Banteay Srei, Cambodia
You must know first and foremost that the Hindu temple Banteay Srei holds a special place in my heart. Personally, I find it among the most captivating temples (if not THE most captivating temple) in Cambodia because of its unique colour. Imagine driving through the thick Cambodian forest and little by little, what appears to be a miniature temple complex slowly emerges — its terracotta hue a stark difference from the surrounding greenery. Pinkish-orange sandstone gives the structure its warmth. Combine this with the intricate carvings that adorn its walls, and you can just imagine what a beaut it is. It’s so enchanting that it is often called the “jewel of Khmer art”!
Another interesting fact about Banteay Srei is that its name translates to citadel of women. The name is fitting, considering its delicate beauty and feminine tinge. It was also dedicated to the god Shiva, who is part of the Hindu triumvirate. Compared to the wonders at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei is no doubt smaller. But perhaps its being petite adds to its charm. The site is almost an hour away from Siem Reap centre, but I promise the drive is worth it!
4. Borobudur, Indonesia
There are many Buddhist temples across the globe, but none are as iconic as Borobudur. It’s actually the largest Buddisht monument in the world, and was estimated to have been standing in Central Java since the 8th or 9th century. But did you know that it was abandoned for a very long time before it became the beloved tourist destination that it is today? In fact, they say it was untouched in the middle of nowhere for ten centuries straight before the British discovered its ruins in 1815. Over 500 Buddha statues, a magnificent multi-tiered stupa, and Buddhism-inspired design elements are just some of the things that you’ll see when you visit.
5. Dhammayangyi Temple, Myanmar
From the year 1057 to about 1287, kings of Bagan in then-Burma came and went — in the process leaving behind a most interesting legacy: a plain filled with temples. We’re talking about thousands of temples… 4,450, to be exact. But only a little over 2,000 remain standing today. Still, you can just imagine why landscape of Bagan has become such a popular destination.
But of those 2,000+ temples, which ones are standouts? One of them is the Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest among the Bagan temples. While it dominates the terrain with its lofty architecture, it’s known to be the only temple in Bagan that was left unfinished by the ruthless king who had it built. King Narathu was so hated that he was assassinated before construction was over. Had it been completed, Dhammayangyi would have been even more staggering in size.
6. Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan
Taiwan is a destination that brims with go-tos and must-dos no matter the area you’re touring. But not a lot of people know that it’s also home to one of the most arresting temples in Asia. If you find yourself in Kaohsiung, make a beeline for Dashu District to witness the country’s largest Buddhist temple.
Fo Guang Shan is a modern structure, and it is most recognisable thanks to a large golden statue of Buddha sitting atop the complex’s main structure. Leading to the main temple (and lining the pathway) are pagodas that make for quite the Instagrammable scene. A photo tip: Shoot Fo Guang Shan temple from a distance so that you capture the grounds in all its perfectly landscaped glory.
7. Janaki Mandir, Nepal
Built to honour the Hindu goddess Sita, Janaki Mandir in Nepal is a palatial structure that is breathtaking inside and out. Picture this: White marble walls, colourful stained glass, and a grand architectural design that drips elegant baroque. From afar, Janaki Mandir looks immaculate in its whiteness, but a closer look would reveal the vibrant details that embellish its facade.
You’ll find the temple in Janakpur, one of India’s most popular pilgrimage sites. Inside, there is also a museum that tells the tale of Rama and Sita, so pay attention when you drop by!
8. Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Japan
In Kyoto, many old Buddhist temples are part of the UNESCO world heritage site list. These markers of history, after all, keep ancient Kyoto’s stories alive. One such structure is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a popular place of worship for both tourists and locals that was founded in 778. What makes the temple even more beautiful is the verdant nature that surrounds it. Kiyomizu-dera sits halfway up Mt. Otowa, so you can just imagine the accompanying views that change with every season.
Inside the temple, there is more to explore as well. If you practise the faith, be sure to pray to Kannon, the deity that the temple is dedicated to. Travellers, on the other hand, would do well to join one of Kiyomizu-dera Temple’s special tours. You’ll be guided by an English-speaking priest, so take the opportunity to learn more about the budding of Buddhism in Kyoto and the rest of Japan.
9. Lotus Temple, India
The Lotus Temple may be the most contemporary structure on this list, but just look at that architecture! It’s called the Lotus Temple because it was designed to literally look like a giant lotus flower. Because of the dome’s unique shape, the Lotus Temple is a must-see for all who visit Delhi.
What makes it even more intriguing is that it isn’t actually designated to one single god, as places of worship usually are. In line with the teachings of Bahai (the religion that serves as the foundation of Lotus Temple), the place is open to all people and religions. The Bahai faith teaches tolerance and the willingness to embrace all beliefs. You’ll find this “oneness of faith” at the core of Bahai, which is why there are no images or statues at the Lotus Temple. Inside, there is only a vast, open space for praying which can fit around 2,500 people.
10. Jokhang Temple, Tibet
Ask where the most sacred Buddhist temple is in Tibet, and people will most likely point you in the direction of Jokhang Temple. You’ll find it within the complex of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s winter home since the 7th century. The grand structure, predominantly maroon and white, is perched atop the Red Mountain in the Lhasa Valley. You can say that this is where you can be steeped in Buddhism history — with a jaw-dropping view. The entire site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the place is pretty massive. So we’d definitely recommend going on a guided day tour if you want to learn more about the area… and if you don’t have the time to get lost.
11. Paro Takstang Dzong, Bhutan
If you’ve been planning a trip to Bhutan (or if you’ve been there already), chances are you’ll know Paro Takstang Dzong or the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It’s iconic and well-photographed, so it’s one of those temples in Asia that is practically synonymous with a place.
Aside from being one of the most sacred sights in the Himalayas, the Takstang Dzong is an undeniable gem, architecturally speaking. It elegantly clings to a cliffside in Paro and the only way to get there is to make the journey on foot or by riding a horse. It’s a three-hour trek to the top if you choose to take your time, but what awaits is a wellspring of tranquility, mediation, and self-awareness. They say Bhutan’s “second Buddha”, Guru Rinpoche (also called Precious Master) meditated in its hallowed halls, giving Paro Takstang Dzong its sacred status.
12. Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Punakha Dzong in Bhutan hits all the right spots: It’s one of the most beautiful structures in the country, it’s one of the oldest places of worship (second oldest, to be exact), and it’s also one of the largest (second, again, to Trongsa Dzong near Mangde River). So why didn’t we choose to go with Trongsa instead? One look at Punakha Dzong and you’ll completely understand. The entire complex looks like a painting, from its massive white walls to its deep red roofs and the greenery that envelops it. It also holds immense historical and sociopolitical significance, as Punakha was Bhutan’s capital from 1637 to 1907.
Here’s an interesting fact: Not one nail was used to build Punakha Dzong. We’ll let that boggle your mind until you get the chance to see Punakha Dzong in person!
13. Ranakpur Temple, India
No doubt Ranakpur Temple in India is an enchanting piece of Jain history. It sits right between Udaipur and Jodhpur in the middle of the forest, so be sure to drop by if you’re in the area. The first thing you’ll notice is its intricate architecture. The facade is decorated with the most intricate carvings you’ll ever lay your eyes upon! We’re not joking — it will be difficult to wrap your head around the idea that these were all carved by hand. Inside, you’ll find more marble carvings, and if you pay close attention, you’ll recognise several figures that are iconic in the country (such as the elephant).
But more than being a tourist spot, Ranakpur is actually one of the major pilgrimage sites of the Jains. So remember to respect this beautiful place of worship, whether or not you see people praying there. The same goes for most temples in Asia, actually.
14. Thatbyinnyu Temple, Myanmar
Unlike most of the reddish temples you’ll find in Bagan, Thatbyinnyu Temple is white. Of course, the years have aged the structure, which is now covered in soot. But it is still quite a sight to behold. Because it is among the tallest structures in the area, Thatbyinnyu Temple towers over the rest of Bagan. If you pay a visit to the site, its gilded hti (a spire ornament that looks like a golden tip from afar) is bound to catch your eye long before you even reach the entrance. Inside, you’ll spot statues depicting spirits worshipped by the Burmese before Buddhism arrived in the country.
15. Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand
You’ll most likely recognise this temple through its English name, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.Wat Phra Kaew in Thailand is both striking and significant. It is home to the Emerald Buddha, often considered the most sacred image in the country. It is treated with utmost respect, so much so that only the king of Thailand or a high-ranking member of the royal family may touch it. Since it is a sacred site, there are times that Wat Phra Kaew is closed to the public. This is done when there are rituals carried out inside or when the temple complex is marking an event. For most of the year, though, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is open to tourists — its predominantly red, gold, and blue exterior gracing the photos of those who come to visit.
There are more top temples in Asia — visit them all!
A disclaimer: There are other beautiful temples in Asia that we might have missed! Wat Rong Khun in Thailand is known for its crisp, all-white aesthetic. Yakcheonsa Temple in South Korea looks like the set of a period Koreanovela. Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, India is an architectural marvel with a pillared monastery… and the list goes on. So have you been to a sight that you think should be included here? Let us know! Or better yet, post your photo on IG and tag us @tripzillaph.