Temples are to Eastern Asia what cathedrals are to Europe: intricately constructed houses of worship that today serve as beacons of cultural history. And, like European cathedrals, there are plenty of temples to visit throughout Eastern Asia. While each site offers unique rewards to travelers, here are some of our personal favorites.
Beopjusa (South Korea)
Constructed in the 6th century by Silla monks, this temple in Korea’s Chungcheongbok-do province today serves as the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. Beopjusa is home to the country’s highest pagoda, a five-story structure that stands more than 22 meters high, as well as more than 100 buildings and hermitages for tourists to scope out.
Located on the island of Java, this monument that consists of more than 2,500 relief panels and 504 statues of Buddha dates back to the 9th century, during the height of the Saleindra Dynasty. Surrounded by mountains and lush forests, Borobudur is best experienced on foot; guides are available for 50,000 rupiah (roughly equivalent to $4.50).
Khajuraho Temple (India)
In addition to the sacred deities and heroic figures carved into the walls of this site in Madhya Pradesh, visitors may also be tickled to find sculpted renditions of various erotic activities. Roughly half the temple is devoted to Hindu scripture, while the Eastern quadrant of the temple was inspired by Jainist teachings. Every February, the Khajuraho Dances are held on the temple grounds.
Koh Ker (Cambodia)
Angkor Wat, arguably one of Asia’s most famous temples, is the most popular tourist site in Cambodia ― but as beautiful and historically relevant as these ruins are, the crowds can be a bit tough to navigate during certain times of the year. Koh Ker, on the other hand, retains the same level of majestic architecture and cultural significance as Angkor Wat without the throngs of sweaty travelers, thanks to its relatively remote location (the nearest town is roughly 30 miles away).
The Great Buddha of Kamakura ― a bronze sculpture that stands more than 13 meters high ― is one of Japan’s most enduring landmarks, but it’s merely one of many sacred relics found inside the Kōtoku-in Temple complex. Tourists can also see hand-carved haiku tablets, commemorative pine trees, and Kangetsu-do Hall, a former adjunct of the Japanese Imperial Palace.
Paro Takstang (Bhutan)
Bhutan is not an easy country to visit (there’s a lengthy application process just to obtain a tourist visa), but anyone who manages to visit this mountainous country should make time to visit this holiest of temples, also known as ‘Tiger’s Nest’. Visiting Paro Takstang requires an arduous uphill hike that stretches more than 900 meters; however, those who complete the trek will discover sacred Buddhist relics, masterful stone carvings, and the breathtaking views one might expect from a cliffside temple overlooking a lush Bhutanese valley.
Shwedagon Pagoda (Myanmar)
Also known as the ‘Great Dragon Pagoda’ or ‘Golden Pagoda’, this site sits atop sacred Siguttara Hill, which overlooks the former Burmese capital of Yangon (or Rangoon). According to legend, the pagoda was constructed in the year 588 BCE by two traveling brothers who returned home with a trove of Buddhist relics. Shwedagon looks beautiful year-round, but the best time to visit is arguably during the festival held from late February to early March.
Temple of Literature (Vietnam)
Văn Miếu, temples devoted to the practice of Confucianism, can be found throughout Vietnam, but this Hanoi site is one of the most prominent. Additionally, the Temple of Literature is historically significant for an entirely different reason ― nearly 1,000 years ago, it was commissioned as Vietnam’s first university. The temple’s five courtyards and interconnected complexes were inspired by Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius.
Wat Rong Khun (Thailand)
This ‘White Temple’ of Chang Rai is the newest entry on our list ― artist Chalermchai Kositpipat completed his design in 1997, and the building should be completed by 2070. Wat Rong Khun is designed to celebrate Thailand’s diverse cultural framework; scenes from Buddhist and Hindu scripture adorn the walls, as do figures of contemporary characters associated with religious mythology, such as Superman and Neo from The Matrix.
Wannian Temple (China)
A product of the Jin Dynasty (321-420), this temple located atop Mount Emei in Sichuan Province was rebuilt in 1953, seven years after a fire all but destroyed it. Today it is home to three particularly significant relics: the Beamless Hall, a large structure built entirely from bricks and stones; the Pu Xian Buddha, a massive golden sculpture; and the Tooth of Buddha, thought to have belonged to Siddhārtha Gautama himself (though scientists actually believe it came from an elephant’s mouth).