Asia's 12 Most Amazing Holy Temples and Sacred Pilgrimage Sites

  • 01 of 12

    Taktshang Monastery in Bhutan

    Taktshang Monastery in Bhutan
    ••• Taktshang Monastery, called "Tiger's Nest," in Bhutan. ©Stephen Shephard/Wikimedia Commons

    These Are the Places You Must See When You Visit Asia

    Asia is filled with exotic tastes and magnificent sights: holy temples and sacred sites. Luxury travelers who want to really understand the local cultures of Asia make a point of visiting its ancient temples, shrines, and holy places.

    On These Pages You'll See the Asia's Holiest Pilgrimage Sites

    Every one of the places on these pages has deep historical and cultural significance and is a wonder to behold.

    Many of these 12 spots are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, places that the United Nations has officially designated as spectacular and meaningful.
    • Find out more about UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and why they're the original 1000 places you must see in this world
    • Some of the sites are in cities, and some are remote
    • They can all be explored in-depth via customized private or small-group tours with a high-end outfitter such asAsia Transpacific Journeys

    First Up: Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan's Bucket-List Sight High in the...MORE Himalayas

    Taktshang Monastery is Bhutan's most photographed and most sacred place.
    • This Buddhist monastery clings dramatically to a cliff 3,000 feet above a valley in the Himalayas, and is often shrouded in mist
    • It is also called"Tiger's Nest"
    • Travelers can join locals in hanging Buddhist prayer flags on long ropes that festoon the monastery
    • But first, you must ask the monks if the date is auspicious
    • From About's India Travel expert: more on traveling to Bhutan and seeing Taktshang Monastery with your own eyes

    Continue to 2 of 12 below.
  • 02 of 12

    12 Holiest Places in Asia. First: Dharamsala, Dalai Lama's Domain

    Dharamsamal, the home of the Dalai Lama
    ••• The 14th (and current) Dalai Lama built the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, a museum in Dharamsala, India, His Holiness's place of exile. © Wikimedia Commons.

    Dharamsala, Home of the Dalai Lama, Exiled from Tibet

     Dharamsala is a sunny small city northern India with a world-famous resident.
    • Its is the capital of the Tibetan government in exile...
    • and the place where the Dalai Lama makes his blessed home when he is not globe-trotting

    Who, Exactly, Is the Dalai Lama?

    The Dalai Lama is the highest priest and spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist faith. He serves his entire life.

    Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is found in a country-wide search for a holy child.  The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935 and was chosen when he was just two years old.
    • Read more about Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

    The Dalai Lama Is a Cherished Leader

    This Dalai Lana s one of the world’s most respected and beloved public figures. Among his many good works: His Holiness founded the museum-like Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, shown here.

    Why Dharamsala Represents Freedom

    Dharamsala is of utmost importance to followers of the Dalai Lama -- and to...MORE non-Buddhists from around the world who are committed to Tibet's independence

    Continue to 3 of 12 below.
  • 03 of 12

    Varanasi in India, Holy Hindu Place on Ganges River

    Varanasi, also called Benares, India's holy city
    ••• The holiest place in the Hindu world, Varanasi upon the Ganges River in India. ©Stacey Schultz

    Varanasi, Where Holy Hindus Send Off their Departed Loved Ones

    This world-famous city of Varanasi in northeastern India, also called Benares, is the center of the world in the Hindu faith.

    Hindus believe that a ritual cleansing in the holy waters of the Ganges River at Varanasi absolves them of sin and enables higher birth status in the next life. Varanasi is holy to Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists as well. Millions of Hindus make their way to Varanasi annually to pray and wade in the Ganges' waters.

    The Bonfires You See in the Water: Those Are Cremations

    And many Hindus make their final journey here to be cremated. Doing so helps their souls find enlightenment.
    • Read about visting Varanasi, the Hindu faith's most sacred place.

    Another Can't-Miss Place Nearby: Sarnath

    Visitors to Varanasi should also see Sarnath a few miles away, a sacred spot near Varanasi that draws Hindu pilgrims from around the world.

     It is said that the original Buddha, called Gautama, preached his first sermon...MORE in Sarnath after achieving enlightenment.

    Why Gautama Buddha is Called "Lord of the Deer"

    The place's name comes from Saranganath, which means Lord of the Deer. It's a beautiful legend.
    • The story goes that a king, Saranganath, was visited by a Bodhisattva, or angel, who took the form of a deer
     • Although a god, this angel-deer offered its life to Saranganath to save a doe the king had caught
    • Saranganath was so moved that he not only freed the doe, he stopped hunting and made his lands a deer sanctuary
    • This refuge is still in place today, populated by tame, well-fed deer
    • Read about the rousing past of Sarnath and its environs

    Continue to 4 of 12 below.
  • 04 of 12

    Pashupatinath in Nepal

    Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal
    ••• Pashupatinath Temple, a Hindu holy place in Nepal's mysterious, ancient Kathmandu. ©Wikimedia Commons/Luca Galuzzi,www.galuzzi.it

    Of Nepal's Many Holy Places, Pashupatinath in Kathmandu is the Most-Visited

    Pashupatinath Temple is in Nepal, the rugged nation that houses most of the Himalaya Mountains.
    • The temple is set in the mystical city of Kathmandu, a classic destination for spiritual travelers (and a hippie icon for free-spirited travelers)
    • From About's India Travel Expert, photos of Kathmandu

    Lord Shiva the All-Powerful

    Pashupatinath is the largest Hindy temple anywhere devoted to Shiva. 
    • This supremely powerful Hindu god is depicted as a tough character, wearing serpents and a crescent moon

    Not a Hindu? You Can Watch Everything from the Riverbank

    Pashupatinath draws devotees from all over the Hindu world, and only Hindus are permitted to enter the temple.
    • Non-believers can watch the goings-on from the opposite bank of the holy Bagmati River, and should not be surprised to witness a cremation ceremony
    • From About's Hinduism Expert: why Hindus believe the gods dwell in Nepal's Himalayas

    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12

    Golden Temple of Dambulla, an Astounding CaveTemple in Sri Lanka

    Golden Buddha of Dambulla Temple in Sri Lanka
    ••• Sri Lanka's Golden Temple of Dambulla was carved into the rock. © Stacey Schultz

    Sri Lanka Is Exotic and Its Cave Yemples Amazing

    Off the beaten path in the Indian Ocean south of India, the island nation of Sri Lanka is an advanced tourism destination. Among its many enticements are its numerous Hindu temples built right into caves.

    Dambulla, Wowing Visitors for Over 2,000 Years

    Dambulla, the most impressive Sri Lankan cave temple, has lured Hindu pilgrims for 2,200 years. Today, adventurous travelers to Sri Lanka seek it out as well.

    The Giant Golden Buddha Is the Temple's Entrance

    Dambulla is more than a temple. Its entrance is a gigantic gilded Buddha that leads into a vast monastery hewn right into rock.
    • Inside are five caves with white stone monastic buildings and temples
    • Dambulla's 6,000 square feet of painted walls and ceilings create the largest continuous series of paintings in the world
    •  There's more to gawk at: there are 157 rock statues as wel
    • Naturally, Dambulla is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of eight on Sri Lanka
    • From Abou'ts...MORE Asia Travel Expert, reasons to visit Sri Lanka soon

    Continue to 6 of 12 below.
  • 06 of 12

    Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar

    Top sight in Myanmar: Shwedagon Pagoda temple
    ••• Myanmar's breathtaking Shwedagon Pagoda. ©Asia Transpacific Journeys

    Many Visitors Come to Myanmar Just to See Shwedagon Pagoda

    The most sacred pilgrimage site in Myanmar, once known as Burma, is Shwedagon Pagoda. It towers over the landscape of Myanmar's traditional capital, Yangon.

    A Golden Dome Hundreds of Feet High Topped By a Massive Diamond

    Shwedagon Pagoda's spectacular golden dome rises 322 feet high. It is sheathed in gold plates and crowned by a 76-carat diamond. If that's not festive dress, what is?

    But Shwedagon Pagoda is more than a showplace. Day or night, this magnificent structure is vibrant with the chants and prayers of Buddhist monks and worshipers.

    Relics from Buddhism's Founder

    Shwedagon Pagoda also serves as a reliquary that preserves relics of four Buddhas.
    • Among these saintly objects are eight hairs of Siddartha Gautama, Lord Buddha, who is the founder of Buddhism

    No One Knows How Old Shwedagon Pagoda Is

    Shwedagon's exact age is a matter of religious and scientific debate. It may go back all the way to the time of...MORE Lord Buddha, 2,500 years ago.
    • From About's Southeast Asia Travel Expert, more about Myanmar's Shwedagon Pagoda 

    Continue to 7 of 12 below.
  • 07 of 12

    Borobodur in Java, Indonesia

    Amazing Borobodur Temple in Javam Indonesia
    ••• Be dazzled by Borobodur in Java, Indonesia. ©Gryffindor/Wikimedia Commons

    Borobodur, 1200-Year-Old Temple City in Indonesia: World's Biggest Buddhist Structure 

    Intrepid travelers who make it to Borobodur show off their photos to everyone, and you would, too. A highlight of any visit to Indonesia, these ninth-century ruins on the island of Java are the largest Buddhist monument in the world. 
    • By some measures, Borobodur is the biggest religious structure on the planet.

    Keep Climbing at Borobodur, from the Underworld to Heaven

    Pilgrims and visitors ascend Borobudur via three levels of paths, ramps, and stairwells.
    • The three levels refer to the Buddhist universe
    • The lowest level conforms to the Western world's Seven Deadly Sins: a version of Hell
    • And the highest: where yu want to end up!
    • Ecery level laden with Buddha statues and stone friezes. 

    Built by Kings and Forgotten

    Borobodur was constructed in between the years 750 and 850 A.D.
    • No one is sure who, but the builders were likely rulers
    • Borobodur was abandoned, and no one knows exactly why 
    • Some...MORE theories: civil wars between Hindus and Buddhists; Java's conversion to Islam; earthquakes and volcanic eruptions
    • Borobodur was still for hundreds of years, and was covered by jungle • It was discovered in the 1800s and dug out by Dutch colonists from the East India Company

    Borododur Makes a Glorious Comeback

    In the 1970s, Borobodur was restored to its original grandeur by UNESCO, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
    • Today, Borobodur is Indonesia's top tourist attraction
    • It welcomes thousands of Buddhist pilgrims annually
    • In the spring they stream in from all over Asia to observe a series of holidays that commemorate Gautama Buddha's life: Vesakha (his birth), Nirvana (his enlightenment), and  Parinirvana (his death)
    • Borododur was unscathed by a major earthquake in 2006

    • From About's Asian History Expert,  more on the mysteries of Borobodur

    Continue to 8 of 12 below.
  • 08 of 12

    Pak Ou Caves in Laos

    Pak Ou Caves on the Mekong River in Laos.
    ••• Laos's Pak Ou Caves and their 3,000 Buddhas are accessible only by boat. ©Marilyn Staff

    An Asian Wonder Set Inside Caves

    Pak Ou Caves are a natural cave system along the banks of the Mekong River. It is not far from the city of Luang Prabang in north-central Laos, for centuries the capital of the Kingdom of Laos.

    What's So Incredible About Caves Along a River?

    What makes Pak Ou Caves an extraordinary sacred pilgrimage site is their treasure trove of Buddha statues inside -- over 3,000 of them.

    3,000 Buddhas?

    These Buddhas were carved of wood and left as offerings over the centuries by pilgrims from all over Asia: merchants, traders, farmers, and even kings.

    You Can't Get to Pak Ou Caves by Car or Train

    Pak Ou Caves continue to be visited by Buddhist pilgrims...and by motivated travelers.

    You need motivation because this mystical site is accessible by boat only. 
    • Travelers can take a leisurely riverboat from Luang Prabang
    • Or they can rent kayaks and paddle down the Mekong, an unforgettable adventure
    • From About's Southeast Asia Travel Expert, more about visiting...MORE exotic, tropical Laos

    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Wat Phra Kaeo: Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand

    Emerald Buddha and Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok
    ••• Only the King of Thailand can touch the Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaew. But you can look. ©Rusty Staff

    A Spectacular Sight Right in the Center of Busy Bangkok

    The Grand Palace complex in the dead center of the royal city of Bangkok is the spiritual heart of Thailand. It's a spectacular and joyous pilgrimage site composed od over 100 holy buildings.

    Wat Phra Kaeo Is the Holiest Temple in the Grand Palace

    The Grand Palace's Wat Phra Kaeo is the most sacred wat (temple) in Bangkok. It is also known as "Temple of the Emerald Buddha."

    True to Its Name...

    Wat Phr Kaeo is revered for its statue of Lord Buddha. It's not remarkable not for its size (just over two feet high) but from the fact that it that is carved from a single, emerald-hued hunk of jade.

    The King Changes His Clothes (the Emerald Buddha's, That Is)

    Thai monarchs worship in Wat Phra Kaeo. Only the Thai King is permitted to touch the 1,500-year-old jade masterpiece, and he changes its cloak every season.
    • Thais believe that the statue is a national treasure that ensures prosperity, and they follow this royal...MORE ritual avidly
    • Join About's Southeast Asia Expert for an engrossing trip to Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok

    Continue to 10 of 12 below.
  • 10 of 12

    Angkor Wat in Cambodia:

    Angkor Wat in Cambodia is one of Asia's most-visited places
    ••• Seeing Angkor Wat changes people forever. For the better. ©Sam Garza/Flickr-Wikimedia Commons

    Angkor Wat: One of Planet Earth's Icons

    One of the world's most-recognized landmarks is Cambodia's Angkor Wat. 

    Angkor Wat is the World's Largest Religious Structure

    This walled, 203-acre temple complex tops even the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica in size.
    • Its name means "Temple City"

    Who Built This Place?

    Angkor Wat was constructed by the Khmer King Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple over 900 years ago.  

    It's Where the Gods Live

    The multi-level stepped structure has five towers atop a man-made mountain. 
    • The stepped design represents Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology
    • Angkor Wat's miles of stone bas-reliefs illustrate Hindu gods and epics

    Built as a Hindu Temple, Now a Buddhist Temple

    Angkor Wat gradually became a Buddhist place of worship as this faith took root in Southeast Asia. Today, Angkor Wat is one of the most-visited places in Asia. Even non-Buddhists say they can feel its divinity.
    • Read about the mind-boggling construction of...MORE Angkor Wat, built without mortar between the stones

    Continue to 11 of 12 below.
  • 11 of 12

    Sanjusangendo in Kyoto, Japan

    Sanjusangen-do Temple in Kyoto, Japan
    ••• A vintage postcard of Sanjusangen-do Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Nothing has changed. ©Tamamura Kozaburo/Wikimedia Commons

    1,001 Golden Buddhas (Really)

    How many religious statues are enough? The answer is 1,001 at Sanjusangen-do, a beoved Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan
    • Kyoto is the repository of tradition in the Land of the Rising Sun
    • From About Video, more to see in Kyoto
    • Prefer photos? Join About's Japanese Travel Expert for a virtual tour of magnificent Kyoto

    Why 1,001?

    Numbers are of utmost significance in this dazzling temple. A thousand gold-leafed statues here depict Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.
    • They are life-sized, each with a different face 
    • Japanese pilgrims look for a Kannon whose face reminds them of the person they have come to pray for, and address their prayers to her

    Wait, that's 1,000 Kannon Statues. Where's the 1,001st?

    The 1,000 golden Kannon statues all surround a larger-than-life central statue of Kannon. This one, the 1,000st, has 11 faces and 1,000 arms.

    More Amazing Facts About Sanjusangen-do Temple

    "Sanjusan" means 33, and Kannon is said to have 33...MORE different human guises
    • The temple was built in 1164 by Emperor Goshirakawa and rebuilt in 1266 after a fire
    • At 394 feet long, it is Japan's largest wooden building
    • Yet it is often filled -- with Kyoto's faithful, pilgrims from throughout Japan, and awestruck overseas visitors

    Continue to 12 of 12 below.
  • 12 of 12

    Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

    A thousand wooden gates line the entrance to Inari Fushi Shrine in Japan
    ••• 1,000 torii gates lead up a mountain to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. ©Paul Vlaar/Wikimedia Commons

    1,000 Torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto

    Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan's treasure city of Kyoto. This religious monument is hailed for its 1,000 wooden torii, or arched gates.
    • The torii lead up to the main temple on Mount Inari in spectacular fashion.

    Built in 965 -- Not 1965, But 965
    There's a Shinto shrine perched beyond the 1,000 torii. It was constructed by Emperor Murakami in the year 965. 

    Try to Make it Here on January First

    Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of Japanese make pilgrimages to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine over the New Year.
    • Most visits to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine begin with the short walk from Kyoto's central railroad station
    • And most visits end with the purchase of keepsakes depictingthe temple's traditional animal mascots kitsune, or foxes
    • From About's Japan Travel Expert, more about the cult of New Year's Day in Japan