Asia is filled with magnificent holy temples and sacred sites. Every one of the places on these pages has deep historical and cultural significance and is a wonder to behold with your own eyes. Many of these spots are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are all amazing and unforgettable. Ready for adventure?
Taktshang Monastery in Bhutan
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. In Bhutan, it's known as "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. Find our more on traveling to Bhutan and seeing Taktshang Monastery for yourself.
Potala Palace in Tibet
Successive Dalai Lamas, teach the lleader of Tibetan Buddhism, lived in Potala Palace from its construction in 1645 until China invaded Tibet in 1959. The present Dalai Lama, then 24 years old, fled to Dharamsala in northern India.
Tibetans say that the original palace was built over a thousand years earlier than the current structure, in the year 637. Its builder was a god-king who unified the Tibetan Empire, brought Buddhism to Tibet, and created the Tibetan alphabet.
His palace is as big as his accomplishments. It contains over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and 200,000 statues. Potala Palace is the reason many visitors come to remote Lhasa, Tibet. Sadly, Tibet is now part of China.
Varanasi in India, Holy Hindu Place on the Ganges River
Ths city of Varanasi in northeastern India is the center of the world in the Hindu faith. Millions of believers make their way to Varanasi annually to pray and wade in the Ganges' waters.
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 sacred to Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists as well.
Many Hindus make their final journey here to be cremated. Doing so helps their souls find enlightenment. The bonfires you see in the water of the Ganges are cremations. Read about visiting Varanasi, the Hindu faith's most sacred place.
Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal
Of Nepal's many holy places, Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu is the most-visited. It is set in the mystical Himalayan city of Kathmandu, a classic destination for spiritual travelers (and a hippie icon for free-spirited travelers).
Pashupatinath is the largest Hindu temple anywhere devoted to Shiva. This supremely powerful god is depicted as a tough character, wearing serpents and a crescent moon.
Pashupatinath draws devotees from all over the Hindu world, and only Hindu pilgrims 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.
Golden Temple of Dambulla, an Astounding Cave Temple in Sri Lanka
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, the most impressive Sri Lankan cave temple, has lured Hindu pilgrims for nearly 2,000 years. Today, adventurous travelers to Sri Lanka seek it out as well.
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, all carved into hard stone. This place is jaw-dropping. Dambulla's 23,000 square feet of painted walls and ceilings create the largest continuous series of paintings in the world. Need more to gawk at? There are also 157 statues carved from solid rock.
Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar
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 (formerly known as Rangoon). Many visitors come to Myanmar just to see Shwedagon Pagoda.
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. It also serves as a reliquary that preserves relics of four Buddhas. Among these saintly objects are eight hairs of Siddartha Gautama, Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Shwedagon's exact age is a matter of religious and scientific debate. It may go back all the way to the time of Lord Buddha, 2,500 years ago.
Borobodur in Java, Indonesia
Indonesia's top visitor attraction is Borobudur, a 1,200-year-old temple city. These ninth-century ruins on the island of Java are the largest Buddhist monument in the world. In fact, by some measures, Borobudur is the biggest religious structure on the planet.
Pilgrims and visitors ascend Borobudur via three levels of paths, ramps, and stairwells. The three levels correspond to the Buddhist universe: from the underworld to enlightenment. Each level is laden with Buddha statues and stone friezes.
Borobodur was abandoned centuries after its construction. Some theories why: civil wars between Hindus and Buddhists; Java's conversion to Islam; earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Borobodur was lost for hundreds of years, covered by jungle. It was discovered in the 1800s and dug out by Dutch colonists from the East India Company.
Pak Ou Caves in Laos
Pak Ou Caves are a natural cave system along the banks of the Mekong River. This wonder of Southeast Asia is not far from the city of Luang Prabang in north-central Laos, for centuries the capital of the Kingdom of Laos.
What makes Pak Ou Caves an extraordinary sacred pilgrimage site is their treasure trove of Buddha statues inside—over 3,000 of them. 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.
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 rent kayaks and paddle down the Mekong, an unforgettable adventure.
Wat Phra Kaeo Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand
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 of over 100 holy buildings.
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," revered for its statue of Lord Buddha. This likeness is remarkable not for its size (just over two feet high) but by the fact that it is carved from a single, emerald-hued hunk of jade.
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 ritual avidly.
Angkor Wat in Cambodia
One of the world's most-recognized landmarks is Cambodia's Angkor Wat. This walled temple complex tops even the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica in size, and is the world's largest religious structure. Angkor Wat was constructed by the Khmer King Suryavarman II over 900 years ago.
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
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. Find out more about Angkor Wat.
Terracotta Army in Xi'an, China
The Great Wall of China is not the only reminder that ancient Chinese thought big. The Terracotta Army is a mind-boggling collection of over 8,000 ancient clay sculptures, in formation for your visit. They depict the soldiers of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The army was buried with him over 2,000 years ago, intended to protect him for all time. The life-size figures include soldiers, generals, horses, chariots, and a parade of acrobats and musicians.
The figures were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Xi/an, Shaanxi Province. This historic region of north-central China was the capital of the Tang Dynasty and the endpoint of the Silk Road that connected Asia with the Middle East. Go back in time as you find out more about the Tang Dynasty capital. And when you visit, indulge in the region's delicious noodles and dumplings.
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is a dazzling UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan's treasure-laden city of Kyoto. This religious monument is unique for its 1,000 wooden torii, or arched gates. The torii lead up to the main temple on Mount Inari in spectacular fashion. A Shinto shrine perches beyond the 1,000 torii. It was constructed by Emperor Murakami in the year 965.
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 depicting the temple's traditional animal mascots: kitsune, or foxes. Learn more about the cult of New Year's Day in Japan.