Five Sacred Sites in Southeast Asia

  • 01 of 06

    Explore Southeast Asia's Spiritual Side

    Statues for sale on the stairs leading up to Shwedagon
    ••• Statues for sale on the stairs leading up to Shwedagon. Mike Aquino

     Southeast Asia's multiple religious traditions reflect millennia of peaceful trade and violent conquest: they serve as vital roots for the local culture and represent the worldview of the countries they inhabit.

    The Philippines' churches, Myanmar's temples and the mosques of Malaysia and Indonesia provide a capsule view of their respective countries' history and mindset, making them invaluable stops for any visitor who means to see what each country is all about underneath.

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  • 02 of 06

    Borobudur, Indonesia

    Borobudur in the morning
    ••• Borobudur in the morning. Mike Aquino, licensed to

    Borobudur is a giant Mahayana Buddhist monument in Central Java, Indonesia. Lost for centuries after the decline of the Buddhist dynasties in Java, Borobudur was rediscovered in the 19th century.

    Today, Borobudur is a major Buddhist pilgrimage site. Pilgrims come from all over to ascend the many levels of the stupa, which are structured according to Buddhist cosmology and lined with over 2,600 relief panels that tell stories from the life of the Buddha and parables from Buddhist texts. The walk is imagined to be a recreation of a personal voyage into Nirvana, represented by the top levels where numerous Buddhas welcome the tired visitor.

    Borobudur is most popular during the Buddhist day of enlightenment, or Waisak, where hundreds of Buddhist monks join thousands of Buddhist pilgrims as they begin a procession in the wee hours of the morning and ascend the levels to await the appearance of the moon on the horizon.

    How to get there: most visitors to Borobudur arrive via the central Java...MORE city of Yogyakarta, itself a hotbed of Javanese high culture thanks to the presence of a royal palace and a still-vital Sultanate of Yogyakarta that inhabits it. Bus transport takes travelers to Borobudur. For travelers who want to stay in the vicinity, the town of Magelang has plenty to recommend it besides just Borobudur.

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  • 03 of 06

    Angkor Wat, Cambodia

    Angkor Wat at sunset
    ••• Angkor Wat at sunset. Artie Photography (Artie Ng)/Getty Images

    A labor of love by a devout king with an edifice complex, Angkor Wat remains a significant source of pride for the Cambodians descended from Suryavarman II’s subjects.

    Built in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat is still Cambodia’s best-preserved temple, set within a complex of temples near the city of Siem Reap. It's not just a relic of history; Angkor Wat is a continuing center for religious worship through centuries of war and benign neglect.

    Angkor Wat is a representation of the Hindu home of the gods: the towers in the center stand in for the sacred Mount Meru’s peaks. Appropriately for a model of the divine, the temple’s breathtaking beauty manifests in every inch of the structure – from the intricate bas-reliefs on the walls to the wide moat that reflects the towers reaching out to the sky.

    How to get there: most air travelers fly in through Siem Reap International Airport and book a visit to Angkor Wat through their hostel of choice. Most tuk-tuks in Siem Reap will also gladly...MORE arrange a tour to the Angkor temple complex.

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  • 04 of 06

    Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

    Shwedagon Stupa, Yangon, Myanmar
    ••• Shwedagon Stupa, Yangon, Myanmar. Mike Aquino

    8,688 solid gold plates make up the exterior of the Shwedagon Pagoda’s 320-foot stupa, topped off with more than 5,000 diamonds and about 2,300 rubies, sapphire and topaz. That the treasures remain untouched even in the midst of busy, bustling Yangon shows the kind of respect that the Shwedagon Pagoda commands.

    The 2,500-year-old Pagoda houses relics from the past four Buddhas, including eight hairs from Gautama Buddha himself. Its unique location in Yangon ensures its domination of the city’s skyline.

    Shwedagon also dominates Myanmar’s history; British bureaucrats’ refusal to remove shoes in its vicinity fed the discontent that eventually led to Burmese independence. More recently, the Pagoda’s monks played a central role in the aborted uprising of September 2007.

    How to get there: Shwedagon is a key destination in the Myanmar city of Yangon. Most visitors fly into Yangon and take a taxi to visit Shwedagon. 

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  • 05 of 06

    San Agustin Church, Philippines

    Interior of San Agustin Church museum
    ••• Interior of San Agustin Church museum. Mike Aquino

    It’s one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, a position it earned by surviving the terrible bombing holocaust of World War II. While it withstood the 1945 Battle of Manila that virtually flattened the city around it, the Church’s interior was the setting for terrible atrocities inflicted by the retreating Japanese soldiers.

    Today, the San Agustin Church stands in the middle of a carefully-restored Walled City, the guardian of four hundred years of Spanish rule in the Philippines (three conquistadors are buried underneath it). The pews in the choir loft are made of hand-carved molave dating back to the 17th Century.

    An observant visitor will notice how the church’s architecture takes a few liberties with the truth: the ceiling is a masterpiece of trompe l’oeil, and the formidable pillars framing the door are purely decorative, supporting nothing but thin air. Nevertheless, the San Agustin Church is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – an honor that its storied past has...MORE helped it earn.

    How to get there: San Agustin Church is a key part of the Intramuros walled city in Manila, Philippines. You can see the Church up close when you take our Walking Tour through Intramuros.

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  • 06 of 06

    Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand

    Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok, Thailand
    ••• Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok, Thailand. happySUN Photography/Getty Images

    The Grand Palace complex in Bangkok is the center of Thailand’s religious and ceremonial life, mainly due to the Wat Phra Kaew within that houses the Emerald Buddha, the country's holiest Buddhist relic.

    As you enter the Grand Palace and walk your way to the Wat Phra Kaew, every angle seems to be crammed with meaningful detail, from towering yaksha, or demons from the Buddhist epic Ramayana, to statues of each king’s while elephants, to long walls decorated with scenes from the Buddhist epic Ramayana.

    The bot housing the Emerald Buddha is the largest building in the temple complex. Inside, you’ll see a nine-metre-high pedestal supporting the Emerald Buddha, brought here in 1778 after a long recorded history from its discovery in Chiang Rai in 1434, with side trips to Sri Lanka and Cambodia.

    How to get there: the Grand Palace is a fixture of most itineraries touring Bangkok, Thailand's capital.