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 Malaysia's mosques 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.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
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 arrange a tour to the Angkor temple complex.
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 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.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
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.
San Agustin Church, Philippines
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 helped it earn.
Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand
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.
Sultan Mosque, Singapore
The present-day mosque replaced a humbler one that dated back to 1820. Completed in 1932, the current Sultan Mosque blends Turkish, Indian, Persian and Moorish design elements into a harmonious whole.
Each of the mosque's domes sit on a foundation of hundreds of amber bottles stacked neck down. The bottles were contributed by poor Singaporeans, who were encouraged to give what little they could to ensure the mosque’s completion.
The main prayer hall accommodates up to 5,000 worshippers at any given time, reaching maximum capacity during Friday worship and on special holidays like Ramadan.
How to get there: You can’t miss it: take the Singapore MRT to Kampong Glam, Singapore and you’ll see it at 3 Muscat Street. The mosque is open to visitors from 9am to 12nn, and 2pm to 4pm.
Admission is free, but a strict dress code is imposed on visitors: wear long-sleeved tops and long pants or skirts if planning a visit. Find out more about mosque etiquette, or visit their official site: sultanmosque.org.sg
Wat Xiengthong, Laos
Constructed in 1560 and sponsored by Lao royalty till the latter’s abolishment during the Vietnam War, Wat Xiengthong has – much like the rest of Luang Prabang – taken on a life of its own even in the absence of royal patronage.
Over 20 structures stand inside the Wat Xiengthong complex, but three stand out. The “Red Chapel” is a small structure with mosaics depicting Lao country life on the outside, while sheltering an impassive reclining Buddha inside. A gilded funeral chapel stands near the eastern gate, dazzling visitors with its steeply-angled roof and shining gold facade.
The biggest structure is Wat Xiengthong’s most iconic: the sim, or ordination hall, with gold-on-black stencil designs on the walls, a gilded Buddha commanding the interior, all crowned by a graceful three-layered roof.
How to get there: Walk to Wat Xiengthong’s location in Luang Prabang (location on Google Maps); main entrances can be found at the riverside Khem Khong road and at the compound’s west facing Kounxoau road. The temple compound is open to visitors from 8am to 5pm every day; entrance fee costs LAK 20,000.
Street of Harmony, Malaysia
The city of Malacca in Malaysia may be one of Malaysia’s oldest cities – a fact reflected in its patchwork of faith traditions sustained by historic centers of worship.
These centers stand just a few minutes’ walk from each other, on an avenue formally known as Jalan Tukang Emas, but also colloquially named the “Street of Harmony”. It’s aptly nicknamed: here, Malaysia’s cornerstone faiths practice at their respective altars on the same street, without the friction you’d normally expect elsewhere.
The Hindu temple of Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple (location on Google Maps) was built by Indian immigrant laborers who incorporated European influences into its architecture. Inside, Hindu believers worship the elephant-headed god Ganesha, revered as lord of learning and the “remover of obstacles”.
The Kampung Kling Mosque (location on Google Maps) embraces a riot of multiple cultural influences: constructed in 1748, the Islamic house of worship combines European, Chinese, Hindu, and Malay design influences. The main hall eschews Arabic domes for a more Malay-style triple-tiered roof; a seemingly-decorative fountain behind the hall allows worshipers to wash before entering.
Finally, the grand Cheng Hoon Teng Confucian temple (location on Google Maps) accommodates locals who come to pray for help, pay their respects to their ancestors, or ask for divination to solve their problems.
The temple comes alive during Chinese cultural holidays like Chinese New Year and Hungry Ghost Festival; for the latter, a getai stage is set up across the street to entertain both living humans and spirits with Chinese Opera!