The top ten temples, so you don’t have to bother with the rest
I know it’s sacrilege, but I have been feeling increasingly indifferent towards Southeast Asian Buddhist temples. Which is a shame, because they are arguably an integral part of the tourist experience.
Several years ago, on my first trip to the region, temples were exciting and exotic. But I’ve seen so many golden Buddha statues, flower displays and tiered roofs that my enthusiasm has tapered off.
When you are in Asia, a discussion about temples is probably the only context in which you’ll hear someone say ‘they all look the same’. It’s a sentiment I share with a surprising number of travellers I’ve chatted to, from seasoned veterans to bright-eyed neophytes.
But these religious structures don’t just lose their mystique because they are homogeneous; they are also absolutely everywhere. Thailand alone has over 40,000 Buddhist temples. I was there in March 2020 and switched off after about three, all of which I walked past within my first couple of hours.
Some temples really are worth your time
However, there are still plenty of temples you should see. The famous Angkor Wat, a 12th century Khmer temple in Cambodia, doesn’t attract over 2 million visitors a year by making travellers shrug their shoulders.
I’ve created a list of ten of my favourite temples from a range of countries. Because once you have seen the best, you don’t need to jump at every single opportunity for a cultural excursion – a surefire way to contract temple fatigue.
10. Hsinbyume, Myanmar
Each concentric tier of Hsinbyume is supposed to represent one of the seven ranges surrounding Meru, a sacred Buddhist mountain said to be the centre of the universe. Built in 1816, this is one of two impressive temples in the town of Mingun, just a few miles from Mandalay. The other wasn’t quite cool enough for this list.
9. Kek Lok Si, Malaysia
Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Located in Penang, it is influenced both by Theravada Buddhism, the predominant division in Southeast Asia, and Mahayana Buddhism, more common in China. Its pagoda is built in three distinct architectural styles – Burmese at the top, Thai in the centre and Chinese at the bottom.
8. Prambanan, Java, Indonesia
Prambanan is a cluster of 10th century Hindu temples near the Javanese city of Yogyakarta. The three most prominent towers are dedicated to the deities Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Prambanan is also the largest Hindu temple complex in Indonesia. It trumps any of the Hindu temples you will find on neighbouring Bali, no matter what the models of Instagram might tell you.
7. Wat Rong Khun, Thailand
Wat Rong Khun, near Chiang Rai, is one of the weirder entries on this list. Privately owned and completed in 1997, it is more an elaborate art installation than a temple. While the external decoration shows scenes from Buddhist mythology, its bizarre interior murals portray various pop cultural icons, famous cartoons and fantasy characters. These include Michael Jackson, Kung Fu Panda and Gollum from Lord of the Rings. The internet has interpreted this art as a commentary on good and evil. Make of that what you will.
6. Bayon, Cambodia
Bayon is one of 72 remaining temples in Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire. It is the only 12th century Angkorian temple to be built as a Buddhist shrine. There are around 200 enormous smiling faces carved into its towers, and many believe they depict the Khmer ruler who commissioned the temple. Talk about a cult of personality…
5. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century. But when the Angkorians adopted Buddhism, they tweaked it a bit. So it’s probably easiest to call it ‘Hindu-Buddhist’. Angkor Wat is often said to be the largest religious monument in the world. The only reason it’s not higher on my list is that if you go at the wrong time, you can be absolutely swamped by coach parties, who make moving through the complex a bit of a challenge.
4. Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is kitted out with enough bling to make even 50 Cent blush. The colossal structure is estimated to comprise between 9 and 60 tonnes of gold, over 5000 diamonds and over 2000 rubies. The Burmese claim that it’s the oldest existing stupa (a Buddhist bell-like structure that houses religious relics) in the world, though the first written record of the pagoda dates to the 14th century.
3. Borobudur, Java, Indonesia
Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Visitors can wander freely between its 73 perforated stupas, originally built in the 9th century. The most atmospheric time to visit is sunrise, when the temple is shrouded in the Kedu Valley’s mists. Borobudur is just down the road from Prambanan, so you can tick both off pretty efficiently.
2. Ta Prohm, Cambodia
Ta Prohm is a 12th century Angkorian temple, which originally served as a Khmer monastery and university. It has been partially reclaimed by the trees around it, which adds to its appealing jungle aesthetic. So much so that they shot scenes for the awful 2001 film ‘Tomb Raider‘ here. The third Angkor temple in this top ten, Ta Prohm is, in my opinion, the coolest of the three.
1. Bagan temples, Myanmar
I’m cheating a bit by not picking an individual temple for the number one spot. There are many impressive candidates among the 3000 temples of ancient Bagan. But it’s not any particular temple that makes Bagan special. It’s the sense of sheer uncurated scale you get while exploring this vast, temple-dotted, savannah-like plain.
Bagan does not get anywhere near the tourist numbers of Angkor Wat. But that will change pretty soon, not least because it became a UNESCO site in 2019. Bagan is an experience every tourist in Southeast Asia should get to enjoy, which is why it’s my number one.