You don’t have to be religious to get your zen on in Southeast Asia. In fact, it’s hard not to be moved when you experience the architectural beauty and soul-soothing mysticism of Southeast Asia’s most sacred sites. From Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Bali’s Borobudur and the ancient city of Bagan in Burma, Southeast Asia has countless spiritual landmarks to impress even the hardcore sceptics.
1. Ankor Wat
Before it became the centre of Buddhism we know today, much of Southeast Asia paid homage to Hinduism. Many of us equate the 12th century temple Angkor Wat with modern-day Buddhism, but it was originally built by King Suryavarman II as his home and as a dedication to Vishnu. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and each year thousands of travellers flock there to walk the enormous 400 square km area. Ankor Wat is one of the best examples of Khmer architecture and is also the largest religious building in the world. Impressive much?!
A visit to the island of Java, Indonesia will take you to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Borobudur. This majestic temple was constructed in the 9th century to honour Buddha, but 5 centuries later, all work on the temple had stopped. Rediscovered in the mid-19th century, Borobudur was restored and is now a major Buddhist pilgrimage site. The temple itself is adorned with a total of 578 Buddha statues and is structured according to Buddhist cosmology. Visitors who reach the top can overlook this stunning mountainous region of Java.
3. Jalan Tokong, Melaka
Did you know there’s a whole street in Melaka, Malaysia that plays host to a melting pot of religions? Jalan Tokong, or Harmony Street, is a joyful example of how religious diversity can live peacefully side-by-side. The street features a Chinese temple where Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists worship together. There’s also a Malay Mosque and Hindu temple (the oldest in all of Malaysia). Lining the street are colourful buntings and kites which gives it a festive feel. The street’s fun persona also sends a powerful message of acceptance.
4. Niah National Park, Sarawak
Predating mysticism in Southeast Asia, but no less sacred and pretty bloody cool, is the Niah National Park in Sarawak Malaysia. Human remains dating back 40,000 years have been found in the park’s caves, the oldest recorded human settlement in Malaysia. This is also one of the best areas in Southeast Asia to observe some of the world’s most exotic birds, as the park acts as a natural haven for them.
5. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
If you’re after some bling, head to Myanmar (Burma), where over 8500 solid gold plates adorn the exterior of Shwedagon Pagoda. Standing almost 100m tall, this enormous Buddhist stupa dominates Yangon’s skyline and is decorated with more than 5000 (untouched!) diamonds and 2000 rubies, sapphire and topaz. Shwedagon also holds an important place in Myanmar’s political history. When British bureaucrats refused to remove their shoes whilst walking around this revered site, the insult became a catalyst for Burma’s independence.
6. Bagan, Myanmar
Eight hours north of Yangon lies the incredible sight and site of Bagan. Rising from the plains are the silhouettes of 2,230 Buddhist monuments and temples dating back to the 10th century AD. Only half of the original temples remain. This great archaeological feat can be explained by the Buddhist belief that building a temple earned merit. We believe it!
7. Grand Palace, Bangkok
In Bangkok Thailand, the Grand Palace is still #1 on the tourist trail map. Built in the 18th century, this opulent palace features a mix of traditional Thai and European architecture, and is actually a complex of buildings (to account for all the extensions and renos!). The royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo, houses the illustrious Emerald Buddha.
8. Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh
In southern Vietnam a more recent site, the Cao Dai “Holy See” Temple, translates to ‘high place’ meaning the highest place that God reigns. Cao Dai is a religion that borrows from all other religions, believing that all great spiritual figures and leaders – Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Nguyen Binh Khiem (a Vietnamese poet), Sun Yat Sen (China’s first president), and Victor Hugo (French author of “Les Misérables”) – were actually prophets of the same universal truth. Built in 1933 the temple has a colourful exterior to match its vibrant, diverse philosophy.
9. San Agustin, Manila
The Spanish Augustinians arrived in the Philippines from Mexico in the mid-1500s. Part of the Filipinos’ conversion to Christianity involved building San Agustin, one of the oldest stone churches in the country. Divine intervention or just an incredibly strong structure, San Agustin has survived multiple earthquakes and a shelling of the city during WWII’s Battle of Manila. Today it sits in the middle of the restored, post-war Intramuros (walled city) as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and working church.
For a totally surreal experience, we highly recommend doing your own pilgrimage through Southeast Asia. Of course, each country has its non-religious attractions, unique landscapes and cultural curiosities to offer as well. One thing’s certain; you will come back a changed person. But don’t let your holiday be ruled entirely by deities! For security and peace of mind, book your Southeast Asia hotel with www.Hotel.com.au