When writing this list of Southeast Asian temples I have decided to focus on those I have personally enjoyed visiting the most. I have spent a lot of time exploring temples across Southeast Asia and I think they play a big part in making it such a great place to travel around. The region really is full of so many outstanding cultural highlights.
As well as seeing the fantastic temple architecture I love to examine all the artwork and learn about the different traditions. Its fascinating to see and learn about the different worship styles too. I feel that visiting these temples is really worthwhile and greatly enriches any trip to the region.
Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are the 3 major religions across the region, though Chinese folklore and religions such as Taoism and Confucianism also have a substantial presence. Historically all 3 of these religions have had a major impact in shaping the societies of the countries across the region. And today they all play huge role in the culture, identity and politics of the countries that make up Southeast Asia.
There are so many amazing Southeast Asian temples it was hard for me to whittle this down to just 20 trips. If I had tried to cover everything this post would be never-ending, so I have gone for what I think are the ‘must see’ highlights.
Maximising your visits to Southeast Asian Temples
If your planning a trip to the region and want to visit many temples I recommend using this post in conjunction with my Southeast Asia Backpacking Itinerary. I definitely recommend travelling slow so you can soak up the atmosphere wherever you go. I think it’s better to visit less places and see more of them. Don’t tire yourself out, take your time, you can always come back in future!
When appropriate I have grouped temples together as one trip. However there is a great deal of variance between the amount of time needed for each entry. When appropriate I have given a recommended visiting time, advising how long I think you will need to enjoy the experience.
So here are my favourite 20 trips to Southeast Asian temples. I hope you enjoy reading and are inspired to visit them!
The Temples Of Angkor – Cambodia
I have decided to start of this list of Southeast Asian temples with the most famous, the Temples Of Angkor. They are what remains of the capital of the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire, which played a huge role in the region between the 9th and 15th Centuries CE.
Angkor Wat is of course the most well known temple here, and it is indeed fantastic. Its famous for it’s sunrises, but honestly go any time during the day and explore. The Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata can be found decorating it’s wall’s and are fascinating.
The Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom temple complexes are generally well known too and receive many visitors. The Bayon temple in particular, which is found in Angkor Thom, is famous for it’s many stone faces. This is a real attraction and amazing to see in person.
Personally I recommend doing a 3 day tour here with a local Tuk-Tuk driver. Its probably best to organise one through your hostel or guesthouse. That way you should get a decent deal. You can read my diary entry from the time here, I loved those few days! Prices have gone up from that time now though, expect it to be expensive. Doing a 3 day tour allows you to go farther out, and see temple sites such as Banteay Strei and the Roluos group. The latter features some of the oldest temples in Angkor region, I especially recommend Preah Ko.
Borobudur and Prambanan – Java, Indonesia
Yogyakarta is one of my favourite cities in the world, and a big part of that are these two temples. I visited both of them as part of a day tour from the city and it was really worth it. Many people choose a sunrise or sunset tour but honestly I was happy to visit during daylight hours.
These two temples lay abandoned for centuries and were ‘rediscovered’ during the Dutch Colonial occupation during the 1800’s. The locals knew about the temples existence of course but apparently not their historical significance. There has been great restoration work here over the years to bring the temples back to their glory, and today they are both hugely popular tourist and pilgrimage sites.
Borobudur is in fact the largest Buddhist temple which is an impressive fact in itself. Following the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism, it was built in the 9th Century CE. The stupas overlooking a mountain are a particularly favourite spot for people, many a photography session has been undertaken here.
The Prambanan temple complex also dates from the 9th century CE. This temple is dedicated to Hinduism, and was likely built as a response to the Borobudur temple. Buddhist and Hindu dynasty’s were competing for favour on Java at this time.
At both temples look out for the carvings depicting Buddhist and Hindu stories. At Prambanan this includes depictions of the Hindu epics Ramayana and Bhagavata Purana.
Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) and Baandam Museum – Chaing Rai, Thailand
Also known as the White Temple and The Black House, Wat Rong Khun and Baandam Museum draw many visitors to the Northern Thai city of Chiang Rai. If you are travelling around Southeast Asia it makes for a great stop on your way from Northern Thailand to Laos.
The White Temple is the work of local artist Chalermchai Kositpipa. He rebuilt the temple here and it really spectacular. It is full of interesting and though provoking artwork, such as the hands under the the bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”. In the main temple look out for the pop and geek culture figures painted on the walls. After you leave the temple be sure to check out the attached art gallery too. There are many interesting artworks to see in there.
The Baandam Museum offers a stark contrast to the above. The work of Thawan Duchanee, it features many sculptures constructed from the remains from dead animals, who apparently all died from natural causes. Its not really a temple, more an art space. I’ve included it on this list as it’s really worth visiting after seeing the White Temple. Its dark buildings across a peaceful gardens really are the polar opposite to what you see at the White Temple. A morning at the White Temple followed by an afternoon at the Black House is a great way to spend a day in Chiang Rai.
The Temples across Bali – Indonesia
Bali is of course well known for it’s beaches and it’s parties, but there is a lot more to the island than just that. Of particular significance is its own fantastic unique culture. Whilst much of the rest of Indonesia converted to Islam, Bali remained a bastion of Hinduism. Many Hindu Monarchs moved to Bali in 14th to 16th centuries as Java became Muslim. Fusing with the island culture and traditions, it has evolved into it’s own unique form of Hinduism.
There are many temples on the island so I will highlight a couple of favourites. Pura Dalem Agung is one I really recommend visiting. It’s location is in central Ubud and it is also known as ‘The Temple Of Death’. It features lots of demonic imagery, you can find skulls and demons all around here. Of particular focus is Rangda, the Demon Queen in Balinese mythology.
Another of my favourites is the Uluwatu Temple in Southern Bali. A visit here give you some spectacular views over the cliff edges it is built atop. It also a great place to watch the traditional Balinese Kecak Fire Dance at sunset. I definitely recommend seeing it, this is a real cultural highlight on any trip to Bali. Beware the monkeys though, they are infamous for their thieving capabilities!
Masjid Jamek – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Found in central Kuala Lumpur, this is one of the oldest mosques in Malaysia. It was built in 1909, significantly upon old Malay burial grounds. It really is a beautiful building, and I think it looks amazing with the skyscrapers in the background. Your allowed in to explore the grounds and look around the mosque. As well as its pretty architecture it also has a small peaceful Islamic garden.
I advise visiting Masjid Jamek in the morning, before it gets too hot in the city. After admiring the interior I recommend walking around the surrounding area, to get views like the picture above. A good plan for the day would be to start here before heading to the Islamic Art Museum. This will give you great insight into Islam’s cultural influence on Malaysia.
Bangkok Grand Palace and Wat Pho – Bangkok, Thailand
Many trips to Southeast Asia start in Bangkok, it’s a great city with fantastic international and domestic flight connections. There is plenty to see and do in the city and one of it’s highlights is a visit to these 2 temples. They are just across the road from each other so make for a great day’s exploring. Personally these are actually the first 2 Southeast Asian temples I ever visited, so they hold special memories for me. I think they serve as a great introduction to Southeast Asia. I definitely recommend them for any first time visitor to the region.
First up is the Bangkok Grand Palace. It has served as an official residence of the Kings of Thailand (and it’s predecessor Siam) since 1782. Today it s used for ceremonies and hosting of state visitors, foreign dignitaries and alike. Inside you can visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, aka Wat Phra Kaew, as well admire the architecture and explore the Buddhist artwork and statues.
Across the road you can find Wat Pho. Its famous for it’s huge Reclining Buddha statue, which is 15 m high and 46 m long. The temple complex here features some really nice buildings and has lots of great imagery and statues to admire.
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple and Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple – Little India, Singapore
Singapore has a great ethnic mix, and as a result you can find many temples across the city. In fact you could the city is a microcosm for Southeast Asian temples, as there are ones belong to many of the regions different religions here. The two I’ve chosen to highlight are both from the Hindu community. They are both constructed in the South Indian Tamil architectural style. Many Indians moved to Singapore to work during the British Colonial era, and these temples were built to serve their communities. Both of these temples feature a Gopuram, which is a tower over their entrance covered in Hindu artwork.
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is the most popular with visitors. It was built back in 1881 and is dedicated to the worship of the Goddess Kali. I found it really interesting here to observe the worshipers and admire the artwork around the temple. Down the road is the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple. Dedicated to Vishnu, this temple dates from 1855 though its spectacular Gopuram was built in 1966.
One of the most interesting things I find about the Hindu temples across both Singapore and Malaysia is the artwork on the ceilings. They are usually very bright and colourful with lots of Hindu images or nice patterns.
Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon, Myanmar
At the heart of a huge temple complex in Yangon is the golden Shwedagaon Pagoda. Its an impressive site, towering over the surroundings. An important Buddhist pilgrimage site, it’s been around since the 6th Century CE, when it was constructed by the Mon people. As well as the main pagoda, the complex as a wealth of Buddhist shrines and artwork. Its a great place to spend a few hours exploring. Be careful not to come during the midday sun. Like all Burmese temples you are required to remove you shoes and socks upon entering. The ground does get very hot during the day. I recommend going later afternoon. Explore whilst its still daylight and then enjoying the decorative temple lights when the sun sets, its well lit up and looks great.
Its usually full of local pilgrims as well as tourists from outside of the country. Watching the local customs and the social aspect of the Buddhist worship can be really interesting. Don’t be surprised if someones approaches you to chat whilst you are here. The local Burmese people are generally very friendly and interested to meet foreigners.
The Temples of Chiang Mai – Thailand
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a mountainside temple that has great views over the surrounding area. Legend tells that the temple dates back as far as 1383. Its long been an important pilgrimage site for Theravāda Buddhists. There are some great gardens here, I recommenced checking them out as well as the main worship site.
Right at the heart of Chaing Mai is Wat Chedi Luang. It was originally built in the 14th century when the city was part of the Lan Na kingdom. It was reconstructed in the 1990’s after an earthquake had destroyed much of it in 1545 CE. There is a ‘Monk Chat’ where local monks will sit and chat with foreign tourists about Buddhism. They like to do so to help practise their English. Its a great opportunity to learn about Buddhism first hand from a monk.
On the edge of the city is Wat Umong. Dating back to 1297 CE it has a really nice tranquil setting, feeling as if it is sync with nature. Built in the woods, there is some really inserting Buddhist artwork here. Look out for monks wandering around, there is a monastery here where they live. The temple complex has some old tunnels containing shrines and a turtle pond.
The Temples Of Bagan – Myanamr
Over 10,000 temples were built across the plains of Bagan between the 9th and 13th centuries. This is when Bagan, then Pagan, was a powerful city at the heart of the Pagan Empire. Alas they fell victim to the Mongols, and their empire was shattered. Bagan lost its status and became a backwater. Today over 2000 temples remain here and it is a fantastic tourist destination as well as a Theravāda Buddhist pilgrimage site. It really is amazing looking out here from the top of a temple and seeing so many more arrayed before you. You can spend days here exploring and checking out temples both big and small. Local life goes on too, a visit to the market is a great experience.
As I mentioned earlier, the Burmese people are very interested in meeting foreigners. When I was visiting Bagan I had many families approach me to take photographs with them. It was very enjoyable to be able to interact with so many people.
When I visited Bagan it was during the month of April, which gets very hot in Myanmar. I believe it reached 48C whilst I was in Bagan, if not higher! With this in mind you should plan to spend at least 2 or 3 days here. The general advice is that exploring is best done early morning and late afternoon. Sunrise and sunset are a big deal here, and the more popular larger temples will be full of people to witness them.
Kek Lok Si – Penang, Malaysia
This fantastic temple is awash with colour, art and symbolism. It blends together different Buddhist and Chinese traditions, to form a centre of worship that reflects the varied nature of Malaysia’s Chinese population. Whilst exploring here you will see images of the Buddha, several Bodhisattva’s and various Chinese gods. Constructed between 1890 and 1905, the temple is now a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists from across Southeast Asia. There are several ‘layers’ to this temple and you can work our way upwards, seeing various worship halls and shrines along the way. At the top there stands a huge statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin.
Personally, I think this is one of the Southeast Asian temples that best captures the diverse beliefs of the region. In Chinese traditions Buddhism is frequently intertwined with Taoism, Confucianism and other folk religions and Kek Lok Si really encapsulates this. Its name means ‘Temple of Supreme Bliss’ and it’s easy to see why. If your staying on Penang at all then be sure to set aside a few hours to visit this temple. Its on the outskirts of George Town and easily reached by bus.
Just to make a quick note, you will see many Buddhist swastika’s around Kek Lok Si. These of course have nothing to do with 20th century Nazi’s, its use comes from far older Buddhist tradition and religious imagery.
Sukhothai Historical Park – Thailand
Beginning as an outpost of the Khmer empire, Sukhothai went on to become one of Thailand’s most important historical cities. Becoming the centre of the Sukhothai Kingdom it played a huge role in laying foundations of the Thai state. This kingdom lasted from 1238 CE until 1438 CE, from when it was gradually incorporated into the Ayutthayan Kingdom. Today what remains are ruins, which make up the Historical park.
Around the site you can find many Buddhist statues and buildings. There are several wat’s of interest and a museum too. Look out for the Khmer influence, there are a few buildings which have the classic Khmer design. Generally they started off as Hindu temples and were later converted to Buddhist use. An interesting example of this is Wat Si Sawai, which definitely reminded me of the temples of Angkor.
When visiting I recommend to stay in nearby New Sukhothai, where the hotels and restaurants are located. You can take a Songthaew (a type of shared taxi) from the bus station/city centre. The trip is about 12 kilometres. I advise at least 1 full day and night here, as there is a lot to see in the park.
Shwenandaw Monastery – Mandalay, Myanmar
Although Mandalay Hill might seem the more obvious choice for the list of Southeast Asian temples, I really wanted to include the Shwenandaw Monastery. It has an interesting history and looks fantastic too. It began its existence in the Royal Palace in Amarapura. The monastery was then moved to the Royal Palace in Mandalay around 1857. The Burmese monarch King Mindon Min used it as his own private building. After his death in 1878, his son had it dismantled and moved outside the palace as he believed the Kings spirit was haunting it.
The monastery itself is made from teak wood and is full of beautiful carvings. The detail here really is quite something, and the artwork carved into the wood is really impressive. Of all those on this list of Southeast Asian Temples I would say this is the most delicate.
As the rest of the Mandalay Royal Palace was destroyed by fire during World War 2, this is a good place to see what it would have once looked like. The current royal palace is all replica’s and doesn’t have the same appeal.
And whilst your in the city, you should still check out Mandalay Hill too. Its got some cool views and is a great place for sunset. Often locals will, go there to practise speaking English with tourists. Though anyone (including fake monks) who ask for money is a scammer.
Thien Mu Pagoda – Huế, Vietnam
Also known as the ‘The Pagoda of the Celestial Lady’ this Buddhist temple overlooks the Perfume River. It was founded back in 1601, and its tower was built in 1844. There is some good Buddhist artwork and architecture to admire here. Its associated with the Vietnamese brand of Mahayana Buddhism. Which is of course a different branch from Theravāda Buddhist which you see in Thailand and Myanmar. Look out for the marble turtle. Its a symbol of longevity.
What led me to include in on this list of awesome Southeast Asian temples is its important role in political demonstrations.
On June 11th 1963 the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức drove from the pagoda to Saigon. Sat in a Buddhist meditative position he self immolated, in protest against the treatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. It caused shock around the world and ultimately led to a coup to remove the South Vietnamese leader Diệm. This moment has also become one of the most well known pictures of protest ever. The band Rage Against The Machine of course used it as the cover of their debut album. The car he drove there in is kept at the temple, and is displayed for all to see.
Vat Phou – Champasak, Laos
Perhaps the least well known on this list of Southeast Asian temples, Vat Phou is still a great place to visit. Often skipped by backpackers who head straight down to the 4000 islands, its tucked away in Southern Laos. I advise stopping for the night in Champasak, from which you can visit Vat Phou. Local tuk-tuk drivers can take you there for a reasonable fare. The town has some nice guesthouses and riverside restaurants too.
This complex is actually the largest set of Khmer ruins found outside of Cambodia. The ruins here dates from between the 11th and 13th Centuries CE. It began as a Hindu site, with indications of worship of Shiva in particular. The site later became dedicated to Buddhism.
The site runs up to and onto a hillside. As you approach though the ruins you walk through a set phallic pillars. Look out for ruined temple buildings on the sides of the path. Upon reaching the hillside look out for the carvings of the Elephants and the Crocodile. One of my favourite things about Vat Phou is that the ruins are surrounded by nature. There are plenty of tree’s and greenery here. I really hope the authorities maintain it so!
The Royal Palace – Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Angkor Wat may get the vast majority of attention in Cambodia but the capital has this cool royal complex to check out as well. Built in the 1860’s it has been home the Cambodian Royal family since. Though they were absent between 1970 and 1993 when Cambodia endured the hardships of conflict and the 1975-79 genocide. You can spot if the King is in the residence for they day by where the royal flag is flying or not. There are many beautiful buildings here and a well maintained gardens. The Silver Pagoda complex is the area open to the public here.
When visiting Phnom Penh, it is of course important to see the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields, to learn about the horrors that happened there. This can take it’s toll emotionally, so I really recommend a visit to the Royal Palace as well. Not to forget about the genocide, but simply to see another side to Cambodia.
The Batu Caves – Malaysia
One of the most popular to do whilst visiting Kuala Lumpur is to take a train out to see the Batu Caves. These series of caves are set into limestone hills and feature an impressive stairway leading up them. The stand out feature though is the huge 42m-tall golden statue of Lord Murugan. The Hindu god of war has towered over the area since 2006. The caves themselves have been used as a worship site since the 1890’s. Inside the caves you can see Hindu decorations as well as admire the caves features. Watch out for the Monkeys when you visit, they roam the temple entrance looking for food and drinks bottles.
Sri Mahamariamman Temple and Guan Di Temple – China Town, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
These two temples in China town help to capture the diversity of the Malaysian population. The first, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, is a Hindu temple serving the cities Indian population. It was founded back in 1873 making it an important place of worship for Indians who were migrating to Malaysia during the British colonial rule. Its a great place to admire Hindu artwork and features a great Gopuram.
Guan Di Temple on the other hand is a Taoist temple, dedicated to the Taoist god of war Guandi. He was a Chinese general and you can read about him on wikipedia. He is a popular figure in Chinese folklore religion. Buddhist also revere him as a bodhisattva, meaning this temple serves multi faiths as is typical of the Malaysian Chinese community. I really liked the aesthetic here, and loved admiring all the Chinese statues on display.
It is the interesting and beautiful feature’s of Guan Di in particular that led me to include these 2 temples on this list of Southeast Asian temples. Whilst Sri Mahamariamman temple can be considered similar to those already mentioned in Singapore, Guan Di nicely reflects the Chinese Taoist and Folklore temples found across Malaysia. You will find the 2 temples on the same street meaning they are ideal to visit together.
Wat Xieng Thong Sim – Luang Prabang, Laos
This Buddhist monastery in Luang Prabang was built in 1560 and is an important temple in Laotion Buddhism. The temple complex’s has several great buildings showcasing Buddhist architecture. The main appeal for me though is all the intricate Buddhist artwork covering the buildings here. These murals and mosaic’s tell tales of Buddha and other stories relating to the religion. You can find them both inside and outside of the buildings and there is a nice variety in the images too. Some utilise only black and gold to tell the tales, others are awash with colour. It is these images that led me to include Wat Xieng Thong Sim as a temple very much visiting in Southeast Asia.
I also wanted to include Wat Xieng Thong Sim on this list of Southeast Asian temples as Luang Prabang is very much somewhere I recommend visiting. Therefore a trip to this temple is perfect to combine with other Southeast Asia highlights such as taking the slow boat or visiting Kuang Si Waterfalls.
Ayutthaya Historical Park – Thailand
Last but certainly not least on this list of Southeast Asian temples is the Ayutthaya Historical Park. It covers the ruins of the old city and is well worth a stop on any trip to Thailand. You can take a train there from Bangkok, it’s around around 80km north of the city. There is a ‘new city’ here with plenty of guesthouses and restaurants to accommodate visitors. Personally I spent a couple of nights here to really see everything. You could rush through in a day but I recommend at at least 1 night here.
Ayutthaya played a huge role in Thai history, having several times been the capital of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. Around 1700 CE it is estimated to have been home 1 million people, therefore making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time. The cities downfall actually came in 1767 when it was destroyed by the Burmese Army. You can see particular evidence of this in the form of the many decapitated Buddha statues here. The Burmese believed there was gold hidden in the statues, thus cutting the heads off to try and find it.
Some backpackers try to rush through Ayutthaya, arriving in the morning abnd only spending one night. But if you can I really recommend taking at least 2 nights here. This way you can really explore the area, which is actually pretty large.
Thanks for reading this list of awesome Southeast Asian Temples.
As I said at the start of this post, it was tough for me to whittle this list down to just 20. The region has so many amazing temples it’s too much to catalogue them all. I’m sure in future there will be more to add to this list too.
Remember when visiting Southeast Asian temples it is important to dress appropriately. Generally this means covering to at least your shoulders and below the knee. Some temples will give you clothes to wear at the entrance. Many temples, particularly Buddhist and Hindu ones, will require you to remove you shoes before entry. In Myanmar this includes socks too. Pay attention to the signage at the temple entrance and put your shoes in the provided spaces. I have written some specific advice about visiting Buddhist temples here.
Currently there is only only Islamic entry on this list of Southeast Asian temples. This is despite the fact that it is the most followed religion in Southeast Asia based on population. I know there are more spectacular mosques across the region that I have yet to visit, therefore I feel this list isn’t quite yet complete. Hopefully in future I will able to visit more and make some additions here.
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