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Temples aren’t just architectural curiosities – they are an insight into a culture, a religion, a period of history. They’re a window into another era, a community that is different from our own. Here are some of our favourite iconic temples of the world.
Temples around the World
Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji
There are more than 2,000 temples, shrines and gardens in the beautiful, ancient city of Kyoto, so it is with great reluctance that we pick just one to focus on.
But the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji is undoubtedly a worthy winner. The magnificent temple has an incredible history – built in 1397 for the shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga as a summer pavilion and garden, it was later turned into a Zen Buddhist temple by his son following his death.
The pavilion then managed to survive for over 600 years, weathering the perils of several wars including the bombings of WWII, only to be burned to the ground in the 1950s by a 22-year-old novice monk. The arson was fictionalised and immortalised in the famous novel, ‘The Golden Pavilion’, by Mishima Yukio.
The current structure is a detailed reconstruction, lovingly built to show its former glory. To see the shimmering reflection of the golden façade in the lake below, you’d never know better.
Take me there: Kyoto trips
Bagan – Shwezigon Pagoda
All that glitters is not gold, but the Shwezigon Pagoda in Burmacertainly is. A huge bell-shaped stupa dominates the view, covered in glorious gold leaf, all the more spectacular in the Burmese sunshine.
The arresting image is enough to stop even the most experienced traveller in their tracks. Amidst thousands of temples and historic shrines at the site, this one stands out from an undeniably beautiful crowd; it is guarded by huge statues at the entrance, and inside are depictions of Jataka legends and four huge bronze Buddhas up to 13 feet tall.
The history is equally intriguing – Shwezigon is the prototype of all Burmese Buddhist stupas and is a stunning example of traditional Mon architecture.
Chiang Mai – Doi Suthep
The origins of Chiang Mai’s most famous temple are shrouded in mystery, dates unknown, amidst legends of white elephants and holy relics. What is certain is the beauty of the temple.
It sits proudly atop a mountain, lording it over the city of Chiang Mai below. Over 300 steps lead up to its domineering entrance, where numerous fruit trees, statues and shrines laden with lotus flowers await.
It is to this day a working monastery, surrounded by the inspiring landscapes of the richly forested and waterfall-filled Doi Suthep National Park – the perfect backdrop of natural wonder to complement its manmade splendour.
Take me there: Thailand trips
Beijing – Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven earns its celestial place in these ranks with panache. The illustrious site is one of precision, perfection, and man’s masterful dominance over nature, with 660 acres of gardens surrounding the altar itself.
An oasis of calm in one of the world’s busiest cities, the gardens are strictly ordered, with immovable straight lines and perfect angles, and filled with thousands of gnarled, ancient cypress trees. One juniper tree, known as the Nine Dragon Tree, is a venerable 500 years old.
The buildings themselves are equally impressive, Taoist temples constructed in the C14th by Ming dynasty Emperor Yongle, who also ordered the building of the Forbidden City.
The Temple of Heaven was where the emperor would pray for a good harvest, and fittingly there are stalls all around selling all manner of edible snacks – though the modern-day harvest seems to be mostly Snickers bars.
Take me there: Beijing trips
Yogyakarta – Borobudur
The Buddhist temple of Borobudur is distinctly Indonesian. It takes ancient, local beliefs of ancestor worship and blends them with Buddhism to create a fantastically beautiful temple in the heart of a lush, green natural paradise.
Nestled between two huge volcanoes, it is something of a miracle that the temple is known today – abandoned for generations, it fell into obscurity and was overrun by the surrounding jungle that thrived in the fertile volcanic soil. Since then the temple has been painstakingly restored and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now it is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhist monks as well as a firm favourite for curious travellers, being the single most visited attraction in Indonesia.
Take me there: Indonesia trips
Madurai – Meenakshi Temple
The Meenakshi Temple is the crowning jewel of Madurai, a town replete with religious sites. It is dedicated to its namesake Meenakshi, the avatar of the Hindu goddess Parvati.
The temple is renowned for its gopurams – colossal gateway towers that are highly decorated and sculpted. The 14 towers range from 45-52 metres high, with the south tower being the eighth tallest gopuram in the world.
Each one is a kaleidoscope of brightly painted stone figures, from animals to gods and demons, countless statues lovingly created by masters of their art.
Take me there: Kerala trips
It’s almost impossible to capture the tranquillity of Muktinath in words. At 3,710 meters above sea level the rarefied air is clear and the sun is bright as you ascend the short hill to the temple – certainly shorter than the Thorong La Pass, which you’ve conquered the previous day.
It’s a serene, sacred spot to wander, where two major world religions – Hindu and Buddhist – peacefully coexist. Huge, ornately decorated bells line the way to this pilgrimage site, where the sound of running water fills the air as you pass the many pools and small fountains around the buildings.
Take me there: Annapurna trips
Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Perched apparently very precariously on a clandestine clifftop, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a photographers dream. Perhaps the most dramatically situated building on the planet, Paro Taktsang is well-known but very remote, accessible only on foot and often shrouded by eerie mists which cloak the hillsides.
The site is said to be holy since the C8th, when Buddhist guru Padmasambhava once landed, astride the back of a flying tigress, at the entrance of the cave the monastery is built around.
He then meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours deep inside the cave. It’s easy to see why he would choose such a spot, surrounded by the intense majesty of the mountains.
Take me there: Bhutan trips
Siem Reap – Angkor Wat
Believe the hype, Angkor Wat is a place of superlatives – the largest temple complex in the world does not disappoint.
It appears continuously in almost every Things To Do Before You Die list going; Lonely Planet called it the world’s number one sight. It’s time to find out for yourself.
Angkor wows on two levels: first, the sheer scale of the site is enough to awe even the most experienced of travellers, and second, the incredible level of detail. The intricate carvings and bas-reliefs will blow you away.
Take me there: Angkor Wat holidays
To witness these iconic temples of the world, take a look at our tours below and plan your trip.