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Southeast Asia, as a region, is famous for its rich history, diverse culture, and unparalleled heritage. It has been attracting backpacking enthusiasts for decades now. Be it the modern marvels in Thailand, or the rugged trails of Vietnam, every country has a variety of experiences to offer. The culture of this region is heavily intertwined with its religious history. Some of the best architectural wonders here are its places of worship like temples, monasteries, pagodas and mosques.
Though religious sites like the Angkor Wat in Cambodia or the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar are now world-renowned, there are innumerable such lesser-known sites in Southeast Asia that remain undiscovered by travelers and tourists. Here is a list of 13 such lesser-known places of worship in the region that are spectacular in their beauty and are waiting to be explored.
This precariously situated pagoda, resting atop a golden rock at the edge of the cliff, makes for a glorious yet daunting sight. Legend has it that the rock itself, covered with gold leaves pasted by devotees, is balanced perilously on a strand of the Buddha’s hair. In spite of the fact that the rock seems to be defying gravity as it appears to be on the threshold of falling off, Buddhist devotees throng to this pagoda, one of their most important places of worship. Leave your rationale behind and embark on a thrilling visit to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda on your next trip to Myanmar.
Glass Temple, Malaysia
Originally built as a simple shelter in 1922, the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Temple in Johor Bahru underwent a transformation in 2009 and became the spectacular glass temple we know today. The temple is believed to be covered by a mosaic of more than 3,00,000 pieces of coloured glass. The temple is home to the statues of Hindu deities, Gautam Buddha and Mother Teresa among others and its walls are adorned with glass murals of secular scenes like a Muslim and a Christian helping a Hindu. This exceptional place of worship is a must-visit for its sheer magnificence and unique depiction of religious tolerance within its premises.
The ornate architecture and historic importance of this pagoda make it one of the most majestic yet lesser-known places of worship in Cambodia. The pagoda that we see today is a reconstructed version of the original structure built in the 16th century, three of whose ancient wooden pillars are put on display at the temple even today. The comparatively modern structure has a total of 116 pillars and innumerable intricately carved figurines and statues of Buddha are spread across the entire complex. Enjoy the spell-binding beauty of this remarkable temple when you visit Kratie in Cambodia.
The Thien Mu Pagoda, the highest religious building in Vietnam, is not only an impressive seven-storey structure by itself but is also known for its historical significance in the religious tension that gripped Vietnam in the 20th century. This striking pagoda, an iconic landmark of Hue, houses the famous car of the monk Thich Quang Duc who set himself on fire at a busy junction in Saigon, as a mark of protest against the discrimination meted out to Buddhists in Vietnam. Admire the imposing pagoda and pay respects to Thich Quang Duc’s sacrifice at the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam.
Over ten thousand Buddha statues spread across its complex, one of which is the second tallest Buddha statue in the world, Bodhi Tataung is indeed a remarkable Buddhist site. Another of its most famous figures is that of a reclining Buddha which was built before the standing statue. You can venture inside these two statues and see the paintings that depict scenes of hell. Don’t forget to admire the Ten Thousand Buddha Garden and the splendid pagoda that is a part of the complex in Monywa, Myanmar.
The Baksei Chamkrong Hindu Temple is one of the smaller and more obscure of the temples located in the Angkor Wat Complex. The beauty of this structure lies in its simplicity. It was one of the first temples of Angkor which were built with durable material like bricks and decorated with sandstone. The structure resembles that of the Mayan Tikal Temple, further proof that maybe two of the greatest ancient civilizations, in spite of the incredible geographical distance, somehow came in contact with each other. Unravel the mysteries and learn more about the legends of the once flourishing Khmer Empire at the Baksei Chamkrong Temple in Cambodia.
This 50-foot tall statue of Jesus Christ is one-of-its-kind. It comprises of a stairway that leads devotees straight to His heart. At the base of this statue, located on the Divine Mercy Hill, lies the healing chapel and in the heart of Christ lies the chamber of adoration. Experience the abundant divinity as you explore the surrounding area and enjoy the panoramic views from the Christ Statue in El Salvador, Philippines.
The Shwenandaw Monastery, located in the scenic city of Mandalay, is one of the most grandiose monasteries in Myanmar. It is built in typical Burmese architecture, has four stories that taper towards the top and the elaborate teak carvings depicting mythical creatures, animals, dancers and flowers are the highlights of the structure. Once gilded entirely in gold, these wooden carvings are extremely intricate and yet, they are distinctly visible even today. Discover the beauty of this unique structure bathed in sunlight as you watch the monks go about their daily routine and decipher the numerous scenes the wooden figurines portray.
The mystical ruins of Wat Ek Phnom are one of the most exquisite in Cambodia. Heavily decorated with stone carvings, these ruins tell glorious stories of the times they were built in. On the east side of the structure is a lintel which has a carving of Hindu mythology’s famous tale of churning of the ocean of milk. The walls also have images of the Buddha. Adjoining to this ancient site is the modern Wat Ek Phnom, unmistakably visible due to the gigantic Buddha statue perched atop. Visit the awe-inspiring ruins of the Wat Ek Phnom near Battambang in Cambodia for a truly divine experience.
The Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay is home to the largest book in the world – the Tripitaka. This book is a collection of 729 marble slabs inscribed with the teachings of the Buddha. The structure is modeled after the famous Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan. Its gold inscriptions, the stupas that contain these marble slabs, the main shrine and the entire complex are prime examples of the marvels of Buddhist architecture. Set out on an exploratory trip of this unique pagoda in Myanmar.
Wat Botum Vathey, literally the temple of lotus blossoms, is situated in Phnom Penh. Originally built in 1442, this structure is surrounded by various statues such as those of apsaras (angels), animals and demons holding a seven-headed snake. The main temple is gorgeously gilded with gold. This forgotten landmark of Cambodia is worth a visit for the serenity it exudes and exquisiteness of its statues and carvings.
Taman Sari Underground Mosque, Indonesia
This mosque, lying in the middle of a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site, is now close to ruins. However, it has managed to retain quite a bit of its lost glory. Teeming with mystery, this seemingly plain mosque was a part of a lavish project called the Taman Sari Water Castle. The mosque, earlier accessible only by an underwater passage, also had a series of staircases and was once a flourishing place of worship. You can still visit this site and bask in the beauty and intricacy of the entire complex.
The Bayon Temple is yet another of the Angkor complex’s hidden gems and is synonymous with the mysterious smiling faces that adorn its outer façade. This 12th-century structure includes statues of Gods and Demons at the entrance, carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology and of course, the more than 200 huge faces carved onto the towers of the temple. Explore the stunning architecture and rich history of the Bayon Temple when you visit the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia.
These lesser-known places of worship are symbols of the interconnection of religion and culture in Southeast Asia. On your next trip, make sure you don’t miss checking out these incredible sites and discover their splendor.
Author: Team Guiddoo
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