All over Asia there are sites with deeply sacred significance. From the overwhelming visual spectacle of gilded temples to the profound serenity of towering mountaintops, these places can elicit a powerful response in anyone who visits, and not only those with religious conviction. Our Destination Specialists have picked out some of their favourite spiritual spaces where you can take time to pause and reflect.
If asked to name a famous archaeological site in Asia, many people instantly think of Angkor Wat. This magnificent monument, the largest temple complex in the world, is heavy with spiritual history. Since being listed as a UNESCO heritage site, has been painstakingly restored in some places and undergone meticulous conservation in others to ensure it remains an inspiration for generations to come. Watch the sun rise over the temples before the crowds gather, or take to the sky for an alternative perspective.
Finding the kind of tranquillity that Cambodia’s grand temples seem to demand can be impossible at the bigger sites, awe-inspiring as they are. For a more personal experience, you can head deeper into the jungle to where the remote temple of Preah Khan of Kompong Svay sits, frozen in time and reclaimed by nature, waiting to be explored. Camp right by the temple where, without any light pollution, you can bathe in a sea of stars as night falls. Wake early as the sun rises above the ruins, and wander among the silent stones to your heart’s content.
Each morning, before dawn breaks, the residents of Luang Prabang quietly make their way to offer alms to the Buddhist monks as they leave their pagodas, in recognition of the sacrifices and values of monastic life. This iconic event is called Tak Bat and has become extremely popular as a ‘must-see’ for visitors, so much so that tourist interest has begun to threaten the event itself. We recommend abstaining from close photography or actual participation in this highly sacred religious ceremony. Instead, talk to your guide about witnessing it from a respectful distance.
Towering over its relatively low-rise surroundings, the gilded dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda seems to glow against the horizon. Its elongated pinnacle is topped with its own star - a diamond-encrusted orb which magnifies the first and last rays of the day’s sun. Each evening, the temple provides a meeting point for local people who come to pray at the surrounding shrines, and you can wander around the pagoda soaking in the atmosphere. If you wish to go inside make sure you wear clothes that respectfully cover your legs and arms, and prepare to enter the temple barefoot.
To begin to gain a deeper understanding of Buddhist practice, you can embark upon a mini-retreat with an overnight stay in a monastery. Fo Guang Shan is Taiwan’s largest monastery, and many visitors make a pilgrimage there to see the world’s biggest Buddha statue that watches over the complex. Your guide for your overnight stay will be a resident monk or nun, and you will be able to talk, meditate and take your meals with the residents, as well as finding a little personal peace as you wander through the grounds.
Casting a contrasting silhouette against its modern surroundings, Longshan temple is a monument to resilience and staying power. Its spiky edges tell a story, not just of the gods and legends they represent but also of rising phoenix-like from the ashes of destruction by earthquakes, typhoons and a world war. From its undulating roof surrounded by carved dragons, which gives the whole temple the look of a boat tossed in a storm, to the breath-taking spiralled ceiling within, the temple is covered with exquisite carvings. Be there at 8am or 5pm to hear chanting that adds to the magic.
With its golden spires and brightly coloured roof visible from all over the city, the Grand Palace is one of Bangkok’s most recognisable landmarks. Originally home to the Thai royal family, and then several administrative branches of government, these days the complex mainly buzzes with comings and goings of a different kind. Visitors eager to see the beautiful architecture and artwork come in their thousands each year, many to pay their respects to the most revered Buddha image in Thailand: the Emerald Buddha. Visit early in the morning to avoid the crowds and soak up the atmosphere.
Within the gleaming white walls of this relatively modest looking temple in Kandy resides something even more precious than the beautifully-crafted images of the Buddha. Here, in a tiny golden casket, rests a single tooth believed to be a relic of Buddha himself. Once a week the relic takes centre stage in a special bathing ceremony, where the casket is immersed in water scented with herbs and flowers. This water, which is believed to take on healing powers, is then given out to eager onlookers. Take in the intricate wall paintings and tooth motifs as you wander through the halls.
There are very few secrets left in this world of instant online access, but Kuala Lumpur still guards one. Alongside the vibrant lights, tempting food and high energy of the Brickfields suburb is a quieter, spiritual side. One of Malaysia’s biggest and most secluded Tamil temples, Sri Kandaswamy Kovil, sits cloistered and mysterious behind resplendent walls, tempting the curious to venture in. Due to the temple’s strict observation of certain Hindu scriptures, photography is very limited within the grounds, so to truly understand its beauty you’ll have to see it for yourself.
The tea ceremony, with all its intricate meaning, is central to the understanding of Japanese Zen Buddhism. By visiting a temple or machiya (a traditional wooden townhouse) and taking part in a private tea ceremony, tasting the contrast of sweet confectionary with the bitterness of the tea, you can begin to understand the spiritual significance of this ancient ritual. It is a process which links nourishment of the body with that of the soul, through a focus and calming akin to a kind of meditation. Follow with an actual session of Zazen meditation to complete the experience.
Isa Jingu is a vast complex of 125 shrines, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, which covers an area the size of Paris and hosts over 1500 rituals each year praying for prosperity, peace and a good harvest. As you would expect from a shrine dedicated to a sun goddess, the air is full of hope and it feels fresh and vibrant. This is perhaps partly attributable to the extraordinary ritual of Shikinen Sengu where a new divine palace (including the interior treasures and furnishings) is built, identical and adjacent to the old one, every 20 years in a ceremony to symbolise and celebrate renewal.
There are certain natural phenomena which are so extraordinary that their existence feels, to many, like proof of a divine presence. The Golden Rock in Mon State, Myanmar, is such a site. Perched in gravity-defying circumstances on the edge of a mountainside, this gigantic rock, and the astonishing pagoda which now crowns it, have been said to convert people to Buddhism at the mere sight of them. Hundreds of pilgrims come each year to add their own gold leaf to the rock’s surface, creating a shimmering, ethereal beauty. This is the perfect place to sit in stillness and contemplate.
There’s something about leaving behind the relentless rush of modern life which makes it easier to reconnect with the more spiritual aspects of existence. From the deck of a wooden riverboat, gliding gently down the Mekong, there is space, silence and time to tune in to a different rhythm. Having made your way through the jungle, you finally reach the striking ruins of the unique Vat Phou temple (still in use for Buddhist worship) and, further along, the lost city of Oun Moung. Away from the crowds at the busier temples, you can find a few sacred moments just for you.
The process of pilgrimage often involves a challenging journey, making the destination all the sweeter for the struggle. The excitement of finally reaching the remote temple of Preah Vihear, having trekked through miles of dense jungle, gives the place an extra thrill to add to its already mesmerising atmosphere. There is an instant sense of the weight of its history as a significant site during the Khmer Empire, and the stunning views across the Cambodia-Thailand border, from your vantage point 500 metres above sea level, are well worth the hike.
Not every spiritual experience involves a site of religious significance. Sometimes, the most profound moments in life are simply those where a handful of elements all come together at the right time in elegant perfection, often when we are least expecting it. From the upper floors of the Cerulean Tower in Tokyo, for example, it can be hard to look beyond that city’s megasprawl, but then sunset lifts your gaze to the horizon, however, and you suddenly see the silhouette of Mount Fuji illuminated in the last rays of the day, you might find yourself enjoying one of those ‘moments’.
Whether you strive to reach them with an arduous journey, or find them in life’s simplest pleasures, experiences with an element of spirituality often cause you to pause and take stock, preserving them as lasting memories. Chat with our Destination Specialists about sites of sacred significance in your chosen destination, and let us know of any places you’ve visited where you’ve found that special something extra.