Offering a first-hand view into another culture and another time, temples fling open the doors of our worldview and invite us into a sacred place. Some of the most awe-inspiring structures around the globe, these spiritual monuments speak to different society’s sense of beauty and the divine through their architecture, artifacts, and acknowledgement of a belief system. From Thailand to Tokyo, we’ve rounded up five of the world’s most majestic temples so you can find heaven on earth.
Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand
Counting more than 40,000 Buddhist holy places, Thailand is brimming with every type of temple, from grand and gold-filled to simple and earthy, so much so, that it’s hard to travel anywhere in the country without spotting several shrines. The most significant structure, Wat Phra Kaew or Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is found in Bangkok’s historic center, within the Grand Palace. Here, the 26-inch-tall Emerald Buddha – carved from a single slab of jade – is enshrined in an intricately decorated building using marble, mosaics, and tile, and is guarded by two 16-foot Yakshis (mythical giants). While the Emerald Buddha is on display for all to see, only the king is allowed to touch the statue – a ritual the reigning monarch does seasonally to bring good fortune to the kingdom.
Where to stay in Thailand
Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, Bali
Located in central Bali off a winding and wooded road you’ll find Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, a Hindu-Buddhist temple edging the western shore of Bratan Lake. Famous for its thatched-roof meru (tiered shrines) reflecting on the water, the sanctuary built in 1633 is so iconic that it’s depicted on Indonesia’s 50,000Rp note. Erected in dedication to Dewi Danu, the goddess of water, locals seek out this sanctuary to make flower, food, and incense offerings in support of abundant water flow into the area’s UNESCO-recognized irrigation system.
Where to stay in Bali
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Cambodia appears on many Southeast Asia itineraries thanks to the world-famous spiritual site of Angkor Wat. Both a namesake temple and a complex with more than 72 ancient stone-built structures, the cultural and historical area is so significant, it is featured on the country’s national flag. Once home to an estimated 80,000 people at its peak, the temple at Angkor Wat was designed in the traditional Khmer style of architecture to represent Mount Meru, an important locale in Hindu mythology. The grounds stretch over 400 acres, and the temple’s outer wall, protected by a moat, measures a staggering 3.6 kilometres (2.2 miles), giving it the title of largest religious structure ever built.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s most sought-after spiritual structure, Sri Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, is true to its name. Holding a casket believed to contain one of Buddha’s teeth, the UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts thousands of locals and visitors to its verdant, riverside address harbored within the walls of the former Kingdom of Kandy palace complex. In this place of worship, rituals are performed by monks three times daily, and a ceremonial bathing of the relic with fragrant flowers and holy water is done every Wednesday.
Where to stay in Sri Lanka
Sensō-ji Temple, Tokyo
Located in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, Sensō-ji is a must-see for its beauty and the bustle surrounding this urban spiritual site. Standing the test of time, the oldest temple in Tokyo is also one of its most iconic with its cherry-tree lined approach and adjacency to the Asakusa Shinto Shrine built in dedication to the men who constructed Sensō-ji. As one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world—upwards of 30 million people visit annually—the ancient Buddhist temple is part of a collection of sacred buildings huddled amid a traditional market selling kimonos, traditional cloths, sushi and handmade noodles, making it a must-shop for your soul and your stomach.