I have shared that in other posts, the Southeast Asia region is quite culturally and religiously diverse. While Theravada Buddhism plays a major role in mainland Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia), Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia are Islamic countries, and the Philippines is a Catholic country. Hinduism had its influence in some places in Indonesia, while Confucianism, or Vietnamese folk religion, dominates Vietnam.
I always find the diverse mix of religions interesting, it makes visiting each country in the region so different and special. I read an article earlier about the three most important Buddhist Pagodas in Southeast Asia and realized that I visited them all in the last couple of years; these three sites also frequently appear at the top of the “must-see” lists in Southeast Asia travel guides – I introduced two of them in the past but then I wish to feature them again in one article, let’s take a deeper dive into these places and check out the related posts for other places that you could see!
Location: Yangon, Myanmar
Period: 6th century
Built by: The Mon people (an ethnic group from Myanmar)
Myanmar has a profound history in Buddhism and religion is an important part of the country. Places like Bagan and Mandalay have been popular tourist spots with numerous pagodas and temples. Check out the Best of Bagan Pagodas for my top picks of the most iconic and significant sites in Bagan.
The listed pagoda in this post though is located in the capital city, Yangon. The pagoda had been built by the Mon people in the 6th century (legends say that the pagoda was built more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world) – but the enormous structure situated on Siguttara Hill that we are seeing today was actually completed in the 16th century, after a series of repairs. With 98-meter in height, Shwedagon is namely the tallest Buddhist pagoda in the world. Despite its scale and history, It is also the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese with relics of the past four Buddhas enshrined within.
The pagoda could be seen from various locations in the city. I stayed at a hotel near Kandawgyi Lake and its rooftop cafe has a great view of the pagoda from afar. I had dinner on the rooftop of our hotel and the two pagodas were glistening under the spotlight. I would definitely recommend visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda in the late afternoon so to see the transition of color from day to night. The pagoda reflects the sunlight with its shining gold under the sun, then it looks completely different as the night falls. The dynamic lighting effects of the shrines are kind of unexpected as well.
Take a walk on the wooded trail along Kandawgyi Lake. I had a great view of the pagodas, and a lot of fine restaurants, monuments, and landmarks are located around the lake, such as the Karaweik Palace, Royal Garden, Bogyoke Park, Agricultural Museum, Aqua Fish Aquarium, and more. If you have more time in Yangon, it would be nice to spend an afternoon exploring the area.
Location: Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia
Period: 9th century
Built by: Originally built in the 9th century during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty
Borobudur is, without dispute, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, period. Located in Central Java, the most convenient way to visit the national monument is to start your road trip from Yogyakarta. If you would like to know a little bit more about what to see and do in Jogja, check out my Indonesia food guide and cooking class posts earlier!
Borobudur consists of 9 stacked platforms and is topped by a central dome. The temple contains over 2,600 individual bas-reliefs, which cover the facades and balustrades. There are a total of 1,460 narrative panels in the galleries, and hidden foot of the temple, depicting stories of Sudhana, Manohara, Karmavibhangga, Lalitavistara, Jataka, and Gandavyuha. All of them are Buddhist sutras and seriously, it would take years to complete the temple by examining all of these panels carefully.
My objective in visiting Yogyakarta was to see two famous architectural wonders in Java: A Hindu temple (Prambanan) and a Buddhist temple (Borobudur). I got really lucky that I saw both places on a great day. The sunset at Prambanan was an emotional experience. It rained earlier that day and when I visited the site, I saw the reflection of the temple from the puddles; when everyone was leaving as the temple is about to close, we were the last group to leave and I saw the sunlight poked through the two temples. The view was breathtaking.
Most visitors go to Borobudur early in the morning for the sunrise. We headed out at around 4 am / 5 am but totally worth it. Not only the sunrise was impressive, but also the morning mist embracing the pagoda and statues made the visit spiritual and special.
Location: Siem Reap
Period: 12th century
Built by: Started by Suryavarman II Completed by Jayavarman VII
Where do I begin… When you were asked to name the first Buddhist heritage site in Southeast Asia that comes to your mind, the majority would probably say Angkor Wat. However, not many would be aware, even though the exterior was quite obvious, that Angkor Wat was originally constructed as a Hindu temple and gradually converted into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. Because of its magnificence, Angkor Wat survived the demise of Hindu culture and become a pilgrimage spot for Buddhists throughout the world. In Khmer word, Wat means “temple”, and Angkor Wat means “temple city”.
Angkor Wat has five magnificent towers (which could be seen on Cambodia’s flag) and the central tower was symbolized as a mountain where the gods live. Visitors could queue up and climb the stairs to the top of the tower and enjoy a nice view of the greenery surrounding the temple. Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces west – which scholars suggested that the King intended it to serve as his funerary temple; and it has an unusual solace effect during sunrise. There are 1,200 square meters of carved Bas beliefs in Angkor Wat, depicting eight Hindu myths. One of the most important depictions would probably be “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk”. The temple is heavily decorated with Hindu gods and natural elements like foliage branches, tendrils, or medallions. That’s why the site is so fascinating and wonderful to many.
Angkor Wat is also referenced and featured in many movies and stories, like Tomb Raider, In the Mood of Love, and Indiana Jones. It is part of the Angkor small tour that also covers other incredible temples like Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, and Bayon.