10 of the World’s Most Impressive Temples
Published 27 September 2016
I’ve seen a lot of temples on my travels across the globe. I’m always fascinated by them and their intricate carvings and mosaics, the traditions that take place there, and the silent stillness that descends when you cross the threshold. On more than one occasion I’ve used a temple as shelter in a storm, an escape from oppressive heat, or simply for a moment or two of reflection in a non-stop city.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a temple is “a building devoted to the worship of a god or gods”. As this definition doesn’t specify a religion, I have included structures from a variety of faiths in this, my list of 10 of the most impressive temples in the world.
Paro Taktsang, Bhutan
The precariously-balanced 17th century monastery of Paro Taksang is perched more than 3,000m above sea level in Bhutan’s Himalayan Mountains. Legend states that Guru Rinpoche, one of the holiest figures in Mahayana Buddhism, flew here on the back of a tigress in the 8th century, giving the place the nickname ‘the Tiger’s Nest’. Today, with a lack of flying tigers, you’ll either have to hike or ride to the temple on horseback. Prince William and Kate Middleton trekked up here during their official visit to Bhutan in April 2016, taking three hours and declaring it “amazing” and “a great way to burn off the curry”.
Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand
Otherwise known as the White Temple, this half temple-half art installation gives a modern twist to traditional Thai design. Designed, funded and constructed by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple is an ongoing creation, and is expected to be finished in 2070. Nevertheless, it opened to the public in 1997, and soon became a popular tourist attraction. Its many quirky sculptures include depictions of Michael Jackson, Harry Potter and Superman, while the centrepiece is a sea of hands all seemingly reaching for the sky (pictured).
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Shwedagon Zedi Daw, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
Better known as the Shwedagon Pagoda, Shwedagon Zedi Daw towers 99 metres above Yangon’s skyline. It’s especially striking when its gold leaf exterior glitters in bright sunlight or when lit up artificially at night. It’s thought to have been built sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, and is one of the most important religious sites in the country, drawing worshippers and tourists alike. To visit is easy enough for those staying in the capital, although remember to cover your legs and take off your shoes if you go inside.
Borobudur, Java, Indonesia
Another Mahayana Buddhist temple, this time in Indonesia, Borobudur is quite a sight to behold. Its nine platforms are surrounded by thick jungle and topped with a huge dome. Over 500 Buddha statues are dotted across the platforms, each one seated inside a stupa. Cunningly, the holes in the stupa are angled so that you always have to look up to see the Buddha encased inside. This World Heritage site is best visited on a day trip from Yogyakarta, and once there you can climb to the top for stupendous views across the countryside.
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Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China
Constructed between 1406 and 1420, the Temple of Heaven is one of Beijing’s most popular sights. This too is a UNESCO World Heritage site, consisting of three sections: the Circular Mound Altar, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (pictured), which is perhaps the recognisable of the three. With red, gold and dragons featuring prominently, this is the China of a million holiday brochures. But the structures themselves are not the only attraction – wander the park to watch locals sipping tea or practising tai chi, or occasionally, getting married.
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Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar, India
More commonly known as the Golden Temple, this gold-plated gurdwara is the holiest in the Sikh religion, and has stood in its location since 1577. Its beauty is ameliorated by the surrounding man-made lagoon, known as the Sarovar, which is filled with holy water from the Ravi River. Over 100,000 worshippers visit the Golden Temple every day, and the complex welcomes visitors of all faiths, as long as they remove their shoes and cover their heads. There’s an on-site kitchen too, serving free flatbread and lentil soup to anyone who’s hungry.
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The Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
What list of temples would be complete without the Temples of Angkor, the world’s oldest and largest religious monument and voted the planet’s number one sight by Lonely Planet readers? With various crumbling temples, each with hidden corridors and intriguing sculptures, some hidden by the jungle, the complex warrants at least two days’ exploration, if not more. It’s impossible for me to summarise Angkor adequately in just a few sentences, so let’s leave it at this: take your camera, take your time, and prepare to be amazed.
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Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, aka the Blue Mosque, is one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions, and with good reason. The 17th century structure’s six minarets dominate the city skyline, and are visible for miles around. Inside, the walls are covered with over 20,000 ceramic tiles, with the blue walls of the upper layers dotted with stained glass windows and verses from the Qur’an. While it’s easy to spend hours straining your neck gazing at the opulent interior, you must respect those who are here to worship and not enter the building during prayer time.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia
One of St Petersburg’s, if not Russia’s, most memorable sights, the Church on Spilled Blood as it’s also known is so-called because it is built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb in 1881. From the outside, its colourful domes intentionally resemble those of Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral, while inside you’ll find over 7,500 square metres of brightly-coloured mosaics. It’s all very photogenic, especially if you catch it when dusted with snow.
Dohany Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary
I couldn’t finish this list without including at least one Synagogue. I’ve seen a fair few, but this one in Budapest stands out due to its sheer size. It seats over 3,000, making it the largest Synagogue in Europe, although this pales in comparison to Jerusalem’s Belz Great Synagogue. It was built in the mid-19th century with influences taken from Spain’s Alhambra. The outside is notable for its two 43m high onion-shaped domes, each covered with details borrowed from Gothic and Romantic design, while inside colourful shapes adorn the ceiling.