13 Most Beautiful Temples
Travelers of all faiths will be touched by these stunning sites, many of which are at the heart of some of the world's major religions. See what divine inspiration can produce—from well-known temples like Angkor Wat in Cambodia to hidden gems like Kiyomizu-dera in Japan.
How to Go: Though notables from Rudyard Kipling to Hillary Clinton have visited the pagoda, travel to Myanmar is still not easy for the average tourist. Once in Yangon, the capital, take a taxi (about $3) to the Pagoda, which is on a hill outside town. Entrance is $5, and ticket booths are located at the southern and eastern entrances. (The southern entrance has both stairs and elevators.) Visitors must remove their shoes before entering (bring a plastic bag to carry them with you) and tourists are requested to wear at least knee-length shorts and to cover legs and arms halfway; sarongs are available if needed. Note that the terraces above the stupa's base are only open to men.
Ramanathaswamy Jyotirlinga Temple, Rameswaram, India
The island village of Rameswaram, in southern India, has become a major pilgrimage destination thanks to this famous temple dedicated to the god Shiva. Located near the sea on the island's eastern side, the site has a connection to the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana; it's said that Lord Rama himself placed the Shivalinga, or diety, at this location at the urging of the saints. The temple itself was built in the 12th century, then expanded in the 1500s and 1600s, and has the hallmarks of ancient south Indian temple architecture, including a high compound wall, huge gopurams (flat-topped, carving-covered towers), tanks of holy spring water (there are 22 here), and various shrines and inner sanctums. Most breathtaking are the corridors: the interior ones run between colonnades and sandstone pillars, while the outer set—the longest in a temple in India, at about 4,000 feet—is lined with thousands of carved pillars and sculptures. The complex is one of the holiest sites for Hindus—particularly those who worship Shiva and Vishnu.
How to Go: Rameswaram is linked by train to major southern cities like Bangalore and Chennai, which have international airports. Entrance to the temple complex is free, though visitors will likely be approached by guides offering their services for about $8-$10.
Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand
Where do important Buddhist relics live alongside images of Keanu Reeves from The Matrix? At this unconventional temple in northern Thailand. Built by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat between 1998-2008, The White Temple, as it's known, looks like the winter palace of some fairy tale queen, with its intricately carved all-white structure and elaborate, icicle-like towers. The temple honors the Buddhist faith: The white color represents Lord Buddha's purity, the white mirrored glass in the facade the brightness of Lord Buddha's wisdom, and the entryway bridge the crossing over from the cycle of rebirth. Inside, the walls, floor and ceiling of the assembly hall are adorned with gold-toned paintings of subjects from the spiritual and natural worlds, as well as the modern—so you'll find Batman, Superman, Predator and, yes, Keanu among the images. Eventually, the complex will contain nine buildings, including a hall for relics, monks' cells, meditation areas, and an art gallery.
How to Go: Chiang Rai is located in northern Thailand, and is linked by regular flights from Bangkok. The temple is located about nine miles south of town, and is accessible by taxi, tuk-tuk, or shared public vans. The temple is open daily until 5 p.m.; entrance is free.
Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto, Japan
Not a single nail was used in the construction of this Buddhist temple—a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site—in eastern Kyoto. Though there has been some type of temple on this site since the late 700s, this current structure was built in 1633, and named Kiyomizu—or "pure water"—in honor of the waterfall located in the complex. The main hall features 139 tall pillars, and houses a statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed god Kannon, and spacious terraces that jut out over the surrounding hillside, and overlook cherry and maple trees. (It was once thought that if you could survive a jump off one of these platforms your wishes would be granted, but that practice is now forbidden.) Below the hall, three streams come together to form the Otowa waterfall, which is said to have healing properties, and visitors are welcome to take a sip—though it's considered greedy to drink from all three streams. The complex also houses shrines to various gods, including Jishu, the god of "matchmaking," plus 200 stone statues of Jizo, protector of children and travelers, and a three-storied pagoda where one can pray for safe childbirth. Vendors around the site peddle items like good luck charms and incense, and the temple gets lit up for special events throughout the year.