When I pictured travelling around South East Asia I imagined beach parties, elephants, noodles and baggy trousers. Whilst you will check off this list, one thing that almost slipped my mind was temples. Anyone who has explored this corner of the globe them self will understand the prominence of religion and spirituality and how this shapes millions of people’s day to day lives. I visited over twenty temples during the 3 months I spent in Asia, so I’m going to review my top five and offer some advice to ensure you can really enjoy a temple tour.
Located in the capital of Thailand, Bangkok, Wat Pho is commonly known as the reclining Buddha, for obvious reasons. Upon entering you are greeted by the 46m long Buddha, you really cannot overestimate his size. I began my trip with very little knowledge of Buddhism and this was a great way to ease into it, I wasn’t overwhelmed with information and traditions. This temple is not massively time consuming as it doesn’t take too long to walk through, meaning those of you who are not used to the Bangkok humidity, quite similar to myself, will not be walking around dripping with sweat for too long. With the admission price at 100 baht (approximitley £2) you can accept that neither your money or time will be wasted if you do come to the decision you have no interest in temples.
Of course no trip to South East Asia is complete without marvelling at the wondrous Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious site, boasting 162 hectares. You would struggle to see its entirety in one visit. Regardless of the slight annoyance there is a reason there are hundreds of tourists, shuffling past each other with cameras in hand. It really is a sight to behold, watching the sun peak between its towers my regret of a 3am rise vanished.
The Cambodian jungle swallowed up this beautiful temple, making it look only more fascinating. I would honestly say this was my favourite temple, I managed to squeeze this in after Angkor Wat due to their close proximity. The temple was abandoned after the 15th century and the fall of the Khmer regime, nature took over as many trees became entangled in the building, if the trees were removed today it is likely the whole temple would crumble. There is just a certain atmosphere here, an appreciation for nature and a simultaneous eerie feel.
One of the less crowded temples, a more peaceful setting where you can take time to appreciate the towers. Located in Nha Trang, Vietnam, a modern city, where I honestly spent most of my time partying, this was a nice palate cleanser and made a nice morning trip. The entrance fee is super cheap and as time consuming as you please. Built on the top of a hill you can climb a few flights of stairs to enjoy a stunning view over the city.
This was one stop I found particularly interesting as I had not paid so much attention to Hindu culture, luckily something Bali had to offer. ‘Tirta Empul’ translates to ‘Holy Spring’ from Balinese, which is quite literal as you stand before a number of sacred baths which are available for tourists and Balinese Hindus alike. There are several different fountains, once submerged in the water you must bow under every fountain as part of a spiritual ritual. The water comes from a natural spring and there are many colourful fish swimming around you.
Tips for Temples
- Whether Hindu or Buddhist there are a number of basic rules you should respect as a tourist. Besides a pleasant and polite demeanour one of the most important things is to cover up as an act of modesty. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a strong feminist who believes women can do what they want, it actually isn’t your call to make in this situation. Most holy sites will be satisfied if you cover your shoulders and knees, this can easily be done with a light cotton t-shirt and long thin material trousers. There’s a real reason those baggy hippy pants are such a big part of the backpacker stereotype. No matter how hard you try to resist the trend it’s hard to avoid them. Although, on hotter days I often just wore shorts and took a sarong with me to cover up, this really stops you overheating and means you aren’t stuck all day in full length trousers, especially helpful if you plan to visit the beach on the same day.
- Flip Flops, another backpacker stereotype that I tried to avoid. In most temples you will be asked to remove your shoes, it’s kind of awkward when your 100 metres behind everyone else scrambling with your laces. Plus, you wear anything else and your feet are going to get super-hot.
- Always carry a water bottle with you, some tours can be longer than others and when you’re walking around in the extreme heat you can very quickly become more concerned with how dry your mouth is rather than the 100 century AD architecture. If I ever had water left over I would give it to beggars, who often sit outside temples and other tourist attractions. This means you can avoid the uncomfortable debate of whether it is morally right to hand them over some money.
- Do basic research of the said religion prior to the trip. You don’t want to accidentally offend someone without even knowing. For example, in Buddhism it is frowned upon to point with your feet. It is definitely beneficial to have a basic understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable.
Walking around temples was not the first thing that came to mind when I imagined backpacking around South East Asia, although you do see a lot of dreadlocked guys with Buddha tattoos nowadays. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who has an interest in culture and society, religion has such a massive influence over this region and I found it really fascinating to learn about their different customs and the history behind them.