Take a virtual tour from Indonesia to Bhutan and Sri Lanka to Myanmar through these snapshots.
Photographs by James Louie
Vesak Day is the time when hundreds of millions around Asia—and the wider world—celebrate the birth, life, and enlightenment of the Buddha. Ordinarily, crowds gather at temples to bathe little statues of the Buddha, an act that symbolizes inner purification, and take part in merit-making ceremonies. Some join candlelit processions beneath the glow of the full moon. Of course, this year and the one before it have been different, given the stay-at-home orders and curbs on religious gatherings thanks to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
While the great majority of us remain confined to our living quarters, I’ve decided to mark the occasion by sharing a photo compilation of must-visit Buddhist sites, drawn from the past five years of my own personal travels around South and Southeast Asia. Seasoned adventurers will notice visible gaps: I have seen far too little of India and, most regrettably, Thailand. Though a reporting assignment took me to the northeastern Thai province of Buriram (a place I heartily recommend for its spicy food and ancient Khmer architecture) several years ago, I have not yet made it to the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, both of which have been on my bucket list for the longest time.
But the sacred Buddhist sites I’ve been fortunate enough to visit have left some indelible memories. I will always remember the experience of greeting the sunrise from the upper terraces of Borobudur temple, which is returned to its original purpose once a year when it hosts the grandest Vesak Day festivities in all of Indonesia. Nor can I forget how it was to circle the gilded central stupa of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, mingling with local devotees clad in longyi and marveling at the sheer magnificence of it all—a testament to Myanmar’s natural wealth and its clout in the annals of Southeast Asian civilization.
In Bhutan, I walked with quiet reverence in the courtyards and halls of its timeless dzong, sturdy fortress-monasteries that serve as both religious centers and seats of local administration. Then there was a special treat saved for the final day of my weeklong Himalayan sojourn. Alas, the much-anticipated hike up to the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery was done in heavy rain and swirling clouds of mist, though the less-than-ideal conditions at the time only give me another reason to return. Once this is all over, perhaps I will.