South and Southeast Asia’s Buddhist Sites in Photos

Take a virtual tour from Indonesia to Bhutan and Sri Lanka to Myanmar through these snapshots.

Photographs by James Louie

Punakha Dzong, a 17th-century landmark of Bhutan.

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. This year, of course, is different, given the sweeping stay-at-home orders and bans on religious gatherings thanks to the 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.

Sunset over the Irrawaddy River and the pagoda-filled plain of Bagan, Myanmar.

A Buddha image inside Bagan’s Dhammayangyi temple.

The 13th-century Htilominlo temple, also in Bagan, framed by smaller stupas.

Left to right: Novice monks at a monastery near Myanmar’s Inle Lake; the lakeside ruins of In Dein.

Statues of masked demons holding up a chedi (stupa) at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok.

Two views of Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.

Left to right: Thimphu’s Buddha Dordenma statue; pilgrims at the National Memorial Chorten.

Tiger’s Nest monastery, seen through the mist.

An exposed ninth-century Buddha statue at Borobudur temple, Indonesia.

Left to right: Borobudur’s distinctive bell-shaped stupas; finding a niche on its lower levels.

Intricate reliefs at Borobudur depict the life of Gautama Buddha.

Sewu Temple, an eighth-century sanctuary outside Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Outside Sri Lanka’s UNESCO-listed Dambulla cave temple.

Colorful murals and statues cover every inch of the Dambulla cave temple.

The whitewashed stupa of Ruwanwelisaya, in the city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Lighting oil lamps at Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi temple in Anuradhapura.

The steep ascent to the hilltop Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Prayer wheels at Swayambhunath.

Monkeys at play on Swayambhunath’s distinctive stupa.

The gilded spires of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

Monks visiting Shwedagon on a hot and humid day at the end of rainy season.

Bathing a Buddha statue at Shwedagon.

Devotees in longyi thronging the halls of Shwedagon.

Looking up Shwedagon Pagoda Road to its namesake 105-meter-high temple.

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