World's 10 most stunning Buddhist sites

1 SHIKOKU TEMPLE PILGRIMAGE, JAPAN

MB3KF2 Henro pilgrim praying at Daishi-do at Meisekiji, temple 43 of 88 Temple Shikoku pilgrimage, Uwa, Ehime, Shikoku, Japan str19-trav10buddhist

Photo: Alamy

Shikoku, the smallest and least populated of Japan's four main islands, is seldom visited by tourists and offers a slower, more traditional and rural Japan. Its pilgrim hiking trail, one of the world's oldest, links the island's 88 Buddhist temples and several foot-relieving hot spring resorts. In feudal times the highly scenic 1200-kilometre route took months, but nowadays you can cheat and cover some sections on airconditioned buses. See tourismshikoku.org

2 WAT PHRA SING, THAILAND

CFCT2G Buddhist temple Wat Phra Sing and Lai Khan chapel, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Asia str19-trav10buddhist

Photo: Alamy

Despite being surrounded by markets, this 14th-century complex retains an air of surprising serenity. Only the chant of resident orange-robed monks is a constant background noise. The temple is largely wooden, with the Gilded Hall superbly carved and crowned by a multi-tiered roof. Inside, rows of trainee monks read from Buddhist scriptures underneath a venerable statue of the Singing Buddha. The grounds host many lively religious festivities. See tourismchiangmai.org

3 DUNHUANG, CHINA

Top Buddhist sites around the world. DUNHUANG China

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Mogao Caves outside this desert garrison town on the southern Silk Route hold China's most outstanding Buddhist frescoes and sculptures. Some 500 caves (about 30 are open to the public), which were carved out between the fourth and 10th centuries, contain thousands of sculptures showing Greek, Persian and Hindu influences. Giant stone Buddhas smile, Tang Dynasty courtiers play music and mythical beasts roam. The delicately painted Sleeping Buddha of Cave 148 is a highlight. See cnto.org

4 SHWEDAGON PAGODA, MYANMAR

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar.

Photo: Shutterstock

This stunning pile of gold-encased stupas atop a hill in the centre of Yangon is the country's most important religious site, visited by a ceaseless procession of monks and praying locals. Serene Buddha statues clash with gaudy sun-glittering decorations, herds of mythological beasts and piles of donated fruit. Somerset Maugham described it as "superb, glistening with its gold like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul". See shwedagonpagoda.com.mm

5 BOROBODUR, INDONESIA

Borobudur Buddist temple Yogyakarta Indonesia. June 2005 Photo Michele Mossop Generic Indonesia, tourism, TNI history travel religion Islam buddism mobile phone technology budda 1st USE AFR SPECIALX 37825

Photo: Michele Mossop

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Surrounded by rice paddies and rainforest in Java, this gigantic complex of temples and stupas, built in the ninth century, is one of the world's most astounding monuments, and its largest Buddhist structure. Stone terraces lined with stupas, bas-relief carvings and Buddha statues cover hillsides and represent the journey from earthly desires to nirvana. Views over stunning countryside and volcanic cones are a bonus at the summit. Sunset is superb. See borobudurpark.com

6 DAMBULLA CAVES, SRI LANKA

Dambula Caves in Sri Lanka (credit Sri Lanka Tourism) str19-trav10buddhist

Sri Lanka's largest cave-temple complex houses more than 150 Buddha statues, including a giant recumbent Buddha brash in yellow with a lipstick-red smile. Frescoes outline the life of the Buddha in the form of an ancient comic strip peopled with animals, birds, sadhus and princes. Some are many centuries old, others added in gaudy colour right up to present times. Outside, monkeys lurk and views spread over emerald countryside. See srilanka.travel

7 PO LIN MONASTERY, HONG KONG

str19-trav10buddhist The Big Buddha near Po Lin Monastery in Hong Kong (credit HKTB)

When Hong Kong's frenetic urban pace overwhelms, swap honking traffic for honking geese and whispering pines on Lantau Island, which has remote beaches and rugged hiking trails. The leafy walk from Ngong Ping hill to Tai O fishing village takes you past a 225-tonne giant Buddha sitting in the lotus position with hand raised in blessing. Nearby Po Lin Monastery has ornate temples painted with writhing dragons. See plm.org.hk

8 HAEINSA TEMPLE, SOUTH KOREA

Buddhist woodblocks at Haeinsa Temple in South Korea str19-trav10buddhist

The Temple of Reflection on the Smooth Sea is the depository for the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of 80,000 wood-printing blocks of Buddhist scriptures containing 52 million characters, the world's oldest and most comprehensive collection of Buddhist canon. But it's also an active temple, and visitors can don monks clothing, eat vegetarian meals and join daily monastery life. The 3am wake-up call is cruel but the atmosphere of chanting monks wonderful. See visitkorea.or.kr

9 LONGMEN GROTTOES, CHINA

MAEN4C Luoyang, China - 7 March 2018 - Tourists all around the world come to visit the Longmen Grottoes or Longmen Caves in Luoyang, China on March 7, 2018 str19-trav10buddhist

Photo: Alamy

Luoyang in Henan province is an ancient capital where Confucius studied and Buddhism got its start in China. Longmen (Dragon Gate) features well over 1000 grottoes, 44 pagodas and more than 100,000 statues carved into cliffs above the Yi River. Work began in 492 and continued for 500 years. The 17-metre seated Buddha of Fengxian is awesome, attended on either side by impressive, richly dressed disciples and fierce guardian warriors. See cnto.org

10 WAT PHO, THAILAND

Top Buddhist sites around the world. Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Thailand's largest temple, and one of the most colourful, features many courtyards of porcelain-decorated temples, white stupas and other buildings. Monks in saffron robes glide through the grounds. In the centre of the Bangkok complex lies a giant gold-leaf reclining Buddha which visitors circle as they drop coins into 108 bronze bowls in an act of merit. The working monastery teaches traditional Thai medicine and massage techniques: lie down and get pummelled. See watpho.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of numerous tourism offices and at his own expense.

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