10 Mind-Blowing Undiscovered Temples to Visit on Your Next Vacation

There are a lot of different ways to take a vacation.

Sometimes this means sun, sand and strong drinks at an endless bar. Luxury is, after all, fairly hard to come by during the average workday. There's a lot to be said for taking an upgrade and relaxing with your time off.

But there's not a lot of adventure in the average office either.

For people who want that thrill of undiscovered country, journeying down to accounts payable doesn't necessarily fit the bill. Even the nicest resort probably can't get that done either.

Now, there are a lot of different ways to plan an exciting vacation, but one of the best is to stand in the shoes of history's great explorers. Visiting the temples of past civilizations, places like Angkor Wat and Sacsayhuaman, make for a thrilling experience and a great story.

Of course, you'll have to share those old stones with a lot of other visitors. If you want to feel a little more like Indiana Jones, we recommend trying one of these lesser-visited temples.

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10. Preah Vihear, Cambodia
10. Preah Vihear, Cambodia

Preah Vihear has been a subject of controversy for years. It stands near the Thai/Cambodian border and as a result has been the subject of numerous border disputes. It's gotten so bad that soldiers have more than once damaged the UNESCO heritage site during the occasional bursts of gunfire exchanged by the two armies over the years.

It is, nevertheless, stunning. It's also entirely out of the way.

No one can get to Preah Vihear easily. It's a four hour drive away from Siem Reap, where most tourists stay while they visit Angkor Wat and has few easy guesthouses nearby. That means that any visit to the temple means an eight-hour round trip in the backseat of a taxi, an itinerary that chases off all but the most dedicated of travelers.

9. The White Temple, Thailand
9. The White Temple, Thailand

In northern Thailand, there are two cities: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Chiang Mai is a tourist and expatriate playground, a bustling city in which Thai and western cultures collide in a weird mix that leads to outdoor markets and fast food burritos all at once.

Almost a half-day's drive up the road is Chiang Rai, a city that few tourists make it to despite its glorious hot springs and mountain landscape. It also hosts Wat Rong Khun, otherwise known as the White Temple.

Now, the White Temple is a bit of an outlier on this list in that it is not old by any stretch. In fact the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat still makes improvements to this day after first building it in 1996. It is nevertheless an extraordinary work of modern art, a temple that can encompass both the Thai spirit world and Spiderman in a single monument.

8. Luhur Poten Temple, Indonesia
8. Luhur Poten Temple, Indonesia

So far we've had one temple on a contested border and one in a mountain city. Where else can we take this list?

To the foot of a volcano, of course.

On the island of Java there is a set of volcanoes, some dormant and some active, that collectively make up the Gunung Bromo National Park. Thanks to the mountainous landscape, these volcanoes sit in the middle of a plain of ash, one large enough to feel like a miniature desert, but in reality small enough to cross on foot in just a few hours.

Travel up to these mountains, spend a frigid night in town and hike the ash plain to the foot of the volcano, navigating the deep lava channels carved into the terrain, and you will find the Luhur Poten Temple built at the foot of Mount Bromo.

It's worth the hike.

7. Prambanan, Indonesia
7. Prambanan, Indonesia

Indonesia will return to this list several times, because this archipelago nation has two things going for it. (Well, it has many things going for it, but two in particular relevant to our current discussion.) The first is a long culture of many different faiths that have left behind some spectacular, often improbable monuments.

The second is vast inconvenience.

When it comes to simply getting from Point A to Point B, Indonesia fights back. Travel here is slow and tricky, often involving numerous boats, buses and taxis and a whole lot of waiting. The upshot is that temple complexes like Prambanan, a 9th Century Hindu temple on Java, or Bali's Pura Tanah Lot simply don't get the kind of visitors their mainland competitors do.

Which is great news for someone who'd like to share his trip with fewer than 10,000 other tourists.

6. Paro Takstang, Bhutan
6. Paro Takstang, Bhutan

If sea level doesn't do it for you, let's go 3,120 feet high, all the way up to the Paro Takstang Temple in Bhutan.

Otherwise known as the Tiger's Nest, because temples have a way of getting amazing names, this monastery clings to the side of a mountain looking down into a deep green valley below. The name of the temple comes from the Buddhist legend of Padmasambava, a Brahmin prince who taught Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan. According to the story he stayed in 13 monasteries during his travels, arriving to each on the back of a flying tiger (with whom he had a questionable relationship).

The place is a work of class Buddhist architecture, and if that's not enough to get you up there consider the workout it will give you. Just getting to the front door requires hours of hiking up steep, switchback trails. You can have a religious experience and get great legs all in one go.

5. Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
5. Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

Myanmar is, in and of itself, a challenge. Getting there takes effort and a visaTraveling there requires careful planning for how you'll access money, since electronic and ATM networks are still spotty.

Once there, though, you can visit Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 330 foot tall temple covered in gold that looms over the entire city skyline.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is over 2,500 years old and claims to contain a strand of the Buddha's hair. (This claim is not, in and of itself, entirely remarkable, as many temples across southeast Asia claim to have relics of the Buddha.) Not content with the hundreds of gold plates that cover the entire building, the builders also covered the top of the stupa with diamonds, including one which the pagoda claims is 72 carats large. (By way of comparison, this is a little less than twice as large as the Hope diamond.)

Regardless of the specifics, there's no denying the raw power of this temple when it comes into view.

4. Borobudur, Indonesia
4. Borobudur, Indonesia

Welcome back to Java, the largest island in Indonesia and home to some of the world's most astonishing temples.

Another UNESCO heritage site, Borobudur is described by the UN itself as "one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world." It is a sprawling stone temple, built up from a pyramid into the five terraces that make up the temple itself.

Of course, Indonesia's landscape helps quite a bit too. The island's mountains and jungles provide a stunning backdrop to the temple's stone reliefs and stupas. Together, it's enough to remind you that Angkor Wat may have Angelina Jolie, but the Khmers weren't the only ones building something impressive in this neck of the world.

3. The Potala Palace, Tibet
3. The Potala Palace, Tibet

If geography doesn't make travel hard enough for you, how about politics? We won't try to rehash the history of China and Tibet here, enough to say that the ongoing problems make getting in very hard for westerners.

If you do get to Tibet's capital city of Lhasa, though, you will find the Potala Palace. In fact, you virtually can't miss this white and red palace on the rooftop of the world.

The Potala Palace is the traditional winter residence of the Dalai Lama and has also historically served as the spiritual and political center of Tibet. It has the raw size that comes from this position, covering 30,000 square yards according to the United Nations. 

2. Sri Ranganathaswamy, India
2. Sri Ranganathaswamy, India

Colors. If there's any one thing that will jump out at you about the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple,  it is the sheer riot of colors that decorate this south Indian temple.

After that should come the size. Although not as large as Angkor Wat, this is one of the largest Hindu temples in the world. Originally built as a temple settlement it covers over 156 acres, leading some people to argue that it is the largest continually functioning religious monument in the world.

Sri Ranganathaswamy has something for everyone. Students of architecture will get to explore sprawling grounds built to contain a working community. Those who love art and history can get lost in the countless brightly colored carvings that decorate the buildings and towers. Even engineers can spend a while studying the water system, a marvel of ancient engineering.

The temple simply keeps on going.

1. The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali
1. The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali

Mali, sadly, is difficult to get to in significant part because it's unsafe to do so. The State Department has issued a travel warning for the country, and facts on the ground seem to bear this out.

If you could go, however, you would find enormous adobe and earth-worked structures. In the city of Timbuktu alone adobe mosques dot the skyline, but the real gem is further into the country in Djenne. There you'll find the great, red mosque made out of mud.

Large enough to hold 3,000 worshippers, this building has stood for over 100 years in a community that has lasted since the 14th Century. This is a temple at the edge of the Sahara Desert, and it looks every inch the part.

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