Ashrams, temples and tranquility: Religious tourism in Asia
RELIGIOUS tourism, or faith tourism, is a growing travel market. Holy cities like Mecca, Jerusalem and Varanasi attract huge numbers every year that travel to see various religious sites, while others travel to places for reasons of pilgrimage, as missionaries, for fellowship, to relax, receive teaching or undertake study.
According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO) the number of these is vast, and the majority are in Asia:
The Asia-Pacific region is considered the world’s religious core with the greatest number of pilgrims and travellers for religious events, for both international and domestic tourism. It is estimated that there are approximately six hundred million national and international religious and spiritual voyages in the world, of which 40% take place in Europe and over half in Asia.
Even if you don’t practice a particular religion, religious sites still have a broad appeal for other reasons such as architecture, culture or history. You may have even stayed in a religious place such as a convent, monastery or ashram, or undertaken a yoga course or meditation class. Here are some examples of religious tourism in Asia.
There are a lot of places of religious importance in Asia that you may be interested in or have visited. The Angkor temples in Cambodia are an easy example that spring to mind. There are plenty more of these ancient sites with religious importance that have been long abandoned. But there are also places where religion is practiced that continue to draw people. These include:
- Varanasi, India – one of the holiest Hindu cities where pilgrims come to wash themselves in the river.
- Senosji temple, Tokyo – this attracts 30 million people each year seeking favour from Kannon.
- Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma/Myanmar – the most important pagoda in the country which is visited by worshippers and monks daily.
- Takstang Monastery, Bhutan – a Buddhist centre that clings to a cliff 3,000 feet above the valley below. Despite the precarious location, tourists, locals and monks continue to come here every day.
- Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok – a place where all Thai monarchs have worshipped since the late 18th Century.
- Bodh Gaya in India – where Buddha attained Enlightenment.
Ashrams, meditation centres and yoga retreats are places people visit to receive instruction, undergo meditation or take a retreat. These places offer visitors places in their courses and practices, and many also offer accommodation.
Ashrams in India
If you’re keen to receive religious instruction and undergo meditation, an ashram might be what you’re after. These offer a spiritual hermitage, a world away from distractions so you can concentrate on why you have come. Most of these are connected to Hindu theology and involve some kind of live-in situation. Visiting ashrams in India has become popular amongst travellers since the 1960s and ’70s. Today many of these offer particular courses for foreigners and are dotted all around the country from Rishikesh to Bihar, Mysore, Pune and Kerala. For some ideas of places to stay and what to expect see this three-part series on Travel Wire Asia by Mariellen Ward on all the ins and outs of staying at an ashram.
Some meditation centres are linked to Buddhism, some to Hinduism, while some are of a Christian tradition. India has a number of meditation centres, but these are also becoming increasingly available in western Asian nations such as Australia and New Zealand. Meditation teachings are also particularly widely available in Thailand. Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries have similar options. Burma/Myanmar grants a three-month meditation visa for those wanting to undertake study.
A yoga retreat focuses on wellness, vitality and the spiritual journey. Retreats are usually held in relaxing, nurturing environments with a program that might involve pilates, philosophical talks, time in nature, yoga, relaxation, healthy meals, organic food and detoxes. Australia and New Zealand have embraced these and they are widely available around the country particularly in coastal and hinterland areas around Byron Bay and the Sunshine Coast. Places like Phuket and Bali have a range of options; it can be hard to escape the frenetic tourist scene here so do choose wisely. Sri Lanka is another popular option.
It is possible to set up a kind of homestay arrangement in monasteries, particularly in Burma/Myanmar where monasteries lie on trekking routes. It’s also been suggested that monasteries might become the government’s answer to the country’s hotel shortage (see this article by the Huffington Post). In Amritsar, India it’s possible for Sikh pilgrims, or even just visitors, to receive free accommodation through the Golden Temple association. Thai monasteries also welcome visitors and there’s an association called Monk for a Month that sets up various spiritual immersion and personal development programs around the world.
Mission associations like Interserve, OMF and Pioneer regularly arrange for volunteer placements around Asia. It’s also possible to visit Christian orphanages and associations to help them out. Some may require you to adhere to their creed, others may not. One such place is Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. While it has branches all over the world, the Kolkata location is still the most attractive for obvious reasons. Volunteers can assist with the physical needs of disabled children, sick people and the disadvantaged. If they wish to attend mass with the sisters they are welcome but there is no obligation to do so.