Across Southeast Asia, stupas, or pagodas, are a ubiquitous mark of the Buddhist faith and its influence in the region. Stupas take on many shapes and forms, and many names as well, but these unique structures are at the centre of some of the region’s most notable and distinctive landmarks and sites.
From the Sanskrit word for ‘heap’, these decorative mounds serve as burial markers, housing for religious relics, and objects of worship and devotion.
As the practice of building these structures spread across with the expansion of Buddhism across Southeast Asia, stylistic variations developed in different areas over time making each chedi unique yet still undeniably a symbol of the Buddhist faith.
Wherever you may travel in the region, there’s a strong chance you’ll encounter a notable stupa…or 20!
Chedis in Thailand
Known in Thailand as chedis, Thai stupas are traditionally bell-shaped mounds built of earth and brick. In any temple or monastery, you’re almost certain to find one housing a religious relic which is believed to offer blessings and protection. These stupas are often covered in white plaster, or, at more auspicious temples, even gilded in magnificent gold leaf.
While most stupas are found on sacred grounds, in ancient town centres, such as Chiang Mai, it’s not uncommon to find a stupa in a parking lot or even next door to a 7-11. They’re a ubiquitous part of daily life.
For one of the country’s most noteworthy stupas, however, head to central Thailand to pay a visit to Phra Pathom Chedi, which at 417 feet high is the tallest stupa in the world. Located in Nakhon Pathom province, this stupa is said to house some of the Buddha’s original relics.
Image below: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Pagodas in Myanmar
The “Land of Golden Pagodas” certainly lives up to its name. Also found mainly in temples, the styles of Myanmar’s stupas reflect the different waves of Hinduism and Buddhism which swept east from India across the region.
No trip to Yangon is complete without a trip to the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s most sacred monument and a masterful blend of many different styles and building traditions. Of course, the country’s temple fields found in Bagan are an unmissable experience and a testament to the wealth of ancient Burmese kingdoms and the significance of religious devotion.
Image below: Shwedagon Pagoda
Stupas in Laos
In contrast to the rounded and elongated styles of its neighbours, stupas in Laos represent an entirely different school of design. Lao stupas are more often stepped, angular structures, though also built of brick and plaster or covered in gold.
Vientiane’s Pha That Luang stupa is a fine example of this style and the most significant Buddhist monument in the country. Covered in gold leaf and decorated in traditional motifs, it is also considered a national symbol of Laos. In Luang Prabang, however, the so-called “watermelon stupa” is blended with an entirely different style that harks back to the earlier Sinhalese stupas. One example in the UNSECO-listed town, known as That Pathum at Wat Wisunalat, is aged and shows the wear and weather of years, but is no less beautiful for it.
Explore the stupas of Laos on the 7 Day Laos Discovery experience.
Travelling across Southeast Asia, you’re sure to encounter similarities and surprising differences that speak to the region’s history and the way cultural diffusion has progressed. The Buddhist stupas are just one such example, each a symbol and a marker, not just of Buddhism, but of the area’s very own identity.
Image below: Pha That Luang, Vientiane