Spot Cool Stuff previously reviewed five towns on cliff sides—villages where drinking and driving . . . or drinking and walking . . . or simply walking could be especially perilous.
Following up on that, here are five religious buildings—a shrine, temple, church and two monasteries—built at a cliff’s edge. Gazing down the rocky drops from these structures, and out upon the magnificent vistas they offer, and perhaps one can’t help but believe in God.
Mount Popa—near Pagan, Burma
It has been over 15 years since Spot Cool Stuff last traveled to Burma but the image of when we first glimpsed the Mt. Popa shrine is still burned in our mind. We arrived at the village of Kyaukpadaung around sunset after a long, dusty—and flat—journey. And there glimmering in the sun’s last rays like God’s lighthouse in the sky were the shrine’s golden spires.
The shrine is usually referred to by travelers as “Mount Popa” though technically that is the name of the peak neighboring the shrine’s hill; the Burmese call it the Popa Taungkalat. It’s an arduous hike to the summit but those who complete the journey will be rewarded by the spiritual atmosphere atop in addition to the spectacular views.
Popa Taungkalat is the home to a few dozen monkeys. It is also where to the 37 spirits, or Nats, that are central to Burmese religious life reside. Mount Popa is the Burmese Buddhist equivalent of Mount Olympus.
For one of the most amazing travel experiences in Southeast Asia visit Mount Popa during the full moon in the Burmese months of Nayon (May/June) or Nadaw when (Nov/Dec) when thousands of pilgrims gather here to make a communal trek to the shrine. (Click to see the full moon dates). If you do go don’t wear red or black—it’s bad luck.
Legend has it that the area that is today in western Bhutan was once haunted by evil spirits. These spirits lived in a cave with an entrance on a cliff side inaccessible to regular humans. In the year 747 a great Buddhist guru—a man who was very much not a regular human—meditated upon the cliff in sort a way that he was able to assume a wrathful form and fly to the cave on the back of a tiger and defeat these spirits. A monastery was built upon the spot of his victory; today the monastery represents the victory of good over evil.
Visitors to Taktshang are more likely to think that the monastery represents the victory of architecture over gravity. The seven separate temples that comprise the complex, the name of which translates to “Tiger’s Nest,” cling improbably to a small outcropping in the cliff.
The trek up to Taktshang involves a 700 meter (2,300 foot) ascent on a trail that starts in a gentle forest walk and ends in steep stone steps. Along the way there are a few waterfalls, several tea shops and many, many prayer flags. September through November, and February and March are the best months to visit.
Compared to Mount Popa and the Tiger’s Nest (above), Sümela is relatively easy to get to. A good road runs right up to the base of the hill from where it’s a 45-minute walk up. And up. And up some more, over 250 meters (820 feet), on stone steps.
Sümela, or the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, has had some sort of Christian structure on its grounds from nearly the moment the religion came to what is now northeastern Turkey. The basic outlines of the Byzantine monastery that can be seen today dates from the 4th century, though even that’s been destroyed and rebuilt at various times throughout the ages.
Indeed, the monastery was in the process of being renovated when Spot Cool Stuff visited in 2006. The only interior area that was fully restored then was the main 9th century chapel, cut into rock and covered in colorful frescoes. The renovation is painstaking work, and the workers didn’t seem to be in any hurry, so it is likely that much of the interior areas will still be closed as you read these words. Still the impressive monastery and the views—360 degrees ’round if you climb to the top—are more than worth a visit.
Not incidentally, the region around Trabzon is one of our favorite. It is certainly different than nearly any other area of Turkey, having more in common culturally, historically and geographically with neighboring Georgia than with its host country. In addition to Black Sea beaches, beautiful Uzungöl lake (imagine Italy’s Lake Como with minarets) and the impressive Hagia Sophia church Trabzon has a vibrant art and music scene. Consult a good guidebook for further info.
Xuan Kong Si (The Hanging Temple)—Datong, China
The Hanging Temple, in China’s Shanxi Province around 500km (300 miles) south west of Beijing, has got to be the most precarious of any structure reviewed in this post. Long wooden beams extend from the outer edge of the Xuan Kong Si buildings down to holes chiseled into the rock. It looks like one good kick could send the whole complex tumbling 75 meters down to the valley below.
Yet, somehow, the Hanging Temple has managed to cling to its rock face for over 1,400 years now. And Spot Cool Stuff are not the only ones astonished by this longevity. Modern engineers from around the world have come here to study the Hanging Temple’s architectural properties. Their conclusion: crossbeams inserted into the rock, both at the building’s base and roof, are critical to keeping the Hanging Temple hanging. The way it was designed, the massive rock mountain holds the temple down into place.
The temple’s unlikely location was chosen by its Taoist builders for one main reason: It is quite. The Taoist priest were (and, to some extent, still are) a contemplative bunch who don’t want the hustle of life interfering with their religious quest. They would likely not be happy with the amount of tourist traffic the Hanging Temple receives today. To get a taste of the temple’s quiet solitude we suggest being at the entrance as it opens, at 9am, before the tourist rush.
No place on earth has as many cliff-side monasteries per square kilometer as Metéora, in central Greece. There isn’t merely one cliff-side structure here. There are six (that survive today—time was there were many more).
The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron is the largest of the region’s scenic buildings; it also has an excellent museum. For a cliff-side thrill that’s relatively easy to reach (and also handicap accessible) head to the Holy Monastery of Varlaam; it has a small museum in the old refectory and amazing views from the north end.
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