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TRAVEL WATCH: October 4, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 13

Seek Enlightenment, Off the Beaten Path

Illustration for TIME by Nobutsuna Watanabe

Since the dawn of Buddhism, pilgrims have worn the soles off their sandals visiting the religion's hallowed sites. While modern travelers tend to wear better footwear, the desire to visit stupas, relics and shrines is as strong as ever. But visitors to Buddhist temples across Asia are frequently disappointed by what they encounter. Often the key to unlocking an elusive, enlightening experience is to wander away from the city. In deeply Buddhist-influenced countries like Laos, Thailand and Bhutan, most villages have at least one temple, which often also serves as school, playground, massage hall, medicinal clinic and community center. These low-key temples are a great place to get your Buddhist bearings, especially if you can find an English-speaking monk to serve as your guide.

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No one wants to play the part of the oafish foreigner violating the sanctity of the temple, so it's a good idea to learn some basic etiquette. Rules vary from temple to temple, but for starters: cover your arms and legs before entering; don't take photographs inside (unless you are given permission); keep your feet (the lowest part of the body) pointed away from any Buddha images.

Now that you're clued into the do's and don'ts, where should you head on the pilgrim's path? Here are a few picks off the tourist track:

CAMBODIA To experience this country's blend of Buddhism and animism, visit the sacred ox and the holy turtle at Chotpun Pagoda in Kompong Speu. During this year's Khmer New Year celebrations the ox escaped the local abattoir--after an axe had bounced off its head--and made a break for the palace; it's therefore believed to be a reincarnation of one of the many members of the royal family killed by the Khmer Rouge. The turtle is deemed sacred due to the scriptures carved on its shell, which date back more than six decades. Worshipers collect the animals' bathing and drinking water for its supposedly holy properties; more pious pilgrims go straight to the source for blessed ox urine.

CHINA The Labrang Monastery in picturesque Xiahe, Gansu province, is among the largest Tibetan Buddhist temples outside of Lhasa. In Xi'an, Shaanxi province, the Fa Men Temple claims to house four of the Buddha's finger bones. To the south, in the Xi'an Mountains, Buddhist Scholar Tripitaka's Temple offers panoramic views and gorgeous gardens. Across the valley lies the Wu Tai Mountain Temple.

A less torturous journey than the trip to Labrang is the Ta'er Temple one hour outside of Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. Although it's smaller than Labrang, many devout Buddhists make the pilgrimage to this forest monastery to visit the famous yak-butter sculptures.

In Shanxi province, near Taiyuan, the Wu Tai Mountain Temple is nestled among trees and cliffs. A steep hike earns visitors a fantastic view of the reservoir.

INDIA Though Buddhism has all but disappeared from the land of its birth, there are still historical sights to see. Nalanda, in Bihar state, houses the remains of the monastic university that was the center of Buddhist learning until 1199. It was once home to a vast library of Buddhist texts and thousands of students.

With reporting by Kay Johnson/Phnom Penh, Macabe Keliher/Taipei and Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi

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