The Hanging Monastery
If you're looking for a truly off-the-beaten path adventure with a spiritual side, few destinations rival these sacred sites. A combination of architectural marvels and temples built by eccentric orders, the spiritual sanctuaries in this slideshow are truly beyond belief. We begin with the Hanging Monastery on Hengshan Mountain in China. Carved into a cliff nearly 250 feet above the ground, the monastery appears to be floating in the air. The temple contains several shrines as well as silver, gold and clay statues representative of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Known properly as Xuankong Si, the temple was built in 491 and remains standing today, though it was renovated during both the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and again by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Is It a Temple, or a UFO?
Wat Phra Dhammakaya is sacred ground to members of the Dhammakaya Movement, a once controversial Buddhist sect. But to non-devotees, this temple simply looks out of this world. Shaped as what appears to be an unidentified flying object painted in gold, this abbot is a recent arrival having been established in 1970. The temple attracts a large following. Here, ordinary believers gathered in 2010 for what is known the Morality Revival Project: One-hundred thousand ordinary men elected to become monks for 49 days for spiritual cleansing.
A Monastery Devoted to...Sex?
Chimi Llakhang near Punakha, Bhutan is not what would typically come to mind when you think of a religious order. Built in the 15th century, the temple's founder, Drukpa Kinley, was known as a "Divine Madman" and thought of as a saint despite his affinity for alcohol, womanizing, blasphemy, and crude humor. Nonethless, Kinley is revered within this monastery. To honor his legacy, Chimi Llakhang is adorned with colorful paintings and carvings of phalluses throughout the temple grounds along with nearly 100 tall prayer flags. Often, childless women within Bhutan will travel to the monastery and perform a fertility ritual, which involves a monk striking a devotee with a wooden phallus to ward off evil.
The Temple Where Rats Rule
The Karni Mata temple in India has something every wandering soul seeking spiritual fulfillment yearns for: thousands and thousands of rats. Considered the reincarnations of once living humans, the rats are sacred to the temple and its patrons. While the rodents would be treated as pests anywhere else in the world, here they are offered food and shelter. The temple is dedicated to Karni Mata, a 14th-century mystic who was believed to be the incarnation of Durga, the goddess of victory. Although a tourist draw, most visitors to the temple are Hindu pilgrims.
The Party Place the Pope Shut Down
Not every holy order has a vow of silence. In fact, Santa Croce in Venice, Italy, had a reputation as something of a party monastery. The chapter was known for organizing evening events hosted by a nun who had once been a nightclub dancer. Santa Croce was even famous for attracting the likes of celebrities and VIPs like Madonna. Unfortunately, it may be too late to pay a visit to this holy site. Because of its reputation, Pope Benedict XVI ordered its closure earlier this year.
A Temple Suspended in Air
Located in Kalampaka, Greece, the Meteora are series of 24 Eastern Orthodox monasteries atop towers of rock built starting in the 11th century. The rock towers themselves are some 60 million years old, emerging from the cone of a river and further transformed by earthquakes according to the World Heritage Convention. In Greek, Meteora means "suspended in air," and the monasteries are an architectural marvel akin to the Hanging Temple that opened this story.
A Religious Brewery
The Trappists, known formally as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, are a Catholic monastic group with a strong faith. They adhere to a vow of silence that they take so seriously they even have their own sign language variation. So for anyone who hasn't heard of the order before, it may come as a surprise that the Trappists are also regarded of the creators of some of the finest beers in the world. Arrive at a Trappist order with a brewery on site, such as Westvleteren Abbey in Belgium, and you can expect to find these brewmasters at work. You can even sample their craft. Just try not to get too out of hand after a few drinks. Remember, you're still on holy ground.
The Tiger Temple
If you are a truly indiscriminate animal lover but you've already seen Karni Mata temple (or rats just aren't your thing), why not visit the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand? Known locally as Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, the monastery takes in abandoned and orphaned animals. Founded in 1994, the temple was intended to be animal sanctuary. The temple received its first tiger cub in 1999 and currently has nearly 100 on its premises. The tigers are often brought in as cubs, their mothers killed by local poachers.
If you're thinking about stopping by the Khajuraho monuments in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, you might considering leaving the kids at home. Built between the 10th and 11th centuries, the temples at Khajuraho are adorned with hundreds of sandstone statues. Rather than depicting conservatively dressed religious figures engaged in silent prayer, the architects behind this site instead chose to carve erotic sculptures depicting scantily clad men and women in sexually explicit positions.