If there is only one sight you see in Yangon, Myanmar, make it the Shwedagon Pagoda. While Angkor Wat and Bagan offer huge and numerous temples, so many that it can be overwhelming, Shwedagon Pagoda is the single most impressive pagoda I’ve seen anywhere! I find it so impressive that I’d consider the trip to Yangon worth it just to see it!
The legend of Shwedagon Pagoda holds that two traveling merchants obtained 8 strands of hair as a blessing from Gautama Buddha and brought it back to Yangon in 588BC and enshrined the hair and other Buddha relics in the Shwedagon Pagoda, maintaining it ever since. While historians suggest that it is more likely to be constructed sometime between the 6th and 10th century, there is no doubt that the pagoda is very, very old, very dear to the heart of many Burmese and has been updated, renovated and lovingly maintained over the centuries!
And it preserved its splendor till today. It’s hard to believe that this 99m (326ft) tall structure is covered in gold – with estimates running up to 60 tons of gold! That it has survived centuries of strife, war and poverty is testament to just how sacred it is to the people!
And while you can see the shine of the gold from anywhere in Yangon, it’s harder to tell just how precious it is: The diamond orb at the top consists of 4,351 diamonds for a total of 1,800 carats. The vane just below it weighs 419 kg (924lbs) and is adorned with over 2,000 gems. And the giant umbrella alone is 13m (43ft) high and is covered in 1/2ton of gold and more than 4,000 gold bells and 80,000 items of jewellery!
But despite all the gold and glamour, the Shwedagon Pagoda has no Disney-fied museum feel to it – it is a living place of worship with a countless stream of people visiting and conducting their prayers and rituals. While it was a much quieter, more solemn affair when I first visited 7 years ago, it still is very moving to watch in silence.
One of the most popular rituals involves the planetary posts arranged around the pagoda, with one for each weekday (Wednesdays are split into before and after 6pm), for a total of 8. Each post has images of a guardian angel, the animal representing the day and a small shrine and worshippers offer flowers and flags, pouring water over the image with a prayer and a wish!
There are also a number of other shrines surrounding the main pagoda, with buddha images, some are worshipped for specific wishes: One is favored by young couples wishing for a baby, one is worshipped when wishes have been fullfilled.
For me there is always something immensely eye and mind opening to see other cultures go about their lives and to learn about their believes – the more you see, the harder it is to believe you are right and others are wrong about their believes!
Travel Tips: The Shwedagon Pagoda is popular with local worshippers and tourists, so it can get busy. It’s open from 4:00-22:00h daily and I recommend early or late to avoid the tourist crowds and be able to enjoy the peace of the place. There is a fee of $8 for visitors.
It’s a religious site and all visitors are expected to dress respectfully, wearing pants or skirts that cover the knees, shirts that cover the shoulders and body. Shoes and socks are not allowed, so bring (or buy) a bag for your shoes and be prepared to walk on bare feet on the stone floors that are smooth, but can get very hot! The main platform is exposed to the sun and it is very hot during mid-day, so bring/buy some water. The staff felt the need to put up a sign that drones are also prohibited. Regular cameras are fine, just respect the privacy of other visitors.
There are four approaches with stairs, as well as an escalator in the West and elevators in the South. If you want to avoid the crowds, the Western approach from People’s Park seemed to be a little quieter during our visit and there is a drop off, in case you arrive by taxi.
You can pick up a very informative map of the Shwedagon Pagoda or hire a local guide for a tour and more insights. On my first visit, young monks were offering to guide you, sometimes hoping for a donation at the end. Now, there seems to be a more organized process with official guides near the entrances.
And while you have to visit the pagoda to experience it, some of the best photo opportunities are from further away, like the rooftop restaurant of the Esperado Hotel, so I recommend to add that to your trip as well!