Myanmar: Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda

Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda is something everyone who travels to Myanmar has at the top of their list of things to do, and with good reason.

The shrine is not only the most sacred Buddhist site in the whole country, it is an incredibly beautiful complex of buildings that embodies Myanmar’s rich heritage of  art and architecture. Unsurprisingly it is on the Unesco World Heritage Site list.

The pagoda is nearly 100 metres high and built on Singuttara Hill so it dominates the skyline of Yangon both by day and by night.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon skyline Myanmar

You may hear it called the Schwedagon Paya. Paya is the word to describe any religious building in Myanmar. It is a pagoda rather than a stupa because it is solid rather than hollow. The main part of the pagoda represents a bell, topped by an upturned alms bowl.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar close up

It’s more than just the height and size of the Schwedagon that invites awe. The pagoda is covered with over 50 cubic metric tons of gold leaf! This has been donated over the centuries by both royalty and ordinary people. A 15th-century queen donated her weight in gold.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar evening

Up on the spire, the umbrella-shaped item is studded with precious jewels. and half a ton of pure gold. They are a little hard to see but atop that the orb has over 4,000 diamonds and at the very apex is a single 76-carat diamond.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar detail

The history of the Shwedagon Pagoda

No one is sure exactly when the original shrine was built here. Archaeologists say it was between the 6th and 10th century but legends date it at over 2,500 years old, which would make it the oldest Buddhist pagoda in the world. The Shwedagon is certainly the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain eight hairs from the head of Gautama Buddha, as well as relics from previous Buddhas.

Shwedagon Pagoda complex Yangon Myanmar

What is certain is that the shrine has been added to over the centuries to achieve the spectacular structure we see today, particularly by monarchs in the 14th and 18th centuries. It has been rebuilt or repaired after suffering earthquake damage a number of times.

It must have been quite a sight for foreign travellers. Here is how Rudyard Kipling described it in 1889:

Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?

Shwedagon Pagoda decoration Yangon Myanmar

What to do at the Shwedagon Pagoda

There are four main entrances, each guarded by giant Chinthe, or lion-like creatures. It doesn’t really matter which entrance you come in by but once you have taken your shoes off and climbed the stairs past all the souvenir sellers it is customary to walk around the pagoda in a clockwise direction.

There is much more to see than just the main pagoda, which is surrounded by monastic, devotional and meditation halls and shrines built over the centuries.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar

Highlights include the massive ‘King Singu’s Bell’, which was cast in 1778 but has had a chequered history since. The British seized it during the Burma wars and then the ship carrying it sank in the Rangoon River. It was subsequently recovered so you can see it today.

There are also some Buddha footprints, overlooked by a fierce dragon, and many other exquisite images and details.

Visit the ‘planetary post’ for your birth day according to the Burmese astrological calendar and pay your respects by pouring water over the statue of your animal sign. Say a prayer or make a wish.

Once you have had enough of walking around I recommend finding a quiet spot to sit down and just enjoy the atmosphere. It is a fabulous place for people watching.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar sweeping ceremony

In the late afternoon a sweeping ceremony takes place around the pagoda – only people whose birthdays are on that day can take part in cleaning the areas around the shrine. There are many monks and novices around and families bring their children.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar sweeping

When to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda

I recommend going to the Shwedagon Pagoda an hour or two before sunset. This will give you plenty of time to wander around as the light gets slowly softer and more golden. It’s a wonderful atmosphere at sunset as the sky turns a soft pink above the pagoda and the lights slowly come up to illuminate the shrine. There are still plenty of people around.

Opening hours are between 4am and 10pm, except on certain festival days when it is open 24 hours.

The entrance charge is around $8 and make sure you are wearing a shirt or shawl that covers your shoulders and a skirt or trousers that go past your knees.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar monks

Enjoy your visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda!

By Natasha von Geldern

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Shwedagon Paya Yangon Myanmar

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13 Replies to “Myanmar: Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda”

  1. Tatum Skipper

    Um, wow is really all that comes to mind when seeing this pagoda! The gold is just amazing! My friend went here not too long ago and told me that in person it is so much more than anything a picture could show. I would love to visit one day!

    Reply
  2. Hannah

    I spent a week in Myanmar in 2015 and LOVED IT. However since I was so short on time I only visited Mandalay and Bagan, both of which I adored. I would love to go back and see other cities and areas including Yangon and the Schwedagon Pagoda- it looks so gorgeous!

    Reply
  3. Inge

    How beautiful! Makes me want to visit that part of the world too even though I’m currently traveling through another very beautiful country. Maybe one day… 🙂

    Reply
  4. Diana - MVMT Blog

    So glad I came across this because I am going to Myanmar for the first time in March! My first stop is Yangon and I cannot wait to see this for myself in person. I didn’t realize how gold/shiny the pagoda is and how it almost glows in the dark. Loved reading about the strong buddhist foundation behind the pagoda and some of the rituals performed there. Thanks for sharing about this 🙂

    Reply
    • Natasha von Geldern Post author

      How exciting, I’m sure you’ll have an amazing time. It is a special country. I posted some tips for places to eat and drink in Yangon yesterday so make sure you note those for your trip planning 🙂

      Reply
    • Natasha von Geldern Post author

      I find it fascinating how each of the SE Asian countries have their own unique style when it comes to religious and royal buildings. I think the Schwedagon is more impressive than the Bangkok palace. On the other hand the temples at Bagan are not nearly as mind-blowing as those at Siem Reap. Lucky us to be able to compare! Thanks so much for your comment Frank.

      Reply

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