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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enjoy your visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda!
By Natasha von Geldern
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