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“…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…The golden dome said, ‘This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land that one knows about’.”
– Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East
In the past four years I have visited literally hundreds of Buddhist temples. I’ve been to them in India, Vietnam, Laos, South Korea, Cambodia and, of course, Thailand. Between the impressive ruins of Angkor Wat, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, and the sparkling gold details at the Grand Palace in Bangkok and Chiang Mai’s mountain top Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, I’ve seen both some of the world’s major historical Buddhist sites and some of the shiniest.
Visiting Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon combines both.
Supposedly first established 2,500+ years ago (which would make it the oldest Buddhist temple in the world) and featuring thousands upon thousands of precious gemstones and plenty of gold, the Shwedagon Pagoda (shwe means gold and dagon is the historical area the site’s located in) is…awesome.
The pagoda is the most significant Buddhist site in Burma, and much of Southeast Asia for that matter, thanks to its long history, art and architecture, and belief that enclosed in the pagoda are strands of Gautama Buddha’s hair along with other holy relics from other Buddhas. Standing taller than 100 meters, the Shwedagon Pagoda is covered with hundreds of gold plates and the top of the stupa is encrusted with more than 4,500 diamonds, 2,300+ rubies, sapphires, and other stones and 1,000+ golden bells. If that wasn’t enough, at the very tip is a 72-carat diamond (which you can see a photo of here).
It’s common for the Burmese to make a pilgrimage to the sacred site at least once in their life to walk clockwise around the pagoda, give offerings of flowers and money, and pour water over the Buddha images. Around the main pagoda are small pagodas, shrines and altars meant for the different days of the week. Visitors will make offerings at the site representing the day they born on for extra luck and merit.
If you’re visiting Yangon, you’ll never be too far from the pagoda located on Singuttara Hill.
Opening hours are 04:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. except for two special days in the Myanmar Lunar month Tabaung (around March) and Wakhaung (around June and the beginning of Buddhist Lent), when it is open 24 hours. Last admission is at 9:45 p.m.
For foreigners there’s an 8,000 kyat (about $8) admission fee paid at small booths at the entrances. All visitors must wear modest clothing including trousers or (at least) knee-length shorts or skirts. Shirts should have elbow-length sleeves. You must take off your shoes before entering the pagoda complex. There are people with plastic bags at the entrances for a donation, but just bring your own bag to carry with you. When we paid our entrance fee they took our shoes for us, but it seemed like other people were carrying their shoes with them.