The most sacred and revered pagoda in Burma (Myanmar) is Shwedagon in Yangon, standing proud on top of Singuttara Hill in between People’s Park and Kandawgyi Lake. The giant golden dome stupa is the city’s most prominent landmark and should be a must-see on every travel itinerary.
Legend has it that the pagoda is home to Buddha relics not just from the Buddha, but of three Buddhas that preceded him. The dome itself soars nearly 100 metres into the air and the pagoda is said to be more than 2,500 years old, though it has needed to be rebuilt many times over due to earthquakes, fires, and military conquests. Keeping the stupa company is a crowded pavilion full of smaller chedis, shrines, places of worship and a seemingly endless number of Buddha images from various eras and of many styles. Freelance guides at the entrances will give you a rich tour of the pavilion for US$5 to $10.
The life that circles through this grand site comes from all around the world. Pilgrims from other countries and throughout Myanmar add to the vibrancy with their traditional clothes and offerings. You will witness moments of prayer, meditation and the ‘bathing of the Buddha’ by day of the week. Labels with the days of the week surround the stupa and dictate the placement of offerings. The Monday corner is reserved for those who were born on a Monday, Tuesday corner for Tuesday, and so on. Washing the Buddha at the corner of your birthday is considered lucky and good for karma.
As at all religious temples in Myanmar, remove your shoes before entering — and here you’ll have a choice of four entrances. Shwedagon Pagoda Road leads to the south entrance, and along with the north entrance, are the two locations where new lifts have been installed, added for those not feeling up to hiking the long stairways. The west entrance is the least used and has the least number of shops due to the difficult access by vehicles. It also opens up to People’s Park with an array of statues. The east entrance tends to be the liveliest, and is the best entrance if you’re making the longer walk from Kandawgyi Lake through streets with shops selling traditional monk donations, flowers and other offerings for worship, and other tokens such as Buddha images.
Whichever way you choose to enter, the long stairways are cool, with glimpses of side pathways used by staff and and other groups. The entrance fee is US$8, which includes the use of cameras and video recorders, and you will receive a sticker-receipt and a map with information about the site. Keep in mind that it is tradition to walk clockwise around a pagoda, so after the booth you can join the barefooted locals and pilgrims by turning left to venture through the dazzling structures.
What time should you go? The pagoda opens at 04:00, and dawn brings a coolness and greater quiet than the rest of the day. Midday is hot, with few tourists around, though many locals can be seen eating lunch in the shade of the stairways and napping here and there. Evening brings the crowds, as the glowing sky of sunset can strike a beautiful background to the golden stupa that glows under the yellow lights. Candles placed by devotees create a ring of flickering light in front of the shrines and create by far the most photogenic setting of the day.
By Christopher Smith
Last updated on 8th February, 2014.