Wandering through Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.”

– Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel

It was the only must-see tourist sight I planned for my stay in Yangon — the rapidly developing major city doesn’t have a lot of sites to visit. Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံဘုရား), the iconic image of Myanmar, was on every itinerary suggestion, and it lived up to expectations.

Shwedagon pagoda

I had little time to explore Yangon, particularly because I did not plan the trip as well as I should have. That left me with fewer options for sightseeing — the top destination was more or less it for my limited stay.

Taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda

I took a taxi for a few dollars from my hotel near Sule Pagoda through the mess of crawling traffic. I understood then why taxis charge a flat rate instead of running meters — the idle time would increase fares exponentially. Along the way I got to witness Yangon at a snail’s pace.

Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda through the cracked taxi windshield

It can take more than a half hour to go just a few blocks in Yangon’s infamous traffic. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of narrow one-way streets that can be difficult for cars to fit through. I was fortunate that my hotel was near two main roads (one of which led to the airport) as well as two minor tourist destinations.

I would have liked to have been dropped off right in front of my destination, but after sitting through the light multiple times in front of Shwedagon and only moving a few car lengths, I decided to pay my fare and walk. I doubt my driver cared whether I got out early. I arrived at my destination well before my taxi ever reached that intersection.

A Little History

shwedagon pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa, or period of history. The golden pagoda in the center of the temple complex is 99 meters (325 ft) and was was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries. However, according to legend, the pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago.

The pagoda has been damaged by natural disasters and wars over the centuries. The worst damage was caused by an earthquake in 1768 that brought down the top of the stupa, which was later raised to its current height by King Hsinbyushin. The Dutch and British both stole bells from the temple, and both bells were accidentally dropped into the river. The bell that was pillaged by the Dutch was never recovered, but the other was saved by locals and returned to its rightful place.

King Singu's Bell
King Singu’s Bell

This was also the location of some major protests by Buddhist monks in 2007 in the run up to democratic reforms in Myanmar.

Entering the Temple

As soon as I arrived I found a long hallway leading up the hill to the pagoda — it was so long that I couldn’t see the end from the entrance. I paid a tourist entrance fee that included a space to leave my shoes (you must take off your shoes at all temples in Myanmar, no matter how much dirt is on the ground).

shwedagon pagoda hallway
That’s a long hallway

The long hallway was lined with souvenir vendors as well as those selling incense, flowers, and other offerings for people to leave at the temple. There were also more than a few beggars along the way.

The hallway was a welcome respite from the heat — little sunlight enters the area and there’s a decent breeze to keep everyone slightly cooler. I breezed past the vendors as I wasn’t about to buy anything on my way in, but I figured I’d have a look on the way out (of course, everything is a bit more expensive at Shwedagon than in places like Bogyoke Aung San Market). As I left the pagoda around lunchtime, most of the vendors were taking a midday nap and didn’t want to be bothered by tourists.

shwedagon pagoda

Once I entered the actual temple grounds, I was blinded by the sun gleaming off the gold pagoda as well as off all the white stupas, tiles, and shrines.

I knew this temple would be impressive and large, but I was unprepared for the size of it. Shwedagon Pagoda itself is huge — the base of it stretches 1,420 feet around. And then it’s surrounded by hundreds of small stupas and shrines.

shwedagon pagoda buddha

And all around Shwedagon Pagoda and the small stupas and shrines are filled with additional shrines with numerous Buddha statues.

It begins to feel like sensory overload, but it could have also been heat stroke. It was a desperate attempt to avoid taking photos with the crowds in the way while also trying to find a little shade to avoid melting in Myanmar’s holiest site (I may or may not have seen an incident of spontaneous combustion that wasn’t so spontaneous given the temperature).

shwedagon pagoda
The crowd around Tuesday Buddha (my day)

Of course, after wandering through the grounds all the stupas and shrines begin to look the same. Or maybe I walked around the perimeter of the pagoda more than once. So much of the place blends together after baking my brain in the sun that I wasn’t sure which direction I was facing.

shwedagon pagoda

I’m fairly certain I took one more quick tour around the grounds to find my exit to make the trip back to the hotel easier. I wasn’t sure what was on the other sides of Shwedagon Pagoda, and I didn’t feel like getting lost in the heat and/or traffic of Yangon.

Getting out of Shwedagon

shwedagon pagoda

It wasn’t easy finding my way out of the temple complex. The pagoda is symmetrical, so you can’t judge which side you’re on looking at it. This leaves visitors with only the surrounding stupas and shrines to guess location.

I had enough foresight to take a picture of the first shrine I saw. Of course, after taking a hundred or so more photos within Shwedagon, I had to flip through a lot just to find where that one picture was.

On my way out of Shwedagon, I decided to walk down the street away from the heaviest traffic before flagging down a taxi to take me back to my hotel. Along the way, I stopped off for a light lunch and the largest bottle of cold water the restaurant sold. The restaurant was open air but out of the sun near Happy World Amusement Park, which featured a statue of Rambo.

rambo myanmar
When did Rambo get to Yangon?

I also stopped across the street at Maha Wizaya Pagoda, which has an interesting interior mural. By the time I finished with that pagoda, I was exhausted from the heat and sun and in desperate need of air conditioning and water.

I would have enjoyed Maha Wizaya more had it not been for the long unshaded walk to get in. It’s a relatively new temple with relic donated by the King of Nepal. The center of the pagoda is painted with trees and nature scenes — it’s not the typical Buddhist stories that are painted on so many other temples.

Maha Wizaya Pagoda
Interior of Maha Wizaya Pagoda

My only regret when visiting Shwedagon was that I didn’t see it in the evening — a few people have mentioned that it’s even more impressive with lights shinning after the sun sets. As usual, missing something minor like this provides me with a reason to revisit Yangon.

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