In Yangon people will ask if you have been to Shwedagon. It is, apparently, the thing you simply must do while in Yangon. The elegant Shwedagon Pagoda is Yangon’s most famous landmark. It is a massive 110 meter high gold-plated pagoda with a diamond studded spire that sets on top of a small hill in downtown Yangon. Shwedagon dominates the area and is visible from much of the city.
This very impressive pagoda, also known as the Golden Pagoda, is Burma’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site. The main stupa enshrines sacred relics of the Gautama Buddha as well as the three previous Buddhas.
There is a legend that tells of two merchant brothers from Okkalapa (present day Yangon) who lived about 2,500 years ago meeting the Buddha in India. The Buddha gave them eight of his hairs and told them to enshrine them in the same spot on a hill in Okkalapa where relics of the previous three reincarnations of the Buddha were buried.
The brothers returned to Okkalapa and presented the Buddha relics to their King, who started searching for the spot. After years of searching in vain a Nat spirit called Sularata decided to help the King. The Nat who was millions of years old had witnessed the visits of the previous three Buddhas and remembered the spot on Singuttara hill where the relics were enshrined. It was at this spot that the Shwedagon pagoda was built.
October in Yangon is oppressively hot, humid, and rainy. Shwedagon is best visited at dawn to catch the sunrise or at dusk to catch the sunset. Going at dawn or dusk also allows you to avoid the midday heat!!! After allowing ourselves a slow, leisurely morning that soon enough became mid afternoon, we set off to explore Shwedagon. We decided to save 3000 Kyet ($2.50) and walk the 15-20 minutes from our hotel, the Crystal Palace, to the Pagoda. After crossing the crazy busy, and very dangerous, Shwegon Daing Road, we began to weave our way down side streets and back roads. Periodically we would look up and see the pagoda in the distance and know we were walking in the right direction. I love walking and prefer to walk whenever I can. It allows me to feel so much closer to the places and people who I visit.
Our fifteen minute walk easily became an hour. So many things to see. It was sensory overload but in a good way. We stopped to talk with locals and other tourists along the way. Now really is the time to visit Yangon. Shwedagon has been flooded with Buddhists making pilgrimage for many years but western tourism is new. Locals are open to foreigners now and love the chance to practice their English. During our time in Yangon we met travelers from the UK, Australia, and Europe but not one from the USA!
As we turned onto the street leading up to the eastern entrance we stopped to admire the view. This video captures the energy of this street as we begin our ascent of 118 steps to the pagoda. The little old lady with the pink top was selling bags for shoes for 100 Kyet (about 5 cents). I hope you enjoy this video as I still love watching it! The noise, the smells, the wild dogs, chickens, bird vendors, food carts and of course the lady in pink created an indescribable experience.
We finally reached the Pagoda. The sound of the worshippers, the scent of incense wafting through the air, the heat of the day, the humidity of the air, and the brilliance of the gold taken in all at once was awe inspiring. It was so worth the journey!
Our time at Shwedagon was during the rainy season so within minutes we could go from overcast conditions, to pouring rain, to glaring sun so bright that it was necessary to shield our eyes from the glare of the sun off the golden stupas. Shwedagon is not painted with gold paint. Shwedagon is covered with real gold, billions of dollars worth of real gold!!! The top of the stupa, too high for the human eye to discern in any detail, is decorated with 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, sapphires, and other gems and 1065 golden bells.
This Bohdi tree is from a cutting taken from the original Bodhi tree that the Buddha sat under in India. Many people worship at this tree or simply find quiet time for reflection.
We needed to eat before climbing up to Shwedagon so by the time we descended we were famished. We grabbed a snack and enjoyed the street scene for a bit. I hope you enjoy this video. It is one of my favorites as it really captures Yangon street life!
It was getting dark and we needed a place to eat. Laurie was exhausted and we knew if we went back to our hotel we wouldn’t leave again to get food. After walking up and down the street we returned to this cart to get our food. The street was really dirty yet his place was cleaner than most. We also liked that the food was boiled!!!
The dish I ordered for Laurie isn’t what we were served. The fact that it was red warned us that it was about to be super spicy and hot!!! It was in fact quite delicious. Her dish was on the right and although spicy it was tolerable. I love spicy hot food and my dish on the left was amazing!!!! Our food cost less than two dollars.
Laurie periodically will look at me and say,”I hate you now, I’ll love you tomorrow but right now not so much”. This was one of those moments!!! Exhausted, sitting on a plastic stool, eating on a little plastic table, on a filthy dirty street. We had just moved our table to avoid huge rats that were in the gutter that ran along the buildings behind us.
The rats ran along the right of the sidewalk and then ran under it where this Buddhist monk was standing! It was days like this where I so appreciate Laurie. This trip has been my dream and her support and good nature means everything to me.