It is not every day that you get to see something as impressive as the 100-meter-high main stupa in Shwedagon Pagoda, in Myanmar. The stupa was built somewhere between the 6th and 10th centuries to house as relics eight hairs of Buddha himself.
Over time, Shwedagon Pagoda (paya in Burmese) has become the holiest Buddhist place in Myanmar, and a national symbol. It has suffered all kinds of adversities: neglect, pillage and extensive damage from fires and earthquakes. But with every reconstruction, the stupa was built higher, and more stupas, shrines and prayer halls were added to the 6-hectare platform on which it stands.
(All photos are © Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you’d like to use them).
It’s impossible to deny the magnificence of the main stupa. Already from afar, it seems shiny and massive, perched at the top of a hill in the outskirts of Yangon. Once inside the pagoda enclosure, the stupa reveals all its visual power, even partially covered for restoration as I found it in my visit.
The lower levels of the stupa are covered in gold leaf which is renewed every year. The upper levels, though, are made of an unbelievable 10,000 gold plates, and bedecked with several tens of thousands (the exact figures differ among sources) of diamonds, precious stones and gold and silver bells. Not surprisingly, the spire alone at the top of the stupa weighs over one ton.
Even after several weeks visiting all sorts of temples in Thailand and Myanmar, I couldn’t help but be amazed. This thing is massive and commands respect and awe. And if that weren’t enough, it is surrounded by more gold-covered stupas and religious buildings.
I was fearing to find big crowds that would detract from the experience but I needn’t have worried. I don’t know if that was the usual number of visitors on a weekday afternoon, but there were no queues at the entrance and, with the exception of a few spots here and there, the main platform was not crowded at all.
In fact, I was surprised at the sight of lone people worshipping in several of the prayer halls.
The busiest spots around the main stupa were perhaps the eight “corners” where worshippers are supposed to offer flowers and pour water over the Buddha statue corresponding to their day of birth. There are eight of them because Burmese Buddhists consider Wednesday to be divided in two days.
All in all, you can spend a very nice couple of hours at Shwedagon Pagoda. The atmosphere is festive and calm at the same time. You can walk around and admire the buildings, or sit anywhere and watch people go by and pray, while listening to the soothing sound of thousands of small bells (like the ones on the spire of the main stupa) rocked by the breeze.
I didn’t have the time to find a good spot to photograph the pagoda from the outside, but I am sure there are some. Some people also say it’s worth seeing the place both in daytime and after dark, but I went there in the early afternoon, way before dusk, so I cannot show you what it looks like in the evening.
At any rate, I thought the visit was well worth it. Have you guys been there? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Tips for your visit to Shwedagon Pagoda
- The entrance fee is 8,000 kyat (about 5 euros/ US dollars). Getting there in a cab from central Yangon should cost you around 2,000 kyat. Make sure you agree on the price beforehand, as most drivers will try to overcharge you.
- There are four entrances to the enclosure, each with a long corridor and staircase leading up to the platform. If you don’t feel like walking up the hill, there are elevators, as well as escalators. My driver dropped me at what I later found to be the most “boring” entrance (the west one), but the others are apparently rather lively and lined with teashops and stalls.
- Remember that you cannot wear shoes or even socks to enter religious buildings in all of Myanmar (in most, if not all, countries in SE Asia, it’s ok to keep your socks on). I can’t say I enjoyed walking barefoot on dusty marble for so long, but the worst part was to look at my foot soles after the visit. If you’re anything like me, bring some wet wipes, or you can pay a small fee to wash your feet on your way out.
- To see the pagoda at its best (although probably at its most crowded too), go before sunrise or sunset.