The Shwedagon Pagoda is a potent symbol of Myanmar’s identity: a towering embodiment of national and religious fervor that has stood in Yangon for over two thousand years. Wherever you are in Yangon, you can look towards Singuttara Hill (where the Pagoda stands) and see its golden spire reaching for the sky.
Shwedagon is a magnificent example of a Buddhist stupa, or a memorial built to store relics of the Buddha.
This stupa is no exception. According to local lore, a Mon monarch built Shwedagon to house relics from four different Buddhas.
The legendary King Okkalapa erected Shwedagon in about 600 BCE, after receiving the gift of eight of Gautama Buddha’s hairs. According to legend, when the King opened the reliquary containing the precious body parts, miracles poured forth:
“The hairs emitted a brilliant light that rose high above the palm trees and radiated to all corners of the world. Suddenly the blind could see again, the deaf could hear, the dumb could speak, and the lame could walk. The earth quaked, lightning flashed, the trees blossomed and bore fruit, and a shower of precious stones rained down.”
Entering Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon stands on a 46-hectare complex on Singuttara Hill near the west bank of Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon. You can enter through one of four covered entrance stairways (zaungdan), each located at one of the four cardinal directions. Two gigantic chinthe, or Burmese guardian lions, flank the entrances to each zaungdan.
Most tourists enter via the southern entrance at Shwedagon Payar Road (Google Maps) due to its direct access to Yangon’s city center. The southern zaungdan is 104 steps long, and is lined with vendors selling flowers, candles, and other offerings to deposit at the stupa. Tourists can use the elevator and the public toilet at the stairs’ base.
The eastern entrance along Arzarni Road (Google Maps) is the closest to Kandawgyi Lake. Travelers looking for authentic local atmosphere should begin here, as the eastern entrance is preceded by Bahan Bazaar and assorted teahouses. Travelers can walk 118 steps up to the main terrace, passing by vendors selling goods for Buddhist monks.
The northern entrance along U Wisara Road (Google Maps) is 128 steps long. The giant crocodile-shaped railing near the stairway’s summit represents the legendary crocodile king Nga Moe Yeik, who figures in a tragic Burmese romance.
Finally the western entrance along U Wisara Road (Google Maps) stands at the base of the longest of the four zaungdan leading up to Shwedagon; unlike the other three entrances, no vendors or shops line the western stairway.
Travelers who are unable or unwilling to take the stairs can take the elevators (at the southern and northern entrances) and the escalator (at the western entrance) that lead up to the main terrace; foreign visitors must pay $8 for their use.
You are required to take your shoes/sandals/socks off before ascending to the top. This is non-negotiable: foreigners wearing shoes on Shwedagon was a major sticking point for the Burmese in their fraught relationship with the British. (I wish I was kidding.)
Shwedagon Pagoda’s Main Terrace
Once you set foot on the main terrace, you should follow the crowd and walk clockwise around the central stupa. As you walk around the perimeter, you’ll find that visitors to Shwedagon come to pursue devotions in different ways, from the pilgrims joining the clockwise walk around the stupa to the devotees spending minutes or hours rapt in meditation.
The Shwedagon’s main spire is only the biggest of the structures that rise out of the main terrace at the top of the four zaungdan. A confusion of temples, stupa, pavilions and worship halls can be found lining the marble-floored terrace, their functions incomprehensible to the first-time visitor without the assistance of a local guide.
There is an underlying logic to the buildings, but you have to be Burmese Buddhist to make sense of it. The locals know what planetary post to visit (it depends on what day of the week you were born in), where to prostrate oneself when praying for success, and where to go if one wants a wish granted.
The Spire of Shwedagon Pagoda
The 325-foot main spire of Shwedagon stands on a 20-foot platform in the exact center of the terrace. The spire rises from this platform, first as a series of polygonal terraces, then as a curvilinear bell topped with a “banana bud” and a jewel-encased hti, or umbrella crown.
The gold that coats the spire is real; so, in fact, is all the gold within sight. From its founding to the present, kings and commoners alike have poured riches upon Shwedagon to show their devotion.
27 metric tons of gold plate, gold leaf and priceless gems covers the main spire. The practice of gilding the spire began in the 15th century, when a local queen provided her own weight in gold for the purpose. As gold is easily worn away by the weather, Shwedagon’s gold plating is continuously replenished over the years; in 2015, the authorities announced that local donors had contributed over 16,000 new gold plates to use for the spire. (Source)
The thickness of the gold coating varies depending on the elevation. Gold foil is used to coat the base and lower portion of the spire, while riveted gold plates are applied at higher levels, where the effects of the weather are more pronounced.
In 1871, the King of Mandalay at the time donated a hti, or umbrella crown, encrusted with over 2,300 rubies and 5,400 diamonds. This hti remained in place until 1999, when the Burmese military government installed a new one: the precious metals and gems from the previous hti were transferred to its replacement.
Best Time to Visit Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda opens to foreigners at 6am (locals are permitted in as early as 4am). Early in the morning is a good time to visit, but just before sunset is even better. As the sun’s colors shift to red, the main spire and its surrounding gold-covered structures reflect the crimson light magnificently. After dark, floodlights transform the pagoda into a golden tower that stands out from the dark.
Noon is the worst time to visit. The marble flooring of the terrace is simply unbearable to walk around on in midday.
The Burmese celebrate Buddhist festivals almost every month; time your visit just right and you might just witness one of the local festivals that add a boost of local color to Shwedagon.
Dos and Don’t’s when Visiting Shwedagon Pagoda
As both a religious and nationalist icon for the Burmese, Shwedagon should be treated with great respect by the visitor. To stay on the safe side in Shwedagon, follow these simple tips.
Start with your clothes – wear modest clothing. Not necessarily your Sunday best, but enough fabric should cover the shoulders, arms and legs. On to the shoes: remove them, and leave them at the designated place before ascending the stairs.
You are permitted to use your camera, but do so discreetly. Do not interrupt monks or laypeople doing their devotions, or disrupt any ceremonies that you encounter.
The Burmese take the Buddha very seriously, and punish any insult to their religion with actual jail time. Do not act irreverently while in Shwedagon, or otherwise do anything that might be interpreted as disrespect to the Buddha or Shwedagon.