Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Our time living in Singapore, and our travels back since we left, meant we've been able to travel with relative ease to different parts of the region but somewhere we hadn't been to previously was Myanmar. This, combined with a chance for a catch up with a friend from our Singapore days who now lives there, was reason enough for us to plan a visit as part of our last trip to Singapore. We flew to Yangon arriving late in the afternoon and after freshening up and a drink in the hotel bar we met up with our friend and a friend of hers, who was also visiting Yangon, for a sunset visit to the famous Shwedagon pagoda.

No matter how little (or much) you know about Myanmar you're sure to recognise this pagoda. This is one of Buddhism's most sacred sites in the country and is believed to enshrine eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha (the religious leader on whose teachings Buddhism was founded) as well as the relics of three other former Buddhas. Legend states that there has been a stupa, the mound like structure which usually contains relics and is used as a place of meditation, there for more than 2600 years. The legend says that two merchant brothers, Tapussa and Ballika, met the Buddha who gave them the eight hairs to take back to Myanmar. The local ruler, King Okkalapa, enshrined the hairs in a temple of gold, together with the relics from the other Buddhas. This would therefore make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. Archaeologists and historians believe though that the original stupa was built by the Mon people, one of the ethnic groups in Myanmar, between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. Myanmar is prone to earthquakes, during the 17th century alone the pagoda suffered damage from earthquakes on eight different occasions, and so the ancient structure, like others, has been rebuilt many times over the years.

As I said above our visit to the pagoda coincided with sunset. As you can probably also see in my photo above the floor is entirely covered in white marble so, as we discovered with other pagodas we visited, can get incredibly hot in the direct sun of the day. Our friend had already recommended either an early morning or sunset visit to the Shwedagon pagoda for this reason and she was absolutely right. We did a few dashes from one shaded point to another at other temples on our trip, and whilst it's impossible to avoid this completely if you plan to visit lots of temples on your travels, a visit to the Shwedagon pagoda at sunset (or in the early morning) is a must if you can. There were many people there offering prayers, and the brilliant golden colour of the stupa which is covered in gold leaf with its uppermost section in diamonds, rubies, sapphires and other gems, glinting in the setting sun really was the best introduction to our trip and to this lovely country. 

If you are planning to visit you'll find that the temple has four entrances which, as it stands 167 feet above sea level and is visible from many parts of the city, all have steps up to the main pagoda and surrounding complex. However if you need them there are also lifts and escalators available. At the top you'll also easily find the place to pay your entrance fee to the temple too. I confess I don't know now which entrance we went in by but leaving the temple later via an escalator was definitely a first for me. The entrance (and exit) we took was bustling with stalls selling goods, including Buddha images and incense sticks amongst a whole lot more, pass all the stalls though and you arrive at the main complex and the beautiful Shwedagon pagoda.

As we walked around the complex, admiring the temple's beauty as the setting sun turned it even more golden, our friend told us some interesting snippets of information. One of the most interesting was about the twelve planetary posts around the stupa's base that represent the days of the week. The locals pray at the post, which are all represented by animals, that is linked to the day they were born. Both my husband and I were born on a Wednesday and we are represented by the elephant. Wednesday is the one day that is divided into births in the morning (represented by a tusked elephant) and births in the afternoon (represented by a tuskless elephant). If you wish to, as we did, when you find your planetary post you can pour water on the image offering up a prayer or a wish as you do. It turns out we're in good company as Barack Obama did the same at his planetary post when in Myanmar and visiting the pagoda. We also visited the photo gallery in the complex which is a great opportunity to see photos of the pagoda at various points in its history. Though as traditional dress is still worn by many it can be quite hard to distinguish between the older photos and the more recent at first glance.

Shwedagon pagoda is stunning, all the more so at sunset when the golden stupa glows bright. Being such a well known part of Yangon this was the perfect place to start our visit and our friend was the perfect guide. As our stay continued we really began to appreciate just how visible it is from various parts of the city and just how special it is. Without doubt this is likely to be on your plans to visit if you're travelling to Yangon and if not it absolutely should be. It's breath-taking, awing and quite amazing. 


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