Shwedagon Pagoda: Planning Your Trip

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma/Myanmar

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The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is Myanmar’s most sacred religious monument and a must-see stop during any trip to this country. Standing prominently atop Singuttara Hill in the former capital city, this 325-foot-tall (99-meter) golden stupa shines brilliantly in the afternoon sun. The actual pagoda is constructed of brick that has been painted and covered with gold plating donated by monarchs and supporters from around the world (today's estimated worth is approximately $1.4 million US dollars). A total of 4,016 gold-plated bells hang from the structure, and over 83,850 jewels adorn the Buddhist monument, including 5,448 diamonds, and 2,317 rubies, sapphires, and other gems. All the ornate adornments create a mesmerizing glow at night that can be enjoyed during an after-dinner visit. Once done, take a walk around the pagoda to check out the Buddha statues, relics, and historical artifacts dating back to over 2,500 years.

History

Archeologists believe the Shwedagon Pagoda was built between the 6th and 10th centuries, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. Legend says that two merchant brothers were given eight strands of hair as a gift from Buddha. After receiving this gift, the brothers consulted their king as to what should be done with the sacred hairs. The king knew that other Buddha relics were buried somewhere on Singuttara Hill. After uncovering them, he then decided to enshrine all the Buddha relics in one place, and the Shwedagon Pagoda was built.

The year 1485 marks the beginning of gilding the stupa. First, a queen donated her bodyweight in gold to plate the monument. Next, more donations assisted in the plating of the entire structure. Finally, in 1789, the last major rebuild took place. Today's structure has remarkably withstood pillage by British Troops, the ruckus of political activity when Myanmar fought for independence in the 1930s, and repeated damage by various earthquakes. 

Best Time to Visit

Aside from the Buddhist holidays, like Vassa, or Buddhist Lent (which usually begins in July), Losar, the Buddhist New Year (in February), and Pavarana (in October), weekdays are often the quietest time at the Shwedagon Pagoda. If you go during the dry season of April through September, the weather will be warm and roads will be passable. The months of June, July, and August are usually the rainiest and not the best for sightseeing.

If you visit the pagoda in the early morning, you'll enjoy better light for picture taking, and, since dry season temperatures can climb to almost 100 degrees F by noon, this is a good time to go. Still, visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda after dark is an entirely different experience, as the structure is lit up and mesmerizing. An ideal itinerary would include a visit in the morning, before the heat of the day, then explore other interesting sights in Yangon. In the evening, return to the pagoda to see the display under the lights.

How to Get to Shwedagon Pagoda  

If you're traveling by air, book an international flight into Yangon International Airport, where you can take a shuttle to your downtown lodging and explore the city for a few days. The Shwedagon Pagoda is located on Sanguttara Hill in the Dagon Township, a 10- to 15-minute drive from downtown Yangon. Any taxi driver will gladly take you. There’s no need to have the driver wait, as plenty of taxis will be waiting around the pagoda when you exit. Although Yangon taxis are reasonably priced, prices are slightly inflated for tourists visiting the pagoda. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with your driver.

Visiting Info

  • Opening Hours: The Shwedagon Pagoda is open seven days a week from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. The last admission is 9:45 p.m., and the visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Entrance Fees: The entrance fee is 10,000 MMK (kyat), approximately 6 US dollars.
  • Guides at the Pagoda: As soon as you enter, you’ll be approached by friendly, English-speaking guides offering their services. You may be shown a book of comments in various languages from their previous customers. Some guides are official and licensed, while others are much more informal. Agree on a clearly established price before accepting any services.
  • Food and Drink: Food and concessions services are available on-site, however, you'll find better food in local restaurants elsewhere. Communal water coolers are also available around the pagoda, but carrying your own water is highly recommended.
  • Accessibility: Elevators and wheelchairs are available at the southern entrance of the pagoda.

Dress Code at Shwedagon Pagoda  

Although you should dress conservatively (cover your knees and shoulders) when visiting any of the temples in Southeast Asia, sometimes the rules are more relaxed for tourists. This is not the case at the Shwedagon Pagoda, since it's a very active place of worship. Scores of monks, pilgrims, and devotees mix in among tourists at the monument. That said, both men and women should wear clothing that covers the knees. Longyi, a traditional, sarong-style garment, is available on-site to borrow at the entrances, should you arrive wearing shorts. Shoulders should not be exposed, and avoid wearing shirts with religious themes or offensive messages (including skulls). The monument's website claims that elbow-length shirts are required, though this is rarely enforced. Do not wear tight-fitting or revealing clothing.

Also, you’ll be expected to remove your shoes and leave them at the entrance for a small fee. Shoes are looked after at a proper counter, hence the fee. You'll be given a numbered claim check, so don’t worry about someone swapping flip-flops with you. Socks and stockings are not allowed, you must remain in bare feet.

Tips for Visiting Shwedagon Pagoda

  • Whether you hire a guide, or not, is completely up to you. You may gain more knowledge and insight by hiring a guide, but at the same time, you'll miss out on the thrill of discovering things on your own. A good compromise is to leave time at the end of your tour to wander around without the distraction of someone speaking to you
  • People watching at the Shwedagon Pagoda can be very interesting. You may have friendly monks approach you to practice English.
  • Bring a hat and sunscreen. Afternoon temperatures in Yangon are hot throughout the year, and the sun is strong. Better yet, avoid visiting during the heat of the day.
  • The venue operates on a cash-only basis, so come prepared with the correct amount of money for the entrance fee.
  • Enter through the west entrance to avoid crowds, as this receives the least amount of traffic.

Things to Do Nearby

Many other attractions in the city of Yangon are worth checking out. Kandawgyi Lake, a manmade lake once used as the city's water supply, is located close to the pagoda and contains a carnival-like park along its banks. The Bogyoke Market is Yangon's main marketplace, where you can find gems, clothes, stamps, coins, and tourist souvenirs. And, a visit to the Taukkyan War Cemetery allows you to stroll the final resting place for over 6,000 soldiers who fought for the Allied cause in World War II.

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