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Shwedagon Pagoda

“It is a revelation,” observed Scott over the well-oiled tips of his magnificent moustache. “Majestic, impregnated with the worship of countless centuries, the great golden stupa rises high into the serene and thrilling blue with an infinite grandeur impossible to put into words.”

Andrew Marshall, The Trouser People

 

Known as Yangon’s ‘twinkling wonder’, Shwedagon Pagoda is visible almost anywhere in the city, rising up from the skyline and belittling tower blocks and grand hotels. Built over two thousand years ago when Yangon was a humble fishing village called ‘Dagon’, today Shwedagon Pagoda (or Shwedagon Paya) remains one of the most important spiritual sites for Buddhists across Asia, and a trip to Yangon is not complete without a visit to the ‘shwedagon zedi daw’. The entire complex covers 46 hectares and stands on a hill 53 metres (176 feet) above sea level. The stupa is 99 metres (325 feet) high and adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf. A plethora of shrines and images are set about the central terrace, and eight 12 metre-high chinthe - gold and white mythological creatures half-dragon, half-lion - guard the four ornate, naga-shaped passageways into the pagoda; their eyes wide and mouths open, pink tongues visible as if panting in the heat. Circled by a main road, the first confrontation with Shwedagon Pagoda guarantees to provoke a startled intake of breath, even within the most jaded of travellers.

Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda rises above the city just north of downtown; it is a mammoth complex of gold in the heart of the metropolis. There are four entrances into the paya with elevators at the Northern, Southern and Eastern entrances, and escalators at the West. From each you can ascend to the central platform past vendors peddling images of Buddha and flowers (both real and paper) to offer at the shrines. The technicolour and glittering terrace hosts a variety of stupas situated around the central zedi, as well as platforms and shelters for meditation and quiet reflection.

As you saunter around the Shwedagon terrace you will come across a variety of curious images and statues of interest, including a laughing necromancer, a double-bodied lion with a man's face, and an earth goddess. There is a photo gallery as well with pictures of Shwedagon in the colonial era. Towards the north-western corner of the plinth you will find the planetary post for Yahu, the mythical Hindu planet that causes eclipses. At the north end there is a Chinese prayer hall with figures of Chinese dragons outside. Adjacent from this is situated a pavilion with life-size Indian guards, and another one guarded by stone British lions.

Photo: Marie Starr

There are eight shrines around the central stupa, one for each day of the week (Wednesday is split into two). Buddhists visiting Shwedagon will almost always go to pray at the station that corresponds with the day of their birth. This day is of particular importance to the people of Myanmar; not only does it determine the letters that their name will begin with, it also plays a part in determining character and destiny. Along with a Buddha image, at each shrine there is the animal that corresponds with that day. There are chalices and small pools where you can pour water over the images. Do not hold back! Once you have located your shrine, whether with instruction from you guide, or by watching others, join the sloshing bustle about your birthday animal and respectfully pay tribute. Those who share the same day of the week with you will be happy to make room, generally enthused to see a foreigner getting stuck in.

Indeed, in general you are likely to feel very welcome at Shwedagon Pagoda. With good reason, the Burmese are supremely proud of Shwedagon and like to witness the impression it makes on foreigners. Though one must take heed of certain regulations (shoes off, no exposed shoulders or knees, keep your voice down and do not place yourself between a Buddha images and a praying monk) the atmosphere is much more relaxed and less austere than you are likely to find in any European church or cathedral. You will see that a lot of locals just come here simply to be; to relax and spend time with friends and family. In fact, when rounding a corner you are just as likely to fall upon a group of boys in backward caps snap-chatting and elegantly dressed girls taking selfies, as you are praying monks. For once, you will not feel conspicuous or obtrusive wielding your camera or smartphone.

We would recommend visiting Shwedagon Paya either in the morning, when it is cool, quiet, and altogether more tranquil, or after sunset, when the golden stupa shines most brightly against the night sky. On the banks of Kandawgyi Lake one can set up camp at dusk, watching the sunset behind the pagoda until its shimmering reflection burns crimson in the water’s surface. Alternatively, find a roof top bar once the sun has set - we would recommend either Penthouse or Atlas - and look out over Shwedagon Pagoda, and see why Myanmar has been known for centuries as ‘the Golden Land’.

 

Shwedagon Pagoda History


Like much of Myanmar’s touted history, there are many Shwedagon Pagoda facts that are in reality more myth than historical record. However there are some things that we can be reasonably certain about. It is believed that Shwedagon in its present form was constructed by the Mon people between the 10th and 11th Centuries, quickly becoming an important destination to pilgrims across the region. It was not until the 15th Century that it began to be gilded with gold-leaf, with Queen Shinsawbu providing her own weight in gold - almost 40kg. Her son-in-law Dhammazedi went further in donating 4 times the weight in gold of himself and his wife and implementing a 30-ton bell. As the first Europeans began to arrive on the shores of the Orient, so the glittering stupa began to attract the first of many plunderers. In 1612, the Portuguese adventurer Filipe de Brito e Nicole sacked the paya and took away Dhammazedi’s bell with the intention of melting it down for his cannons. This plan was foiled by mischance when the marauder dropped the great Shwedagon bell into the depths of the Bago River where it remains today.

Almost comically, the same fate awaited the second bell, stolen by the British in 1820 and lost overboard en route to Calcutta. After much effort expended, English engineers failed to retrieve the bell, and with a sneer granted that if the Burmans could retrieve it from the depths themselves, they could keep it. Ascribed by many Burmans to supernatural aid, the Burmese were successful in their attempt, and today this second bell still sits atop the pagoda platform. The pagoda was damaged by earthquakes throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries and occupied by the British forces from the mid 19th Century to 1929. Shwedagon’s trials continued in the 20th Century enduring two more earthquakes, a fire in 1931 and Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

 

Besides natural disasters, the Shwedagon Pagoda history is also peppered with political turbulence. Towards the end of colonial rule, students from Rangoon universities regularly congregated at the pagoda to demonstrate against British rule. In 1988, with her husband and two young sons by her side, Aung San Suu Kyi sent ripples of excitement throughout the country when she addressed crowds on the steps of the paya, rallying against the military regime. Shwedagon Pagoda was also the setting in 2007 for the monks’ demonstrations, dubbed the ‘Saffron Revolution’.

Interested in visiting Shwedagon? Have a look at our Suggested Journeys that incorporate visiting Yangon’s glittering wonder, or alternatively begin building your own Myanmar journey here.

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