The Shwedagon Pagoda or Paya is the single most important religious site in all of Myanmar.
The pagoda stands on the top of Singuttara Hill, and, according to legend, that spot has been sacred since the beginning of time, just before our present world was created. At that time, five lotus buds popped up on the hill, each bud signifying the five Buddhas who would appear in the world and guide it to Nirvana. Gautama, the Buddha as we know him, is the fourth of these five (Maitreya, the fifth, will announce the end of the world with his appearance) and, according to the legend, two brothers brought eight hairs of the Buddha to be enshrined in this sacred location, inaugurating the Shwedagon Pagoda. Whatever the truth of the legend, verifiable history records a pagoda at the site since the 6th Century AD. Built and rebuilt, guilded and reguilded, almost nothing in the pagoda is likely to be old, except whatever is hidden deep inside the stupa. An earthquake (18th century) destroyed the upper half of the pagoda spire and many buildings. The British used the platform and the temples to house their soldiers and armory and, allegedly, made off with anything of value. And Burmese Buddhists are inherently practical people who constantly build and rebuild pagodas for merit.
Today, the pagoda is a magical place that most visitors to Yangon come again and again. Unlike other religious sites, it has at once a spiritual as well as a secular feel about it. Children run up and down singing songs, monks sit on the steps chatting, young men cast amorous glances at women, women stand around gossiping, all while others are deep in prayer in front of whatever shrine has significance for them. The Shwedagon captures the essence of both the informal nature as well as the strong ties that signify the relationship that the Burmese have with their Buddhism. There is no other pagoda like it in Burma and there is no other place like the Shwedagon Pagoda in the world and visitors to Burma end up spending a lot of their time there.
Walkways to the pagoda
Four covered walkways lead up to the pagoda from the plains surrounding the hills. The Eastern walkway is the most interesting, crowded as it is with vendors selling items for pilgrims (candles, flowers, gold leaf, stones and other paraphernalia of Burmese Buddhist worship) and souvenirs for domestic (and international) tourists (buddhas, lacquerware, and thanaka). Nothing tacky is for sale, so do stop and take a look. The other walkways are less interesting but the Western walkway has escalators and the Southern has an elevator. Walking up the Eastern walkway to the top and allowing the beauty of the pagoda itself emerge remains the best way to get up the hill!
The pagoda platform
The pagoda itself exists as a religious place without pomp and circumstance and is one of the best places in the world to sit and people watch. Find a comfortable step, seat yourself, and look around. Children run up and down, perhaps singing and shouting with abandon. Women cluster in groups gossiping. Couples, young and old stroll up and down. Burgundy robed monks are everywhere. Here and there, at the many shrines that dot the platform and sit around the stupa, people pray, seriously and silently. Bells ring. There is no awe here, only life, religious and secular life. Sit there long enough and someone will stop to chat with you, to ask questions, to exchange information.
There are eight shrines, one for each day of the week (in the Burmese calendar, Wednesday is divided into two parts), dotted around the eight corners of the stupa (the stupa is octagonal), and most Burmese pray at their day shrine when visiting a pagoda. If you can figure out the day of the week when you were born, light a candle, place some flowers, or pour water over the shrine corresponding to that day. Starting from the Southern entrance, and going clockwise, the eight planetary posts are: Mercury (Wednesday morning, before noon), Saturn (Saturday), Jupiter (Thursday), Rahu (no planet, Wednesday afternoon), Venus (Friday), Sun (Sunday), Moon (Monday), Mars (Tuesday). Each shrine also has a beast associated with it, the most interesting one being the Gahlon, a mythical half-bird half-beast said to guard Mount Meru (the shrine for Sunday).
The Arakanese Prayer Pavilion
The Arakanese Prayer Pavillion, a little before the Western Walkway, was a gift of the Rakhaing people of Arakan. The prayer hall itself is ordinary, but the wood carvings on the roof are exquisite, probably the finest in the Pagoda complex.
Maha Ganda Bell
Known locally as the Singu Min Bell (after King Singu, who donated it to Shwedagon), the Maha Ganda bell was cast between 1775 and 1779 and weighs 23 tons. Impressed by the size of the bell, the British attempted to take it as war booty after the First Burmese War (1825) but dropped it into the Yangon River instead. The story goes that the British tried everything to get the bell out of the water but all their technology was of no avail. Giving up, they told the Burmese that they could have it back if they could get it out of the water. The Burmese shoved some bamboo rafts and, lo behold, powered by rafts or by divine right, the bell floated to the surface and was returned to the pagoda! Pick up a mallet and bang on the bell for luck. Behind the bell, a small pavilion provides excellent views of the stupa (spectacular at night) and a panoramic view of the city.
Naungdawgyi pagoda and Sandawdwin Tazaung
Left of the Northern walkway, the Naungdawgyi or Elder pagoda is supposed to mark the spot where the sacred strands of the Buddha's hair were placed and washed before being enshrined in the stupa. (Women are not allowed onto the Elder pagoda platform.) Close by is the Sandawdwin Tazaung (Hair Relics Well) which provided the water for the washing. The well is odd because it is fed by the Irrawaddy rather than by ground water and the level of water in this well rises and falls with the tides!
A 1485 tablet that relates the story of the Shwedagon in Pali, Mon, and Burmese. One of the few verifiably antique objects in the pagoda complex.
Where to eat near the Pagoda
The closest restaurant is at the intersection of the Shwedagon Pagoda Road and U Htaung Bo Road (at the bottom of the Southern Walkway).
There are some tea shops on a small roadway that describes a semicircle just below the top of the pagoda where you can get tea and biscuits.
North of the pagoda, on Inya Road and outside the Savoy, are many places to eat, including a good fast food restaurant for pizza, coffee, and sandwiches.
Bring water, the heat of the sun can get to you if you visit during the daytime. No food or water is available on the platform itself but water is available on the lower reaches of the walkway.
Shwedagon Paya opens from 6:30AM to 10PM. The pagoda opens at 5AM but, technically, tourists are not allowed in till 6:30AM. It is unlikely, however, that an early arriving tourist will be turned away.
The entrance fee is US$5. Ticket booths are located at the Eastern and Southern Entrances. If you enter from another direction, the ticket agents will catch up with you sooner or later and collect the fee.
It is easy to avoid handing the $5 fee to the government by simply asking for or buying a used sticker from another tourist as they leave the paya then going up one of the side entrances. If you take a risk and manage to get in at 5am and get out by 6am you'll probably escape paying the fee. Ticket agents will sometimes quote the price in US Dollars (as per the sign) or Kyat (either at the government rate, the black-market rate, or an inflated blackmarket rate). Best to have both available and pay whatever is cheapest - no point giving the government more than you need to. Tickets are valid for one day only (not a 24 hour period) and must be retained throughout your visit. Bring some sticky tape to help keep the sticker attached to your clothing (especially if it is a hot or wet day, like 2/3 of the days in Myanmar).
Guides, official and unofficial are available for US$5 (add a $1/1000kyat tip). The quality is variable but most guides are friendly and trying to make their way against the odds. The pagoda is vast and complex and, if you can afford the extra dollars, the company and practical information on what's going around you is well worth the expense.
A road on the Southern side leads halfway up the Singuttara Hill and an elevator can take you the rest of the way. Alternatively, if not in a wheelchair, head for the Western entrance from where escalators are available all the way to the top. The escalators are free for foreigners (or rather, included in the price of the ticket).
Dress reasonably and keep your legs covered (long skirts, halfway between knee and ankle, are fine; shorts, on men or women, are not). Longyi are available at the ticket booth if you arrive inadequatel covered.
As with nearly all Buddhist monuments, footwear is not permitted. With the Shwedagon Paya, almost all visitors (and all locals) remove their footwear at the gates before even setting foot inside the complex. There are places to leave your shoes at the bottom of every walkway for a nominal fee (5 kyat) but that can be a problem if, say, you enter using the Eastern walkway and wish to leave by the Northern. Carry a plastic shopping bag, pop your shoes into that bag, and carry it around with you while on the walkways and platforms. That is the Burmese way!
Getting there by Taxi
A taxi from the city centre costs 1500 kyat to 2000 kyat (expect higher starting prices, especially if it has rained or is after dark - 3000 kyat or so, feel free to haggle). Taxis are available for the return trip at the bottom of the main entrance.