High on a hill in the center of Yangon sits one of the world’s most important religious monuments. But before our trip to Myanmar, I couldn’t have told you a thing about it.
In fact, what little I knew about Myanmar itself was from a time when the country was known as Burma and the city of Yangon was called Rangoon.
But all of this is mere “current events” compared to the history of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
The Great Golden Mountain Stupa, as it is also known, was purportedly built more than 2,500 years ago when the current Buddha was still alive. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, had attained enlightenment after years of meditation, fasting, and asceticism. He was sitting under the Bodhi tree enjoying this new state of bliss as two merchants passed by. They offered the Buddha rice cakes and honey, and in return, he taught them some of the dharma, or Buddhist way of life. He also gave the merchants eight strands of his hair.
The merchants presented the eight strands of hair to King Okkalapa of Dagon, who caused the stupa (a closed, mounded temple) to be built to enshrine them along with relics of three previous Buddhas.
While this is a fascinating legend and one that is very important in Buddhism, it’s not what catches your eye at Shwedagon Pagoda.
The stupa’s base is made of bricks covered with gold plates. And it’s actual gold — people from all over Myanmar, starting with Queen Shin Saw Pu in the 1400s, have donated gold to maintain it over the centuries. Above the golden plinth are terraces that only monks and other males can access. Next is the bell-shaped part of the stupa. Above that is the turban, then the inverted alms bowl, inverted and upright lotus petals, the banana bud, and then the umbrella crown, all covered in gold. And if that isn’t enough, the crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.
Speaking of rubies, you’ll find shrines to many of history’s 28 Buddhas surrounding the stupa, including the Ruby-Eyed Buddha Tawagu, which is only visible on a closed-circuit television feed. Apparently the British stole one of the rubies during their colonial occupation of Burma from 1885 to 1948, and it remained part of Queen Elizabeth’s (now King Charles’s) jewel collection. To protect the remaining ruby from being stolen, this Buddha is no longer on public display.
Shwedagon Pagoda has played a very important role in both religious and political history over the centuries, and for that reason, it’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were a bit intimidated by the religiosity of it, but we struck up a conversation with a former monk who is now a school teacher in northern Myanmar, and he generously walked us around the site and taught us about some of its more important and interesting aspects.
One of our favorite experiences was fanning an enormous Buddha in a gesture meant to send happiness to members of our immediate family.
There are also eight shrines devoted to the day of the week on which you were born (in Burmese Buddhism, Wednesday is split into two days). Each day is associated with a compass direction, a planet, and a totem animal; I was born on a Monday (east, Moon, tiger) and Mike on a Tuesday (southeast, Mars, lion), so we found our respective days and paid tribute to those shrines by pouring water over the statues.
We were also encouraged to ring the giant brass bell near each of our shrines with three great strikes to share our joy with others nearby.
The visit to Shwedagon Pagoda was much more than we’d imagined it would be, and Myanmar itself continued to impress us throughout our visit.
We had one of the best meals we’ve ever had at The Yangon, a gorgeous restaurant at the People’s Park across the street from our hotel. We had a stunning view of the pagoda from our room at the Summit Parkview, where the staff was so friendly and welcoming during our entire stay. And we were within walking distance of the National Museum of Myanmar, the Martyrs’ Monument, and the Bogyoke Aung San Market with its incredible street food and famous Burmese jade.
On this around-the-world trip circumnavigating the globe and visiting over 20 countries, Myanmar has been a highlight, and we’d head back in a heartbeat.