We timed the evening of our first full day in Yangon perfectly: visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset. The complex is already bursting with colour from its decorations, flower offerings and the towering central gold stupa, but the pink-orange skies and the rose hues glinting from all the gold leaf is truly something else.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the place you have to visit if you ever get the opportunity to come here. The main stupa, which is covered in its entirety in gold leaf, is around 100m high, making it visible for miles and miles around. It is said to enshrine hairs of the Gautama Buddha, upon whom Buddhism is based, making it the most important Buddhist site in the entire country, and the place of pilgrimage for many. It is situated in the centre of a huge complex, surrounded by temples, more stupas and statues.
We toured the site barefoot in the traditional clockwise manner, taking a full hour to see everything in full daylight with a guide to explain the importance, history and religious practises of Buddhism. Although there must have been thousands of people there, the site is so large that it never felt crowded. Even though we were visiting at the end of the season there were far fewer tourists than I expected. Instead we were surrounded by families, locals who had just finished work, and monks, making the whole experience feel much more culturally immersive. There were few restrictions as it is an open religious site, and there were plenty of spaces to pray or meditate, or even simply sit and people watch.
After finishing our tour I wandered around on my own, re-visiting places that had particularly captured my interest. It’s amazing how tranquil the complex felt, despite how many people must visit every day. Whilst wandering I was invited to take part in a ritual. Spaced around the site are eight planetary posts based on days of the week (Wednesday is split into two: a.m. and p.m.), and you determine which you should go to by the day you are born on. At each of these posts are a Buddha image and a statue of the animal that represents a particular day. I was born on a Tuesday, the animal is the lion, and my planet is Mars. Once at your specific post, you can offer flowers and pour water over the Buddha and animal with a prayer and a wish. My guide said the amount of cups of water you pour should be equivalent to your age – I had 23 cups to pour, but the lady next to me had 67!
Everywhere you look there is something to catch your attention; the entire complex is a feast for the senses. From the vibrant colours and the glittering sequins and gold leaf, to the gentle heat warming your feet, to inhaling the sweet scents of the burning incense. Despite not being particularly religious, I left inspired and peaceful.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is absolutely incredible, and my favourite memory from Myanmar. To be honest, it’s one of my favourite ever travel memories. Don’t leave Myanmar without visiting it.