Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon; and meeting Monks and Monasteries

If there is one thing that everyone does in Yangon, and in fact, Myanmar, it’s visit the outrageously glorious Shwedagon Pagoda. This gold-gilded beauty has a Stupa that rises 326 feet in the air and is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all around Asia.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar

The old Toyota taxi cranked its way through the culturally fascinating yet grimy Yangon. You pass people on rickety old bicycles and the Asian-esque rumble of motorbike engines are a distant Bangkok memory (they are banned in Yangon). Dust cakes your throat as one arm hangs out the window of the taxi, the hot afternoon sun beating down February’s heat. The taxi makes unfathomable noises of mechanical pain as it lurches along, a common occurrence here in Yangon. We were on the way to the world famous Shwedagon Pagoda

***Feeling lazy? Watch the video we made at Shwedagon instead of reading the post, although you should really do both 😉

The driver dropped us off with a red-toothed smile, chewing Betel leaf furiously as every Myanmar man must. After paying the US $5 entrance fee (which unfortunately goes straight into the government coffers), we made our way up to the Pagoda.

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If one had ever considered being a Buddhist, or had practiced Buddhism in the past, I think I can safely say that being in the presence of this monument would firmly root belief to your very core.

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The place envelopes you in true Buddhist faith and rises up before you in glorious gold.

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Personally, I much prefer visiting Buddhist temples than the traditional Churches of Christianity. Whilst interesting (we definitely saw our fair share of them in Europe), I like the simple shapes and use of basic colours found amongst Buddhist religious sites. Shiny gold always makes an appearance, and monks wear vibrant robes of a deep maroon whilst nuns wear a pale, pastel pink. Both walked amongst the Shwedagon Pagoda with ease and familiarity, a better place for local worship I doubt a Myanmar buddhist could ask for.

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It wasn’t just the tourists taking photos (of which there were a few, but not an overwhelming amount) but the Buddhists who have come to Shwedagon on pilgrimage. People from all around, especially Shan state, try and attend the Shwedagon at least once a year. They excitedly take photos to commemorate the event. One group of girls even happily accosted Trudy and myself to get a photo with the white people (myself being decidedly whiter).

Whilst resting our laurels at one of the many shrines encircling the Pagoda, a monk approached us with a huge smile, and asked if he could sit and chat with us.

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It turns out his name was Udama Parla, and he was the leader of seven monasteries located a short stroll away. After chatting briefly with him on topics that included his love of travel (he had visited Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, which is quite a feat for a Myanmar citizen in fact), and his new yet exciting challenge of learning English, he invited us to visit his monastery.

We had come to see Shwedagon at night, and it was still dusk, yet who could resist an offer to be shown a local monastery by its leader?

As we entered his monastery there were truckloads of people coming in and moving around. He explained that 300 people from Shan state were visiting on pilgrimage and his Monastery would be hosting them all (free of charge). He advised that we could also stay at his monastery for free if we wished, and do away with the relatively ridiculous amount we were currently paying (tourism has boomed in the last 2 years, yet the amount of hotels and guest houses remains the same [one needs a license from the government to let foreigners stay]).

He led us to meet an old woman whilst he briefly attended to some business, she had remarkably good English that she learned when she was schooled by Catholic missionary nuns as a girl (she’s still a Buddhist). She raised the topic of the government and explained that Myanmar people are simply too poor to travel.

As we snacked on coffee and sweetened bread, I asked her, “Do you think Myanmar is in the process of positive change?”.

“No” she said, “No, I don’t think so”.

This seems to be a common trend with the older generation, who have witnessed two military take-overs in their time, they have no reason to believe that this time will be any different. The younger people we met are much more optimistic, which is a good sign.

Umar came back and proceeded to give us a little tour of his monastery. He explained that he runs seven buildings, and that they take in orphans from Shan state who then become novice monks.

The main building was five stories high and as we climbed the steps I glimpsed life-like statues of monks, reminiscent of wax sculptures from Madame Tussauds. Older monks smiled at us on the fourth floor, the windowed off wax sculptures praying serenely.

The fifth floor and terrace lent magical views of the lit-up Shwedagon Pagoda and included its very own golden Stupa with a world globe perched atop it. The first thing you saw upon entering the terrace and looked up was Australia, a friendly nudge from home.

Shwedagon Pagoda from a distance.

As we left, Udama assured us again and again that we could stay at his monastery free of charge.

“No pay!” he would declare loudly and excitedly.

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This is me and a friend we made in Yangon (Erin), along with Udama of course!

Too bad we had already paid in advance for our hotel in Yangon, but armed with his business card if we’re ever back in Yangon we’ll surely be taking him up on his offer!

Shwedagon is a must-visit if you’re in Myanmar.

Still don’t believe me? Well…

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How about now?

9 Responses to “Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon; and meeting Monks and Monasteries”

  1. Wow staying in a monastery would be a real experience! I would have ditched the hotel despite having prepaid!

  2. Stephen S. says:

    So cool guys! I haven’t really picked out my South East Asia destinations (besides Thailand and India) but Myanmar looks like it is making its way up the list. What a great place to visit.

  3. Erin says:

    Great story guys 🙂 So glad I was there with you! – Erin

  4. Sanjay says:

    Great post and awesome story from Myanmar!

  5. Burma (Myanmar) is a fascinating country – glad you’re getting to experience it! We have fond memories of our trip, and a few monk photos.

    • Tom says:

      Haha Conor! That’s great 😀 Udama is such a little recruiter 😉 Looks like you had an amazing time in Myanmar too! Woo!

  6. Colin Mires says:

    Great shots, The shwedagon halo in the night is one of the those images…

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