Surprisingly, the endless stream of people didn’t bother me at all. My sight was fixated at the cone-shaped stupa piercing the sky. The afternoon light strikes its slab of gold layers making it shimmer magnificently under the sun. I am humbled by the towering presence of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred, the most ancient and the 2nd oldest Buddhist pagoda not only in Burma but all over the world. Surrounding the main stupa are numerous mini stupas, shrines, pavilions and prayer halls that it’s easy to get lost on the platform on a hill and be overwhelmed by the many details.
It only took me about 15 minutes or less to reach Shwedagon Pagoda from downtown Yangon. It also made me realize taking taxis by myself, takes a big chunk of my budget with every 1000-2000 kyat I spent one way within the city. This made me careful and strategic when and where I take taxis here. I asked to be dropped at the southern entrance where the main reception is located. There’s a US$5 or 5000 kyat entrance fee here. They would give you a sticker to stick on your shirt to make sure you paid. And yes, there are inspectors roaming around the main platform area.
Foreign visitors have a choice to use the elevator to the main platform. Since it’s my first visit, I decided to use the gradual climbing stairs at the south gate. Footwear should be removed before stepping on the first stairs and this is a practice on all the Payas/Pagodas in Myanmar. Slippers are the ideal footwear here as it’s easy to remove. I usually bring it along with me and hang it on my bag with a carabiner. That way I can exit wherever I want and don’t need to go back where I left my slippers.
At the southern gate there’s a couple of gigantic 30-feet high chinthe, a legendary half-lion, half-dragon figure that guards the entrance of the stairway. I’m also impressed with the details of the roofs leading high up the platform. The stairway is large and wide with souvenir vendors on each side. Walking up the stairs felt like a dim introduction to a movie. Once I reached the main platform, the projection lights up and a myriad colors fill the sights and the sounds bombard the senses.
I came there with no guide despite a few offers of guides there for a US$5 tour. I wanted to go around first and get a feel of the place first. The platform is huge with a lot of sections and each element there has a significant story to tell that it’s really ideal for a slow and careful inspection to really appreciate everything there. I crazily took shots while circling around endlessly on the platform. Despite the endless stream of tourist, I’m just astounded by the faith the Buddhist devotees display here. There are people deep in prayer and a few monks shutting out the outside world while wandering deep into their meditative state.
When I got a little tired I sat down on one of the tazaungs (small pavilions) there where a monk was deep in study and a thilashin, a Buddhist nun chanting prayers behind me. I read up a little on the legend of Shwedagon. This year marks its 2600 years of celebration and it begins with the two merchant brothers Taphusa and Bhallika from the Ancient Mon state of Burma who met the young Lord Guatama Buddha who plucked 8 strands of hairs to be enshrined in Burma as gratitude for the brothers offering of a honey cake after his 49-day meditation under a Bodhi Tree. Their return trip was difficult loosing half of the hairs from robbers. King Okkulapa of Burma welcomed them still and held a grand feast that even the native gods and Nat spirits attended. They found Singattura Hill were other relics of Buddha prior from Guatama were enshrined and when they opened the golden casket, they found all the 8 strands of hair and a golden light radiated and filled the hill spreading to the ends of the earth. With it the earth shook and showered miracles like the blind seeing again and the sick being healed the trees and plants blossomed and precious stones showered from the sky. Since then the Singattura Hill became the most sacred place in Burma and the Shwedagon Pagoda was built over the hill. The merchant brothers became the first Buddhist brothers in the world.
It was really a fascinating story heightened by my presence on the Singattura Hill itself. The deep blue twilight sky enveloped the hill and the lights illuminated the stupa which glistened magnificently as gold. So fitting is the name Shwedagon from the Burmese words “Shwe” meaning gold and “Dagon” meaning three hills. A short afternoon here was not enough; for sure it won’t be my last visit here.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.