There were only a few things that we really wanted to do in Yangon, and we had heard that the sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda was not to be missed. As usual, we procrastinated and nearly ended up missing it, but after a quick $3 taxi ride we arrived at the massive pagoda.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is 2500 years old, but the gold glistens like it was built yesterday. There are four different entrances, and we had to take our shoes off before entering, so make sure you remember where you’ve left your shoes or you’ll be wandering around looking for them like we did.
The entrance fee is $8, and if you’re not completely covered up you’ll have to buy a longi to wear on your bottom half.
This pagoda is visible from almost anywhere in Yangon, with the pagoda and stupa measuring close to 110m. The complex itself stretches over 46 hectares, and the experience you have will depend on the time of day you visit. If you want to dodge the crowds and enjoy some silence, then dawn is the time to go. However we were more interested in seeing the pagoda at sunset, as this is also when the whole area is lit up.
They were adding more gold leaf to the pagoda while we were there, which is why the top of it is surrounded by scaffolding, but it was still a sight to see.
The ground was still warm under our bare feet, and I definitely wouldn’t want to visit mid-day. While there were a few tourists wandering around, there were also a lot of locals worshiping at the pagoda. One thing that struck me as weird was the flashing lights behind the Buddha statues. It seemed a little “Vegas”, especially when compared to the dignified Shwedagon Pagoda.
We were later told that these lights represent enlightenment, so I guess it’s the latest way to represent Buddha and the peace that he brings.
The grounds are massive, and you’d need to devote longer than we had to see it all. We took the time to simply sit and watch the sun go down, and as the lights switched on, the gold began to glow.
As we were relaxing, a young girl named Poupou came and sat next to us and began teaching us a few words of Burmese. I have no natural affinity for languages, but she was very patient and taught us to say hello, thank you, how much, that’s expensive, and discount (the basics that tourists need in any country). She went on to tell us about the traditional food in Myanmar, including Mohinga (rice and noodles served with fish soup), Shan noodles, and Thagu (similar to tapioca pudding).
She then explained what she was wearing on her face. The grey/brown traditional make up is called thanaka, a type of bark that gets smoothed into a paste and is used to treat bad skin and as a sunscreen. It also helps keep the skin cool in the heat.
Poupou had some of the best English I’ve heard in Asia, and told us that she wanted to be a tour guide one day. She asked us about our travel plans, and shared her knowledge with us. This was just one of the many lovely interactions we had with the Burmese, who would talk to us for ages, satisfying our curiosity and asking us about New Zealand.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is a must-visit in Yangon. Truthfully there isn’t much else to do in this city, so it’s the biggest draw for tourists. Don’t let that put you off though, as there were plenty of opportunities for solitude, even amongst the crowds, so we could take the time to appreciate the golden pagoda.