A chorus of worshippers chant hymns and wafting incense perfumes the air. Maroon-robed monks perambulate the central stupa, some twirling umbrellas thoughtfully. Others more grounded in the real world chat on their phones or take happy snaps.
This is Shwedagon Pagoda, former Burmese capital city Yangon‘s answer to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. Perched atop Singuttara hill, the structure looks essentially like a ginormous onion bulb bursting from the ground. But for the 89 percent of Myanmar’s population who are Buddhist, this is the ultimate pilgrimage destination.
A bit about Shwedagon Pagoda
Built in 1769, this religious monument was occupied by the British for 77 years, and was thereafter the centrepiece for any kind of important political activity, including recent protests against the country’s military regime.
During the daytime, the marble white tiles and the bleached sky above clash with the surrounding silver, red, white and gold stupas, demanding a reliable pair of sunglasses. Some of the Buddha statues have neon lights emanating from the head like a halo, and scrolling neon signs advertise times of worship (I think).
This is the most noteworthy aspect of the temple: the juxtaposition between antiquity and modernity. The first approach should be old school – scaling one of the four stairways leading to the top. Shops line the sheltered stairways selling religious paraphernalia and a hell of a lot of gaudy golden souvenirs. Don’t forget to take off your shoes before you scale the stairs.
But there is another way to ascend the hill, the elevator. You can’t even find an elevator in the best of hotels, but here, you can zip right to the top in a matter a seconds, to come out right at the foot of the pagoda.
Shwedagon by night
At night Shwedagon is transformed. Gone is the glare. The crowds have dissipated and there is only a scattering of subdued tourists. The flashing neon signs remain, enhanced by the darkened surrounds. The central stupa glows golden like a hologram.
A daytime visit seems like a real tourist trip, with guides approaching you for tours and locals unashamedly training their cameras on your white skin.
A night visit transcends tourism. It allows time for pause during your busy travel schedule, to people-watch, listen to harmonic Buddhist chants, and breathe in incense. A night visit is a time for contemplation and appreciation of the places travel can take you.
This is just the start of Myanmar’s offerings. There is so much more to discover, from exploring the hypnotically beautiful Inle Lake to discovering hidden (and not-so-hidden!) temples in Bagan, and so much more. In fact, I beseech you to check out the full list of all my travel experiences in Myanmar, do some research, and head out there yourself. Today. This minute!