I grew up near Rudyard Kipling’s house in southern England, and the first time I heard of the Shwedagon Pagoda was as a child, reading one of his travel books:
Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?
Since then it was always rather an unlikely dream to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda in what was at that time still called Burma.
There’s some debate about how old the temple complex is, but the official guide states that it was started in 588BC as a shrine to eight of the Buddha’s hairs. The original stupa was 8 metres tall, but the regular addition of extra layers has increased this height to nearly 110m.
It now contains a number of additional relics (a staff, a robe and a water filter) and is the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar.
The whole structure is covered in gold plate and topped with 4531 diamonds, the largest of which is 72 carat.
The surrounding buildings, temples and stupas are an incongruous mix of fine wood carving, gold plate and cheap green plastic roofing.
Visitor Tips for the Shwedagon Pagoda
The Shwedagon Pagoda sits atop Singuttara Hill, at the edge of Kandagawi Lake, and is visible from much of the town.
Dress code: No shoes. Clothing should cover knees and elbows.
Entrance fee is $5. There are 4 entrances, each with a special gate for foreigners. Don’t forget to leave by the same exit, otherwise bring a bag for your shoes. Carrying them openly is not appreciated.
The light is best in the morning, but the early evening is far more interesting as this is when the area is swept by waves of broom wielding workers, which seems to be more of a social event than a chore.
There’s a huge influx of visitors around 6pm, when the lights start coming on, so get there a little earlier if you want to observe the planetary rituals based on your day of birth.
The full text of From Sea to Sea, including Rudyard Kipling’s description of the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1889