Food, History and Culture, Asia
I’m outside the Shwedagon Yangon temple complex, carrying a transparent plastic bag with my shoes and socks.
On my right is a massive golden dragon, a small green pond apparently once used for medicinal purposes, and part of the temple complex. On my left are some security gates and queues leading to two elevators.
We’re ushered inside, and we find some space in the glass elevator. The doors open at Shwedagon temple’s northern entrance. Then, I’m blinded by the intense light reflected off the brilliant golden stupa and marble structures scattered around.
Shwedagon is just one of many Yangon temples, each mesmerizing in its own unique way. In this article, I’ll cover seven of the best, why you should see them, how to get there, and any etiquette you need to bear in mind.
Read on to learn more about the magical Yangon temples.
Yangon temples have their own unique rules, and it’s a good idea to know them in advance to avoid disappointment at the gates.
In short: no shoes or socks, no exposed knees, shoulders and cleavage, and no ripped clothes.
In Burmese society, both men and women traditionally wear a cloth that hangs from the waist called a longyi. You can pick these up in a local market for around 25,000 kyat ($15/£12). Scarves are also widely available for covering the neck and chest area.
Trousers are also fine for men and women, so long as they aren’t torn (so no ripped denim). Do bear in mind, however, that Yangon is hot all year around, so longyis might be a cooler option. Personally, I tend to wear breathable and lightweight Craghoppers trousers that help keep me from overheating.
Once you arrive at a temple, you’ll need to take your shoes and socks off. You have two options: to leave them at the entrance, or to carry them around the temple with you in a bag. Some of the temples supply plastic bags for free.
The temple will also supply you with a sanitary wipe with your ticket. This is for wiping your feet after you leave the temple.
Also known as the Golden Pagoda, Shwedagon Paya is a massive gold gilded stupa located on Siggutra Hill, just west of Kanawgyi Lake. Traditionally, stupas are rumoured to be built around relics of the Buddha and Shwedagon is no exception. Sometime around 600 BC, legend has it, King Okklapa acquired eight hairs of the Buddha from merchants, which have been housed at this location ever since.
Shwedagon is the most visited of all the Yangon temples. Once you enter, you’ll see why. The stupa that towers over you is 325ft high and lined with tonnes of gold, diamonds and other treasures.
The stupa isn’t the only thing that has ornate decorations. All around, you can see monuments, statues and other adornments, of marble and gold. The floor is also made of a heat resistant marble which was recently donated by the Indian government.
The original stupa was allegedly built in the 6th century. However, numerous earthquakes have resulted in the stupa being rebuilt, the latest version in 1768. The bamboo scaffolding was erected following an earthquake in 1970.
You’ll also find prayer posts around the stupa, each dedicated to a day of the week (two for Wednesday: morning and afternoon). Traditionally, you’re meant to pray at the day of week on which you were born. If you don’t know, the fortune-tellers at the temple have almanacs and can look this up for you.
You can enter using the elevator at the North Entrance, or via one of four staircases at the north, south, east or west. Shops on either side of the staircase sell flowers, souvenirs and Buddhist trinkets.
Entry costs 10,000 kyat ($6.40/£5) per person and the temple is open from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. There’s a ticket booth at the base of each of the staircases. The best times to visit are early mornings and late evenings, as the whole complex is exposed to the sun. I also recommend wearing sunglasses, as the reflections from the marble and gold get pretty bright.
Rumour has it that Sule Paya was built during Buddha’s times 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest of the Yangon temples.
You might therefore expect this pagoda to be in a remote section of the city. But instead, it’s right inside one of the city’s busiest roundabouts, in the heart of Yangon’s downtown.
The octagonal stupa is called Kyaik Athok and according to legend, it contains a hair of the Gautauma Buddha. Not far from the North Entrance, you’ll find a miniature replica of a royal barge, and a lady who is passing this up and down to the top of the pagoda via a pulley system. You can pay 1000 kyat to write a prayer card and deposit this in the boat, that will be dropped off at the top.
Entry costs 5000 kyat ($3.20/£2.50).
Unlike the other stupas in the Yangon temples, you can explore the interior of Botataung Paya. Inside, you’ll find a maze of golden corridors with carvings that reminded me of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. This pagoda is also alleged to contain a hair of the Gautama Buddha.
North of the stupa is a glass room containing a large bronze Buddha. This used to belong to King Mindon Min in 1878, in his palace in Mandalay. The British then sent the statue to London and it wasn’t returned to Myanmar until 1951. It then found a new home in Botataung Paya.
The paya is located just by the Irrawaddy River and entry costs 3000 kyats. Opening hours run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
They say that Myanmar has the largest Buddhist statues in the world, and one of these is at Chaukhtatgyi Paya. This impressive 217ft long reclining Buddha has 6ft eyes made entirely of glass and a wealth of diamonds embedded in its crown (one local told me $35,000 worth, but I don’t know if that’s true).
The temple opens out to a balcony with some pleasant views of the Yangon Temple district. Chaukhtatgyi is free to enter, although there are donation boxes around the hall.
Note: We accidently entered through the meditation centre, just opposite Ngahtatgyi Paya (below). There we were taken to a room and blessed by the Buddhist Master and then asked for a donation.
If you encounter this situation, I recommend using your own judgement about what to give, and not to let yourself be pressured into giving more. We gave 10,000 kyats in the end, in line with the entry fee to similar temples. When asked for more, we politely said we couldn’t afford it.
Ngahtatgyi Paya was my favourite of all the Yangon temples I visited, due to its relaxed nature and friendliness of everyone there. Nghahtatgyi’s centrepiece is a 46ft Buddha statue with a golden robe. It’s lit up against a wooden screen from high windows giving it a gorgeous ethereal glow.
One of the staircases forks off into a courtyard with a beautiful small stupa with views overlooking the temple district. Also, look out for the painting of a long line of monks eventually transforming into the Buddha.
Entry costs 2,000 kyats ($1.30, £1).
Sri Kali Temple
Alongside its characteristic Buddhist temples, Yangon also has a handful of Hindu temples. You can’t miss these as you explore the downtown area and the colourful towers make an interesting contrast to the golden pagodas.
One of the most striking is the Sri Kali Temple, built by Tamil immigrants in the 1870s. Pigeons also flock to this temple to feed on the offerings. You’ll can see them in droves on the powerlines outside.
Entry is free but note that like in the Buddhist temples, you must take off your footwear before entering.
Kheng Hock Keong
We spent two years in a Chinese city called Putian, most famous for its nearby island dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. We were pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find a Chinese Taoist temple dedicated to the same goddess. Stepping inside is like stepping into China all over again, with traditional wooden architecture and round-faced stone lions guarding the entrance.
On a long island in the middle of the road, opposite Kheng Hock Keong, lies a street-food night market. This is a great place to buy a local meal or snack at an incredibly low price.
Getting to Yangon, Where to Stay and Where to Eat
Yangon isn’t just a wonderful city, but also serves as a great base for accessing the rest of Myanmar. This is partly due to its large international airport, with 3 terminals and almost 6-million passengers a year (3-million of whom are international passengers).
It’s quite a drive from the airport to Yangon city-centre, but it’s relatively inexpensive to use Southeast Asia’s version of Uber, Grab. This should cost around 7000 to 8000 kyat ($5/£3.50), each way. Expect journeys of up to an hour at peak times.
Myanmar has hostels, guest houses and hotels to accommodate all budget levels. The lower budget side of the spectrum tend to be dorm rooms and basic rooms without windows. The more luxurious include lavish hotels such as the Strand, dating back to the colonial era.
Thank you for reading my post on Yangon temples. If there are any temples you’d recommend in Yangon, Myanmar, or anywhere else in the world, feel free to let us know in the comments below.
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