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A Heart of Gold – Shwedagon Pagoda

Have you heard of Shwedagon Pagoda in the far off lands of Myanmar (formally Burma)? I went there with zero expectation, but it quickly became obvious that the magnificent Pagoda was a highlight not to be missed. I’d heard it described as stunning, astounding, intense, monumental and magnificent, and from all I’d researched, I would never see anything as incredible as the Pagoda at Sunset.

Truthfully, I doubted the high praise it had been given, especially after the hour and half drive into the city from where we were docked. I saw very few things that suggested wealth belonged here. The people sure had plenty of pride, love and loyalty for their country, and that to me was mind-blowing considering how little physical possessions they seemed to have.

We could see the Pagoda gleaming in all its golden glory for at least half an hour before we weaved our way through Yangon. You see folks, this Buddhist temple is covered in 24 carat gold bars and gold leaf, decorated with around 4500 diamonds, 2000 rubies, sapphires and other gems, and a whopping big 72 carat diamond right up top.

According to legend, it is over 2,500 years old, making it the oldest historical pagoda, and one of the most impressive (and expensively made) religious places in the world too. Not sure you can put a price on something this special, but it is estimated to be worth around $2.4 billion dollars.

We decided to visit late afternoon as the sun was setting (we were advised to come early or late in the day to avoid the fierce heat). The day we visited there was one of the reddest skies I have ever seen.

As we shuffled slowly in, we were asked to take our shoes off – not really a problem except there were literally hundreds & hundreds of people streaming through the entrance. I wondered if I’d ever see my shoes again & remembered that scene from Sex in the City, but quickly figured my old comfy sandals were no prize, so they’d probably still be there when I returned.

The main level of the Shwedagon was a beehive of tourists, pilgrims, monks and locals, it was literally teaming with people. I was mesmerised, actually… I was absolutely gobsmacked with the enormity of the place.

I came expecting one giant temple and realized it was more like a small village of temples, quite the sensory overload.

A labyrinth of colour and texture, the white marble flooring still hot from the heat of the day warmed my bare feet (our feet were disgusting at the end – this is definitely not for the germaphobe); the clang of giant gongs and prayer chants boomed from loudspeakers filling my thoughts and the overpowering smell of incense burning clung to the back of my throat.

When dusk fell the lights came on and we were treated to a visual display, it was disconcerting to see so many coloured fairy lights strung at random, and for me parts of it felt almost commercial, like when you walk into one of those $2 shops, it felt a bit like Christmas.

The Pagoda contains relics from the past four Buddhas: the staff of Kakusanha, the water filter of Konagamma, a piece of Kassapa’s robe, and eight strands of Guatama’s hair. There are 64 smaller gold leaf plated pagodas around the base with larger shrines, or corners, for each of the seven Burmese Zodiac Signs, one for each day of the week. Each zodiac sign correlates to the day you were born and it is customary to find your sign to meditate or pray after tipping holy water blessed by the hundreds and hundreds of monks who dwell there for luck.

So there it is, a visit to one of the great temples of the world ticked off my bucket list. I pity the poor temple I visit next. This is a hard act to follow.

I’d love to know, what travel adventures have you been able to tick off your bucket list?

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