The vibrant heart of Buddhist Myanmar, the huge golden stupa of Shwedagon Paya is located less than 3km northwest of the downtown area, and is visible throughout much of the city. Legends claim that a shrine was first built here during the lifetime of the Buddha to house eight of his hairs which were brought back by two merchants, but the current structure was rebuilt most recently in 1775 following an earthquake.
It’s possible to approach along covered stairways from any of the four cardinal directions, or a wheelchair-accessible lift in the south. The huge, solid main stupa may dominate the 14-acre platform at the top, but there’s a whole host of smaller shrines, stupas and Buddha images surrounding it. For many locals, a visit to the pagoda is a social event as well as a religious one, a chance to catch up with friends and family or to meet with business contacts. The pagoda is particularly atmospheric in the evenings, which is also when novice monks visit in the hope of practicing their English with foreigners.
As at all Buddhist holy places, you should walk clockwise around Shwedagon. The first thing many Buddhists do is visit the appropriate shrine for the day of their birth, offering flowers, lighting a candle and pouring water on the image. Next they will visit each of the four large Buddhas, one facing each entry point. Look out also for a Buddha on the south side which has been carved from a single piece of jade, and the damaged Singu Min Bell on the west side – the British looted it in 1825 but when they got it to the river their ship sank.