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This article was contributed by Monique Skidmore, award winning anthropologist, writer Tripanthropologist, and Myanmar expert. See her full bio at the end.
There are so many beautiful and unusual temples or pagodas in Myanmar (Burma) that choosing which to visit can be quite the challenge. As one of the most devoutly Buddhist places on earth, thousands of beautiful Burmese temples have been constructed as striking symbols of devotion, as a focus of for community life and a source of comfort and merit-making. So, how do you choose which Myanmar pagodas to visit?
In truth, you could spend a lifetime exploring the temples of Burma, which are iconic symbols of Myanmar’s history, culture and spirituality. On top of that, Myanmar is a culturally fascinating country to visit and one of the cheapest countries for traveling in Asia. However, to introduce you to the best temples in Myanmar, I have narrowed it down to ten that are extra special.
I have chosen these 10 Myanmar temples because they are the ten that resound most with Myanmar people. If you ask them to tell you some of the most important Buddhist sites in the Myanmar, you would hear these names.
I have included the pilgrimage sites of Mt. Popa and the Golden Rock at Kyaiktyo because they are unlike anything you will have seen before and are uniquely Burmese!
The others on the list are easy to get to – they are all within the major tourist triangle of Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.
The Most Beautiful Pagodas in Yangon
Myanmar’s largest city is home to some of the country’s most beautiful – and significant – pagodas. Here are the two most important Yangon temples that you simply shouldn’t miss when you’re in the former capital.
The below Yangon temples can be visited on this Yangon highlights day tour.
In a nutshell
Prepare to be absolutely astonished by this spectacular pagoda. Buddhist architecture doesn’t come more elaborate, or more beautiful, than this.
Overview and history of Shwedagon Pagoda
Let’s start off with Myanmar’s most famous pagoda – the Shwedagon Pagoda or Golden Pagoda. This beautiful pagoda sits on over 100 acres of grounds, with the 99-metre golden stupa hovering above the landscape.
This is more than just a beautiful pagoda in Myanmar. It’s an icon of the country, and a site of great significance to Buddhists all around the world. The sight of its lavish gold exterior, with a diamond-studded spire, is instantly recognisable throughout the world.
Shwedagon Pagoda is also highly significant to Buddhism. There are four precious relics inside the pagoda – all being items thought to have belonged to three previous Buddhas and the current Buddha, Gautama. This is part of what draws thousands of worshippers every day – so be prepared for some crowds.
The pagoda is more of a precinct than just a temple. There are four stairways at each cardinal direction that you ascend to reach the central terrace. The pagoda has shrines to each of the four Buddhas but there are also smaller stupas, shrines, planetary posts, pavilions and meditation platforms, a museum, giant bells and animist (Nat) spirit shrines.
Practicalities for visiting Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon pagoda is open from 4am to 10pm daily. It’s best to go early as it gets very busy, and hot, during the day. Sunset has become a popular time for travellers to visit the Pagoda and your ticket is valid for the whole day. Entry to the pagoda is 10,000 kyat per person.
In a nutshell
This ancient Burmese pagoda in the heart of Yangon is more than a historic relic; like the Shwedagon Pagoda, it’s also been the heart of local politics and identity.
Overview and history of Sule Pagoda
At first glance, the Sule Pagoda may look a little like a shrunken-down version of Shwedagon. However, to describe it this way would do it a disservice – it is a distinct and beautiful pagoda in its own right.
Local legend points to the pagoda being even older than Shwedagon, however this cannot be verified. We do know, however, that its current form was completed by the fifteenth century.
Since then, modern buildings have crept up near the pagoda – making for a fascinating juxtaposition. Nonetheless, at 44 metres high, the pagoda certainly holds its own against nearby buildings, including the Supreme Court.
Partly because of its central location and also its cultural significance, the Sule Pagoda has become a foundation of local identity. Various political events and protests have been held there, while it is also of deep spiritual significance to the local people.
The importance of the Pagoda in Myanmar cannot be overstated. All distances in Myanmar are measured from the Sule and in 1964 the political situation in Myanmar was so dire that the government only controlled an area 8 miles out from the Sule. Governments come and go, but the Sule remains.
Practicalities for visiting Sule Pagoda
If you’re in central Yangon, Sule Pagoda easily reached on foot. Entry is approx. $3 US, and international visitors are also strongly encouraged to make a donation.
The Most Beautiful Pagodas in Bagan
Glorious Bagan is one of the world’s most revered archaeological sites, as recognised by UNESCO. It’s home to thousands of magical pagodas and temples, and several of the most famous pagodas in Myanmar are here.
The Bagan plain is a treasure trove of ancient, crumbling, unnamed and appallingly restored pagodas – surely the largest collection of temples anywhere in the world. It is a once in a lifetime site.
In a nutshell
For almost one thousand years, this stark white pagoda has towered over Bagan as a symbol of Buddhist devotion.
Overview and history of Shwesandaw Pagoda
At just a tad under 100 metres, Shwesandaw Pagoda is one of the largest temples in Bagan, and indeed all of Myanmar. It’s not just its sheer size that makes it such a spectacle – much of its white covering still remains, making it stand out distinctly against the blue sky and green foliage around it.
The pagoda was constructed in 1057 by King Anawrahta, one of the most well-known and significant of the Burmese monarchs, to house a holy relic of the Buddha’s hair.
As it is one of the pagodas from this early period, it is distinct and unusual in its architecture. The top is a large dome, however below that are five terraces where statues would have once stood. Many of the treasures have been moved to the Archaeological Museum, but the pagoda itself is still dazzling.
Shwesandaw Pagoda has become a particularly popular spot to watch a magic sunrise or sunset, when the light casts a gorgeous glow over the pagoda.
Practicalities for visiting Shwesandaw Pagoda
You can enter with a Bagan Archaeological Zone visitor’s ticket, which costs 25,000 kyat but allows entry to all pagodas in the area for five days. Note that climbing the pagoda is currently not permitted as some of it is unstable.
In a nutshell
The longer you stare at this exquisite pagoda, the more you are sure to be dazzled by the intricate details and beauty.
Overview and history of Ananda Temple
This Burmese pagoda has been nicknamed ‘the Westminster of Burma’, and at first this might seem like a strange moniker. However, as soon as you get up close and see the exquisite detail on this pagoda, you’ll realise it certainly rivals Westminster Abbey in craftmanship.
Among the thousands of temples in Myanmar, the 12th-century Ananda is one of the best-known for its architecture. It is believed to have been heavily inspired by Indian styles, although it was overseen by local King Kyansittha.
One element of the Ananda Pagoda that’s a much later addition is the gilded stupa. It was covered in gold back in 1990 to celebrate the building’s 900th birthday, and certainly adds a glitzy touch to the pagoda.
Ananda pagoda is beautiful to visit at any time, but things are especially magical during an annual festival held in Pyahto (Dec/Jan). This sees 1000 monks chant scripture for three days without rest – a true show of devotion and an amazing spectacle.
Practicalities for visiting Ananda Temple
Entrance to Ananda is included on the Bagan Archaeological Zone pass (25,000 kyat for five days).
In a nutshell
The largest pagoda in Bagan has a dark side – making it one of the most fascinating pagodas to visit in Myanmar.
Overview and history of Dhammayangyi Pagoda
There’s no doubt that most of the best pagodas in Myanmar are staggering in their aesthetic and spiritual beauty – however Dhammayangyi is somewhat different. Yes, this pagoda is beautiful, but it’s also steeped in macabre history.
Dhammayangyi is Bagan’s largest pagoda, with a huge square base and six terraces stacked on top.
It is believed that the reason for the grandeur was that King Narathu built it to atone for his sins. And what terrible sins they were! In short, he had risen to the throne by killing his own father and brother in an act of terrible betrayal. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident in the terrible doings of Burmese Kings.
His attempt to clear his conscience and make things right didn’t exactly work out, however. He himself was assassinated before the elaborate pagoda could be completed. Further adding to the intrigue is the fact that the interior is locked, and no one knows exactly why.
Building a pagoda to make merit to cancel out the evil deeds you may have done in this life is a time-honoured tradition in Myanmar. It’s what the long-time dictator, General New Win did in Yangon, a pagoda known as “Ne Win’s pagoda.” It’s certainly easy to see why this early example of evil people trying to atone for their deeds makes the Dhammayangyi one of Myanmar’s most interesting pagodas.
Practicalities for visiting Dhammayangyi Pagoda
To enter Dhammayangyi you must have paid the Bagan Archaeological Fee of 25,000 kyat.
The most beautiful pagodas in Mandalay
On the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy river, Mandalay was the royal capital and home to the Burmese monarchy. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s home to some of the most significant pagodas in Myanmar.
The below Mandalay temples can be visited on this Mandalay heritage tour.
In a nutshell
This striking pagoda is arguably the most spiritually significant in Myanmar – no matter your spiritual beliefs, you’re sure to be touched by the experience. It is a pagoda I always visit when I am in Myanmar, second only to the Shwedagon. It is loved by the people of Mandalay and they guard its propriety watchfully.
Overview and history of Mahamuni Pagoda
It’s easy to think of the historic pagodas in Myanmar as archaeological treasures – however, they are much more than that. Most pagodas are still very much a part of modern life in Myanmar, with locals and visitors flocking to visit and show their devotion.
There’s arguably nowhere that this is truer than at Mahamuni Pagoda, one of the most significant Buddhist temples in Burma, a country filled with special places.
What makes Mahamuni so revered is the presence of a special image (or statue) of the Buddha. This is no ordinary gilded statue; it is believed to be one of only five likenesses of the Buddha made in his lifetime.
This fact sees many visitors and pilgrims from Myanmar and from other Buddhist countries make the special trip to the Mahamuni Pagoda. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, there is no doubting the beauty of the Buddha’s likeness, covered in gold and precious stones.
Practicalities for visiting Mahamuni Pagoda
Mahamuni Pagoda is quite central in Mandalay, so you can walk from the centre (it is near the Bronze Statue Museum) if it’s not during the hot or wet season! It is 5,000 kyats (about $3.25 USD) to enter the pagoda and it is open from 6am to 8pm.
In a nutshell
The beautiful Kuthodaw Pagoda has a unique claim to fame – it is home to the world’s largest book.
Overview and history
One of the most unique temples in Myanmar is Kuthodaw at the foot of Mandalay Hill. At first glance, it is yet another intricate pagoda in Myanmar – beautiful, but perhaps not entirely unique. However, if you enter the pagoda, you’ll soon feast your eyes on a surprise – the world’s largest book.
The Kuthodaw Pagoda was built in the mid-1800s, at a time when the British had invaded southern Myanmar. Fearing that the Buddhist dhamma (teachings) would be lost, they were inscribed in gold on 729 huge white marble tablets. Although the gold has faded, they remain on display for scholars, Buddhists and curious visitors.
This unique feature has been called the world’s largest book, and it’s an incredible sight.
Practicalities for visiting Kuthodaw Pagoda
Entrance into Kuthodaw Pagoda is $5 USD, and it is open from 8am to 4:30pm. It is located at the base of Mandalay Hill, which is about eight kilometres from the centre of Mandalay.
Other Stunning Pagodas in Myanmar
Beyond the Yangon – Bagan – Mandalay triangle, there are even more stunning Burmese pagodas to discover. Here are a few that are well worth the extra effort it takes to reach them.
In a nutshell
This white pagoda looks almost magical nestled between the trees on the banks of the Irawaddy River.
Overview and history of Hsinbyume Pagoda
There is something strikingly beautiful about an all-white pagoda contrasted against the blue sky and ochre land. It’s no wonder that this pagoda’s creator, Prince Bagyidaw, created it as a tribute to his much-loved wife (three years before he became King).
His wife, Princess Hsinbyume – or the White Elephant Princess – died in the early 1800s during childbirth. Grief stricken, Bagyidaw ordered the construction of the beautiful tiered pagoda.
As well as the romantic story behind it, the Hsinbyume Pagoda is also unique in style. It is surrounded by ornate, wave-like circular terraces, which represent the seven mountain ranges around Mt Meru, the centre of Buddhist cosmology.
The Pagoda mimics the Sulamani Pagoda which Buddhists believe is the top of Mt. Meru. Five mythical beasts climb around the terraces. Together with its all-white façade, Hsinbyume is a particularly beautiful sight amongst Myanmar temples.
You can also climb to the top of the temple, where you get a beautiful view of the surrounds, including the Irawaddy River.
Practicalities for visiting Hsinbyume Pagoda
The Hsinbyume Pagoda is located about ten kilometres away from Mandalay. You can take a boat or taxi from Mandalay to visit it. Entry to the temple itself is free however you will need to pay the entry fee to the Sagaing Archaeological Zone. It’s 5,000 kyat and allows entrance to other sites like the Mingung Pagoda.
Hsinbyume can be visited on this day tour from Mandalay.
In a nutshell
Natural beauty and amazing craftmanship come together to create an incredibly striking pagoda atop Mt Popa.
Overview and history of Mt. Popa
One of the most amazing things about the most important pagodas in Myanmar is their diversity. Take Mount Popa for example – it’s unlikely to be like anything you’ve seen before, in Myanmar or abroad.
Mount Popa, itself, is not a pagoda. Instead, it’s a 1500-metre tall extinct volcano. That in itself is pretty impressive – but it’s the spectacular gold monastery that crowns it which makes it absolutely jaw-dropping.
The most famous gilded monastery is Buddhist. However, Mount Popa is also a highly important place of worship for nats, or spirits, which are also significant in local spirituality.
It takes 777 steps to make it to the top of Mount Popa, but the view is spectacular. All in all, it’s an amazing place to take in all that makes Myanmar amazing – the rich culture, stunning architecture and expansive natural beauty.
Practicalities for Visiting Mt. Popa
Mount Popa is about 50km from Bagan – the easiest way to get there is by taxi or tour. Entry into the pagoda at the top is $US 5, and it is open from 8am to 5pm daily. It is a long walk up the stairs and you can’t wear shoes. The smell of monkeys can be quite strong!
Mt. Popa can be visited on this day trip from Bagan.
Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock) Pagoda
In a nutshell
A small but perfectly formed shrine sits balancing on a gilded rock – this is surely one of Myanmar’s most iconic pagodas and most famous places of pilgrimage.
Overview and history of Kyaiktiyo
Another of the most beautiful temples in Myanmar is Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, or the Golden Rock Pagoda. The reason for its nickname is immediately obvious – the small, gilded pagoda crowns a much larger (and also heavily gilded) boulder.
It looks awfully precarious, however it remains sturdy. Buddhists believe that the boulder balances on top of a strand of the Buddha’s hair, which he gave to a local hermit, who in turn gave it to the King. It is believed that this hair prevents the boulder from tumbling down the hill.
Golden Rock is not only a popular photo spot for tourists. It’s considered the third most important Buddhist site in Myanmar and attracts many pilgrims (especially between November and March) who leave gold leaf on the boulder.
Another special time to visit is the Full Moon Day of Tabaung in March, when thousands of candles light up the area.
Practicalities for visiting Kyaiktiyo
Golden Rock is located in southern Myanmar, near the border of Mon state. The easiest way to reach it is by private taxi or tour from Yangon, although there is also a public bus. There is a cable car which operates from 5am to 6pm. Entry is 10,000 kyat for foreign visitors. Note that female visitors are not allowed in the inner sanctuary.
Kyaiktiyo can be visited on this day trip from Yangon.
Tips for visiting pagodas in Myanmar
· As most Myanmar pagodas are significant spiritual sites, please dress respectfully by covering up your shoulders and knees. This will also help avoid any nasty sunburn!
· You must take your shoes off as soon as you enter a Burmese pagoda compound. Don’t worry, your shoes will be perfectly safe.
· There is some basic etiquette around visiting a pagoda, so it’s good to do some research and ask your guide if unsure. Basic tips like photographing the pagoda respectfully and avoiding touching Buddhist monks (especially on their heads), and not pointing your feet at anyone will help you to remain respectful of Myanmar’s Buddhist beliefs.
· You can easily explore the pagodas on your own, however a guide can really help you to understand the history and cultural context. These can easily be arranged in Myanmar, or before you leave.
Monique Skidmore is an award-winning cultural anthropologist and a prize-winning writer. An Australian and a long-time expert on Myanmar, Monique blogs about the culture, history and scenic beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating and iconic destinations.
Check out these recommended books and guidebooks about Myanmar (for Amazon Singapore users, click here!)