The Shwedagon is one of the most remarkable religious buildings in Asia. Situated on a hilltop in central Yangon, it is 325 feet tall and still dominates the city’s skyline. Tradition insists that the pagoda is more than 2,500 years old and was constructed to cover relics that include eight strands of the Buddha’s hair. Archaeologists, however, are of the more prosaic opinion that it was built over a millennium ago, by the Mon people, between the 6th and 10th centuries.
The Shwedagon is solid and made of bricks covered with gold plates; the crown is encrusted with thousands of precious gems, including at least 4,500 diamonds and a 72-carat diamond at the very top. The Shwedagon is a focus of Buddhist devotion for the people of Myanmar, and its precincts possess a delightfully serene and meditative atmosphere.
This tranquility belies the pagoda’s history as a focus for political protest. In 1946, Gen. Aung San spoke at a mass rally for independence there, and 42 years later, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, addressed 500,000 people to demand democracy from the tyrannical military regime. In the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007, monks protesting at the Shwedagon were beaten by troops and herded into trucks. An unknown number were later killed. All visitors to Myanmar pay at least one visit to the Shwedagon. To sit in a quiet corner, watching the pilgrims praying or offering flowers, is one of the most calming and restorative travel experiences.