Often called the “Country of Pagodas,” Myanmar boasts millions of the iconic religious structures. There are a few, though, that stand out for their monumental size, ornate design, or curious history. To ensure you visit the “best” ones, we’ve picked the pagodas in Myanmar that are most representative of the country’s rich Buddhist traditions and architectural prowess.
What is a pagoda?
A common religious structure in East Asia, a pagoda is commonly composed of multiple stacked tiers, though some still feature a dome or minaret-like structure that dates back to the third century BCE. Most pagodas were built by Buddhists, but some have also been constructed in Taoist regions. Originally built to house sacred relics and writings, pagodas now serve as places of worship and meditation, often containing impressive statues, religious inscriptions, and various other sacred icons. When visiting pagodas throughout Asia, you’ll note that the vast majority have an odd number of tiers, as odd numbers are generally associated with heaven in Buddhism.
Top 5 Myanmar pagodas worth visiting:
We found this pagoda to be the most impressive – in part because of its size, but also because of its brilliant gold leaf exterior. It’s a remarkably old structure, as many pagodas are; construction began in the 11th century and wasn’t completed until the 12th. While Shwezigon has suffered significant damage through the years due to natural disasters, it has been largely refurbished, still purportedly housing the bones of Buddha himself. Be sure you take time to see the Guardians of the Temple – statues at the structure’s base – as well as the wooden carving of the god Indra. If you come during the fall, prepare for the Shwezigon Pagoda Festival, featuring shops, copious amounts of food, live theater and puppet shows, and other fun treats.
Nested in Myanmar’s most populous region, Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda is believed to be the most sacred one in all of Myanmar – largely owing to its housing of relics belonging to four revered Buddhas. Its shape is very similar to that of the Shwezigon Pagoda, though there are key detail differences, like the diamonds that encrust the top. Interestingly, the gold plating on the pagoda has been maintained largely through public donations; it’s become commonplace for natives to donate gold to keep the pagoda intact. At the entrances, meanwhile, vendors often set up shop, selling good lucks charms and various trinkets like mini Buddha statues, prayer flags, and incense. The largest pagoda festival in the country is also held here, featuring traditional music, dancing, and various other fair-esque activities.
Another Yangon pagoda, Sule was built some 2,600 years ago, making it older than the supremely sacred Shwedagon Pagoda. Legend has it that the site of the pagoda was once home to both a spirit and the location of Buddha relics. The original structure was whittled down to almost nothing over the centuries, though during the British occupation of Myanmar in the 19th century, engineers opted to restore the pagoda and build a city around it, creating the metropolis of Yangon. Today, you can see the countless pagoda bells that mark the structure, added during the restoration period, and hear stories about Sule as the locus for anti-government and pro-democracy meetings held at various points over the last 50 years.
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, or “The Golden Rock,” is more isolated than the others we’ve highlighted, sitting atop a mountain in a forested region near the coast in the middle of the country. Iconic here is the golden rock on which it sits, serving as the pagoda’s seemingly precarious foundation. Buddhist tradition claims that this is the resting place of a strand of Buddha’s hair, whose power keeps the boulder from toppling (and with it, the beautifully constructed pagoda). While some tourists love to see the pagoda itself, the legend of the rock that does not fall attracts most; it’s common to offer prayers or gold leaves when visiting as veneration for Buddha.
Kuthodaw’s most notable feature is not actually the pagoda itself (although it’s as awe-inspiring as the others we’ve profiled); instead, the draw here is the world’s largest book. Taking the form of 730 larger-than-life tablets with Buddhist texts inscribed on them, this towering book takes a while to read, so be sure you set aside at least an afternoon to take it all in. The building, meanwhile, is much newer than its nearby counterparts with a build date of 1857. It is no less beloved of locals, however, many of whom come to rest in the shade of the star flower trees near the pagoda’s entrance.