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Shwedagon: a Pagoda like no other

Not only is it one of the most important religious and sacred places in all of Myanmar but it is also quite a sight to behold, with the main pagoda standing at 110meters of gold! Shwedagonpagoda.com claim that “No visit to the Union of Myanmar is complete without a visit to the 2,500 years old Shwedagon Pagoda, which enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics” and I absolutely agree with them!

Shwedagon is literally translated to ‘Gold Yangon’ and is thought to be the oldest and one the the most holy shrines in the country. It is like a Buddhist Disneyland, a huge compound of hundreds of temples and Buddha’s from the past 2500years all with different meanings.

 

Many people have a misconception that it is just one big Temple, not realising in fact that it is a HUGE complex which just happens to contain an enormous golden Pagoda/Temple as it’s centre piece. So it’s not just the gigantic main Shwedagon Pagoda you’re going for but all the little temples and pagodas around it, and even a museum and gallery, and plenty of bells to chime if you’re into it. The massive size of the area definitely surprised me, it was a lot bigger than I expected.

It is all very very gold, even the coconuts! The main Pagoda was being refurbished at the time I visited so I only got to see a glimpse of the gold, but even that was impressive! So I can imagine how great it looks in the sparkling sun when it’s all uncovered.

You should get a free map with your $8 entry ticket, go and find some shade to sit in, and study the map and have a read up about the place, it will make the whole experience more interesting when you know what you are looking at.

 

From the Yangon Backpackers Hostel (close to Sule Pagoda)  I thought it was a walkable distance, and it kind of is, except it was the middle of the day, so really hot. I went in the first entrance I found, ended up being the ‘West Entrance’ which lucky me, had escalators. Escalators to enlightenment now, how 21st century!

 

NB: don’t go in the middle of the day like I did, it’s just too hot and I got very dehydrated.

The Shwedagon Pagoda complex is a mix of foreign tourists, locals who have come to take pictures, locals praying, offering flowers and meditating and monks hanging around. Nobody bothers you and you can hang around for as long or as little as you like.

There is a little museum/gallery with old photos showing how the Schwedagon Pagoda complex looked many years ago and takes you on a photo journey from way back in the past to the present day.

 

Mounted binoculars are dotted around the complex which you can use free of charge to take a look at all the jewels on the top of the main Pagoda. So there is plenty to keep you occupied.

If you really want to get into the spirit of things, figure out which day you were born, head over to the relevant corner (planetary post) and wash the statue. Washing the Buddha at the corner of your birthday is considered lucky. I did it and the locals didn’t seem to mind me being there.

 

If you get bored, then you are boring. But you can try looking for the golden coconut.

TOP TIP: Take a bag for your shoes. Shoes, socks, flipflops etc are not allowed in the entire area and its a hassle to carry them around. A lovely smiley local woman offered me her plastic bag which was adorable and really useful.

Fast Facts

Opening hours: 04:00 – 22:00 hrs every day.
Entrance fee: $8 or 8000Kyat
Access: There are 4 gates from which to access the complex, North, East, West and South. South and West gates have escalators. North has many steps and is full of stalls selling all sorts of things from incense sticks to souvenirs.
Dress Code: Modest. Both males and females must have knees {read ankles, they are strict!} and elbows covered. If you arrive wrongly dressed you will need to pay extra for a Longyi to cover yourself up.



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Tourist Zone Fees: Where does the money go?

As in many countries, tourists in Myanmar are often required to pay a fee to enter the site of a landmark or cultural or historical zone. As well as the well-known zone fee payment points at Inle Lake and Bagan, foreigners are required to pay zone fees at zones in Bago, Golden Rock, Hpa-an’s Kawgoon and Saddang caves, Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin and others totaling 23 locations around the country. The fee rates vary from place to place and are paid in either Myanmar Kyat or US Dollar from foreign travelers and over time this has become an important source of foreign income for the country. However, due to weaknesses in transparency by the relevant authorities some questions are being raised by foreign travelers and stakeholders in the tourism industry: How are these zone and entrance fees managed? How are the funds spent? Do they stay in the travel sector? “When foreigners are in Myanmar, they have to pay entrance fees to visit many of the popular sites

The required fees are written on signage at the payment points. However, they do not know who the fees go to or where they get spent. From their point of view, they would like to know about it, and the officials here should have clarity on where the money goes,” said tour guide Ko Kyaw Zin Htaik. In 2017, Myanmar received 3.4 million foreign visitor arrivals including 2 million though its border gateways. The first six months of 2018 have seen over one million foreign visitors. Shwedagon Pagoda Of the total number of foreign travellers to the country, about 500,000 visit famous pagodas where they are required to pay entrance fees.

According to the figures published by the pagoda’s board of trustees, Myanmar’s most famous pagoda received fees totaling K5.3 billion in the period between January 2017 and May 2018. Currently, the Shwedagon receives over 1,000 fee-paying foreign visitors on a daily basis, and most of the foreign visitors are from ASEAN nations. “Most of the foreign travellers here are from Thailand, Korea and China. They come here in groups of about 20 to 30 persons. The foreign visitors from European countries usually come to the pagoda in groups of two or three,” said a security representative at the Shwedagon Pagoda. In Yangon, the current entrance fee at Sule Pagoda is K3,000, Botahtaung Pagoda is K6,000 and Kaba Aye Pagoda is K3,000. These fees have been set since 2013. However, in June 2017 the entrance fee at Shwedagon Pagoda was raised from K8,000 to K10,000 per visitor. U Htun Aung Ngwe, head of office of the pagoda’s Board of Trustees said that an entrance fee has been collected from foreigners since 1995 when it was charged at USD5 per head. This was brought in under the guidelines of the government with the purpose of increasing foreign income. By October 2013 the fee had become USD 8 per head. Regarding zone fees collected from visitors here, an official from the Board of Trustees denied issues with transparency saying that all income is used for renovations and updates to the pagoda: “We do not have a lack of transparency with respect to the zone fees. Where was this money spent? Look at the current condition of the pagoda compared to the condition before. You will see it is different. In the past, there were no escalators or lifts but now you see them as a development. Shelters for the pilgrims to rest are among them. Besides, we are doing other renovations on the religious buildings here. How else can we get the funds to do so? All the money to do it has come from such visitor fees and pilgrims’ donations,” said the official. He went on to say that the funds are also spent on printing and making guide maps, pamphlets and vinyl signs for foreign visitors as well as the installation of LED boards. The remaining cash is deposited at government-run banks under the guidelines of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. Zone Fees collected at Bagan Ancient Cultural Zone The Bagan ancient cultural zone has been receiving an increasing number of visitors almost every year. There were 241,965 visitors in the 2014-2015 fiscal year according to statistics from the local Department of Archeology and National Museums. But in 2016, due to unrest in Myanmar there were 2.9m traveller arrivals in Myanmar—1.8m down from 2015. Then in 2017, foreign arrival numbers began to increase again bringing the total up to 3.5m according to Myanmar Travel Association. This number however, slowed significantly in the second half of the year as a result of the conflict in northern Rakhine State. Despite conflict in the country, World Travel & Tourism Council’s report “Travel & Tourism: Economic Impact 2018 Myanmar” said that total contribution of travel and tourism to the country’s GDP was K2,647.2bn (USD2bn) which was 2.7 percent of the country’s total GDP in 2017. The report also stated that this is forecasted is to rise by 5.2% in 2018, and to rise by 7.0% yearly to reach K5,467bn (USD4.2bn), 2.9% of the GDP, in 2028. According to sources in the regional parliament community, it is learnt that 90 percent of the collected zone fees from Bagan are transferred directly to the government. Four of the remaining 10 percent is spent on holding international shows, keeping the Bagan area clean, maintaining the ancient pagodas and doing development work in the Bagan cultural zone. The remaining six percent of the money goes to Myanmar Tourism Federation (MTF) according to an agreement with the regional government who agreed – upon MTF’s request – to allow them permission to collect the zone fees in the Bagan. This agreement has been in place since 2016. “Presently, the regional government is carrying out renovations to the pagodas using that two percent. This amount is too small, therefore, we will ask for a higher budget in the coming year in order to preserve the Bagan pagodas,” said U Win Myint Khaing, regional parliament member of Nyaung Oo. Zone Fees at Inle Lake Zone fees at the world-famous Inle Lake in southern Shan State are currently USD10 or K13,500 per person. At this zone, a private body has been granted permission through a tender bid to collect the zone fees following guidelines from the Inle Region Development Committee. The winning tender fee for 2017-2018 – made by a private company – was over K3 billion and the private company must ensure that 45 percent of the money collected from fees is to be transferred to the Shan State government and the Inle Lake Trust Fund while six percent is to go to the staff fund. A meager two percent of the income from zone fees at Inle Lake goes to the development of the tourism industry in the area and regionally. The Inle Lake zone received over 130,000 foreign travellers over the nine months between April and December in 2017 and the revenue collected from zone fees was over K17bn.



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Why You Need To Travel?

You might feel like you’re stuck in a rut in your daily life. Or you’re yearning for something exciting and different. You’re craving new experiences and new challenges. Travel is the ideal place to test yourself. It pushes people to their limits and gets them outside their comfort zone.

You’ll discover how resourceful you are when you’re exposed to new places, people and experiences. Maybe it’s finding your way around a busy city. Or ordering a meal when you don’t speak the language. Or zip-lining.

You’ll feel pride when you finish your trip successfully. Overcoming challenges will bring you joy and energy for future tests. You’ll realize how capable you are and build your confidence.



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