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Shwedagon Pagoda: The Best Pagoda in Myanmar

It’s one thing to see the Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံဘုရား), it’s another thing entirely to know what it is you’re seeing! It is one of the most important sites to see in Asia – a magnificent soaring religious structure that is beautiful, serene and spiritual. Even if you didn’t have a clue what you were looking at, you’d still be stunned and delighted. But there is much more to see and experience and understand than a very large pagoda. Read on and learn what you will see and what it means to Burmese Buddhists. I promise it will be one of the most interesting religious precincts you will ever encounter.

Sitting atop Singuttara hill in Yangon and dominating the skyline (although new hotel developments are fast trying to change that) is the magnificent 2,500-year-old pagoda known as the Shwe Dagon. Shwedagon Pagoda history is not documented in these early periods, but it is one of pagodas in Myanmar believed to have hairs or teeth of the Buddha buried within them. In fact, if you added up all of the relics of the Buddha supposed to be stored inside pagodas in Asia, and in Myanmar in particular, you would have a very odd-looking Buddha with hundreds of teeth who is very hairy!

myanmar's shwedagon pagoda

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The Structure and Layout of Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda Precinct

Buddhist stupas and their larger siblings, pagodas, are similarly designed. You arrive, circumnavigate and leave stupa and pagoda precincts in the same way. Once you get the hang of this it is easy to understand the basic structure and layout of Myanmar pagodas.

Like Burmese villages, pagoda precincts are structured in two ways. The first is with reference to cardinal directions. Cardinal directions are important in Buddhism and in all pagoda precincts. The sections below that describe the entrances and layout of the central pagoda terrace feature a particular cardinal point such as the “east” or “eastern” post, station, and so on.

The second is through what I have described in my academic books as a spiral snail-shell design of space (see my About Me page for more books I’ve written about Myanmar). Burmese villages are structured to repel outsiders by having to navigate a spiral path to the centre of the village. The same is true for pagoda precincts in that the pagoda and the central Buddha image will be at the centre of the compound surrounded by a density of minor stupas, shrines and pavillions. The minor religious beings such as animist spirits (which we call Nat spirits in Myanmar), guardian mythical animals and astrological posts are arranged in a circle further out from the pagoda. Further out still are Dhamma (ဓမၼ) halls where pilgrims can sit, eat, meditate and listen to Buddhist sermons. Further out again are gardens for walking meditation and reflection. In an even wider circle are workshops where religious and cultural objects are made, sometimes by monks. There are then vendors selling snacks and cultural and religious items to pilgrims.

As you approach the Shwedagon and indeed, all pagoda precincts, you will pass each of these elements. The Shwedagon pagoda has more of these elements than any other site in Myanmar and is itself surrounded by a religious precinct that spans an entire city suburb.

 

Entrances and Arrival at the Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon covered entrance staircase

In Theravada Buddhism there are five Buddhas, one for each Buddhist era. We are currently in the fourth era and await the coming of the fifth and final Buddha, Maitreya (အရိမေတ္တယျ). Each Theravada Buddhist era (or kalpa) is the lifetime of a Buddha. I tell you this because there are four entrances that lead to the central terrace of the Shwedagon. These entrances, Zaung dan, are called by their direction. So, for example, the stairs of the south and north entrances are filled with small shops selling religious paraphernalia. The image above is of the covered staircase of the southern entrance and the image below is of eastern staircase.

[ Z3144228 -CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50137825.]

eastern staircase of the shwedagon pagoda

Each cardinal direction also corresponds to a particular Buddha and that Buddhist image is housed in a pavilion directly across from the entrance and backs onto the Shwedagon Pagoda itself. All shrines, buildings and structures at the Shwedagon Pagoda radiate outwards from the Pagoda and their locations are described according to their cardinal direction.

 

The Guardians of the Shwedagon Pagoda

Throughout Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) you will find Chinthe (ခြင်္သေ့) guarding the entrances to Buddhist sites. Chinthe are mythical beings, half lion and half dragon (or other mythical beast) that always appear in pairs. A protector of religion, it can attack intruders from nine directions. Mentions of Chinthe appear in Pali and they have a special place in Burmese culture, beloved and revered.

Thrones, currency, and other key symbols of the Burmese monarchy, the state and Buddhism in Myanmar use the Chinthe.

Chinthe at Shwedagon Pagoda

 

The Shwedagon Pagoda Architecture

Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda towers above the city giving evidence to the appropriateness of the name of the country as The Golden Land. The Shwedagon is coated in gold and in precious gemstones.

It is surrounded by hundreds of shrines, halls, Buddha images, and statues that show the influence of Hinduism upon Buddhism. The pagoda precinct encompasses shrines to the Nat spirits, the animist spirits integrated into the syncretic religious practices of Burmese people.

Religious structures such as this are called Zedi (စေတီ) which is a Sanskrit word meaning a “heap.” Zedi were constructed for the purposes of meditation. In Southeast Asia, Zedi are known as Stupa or Pagoda and they house “relics.” That is, body parts or items belonging to the current Buddha, Gautama or, in the case of the Shwedagon Pagoda, relics from all four Buddhas that have existed in the four Buddhist eras to date. 

Like all pagodas, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a physical three-dimensional map of Buddhist cosmology. Essentially this means that Buddhist temples are created in tiers, with each tier higher and smaller than the previous one. The number of tiers is always a number of significance in Buddhism, and yet all such numbers have their origins in earlier religious beliefs and practices.

Pagodas are meant to be viewed and experienced as a pilgrim seeking Enlightenment. Walking without shoes, pilgrims ascend steps to reach the pagoda platform. There are some pagoda platforms in Myanmar forbidden to women and this shows the Buddhist belief that male humans have a higher karma than women and are closer to achieving Enlightenment. Walking up the stairs is a way of metaphorically leaving the mundane or everyday (non-sacred) world behind.

Pagodas are all about height. The pagoda represents the axis of the world, the axis mundi, and reaches towards the heavens and Enlightenment. Pagodas should be circumnavigated in a clockwise fashion.

The image below shows the different tiers of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon:

[CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] .

Shwedagon Pagoda Design

The base or plinth of the pagoda is made from brick that has been covered in gold. The shape of the pagoda as it rises above the terraces is divided into sections that are everyday shapes seen in Buddhist Myanmar: a lotus bud, a banana bud, a bell, an inverted alms bowl and an umbrella crown. Measured from the terrace level, the pagoda is 325 feet high. Kings, queens and citizens have donated gold to plate Myanmar’s Shwedagon pagoda.

My favourite part of all pagodas is the sound that the hti (ထီး) or umbrella makes as its bells tinkle in the wind. Across the country and in the more remote areas I have often been almost alone in pagoda compounds. My feet seek the shade of the marble tiles overhung with flowering trees and I can hear nothing but the tinkle of tiny bells as they sway in a gentle breeze. These are powerful moments of great serenity and I hope you get to experience this sound on your visit to Myanmar.

gautam buddha shrine shwedagon pagoda

The hti at the top of the Shwedagon Pagoda is the grandest ever made. It is made from gold, 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies and a diamond weighing 15 grams (76 carats). The hti containing the Shwedagon pagoda diamond has been estimated to be worth US$3 billion. The Shwedagon Pagoda gold weight is hard to calculate but consists of 22,000 gold bars.

Now that you have finished looking upwards at the Pagoda, it is time to begin circumnavigating the structure along the central terrace.

Across from the eastern stairway entrance is the shrine to the First Buddha, Kakasundha. Moving clockwise to the southern stairway entrance you encounter the shrine of the Second Buddha, Konāgamana. Clockwise again you come to the western staircase entrance and the shrine of the Third Buddha, Kassapa. Finally you arrive at the northern staircase and the shrine of the Fourth and current Buddha, Gautama. This picture shows the northern cardinal shrine of Gautama Buddha.

 

 

Other Shwedagon Pagoda Facts: Stupas and Astrological Stations

Stupas at night at shwedagon pagoda

Armed with this knowledge of the basic operation of the pagoda itself, you can venture along the terrace of the pagoda to the astrological stations ringing the pagoda.

Flanking the pagoda are 24 stupas. These contain Buddha images. In front of (and contiguous with) the stupas are astrological stations. This is where the Shwedagon precinct becomes a true amalgamation of the history of religious beliefs and practices over several thousand years.

religious imagery shwedagon pagodaDrawn from Hindu astrology but changed in certain key aspects, many of life’s most important decisions (including the letter that your name begins with) depend upon your time and date of birth. The astrological stations are known as Planetary Posts. The Posts are located on octagonal stupas.

There are 8 Planetary Posts corresponding to the planets that Burmese astrology recognises as well as the eight days of the week. (In Myanmar, Wednesday is divided into two days). Each day of the week and hence each planetary post has its own mythical animal associated with it.

As you circumnavigate the Shwedagon Pagoda on the main terrace level you will see these octagonal stupas, the Buddha image at the centre and flanked by a smaller shrine for each Planetary Post (8 in total) with their corresponding guardian animals representing the days of the week. Burmese people pour water over the head of the Buddha image at the centre of their Planetary Post and make donations of flowers, fruit, incense and money.

I know this all sounds a bit complicated, but stay with me, we’re nearly done with the religious symbolism! You will now be able to recognise the astrological stations and their Planetary Posts because of the guardian animal statues: Sunday has a Garuda, Monday has a Tiger, Tuesday has a Lion, Wednesday has an Elephant (without tusks), Thursday has a Mouse, Friday has a Guinea Pig, and Saturday has a Naga. In the image below you can see a Lion, indicating that this is the Tuesday “corner.” As you make your way around the Shwedagon you will be able to identify the different posts, corners, stations and shrines according to their shape and the guardian animals you see there.

astrological station shwedagon pagoda

 

The Pavilions and Halls of the Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

Further out from the centre of the Pagoda are the pavilions and halls when people get up to all manner of things. Monks, nuns, wizards, hermits and fortune tellers hang out here but so do the general Buddhist public, having picnics and chilling out. You will find banyan trees and all manner of shrines and water features.

outer terrace shwedagon pagoda

 

Buddhist Monks at the Shwedagon

Monk at Shwedagon Pagoda, MyanmarThere is a myth in Western countries that Buddhism and its monks are gentle, peaceful folk, renouncing the world and its vicissitudes and focusing instead upon reaching Nirvana or Enlightenment. But that’s not true and the Shwedagon has been a focal point for monks agitating and mobilising for democracy.

When I lived and worked in Yangon during the military dictatorship periods, I would meet monks at the Shwedagon as it was a relatively safe place away from military intelligence. I met and interviewed monks who were taking part in demonstrations against the military regime and who were agitating for democracy.

Whenever law and order breaks down in Myanmar, the Burmese people look to the monks. The Buddhist Sangha (the monkhood) are the natural leaders to create order and justice in communities. But monks also seek justice through violent methods and monasteries in Myanmar have been used to store weapons and monks at the Shwedagon I have met were using cans of vegetables to build up their biceps and triceps to fight the military regime if the time came for armed opposition to protect the democracy movement.

Monks in Myanmar do not eat after midday and they do not eat meat. They meditate using both walking and sitting methods. Monks give sermons, provide advice and share their “field of merit” with their followers. In Myanmar there is a separate form of the language to address monks.

You may have seen lines of monks (and Buddhist nuns) walking with alms bowls. Feeding the monks is a way of gaining merit in Buddhism.

You will see many monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda and in the monastic precincts that surround the pagoda itself. The whole of Singuttara Hill is a monastic precinct and it is possible to wander for a while day amongst the shrines, small shops gardens and streets of this central part of Yangon. Young monks will happily speak with you. It is important NOT to touch monks if you are female. Do not point your feet monks or touch them on the head. In fact, it is rude to point your feet a anyone in Myanmar or to touch them on the head.

When and How to Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

no shoes worn at Shwedagon pagoda when visitng Myanma'rs Shwedagon PagodaAll pagoda precincts in Myanmar are surfaced with marble tiles. Walking on these tiles is, for the most part, a pretty disgusting experience. Bird poop, betel juice that has been spat out by pilgrims and the sheer heat that radiates up from these tiles in the warmer months and in the middle of the day is unpleasant. That said, this is Myanmar and this is how we do it.

You MUST take your shoes off before entering ALL pagoda precincts in Myanmar. You can leave them with an attendant for a small fee at the foot of the stairs of the four entrance ways of the pagoda. I carry mine in a small bag but it is also safe to shoes, even very expensive ones with the pagoda attendants. I have been doing this since 1994 and I have never lost a pair of shoes.

You them walk up the stairs of the entrance way and reach the Shwedagon pagoda.

There are elevators and escalators if you have impaired mobility. The escalator is at the Western entranceway and there are elevators at the other entranceways. Take the stairs if you can manage it. Most people enter the Shwedagon from the Southern entranceway. It is lined with shops and you get the full Shwedagon experience!

 

Where is the Shwedagon Pagoda Located?

Whilst central to Yangon, the Pagoda is a car ride from the grid of rectangular streets downturn. It is directly north of this central area, and south of Inya Lake. The direction you choose depends upon the cardinal entrance you wish to use. I generally use the southern entrance which is the easiest approach from the downtown area. The map below shows the Shwedagon Pagoda location relative to the downtown area and major landmarks.

shwedagon pagoda map

Times of Day and Year to Visit Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

Myanma's shwedagon pagoda at disk

As a Burmese anthropologist and as someone who has been a resident of Yangon, I have been to the Shwedagon Pagoda in every month and at every time it is open. I have spent hours observing and interviewing here. The ideal time to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda is the same travel advice for visiting Myanmar in general – during the cool dry months of November, December, January and February. The monsoon season is dismal in Yangon and avoiding Myanmar during the worst of this (June to the end of September and sometimes until the middle of October) is advisable.

Religious holidays, festivals and observances happen at the Shwedagon Pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda Festival, disallowed during the long decades of military rule, is now celebrated enthusiastically. It occurs on the Full Moon day of Tabaung in March. New Year’s Day in Myanmar falls in April and this is also a day of celebration at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Other important cultural and religious days in Myanmar to visit the Shwedagon including the annual water festival (Thingyan) in April. Thadingyut marks the end of Buddhist Lent in October and is the Festival of Light on the Full Moon day of the seventh month of the Myanmar calendar (early-ish October most years) and Tazaundaing which is celebrated on the Full Moon day of the eight month in November. Marking the end of the monsoon season, citizens donate robes and alms to the monks and there is a robe-weaving competition at the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The marble tiles on the terrace of the Shwedagon Pagoda precinct reflect the heat of the day and it is uncomfortably hot during the middle of the day until the afternoon heat tapers off. That is why I prefer the Shwedagon first thing in the morning. But no visit to Myanmar is complete without a first visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda at night. If it is your first time to Myanmar, perhaps take a sunset tour of the Shwedagon Pagoda (see below) and then go back yourself for a leisurely stroll through the many areas that form part of the Shwedagon pagoda precinct. I like to be there during the day to sit and just watch. This is one place in Yangon where Burmese (Myanmar) people are happy, content and go with friends and family. Monks and nuns hang out in groups and it has for me, during the terrible days of military dictatorship, been a safe refuge, a wonderful serene respite from the authoritarian world that existed below. Now it is a haven from the bustle of Yangon!

Once you have paid the Shwedagon Pagoda entry fee, it is valid for the whole day so you can visit during the day and in the evening of the same day if you have limited time in Yangon. The Shwedagon Pagoda opening hours are  4 a.m. to 10 p.m. The Shwedagon pagoda entrance fee is 10,000 kyat, just under US$10.

 

Take a Tour of the Best Pagoda in Myanmar

A tour is an ideal way to begin to the best pagoda in Myanmar if:

   Your time in Yangon is short

   You’d like to understand more about the Shwedagon Pagoda, its rituals and rhythms

   You’d like to get to and from the Pagoda in a hassle free (air-conditioned) manner

   You have mobility issues and want to arrive and leave the Shwedagon Pagoda in the easiest way possible.

Read on for my recommendations about the best Tours to see Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda.

 

Best Half-Day Yangon Tours that include Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon: Private Half-Day City Tour

This four-hour half-day tour takes in the Shwedagon Pagoda, Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda (with the long reclining Buddha statue), Yangon’s main market (Bogyoke), an art gallery and a teashop.  It includes pick-up and return transfers from Yangon International airport.

Best for: 

   Travellers wanting to have a high quality, quick tour of central religious and shopping precincts.

   Travellers short on time and wanting to experience a little of central Yangon’s activities including the most important institution of hanging out in a teashop with your friends!

   Travellers wanting to be guided through Yangon and picked up and returned to their hotel.

   Travellers wanting an inexpensive Tour of central Yangon

What’s included:

  • English-speaking guide
  • Private air-conditioned vehicle including a driver
  • Hotel pick-up and drop off
  • Entrance fees
  • Myanmar tea

Not included:

  • Personal expenses
  • Meals and drinks
  • Tips for the guide and driver

Check prices, reviews and availability here

 

Best Full-Day Yangon Tours that include Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

I’ve included two full-day tours. The first because it is interesting and new and the second because it has the best of the standard Yangon sightseeing and sunset-at-the-Shwedagon Tours: it has the most coverage of the main sites of Yangon in a short period of time.

Yangon Full Day Tour With Circular Train Ride

I love the circle line train! It’s how I used to get out to peri-urban townships where I conducted fieldwork. It allowed me to avoid the military gaze. It was also a way to see townships in a different way than just the buildings that front the main roads.

The time on the train is limited – only 15 minutes from Kyimindine station to Yangon’s main station, but this kind of Tour is a Myanmar first and shows the nascent Tour industry is beginning to get creative in showing travellers how to see Burmese (Myanmar) people going about their everyday lives.

The Tour also takes a walk from the main market (Bogyoke) from the Sule Pagoda around the central historical landmarks of the British colonial era. It still manages sufficient time at the Shwedagon Pagoda and also visit Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda.

It is a new Tour and has an introductory price. It is the most interesting Tour I’ve come across in Myanmar so far and it gives you a great introduction to Yangon.

Best for: 

   Travellers wanting to see the Shwedagon Pagoda with an English-speaking guide as part of a Full-Day Tour of Yangon.

   Travellers wanting to see much of the everyday life and important sites of Yangon in a short period time.

   Travellers wanting to catch a local train

What’s included:

  • All private transfers by air-conditioned vehicle
  • Experienced English-speaking local tour guide
  • Yangon Circular Train fees
  • Lunch
  • Shwedagon Pagoda entrance fees
  • 1 bottle of drinking water and a refreshing towel
  • All taxes and service charges

Not included:

  • Gratuities

Check prices, reviews and availability here

 

Yangon City Full Day-Tour

This is my pick of the Yangon Full-Day Tours. It covers all of the ground of other Full and half-day Tours (except for the Circle Line Train) and does it all in an intelligent and efficient agenda. It ends at the Shwedagon Pagoda for sunset and it’s hard to think of a better ending for a Tour!

The Tour begins at 8 a.m. and ends 10 hours later. I love that you see more than just the colonial architecture of the centre – you also walk down and along the riverfront, visit Botathaung, Sule and Chaukhtatgyi Pagodas, the Karaweik on Kandawgyi Lake, the National Museum and main market (Bogyoke). The Tour also goes through the Indian and Chinese shop precincts of the downtown area.

At 6 p.m., Shwedagon Pagoda exploring over, the Tour returns travellers to their hotels.

Some attractions in Myanmar are closed on Mondays and Public Holidays and Tours may not run during Thingyan (the annual Water Festival).

Best for:

   Travellers wanting to see the sunset at the Shwedagon Pagoda

   Travellers wanting to see the sights of central Yangon

   Travellers wanting to get around to all of these sights in an effective way and be picked up and returned to their hotel

 

What’s included:

  • Sightseeing with an English-speaking guide
  • Transfers in an air-conditioned vehicle
  • Entrance fees to the attractions mentioned in the description
  • Lunch at a local restaurant
  • Pick-up and drop off from/to your hotel
  • Snow towel and 1 bottle of purified drinking water

Not included:

  • Tips for your guide and driver
  • Camera fees  (there is sometimes a small fee to take photographs at pagodas and at some national institutions)
  • Personal expenses

Check prices, reviews and availability here

 

Best Evening and Night Tours of Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon Evening Shwedagon Pagoda Tour

This three-hour tour picks you up and returns you to your hotel. It leaves for the Shwedagon Pagoda at approximately 4 p.m.  You watch the sunset at the Shwedagon Pagoda and, if you wish, you can have your fortune told by a Burmese astrologer. Two hours are spent at the Pagoda.

Best for:

   Travellers wanting to have a high quality Shwedagon Pagoda sunset tour.

   Travellers wanting to see the Shwedagon Pagoda with explanations from an English guide

   Travellers wanting to be picked up and returned to their accommodation in Yangon

What’s included:

  • Air-conditioned round-trip transport from and to your hotel
  • English-speaking tour guide
  • Entrance fees for Shwedagon (all the entrances fees you need)
  • 1 Bottle of water per person and one snow towel
  • 2 Hours in the pagoda for sunset
  • Optional fortune teller reading

Not included:

  • Food
  • Personal expenses
  • Gratuities
  • Shopping

Check prices, reviews and availability here

 

Yangon by Night: Markets, Rooftop Bar & Shwedagon

This four-hour tour begins with a trip to a night market and then goes onwards to the Shwedagon Pagoda. After viewing the Pagoda with an English-speaking guide, the tour concludes at a local rooftop bar. Return transfers to your hotel are included unless you prefer to stay later at the bar.

Best for:

Travellers wanting to venture out at night in Yangon and see how Burmese people spend their evenings when they are not at home.

Travellers with limited time wanting to see as much of Myanmar’s nighttime activities as possible

What’s included:

  • Private air-conditioned vehicle
  • Hotel pick-up and drop off
  • English-speaking guide
  • Snacks at the night market
  • Beer or soft drink at a rooftop bar
  • Asouvenir of a traditional longyi

Not included:

  • Admission fees
  • Personal expenses
  • Other meals and drinks
  • Tips for the guide and driver

Check prices, reviews and availability here

 

Best Yangon and Mandalay Tours that include Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon & Mandalay 4-Day Tour from Yangon

In this four-day Tour you are able to fly in and out of Myanmar and be met at Yangon International airport. At the conclusion of the Tour, you are returned to the airport. In Mandalay you visit the Mahamuni pagoda precinct and the wonderful town of Amarapura outside of Mandalay. In Yangon a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda includes an English-speaking guide. The Tour also visits the important Sule and Chaukhtatgyi Pagodas in Yangon, and the main market (Bogyoke).

Best for: 

   Travellers wanting to have a high quality tour of the key sights in the two most important cities in Myanmar

   Travellers wanting to be able to fly in and out of the country in four days and see the most important sights in Yangon and Mandalay with all arrangement taken care of for them, including internal airfares.

What’s included:

  • Hotel accommodation with daily breakfast
  • Transport on tours
  • Domestic flight tickets to Yangon – Mandalay – Yangon with airport taxes
  • English-speaking guide on the tour
  • Porter charges at the airport
  • Meals as listed in the itinerary
  • Entrance fees on tours
  • Government tax and service charges
  • Daily mineral water and cold towel on the bus

Not included:

  • Myanmar visa
  • All international airline tickets to and from Yangon
  • Airport tax
  • Personal expenses
  • Drinks and other meals
  • Tipping and tips
  • Early check-in and late check-out

Check prices, reviews and availability here

 

Further Links and Information

   More detailed information on how to book transport, airfares, accommodation and travel insurance is available on my Travel Resources page

   Get Your Guide Myanmar activities are here

   For another spectacular and must-see Asian temple, see the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobodur here

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Myanmar's Shwedagon Pagoda

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