If you are looking to get off the beaten path a place long inaccessible to western visitors, Myanmar will not disappoint—it’s not all surprising that the country is making every must-visit list for 2015 and beyond. Here, monks are revered like celebrities and the top landmarks are stunning examples of the area’s Buddhist heritage. To quote Rudyard Kipling, “It is quite unlike any place you know about.”
Buddhist history, in brief
Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Gautama Buddha, was believed to have lived between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. in eastern India. He encouraged others to renounce greed and indulgence by seeking a path of peace, decency and self-sufficiency through meditation and discipline. Buddha’s teachings are the underpinnings of Theravada Buddhism, the most common form of Buddhism in Myanmar.
The religion is highly visible in both ancient and modern landmarks across the country—since meditation is such an important part of Buddhist life, followers need space to adhere to these practices. Thus emerged the temple (or ku) and pagoda (or paya) as places of worship and mediation. Pagodas often contain important religious relics and have become meaningful places to visit for both pilgrims and travelers alike.
8 must-see Buddhist landmarks
With thousands of gold-roofed pagodas and temples scattered throughout Myanmar, we’ve rounded it down to the top eight that are well worth your visit.
This gilded Burmese stupa in central Yangon has an octagonal shape and a top tapered like a bell. Built more than 2,500 years ago, it is believed to contain a strand of hair that Gautama Buddha gave to two Burmese merchant brothers.
The many temples of Bagan
An ancient metropolis in Myanmar’s Mandalay region, Bagan is home to more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries built between the 11th and 13th centuries. More than 2,200 still stand today.
This pagoda contains the world’s largest book, a Buddhist text carved into 729 stone slabs.
This temple is just southwest of Mandalay and is home to a world-famous image of Mahamuni Buddha (“The Great Sage”). For centuries visitors have admired the image, cast in bronze, leafed in gold and set in a lavish hall of ornate mosaics, frescoes and intricately carved gilded columns.
Built in 1880 by Thibaw Min, the last King of Burma, this is the only surviving section of the original wooden Royal Palace built by the late King Mindon Mu, who died in this monastery. Thibaw Min abdicated his throne in 1885 in the face of a British army, ushering in a period of colonial rule that lasted until 1946.
Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery
This early 19th-century, red-painted teak monastery in Nyaung Shwe is located just north of Inle Lake. The structure is notable for its oval windows, beautiful mosaics and gilded ornamentation.
Hpaung Daw U Pagoda
A major Buddhist meditation center on Inle Lake, this pagoda is famous for its five gilded Buddha likenesses. Legend has it these small Buddhas were brought to Inle Lake by Alaungsithu, former king of the Pagan Dynasty. Each fall, the pagoda hosts an 18-day pagoda festival, at which four of these Buddhas are rowed from village to village and displayed at each village’s main monastery overnight.
Have you ever visited any of these Buddhist landmarks in Myanmar? Tell us about it in the comments!