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Pagodas in Myanmar. Here. There. Everywhere!

Stupas in Mandalay

If you approached me at a party or coffee shop and casually asked what was the overriding impression of my recent trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma), I would say without a doubt. The Pagodas.

So exotic. So prolific. So remote. So unlike my Midwestern experience.

Pagodas, Inle Lake, Myanmar
Bagan, Myanmar

Gold. Gold.  And more Gold.   Cone shaped. Decorated. Shining along the river banks. Rising over the cities. Lit up dramatically at night. Almost hidden behind trees. Truly Myanmar is a land of thousands of Pagodas.  Actually I read that a half a million fill the  Southeast Asian country.  I believe it.

Mandalay, Myanmar
Mandalay, Myanmar
Isle Lake, Myanmar
Sule Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Fascinating. My first clue that they would dominate the landscape was flying into Mandalay from Bangkok. As we slowly swooped down to the runway, I looked out the window and saw the golden cones dotting the landscape. Here. There. Over there. Right below. Next to that village. In the middle of the village. Along the river. In the middle of a field.

Along the Areyarwady River, Myanmar

What flashed through my mind were views of flying into midwestern towns and seeing all the red barns and patchwork fields. There seemed to be as many pagodas as we have barns. Maybe more.

I soon learned that the word pagoda in Myanmar is a term to label the religious structure, typically cone shaped and covered in gold. Some times they are white.  Sometimes they are decorated and sometimes left  unadorned.

A pagoda can take two forms and often both forms are sometimes found together in the same compound. A temple is a building that you can go into and a stupa is a solid structure. Stupas contain relics of the Buddha or copies of relics. Temples are gathering places, contain statues of Buddha and other alters and components of religious life. Both are referred to as Pagodas.

Burmese Tourists at a temple in Myanmar


Honoring the Buddha with water.




Some are very large and famous like the Pagodas in Yangon or Mandalay or Bagan. Typically a Temple is guarded by lions—sometimes really big ones.

Lions guard the pagodas in Myanmar



Others are smaller and we saw by the hundreds  along the Ayeyarwady River.




Why so many? Historically the kings supported religion in Burma and this meant building glorious pagodas. But every day people do too. Building a stupa is a way to “earn merit” the Buddhist religion, paving the way for a better life the next go round.

The statues of Buddhas in side or near the temples were captivating. Mesmerizing.




The Buddhists  cover the Buddhas with gold leaf. Only men can do this and over time the Buddhas have become deformed, so much gold leaf has been applied. Women aren’t allowed to venture into the inner sanctum.

Applying Gold Leaf
Applying gold leaf
Inside the temple

The Burmese cover the domes of the Pagodas with gold leaf as well. After learning this from our  guide, my husband calculated  that one of the larger Pagodas we visited would cost five million dollars to cover with gold leaf and it needed to be done every five years.  Interesting to me that religion is so important that the people spend their money on gold leaf, not necessities of life.

I found seeing the people gathering at the Pagodas a fascinating look at the culture in Myanmar.   They socialized. They gave alms. Families and friends gathered to attend Festivals and to meditate.

They visited temples  like tourists. They cooked meals. They took pictures of each other. And  they took pictures of us….yes, I was asked to pose….being such novelty in some of the places we visited. They lit candles in honor of the Buddha. They chanted.

Gathering at a temple. Myanmar
Cooking for crowds at a festival at a Shwegagon Pagoda in Yangon
Festival in Yangon
Festival in Yangon
Gathering at the Shwedogan Pagoda in Yangon for a festival.
Lighting candles at the Pagoda in Yangon
Lighting candles at the Pagoda in Yangon
A family posing for photos



All ages gather at the Pagodas


The Pagodas are truly the center of religious and community life. Images of them will be with me forever.
For more about Myanmar, click here for a previous post.

The professional and well thought out arrangements for our travel was made through Belmond (formerly Orient Express).

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Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    Margaret Scales
    Feb 9, 2016 Reply

    Hi Susan,
    Loved this entry. Which Belmond trip did you take? Looks like they have 2. And did you do any extensions?
    Would love for Myanmar to be our next destination, maybe 2017 so trying to ID the vendor to use.
    Any ideas appreciated.

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 9, 2016 Reply

      Hi Margaret, We took the Ocaela boat (their newer one) from Yangon to Bagan. Wonderful experience. Eight days with stops in remote villages. There’s a photo on the blog post before this one of the boat. And we did extra time before and after on our own organized by Belmond. Heather in their US office did a fantastic job of planning the trip for us. We especially enjoyed the time in Inle Lake which we went to because she recommended. I’ll be doing a blog post on Inle Lake some time soon.

  2. posted by
    Feb 9, 2016 Reply

    Fascinating, Susan…and such lovely photos. Thanks for sharing. I definitely have to put Myanmar on my list for “some day”.

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 9, 2016 Reply

      I’d suggest going “sooner rather than later.” Changes happening and the culture will be different as tourists descend.

  3. posted by
    Sue Schroder
    Feb 9, 2016 Reply

    Amazing photos of an amazing place. Your lighting and composition are exquisite.
    My favorites: The black and white stunner, and the closeup of the reclining Pagoda figure, counterbalanced by the reclining cell phone caller. Design Destinations does it again!

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 9, 2016 Reply

      Thanks, Sue, I appreciate your comments. I agree. I love the guy reclining in front of the Buddha reclining. Thanks. the black and white is an adaptation of the one at the end of the blog. I really love being able to play around with the editing buttons.

  4. posted by
    peggy depersia
    Feb 9, 2016 Reply

    Wonderful post and fabulous photos as also noted by Sue for very specific formal reasons.
    As I read and viewed, I was reminded of my first experience of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals in Western Europe, more familiar to one with a ‘Western’ heritage. What was amazing to me is that the same elements seem to prevail when it comes to ritual and worship…..the spires, the precious materials, the respectful garments, the bells, chants or other forms of what we think of as ecclesiastical music and, of course, the reverence for ‘light’. The connections that can be made seem infinite and have traveled all the way to the 21st century via all sorts of pathways including popular visual culture. Such posts as this remind me of how alike and how different things can be at the same time, even if in different places. One could go on and on.

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 9, 2016 Reply

      Peggy, leave it to you to put the pagodas in perspective. I really appreciate your observations. Thank you.

  5. posted by
    Marie Preston
    Feb 9, 2016 Reply

    Truly amazing…stunningly beautiful!
    That is a tour unto itself!
    Cultural priorities are always interesting!

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 9, 2016 Reply

      Thank you, Marie, for your observation. I agree.

  6. posted by
    Barb Rohwer
    Feb 9, 2016 Reply

    Simply said “stunning”!!

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 9, 2016 Reply

      Thank you.

  7. posted by
    Pascal Gardinier
    Feb 11, 2016 Reply

    bravo pour ce reportage magnifique . il y a toujours avec toi ce petit plus dans tes photos, un regard expert. Tu sais parfaitement saisir les situations, les êtres humains dans leur environnement
    ton prochain reportage : ” perdue dans les immenses caves de champagne ” !!!

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 15, 2016 Reply

      HI Pascal,
      Jack translated this for me. Thanks so much for commenting on my blog. You are so nice. And yes, I’d love to “get lost in a huge champagne cellar.” Sounds like a terrific experience.

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 15, 2016 Reply

      PS: stay tuned. I have lots more photos of our 16 days in Myanmar. More blog posts to come. I like to post once a week, Mondays if I can manage it.

  8. posted by
    Julie Lerner
    Feb 12, 2016 Reply

    Hi Susan,

    I just got back from the Backroads trip to Myanmar. Fabulous! I am getting the emails on my gmail account, so you can delete

    Hope all is well,


    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 12, 2016 Reply

      Hi Julie,
      How fun. I’d love to know where you traveled with Backroads. Were you mostly biking? Did you get to Inle Lake? Was it as fun as our trip to Cuba?

      Thank you for your nice note.

  9. posted by
    Cindy Bera
    Feb 13, 2016 Reply

    Absolutely amazing photos- almost hard to believe they are for real and actually exist.

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 13, 2016 Reply

      When we’ve traveled in England, I would say, “A castle a day.” Always made me happy to visit the castles. In Myanmar you can visit Pagodas, morning, noon and night. Sooooo many and so fascinating.

  10. posted by
    Feb 18, 2016 Reply

    Wow, your photography is incredible! What fun it was to learn about Pagodas through your awesome descriptions and pictures. My favorite is the precious little girl honoring the Buddha her same size!

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Feb 19, 2016 Reply

      Actually the Buddhists in Myanmar pay respects to the Buddhist who represents the day they were born. You see little shrines like this one for people born on a Wednesday or a Saturday. All the days of the week. Seems to have significance. She is actually pouring water on the shrine as a way of showing respect. Worshiping in a way. I’m not sure I totally understand. Your comment about that photo has me planning to do more research on the practice. Thank you.

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