The first thing I checked out in Yangon was Shwedagon Paya. This is the most important Buddhist site in the whole of Myanmar, and is definitely stunning. Unfortunately, I visited during a renovation period, which meant that the golden stupa that is featured at the middle of the whole complex is actually covered by scaffolding, as they were renewing the gold leaf coating of the stupa. Oh well, it was spectacular nonetheless.
Entrance was 10,000 MMK or 10 USD. They give you a sticker, which should be displayed on your person. I went during the morning, and I was told that if I wanted to come back in the evening, then I should keep my sticker with me so that I won't have to pay another fee when I come back.
As I said, the main stupa was covered in scaffolding when I visited. By the way, this is a stupa. Not a pagoda. A stupa technically is a structure that is designed to keep relics (holy body parts) of the Buddha, and in this case, the Shwedagon Paya (paya is the Burmese word for stupa) houses 8 hair pieces of the Gautama Buddha, as well as several other relics of three other buddhas.
There are plenty of other things happening here. If you see closely, the main stupa is actually surrounded by several other small golden cones. And around the main stupa, there are small Buddha statues that people go to, and bathe, depending on what day they were born. Heck, this site is important to the point that even President Obama gave his Buddha a bath when he visited Myanmar earlier.
And yes, the Shwedagon Paya is also a social gathering site. While foreigners might have an entrance fee, for locals, they can go in whenever they want. And so this becomes an important gathering point for social issues. Aung San Suu Kyi gave a speech here, and the monks also gathered here when they protested in 2007.
There are several other smaller pavilions and structures here, not just the main golden stupa. There are plenty of other buildings housing several other Buddha statues. The above photos show a sampling, and if you are a local Buddhist, I guess you have the choice which Buddha statue to kowtow to. This is something that I find puzzling. Apparently Buddhism is a religion that has no God. They do not consider Buddha as God, but only as someone who has attained Enlightenment. However, for an atheist like me, what they do to the Buddha statues is pretty much worship. This is something I do not understand at the moment, and I will definitely investigate more.
One of the things I really found amazing was the pavilion that contained the Bell of King Tharrawaddy. I didn't know much about this king, nor about the bell. But the bell was really big. However, what I found more interesting was the pavilion itself. It was quite glamorous, with these shimmering tiles that reflect the sun. There were also dragons, and other intricate designs. The photos above show you what I mean.
Overall, this was an interesting place. It was not just a temple, but a social meeting place. I easily spent more than two hours here, just walking around, slowly, discovering its hidden nooks and crannies, sitting among the devout and faithful, and sometimes conversing with the occasional monk who wanted to practice his English. I went during the morning, and while I wanted to come back in the evening, somehow I was too tired that day and decided against it eventually. I was a little sad and disappointed that the main stupa was under renovation when I visited, but then again, I have seen so many other golden stupas during my trip that it eventually didn't matter.