Pagodas, Temples and Stupas

Background learning that can enrich your travel experiences

With a non-stop succession of pagodas, temples and monasteries, Myanmar is all about religious worship. What baffles non-Buddhists is about the names: what are the differences between them? Burmese use different names to devide their worship venues by functions and spiritual standings; that is just how much devoted they are.


Religious Sites in Myanmar ...

  • The Burmans adopted Theravada Buddhism back in 1057 but the earliest Buddhism-related temples date back to the 9th by the Pyu and Mon people.
  • In Myanmar, the word “Paya” is a generic term that consists of all worship places, which are believed to connect people, deities and the architectures into one holy entity.
  • Greatly influenced by Hinduism and Nat worship, religious sites in Myanmar distinguish from other Asian countries both in styles and functions.

Pagodas, Temples, Stupas, Monasteries and the Differences

Burmese' life is literally all about their faith. From household's mini shrine to the enormous unfinished Mingun Pagoda near Mandalay, it's hard not to feel weak-kneed in front of these edifices. Although jamming up your itinerary with an insane amount of pagodas is not really our thing, learning something about it could actually enrich your travel experiences. Or, at least, something to dazzle your traveling pals.


Temples: Place to Worship

All the religious sites where you see locals and monks performing rituals can be referred as temples. While it’s originated from Hinduism, Burmese Buddhism temples sometimes serve as a local gathering place rather than just a spiritual center. There are some hollow temples in Bagan that are mostly used for devotional rituals and meditations.
Nowadays in Myanmar, not all temples are in use as some parts of the original temple grounds have been damaged or shut down. And the word temple is minimized to pagodas instead.
Quick Learning:

  • Burmese: Pahto
  • Features: A place for worship, normally a cluster of religious buildings such as worship halls, shrines with Buddha statues, scripture library, stupa and other additional buildings.
  • Functions: Common worship, daily rituals, important spiritual events, local community’s gathering place
  • Famous Temples in Myanmar: Shwezigon Temple in Nyuang U, Ananda Temple in Bagan, Golden Rock Temple in Kyaiktiyo

Stupas: Holding Holy Relics

After the passing of Buddha, his remains were buried in ten mounds and later his followers and disciples started to build more structures to house his relics.
Not every temple or pagoda contains a stupa. Those who do also indicate a distinctive progression of style: from simple elongated ones dating back to the 7th to more recently richly-decorated ones with other features or covered by gold and diamonds.
Quick Learning:

  • Burmese: Zedi
  • Features: Dome-shaped with at least 5 layers of bases, containing relics. Stupas are not for visiting inside, in protection of the holy relics.
  • Functions: Housing important relics, commemorating events in the lives of Buddha or his disciples, meditation centers for worshipers.
  • Famous Stupas in Myanmar (housing relics): Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon with 8 strands of Buddha's hair, Uppatasanti Pagoda in Naypyidaw with a tooth relic brought from China, Golden Rock Pagoda in Kyaiktiyo with Buddha’s hair.

Pagodas: Including All Religious Sites

Pagodas in Myanmar can mean both temples and stupas. The word "pagoda" is derived from dagada, a Sri Lankan word for chamber of Buddha relics. While the Burmese adopted Theravada Buddhism, they transferred the word into defining a multistory structure that is built of permanent materials such as stone, brick or gold (covered).
Scripture library or meditation halls are not usually attached to pagodas, but one pagoda itself with its prominent height and massive ground can be a primary worship place for the locals. Construction of pagodas has transformed over the ages and styles vary widely in different regions.
Quick Learning:

  • Burmese: Paya
  • Features: Crowned with a spired umbrella-shaped ornament named "hti" is the most distinguish feature.
  • Functions: Common worship and special Buddhism events.
  • Famous Pagodas in Myanmar: Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, Mingun Pagoda in Mingun, Shwesadaw Pagoda in Bagan …

Monasteries: Home to Monks and Nuns

Monastery for monks and nunnery for nuns, both mean a place for those who devote their lives to an ascetic lifestyle, which is the only way to true enlightenment. Monastic life and meditation pave the path.
Most monasteries in Myanmar are built by wood, even the royal ones in Mandalay. Besides the living quarters and meditation areas, the "thein" — the main hall where the monks and nuns receive monastic ordination and important rituals.
Quick Learning:

  • Burmese: Kyaung
  • Features: Built by wood, painted in dark colors, ordination hall takes up the most part of the monastery, with additions of stupas, living quarters and other parts.
  • Functions: Buddhism teaching, workplace and home to monks and nuns, educational institution and place for local community’s merit-earning activities such as offering alms and helping out chores.
  • Famous Monasteries in Myanmar: Kalaywa Monastery in Yangon, Mahagandhayon Monastery in Amarapura, Bagaya Monastery in Mandalay …

For those who have been around Asia, it's easy to spot out different names for the same structure. For example, temples in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are "Wat"; and Thais stick to the original term of Zedi for stupas -- Zedi. Learning the meanings, features and functions of these religious places helps you understand how Buddhisam is deeply integrated with people's daily life.

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