Yangon, former capital and formerly known as Rangoon, is the largest city in Myanmar. It’s an interesting mix of crumbling colonial buildings, vibrant street markets and colourful places of worship. I’ll do another post on the city, but one spot deserves a post of its own – the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s a massive, ancient, important, magnificent complex. The original stupa is supposed to built over eight hairs from Buddha’s head that he gave to two Burmese merchants. It’s been rebuilt several times and since the 15th C the stupa has been covered in gold. There is so much more than the stupa though, and I spent an entire afternoon and evening there exploring the many little shrines, seeing the place change from day to night, and people-watching.
There are four entrances to the pagoda site and the western one has escalators. Foreigners have to pay an entrance fee and you are given a sticker to wear. You can leave your shoes in lockers by the ticket office. The marble floors are quite slippery in the rain so outside there are green plastic mats to stop you from slipping as you gaze up at the golden stupa.
You’re supposed to walk clockwise around the stupa and there are lots of little shrines that have Buddha statues or reliquaries around. In one there was an exhibition by a Sri Lankan photographer who took pictures from the places in India that were important in the life of the Buddha. There was another little museum that had photographs of the parts of the stupa that can’t be seen from the ground. These photographs were taken when the top of the stupa was restored. Many people donated jewellery to decorate the bud at the top, which is tipped with a 76 carat diamond. The stupa itself is not covered with gold leaf but with gold plates, which really is an incredible amount of gold.
There weren’t very many foreign tourists there because of the season, so it was really great to see how important the Shwedagon pagoda is for the regular people of Myanmar. Of course, it’s also a domestic tourist attraction as well as a site of worship and pilgrimmage, but it’s also just somewhere to hang out and meet friends. Recently one of the reasons Myanmar has been in the news has been because of the plight of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority who either live in camps in Myanmar as they are not considered citizens, or attempt to migrate to other south-east Asian countries and get stranded in boats out at sea. As someone who doesn’t live in Myanmar, of course I couldn’t see any kind of discrimination against Muslims when I was there, but the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party hasn’t included any Muslim candidates for the upcoming elections as an attempt to appeal to the core Buddhist Burmese population, is telling. The rise of ‘militant’ Buddhism in Myanmar (as in Sri Lanka) is baffling to those of us in the West who viewed Buddhism as an intellectual philosophy, but it’s a religion just like Christianity and Islam to many countries in Asia, with all its cultural traditions and contradictions (I recommend this podcast to understand how Buddhists in Myanmar view their religion).
I had been recommended to get a guide to show me around and it was nice to have certain things explained to me, like the significance of the day of the week when you were born, the different relics and customs of the pagoda. My guide was really nice and we talked about education, government and Myanmar’s relationship with Japan. After he had taken me around, I was just sitting taking a rest when another guide, a man with a topknot and a book of references approached me. I don’t doubt that he would have given me a good tour, he was very chatty and animated and I’m sure he had a lot of good stories, but when I told him that I had already taken a tour, he didn’t accept my refusal. Usually if you say a simple ‘no thank you’ to salespeople in Myanmar they’ll leave you alone, but this man insisted on testing me on what I had learned with my previous guide and he was clearly trying to trip me up with his questions. When I asked him to leave me in peace, he said he felt sorry for my ignorance and stormed off.