One of the popular attractions in Myanmar for both locals and foreigners are the temples and pagodas. Whether you’re a practicing Buddhist, practice another religion, or just spiritual in nature, visitors come from near and afar to visit one over two thousands places of prayer here. So far, throughout SE Asia I’ve seen some impressive temples such as in Luang Prabang in Laos and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. They are really impressive and well worth the visit. However, when it comes to the number of temples, and practicing Buddhists, then Myanmar takes the cake here.
After a couple of days in Yangon, we quickly learnt that any recreational activity that involves being outdoors exploration on foot should be done early morning and late afternoons. Late afternoons also provide the best times as the light transitions into the evening when people come out to cool down and the when main monuments are lit up, illuminating the evening sky.
The must see pagoda in Yangon is Schwedagon Pagoda, just north of the city. From most parts of the city, it can be seen glowing in the evenings and is seen as one of most historical and important religious structures in Myanmar.
From my research, it was also advised to get a guide and that we wouldn’t need to find them as they would come to us as we come in from the entrance. This indeed was true and as soon as we entered a gentleman with near perfect english directed us to the ticket booth where we parted ways with $8 in exchange for an entry ticket after a brief clothing inspection to ensure we met the acceptable requirements.
Unsurprisingly, the gentlemen with perfect english proceeded to strike up a conversation with us and after discovering that I was from Australia, told me with much enthusiasm that his grandson lives in Brisbane. Without any hesitation, he pulls out his phone and shows me a couple of photos of the grandson holding a rifle and another of him and another friend, sans shirt on and giving the cameraman the middle finger. Very charming stuff.
After sensing that I was losing interest in his gun-toting grandson, he finally told me that he was a guide and that his fee was US$5 per each to show Jennifer and myself around the pagoda. I told him that it was too expensive as it was for Myanmar prices to which his continued response was that Jennifer was an American, the US dollar is strong and we can afford it. I wasn’t sure which part of “we’re not working” he understood so graciously declined and decided to go on ourselves.
The golden stupa which is at the centre of the complex and most recognisable is said to have been constructed close to 2,500 years ago and sits on an earthquake prone zone and as a result, has gone through numerous reconstructions. It hasn’t always been golden as is now. The tradition of covering it in gold only began in the 15th century when the queen donated her weight in gold and it was beaten down into gold leaf to guild the stupa. Her son-in-law also offered four times his wife’s weight in gold. Now, with the donations from visitors, the tradition continues.
White marble floors provide a surface that reflects the sunlight away allowing worshippers and visitors to walk around barefooted. The entire place is spotless with groups of workers constantly working in small numbers, constantly sweeping the ground space. Everywhere you look, there is are walls and columns adorned with golden finishes, sparkling mirrors and in some areas, diamonds studded objects. People of all ages and walks of life visit and it’s evident that they come prepared, packing their meals in multi tiered metal lunch boxes that smartly clips together. If only I was that organised and had the foresight to do the same.
People of all walks of life, rich or poor can be seen kneeling and praying, lighting incense and paying tribute. It’s something to appreciate and be respected by anybody whether religious or not.
One thing I’ve had to learn to accept and deal with is the cultural differences in terms of decoration and tastefulness. Most places around have LED lights placed around the images and Buddha statues. At first glance we’d think of it as being tacky and distasteful, but in the end, this is their country and if it’s their way of celebrating something holy then I comment anything further. I think we’re all guilty of using LED lighting in festive decorations at one point in time.
Despite the temple being large in size, it’s impossible to get lost. I ended up walking about five laps of the complex as the light kept changing with every lap – from orange, to purples and then into the evening sky. I came back from one of the laps to see Jennifer chatting to a visiting monk. He was on his weekly visit to the pagoda and on this occasion, with his younger two nephews.
He had been a monk since he joined when he was five and now at 22 years old, he is now fully committed to a life as a monk. It was a fascinating exchange of conversations as he asked questions about family and life back at home and also shed light on life as a monk. I asked if his nephews would become monks and he said that they had already tried but decided it was not for them.
As we chatted, I wondered how the values and ideology of Buddhism will be upheld as the country opens up more to western influences after being closed off to the world for so long. Are his nephews a sign of what is to come and will we see fewer monks and the guiding principles for the gentle nature that’s present in the Burmese people?
After a brief tour of the place, he extends an invitation to come visit him at his monastery out of town if we were to come visit. Unfortunately we were leaving soon and wouldn’t be able to do so. It’s this kind of welcoming hospitality that has makes me love this country even more and more.
As the day turns into evening, the body cools down, the light reflecting off the golden surroundings morph into a darker orange as the smell of jasmine blanket the area. More people fill the space and the mood lightens with children running around playfully. It’s about this time that people started coming out of nowhere to ask Jennifer to pose with them in a photo. For people, who were exceptionally shy during the day, the night-time would turn them into subdued celebrity stalkers. Groups of boys, families and monks would come and ask for a photo. Not for her to take them but to star in them.
There is something quite endearing about it all. The people here don’t give off an uncomfortable stare at strangers and foreigners. It’s more of a curious and innocent look and they don’t take sneaky photos either. With a shy and polite greeting they also ask in a courteous manner for a photo and then happily go on about their own business. I wonder how many of their friends they’ll show their new caucasian friend off to?
Have you ever had a similar experience in a foreign country?