In awe of Shwedagon, the heart and soul of Myanmar
03.08.2011 - 03.08.2011 30 °C
After the St. Regis in Bangkok breakfast in Yangon was always going to offer less. This expectation duly delivered we were soon in what remained of a cab heading to a tour agency. For once, with this taxi, the phrase ‘held together by a piece of string’ was not overly pessimistic. Sitting in what remained of the back seat the outer skin of the passengers doors was visible. A community handle was offered should we wish to attach and wind up any of our windows. Opening and closing the doors securely took both time and special training. Welcome to Myanmar!
With our taxi driver apparently unaware of the location of the most famous hotel in Myanmar – The Strand – I attempted to point to it on the map. His shake of the head and response of “No eyes” did not naturally generate any feelings of security. However, hoping this reference was to a lack of glasses for reading we utilized our now well practiced range of gestures and rudimentary sign language to arrive at the Tour Agent we were seeking. Wanting to avoid travel by air and struggling to confirm the schedules of sporadic trains and ferries the use of a travel agent, we had hoped, would simplify this part of our trip. Wasting far too long at the tour agent it was nearly lunchtime before we had in place a travel itinerary that was both practical and reasonably priced. As they finalized the details we headed out to explore downtown Yangon.
To understand anything of modern Myanmar, it is said, is impossible without knowing something of Yangon. To know something of Yangon one must first understand the city King Okkalapa unwittingly conceived, from his devotion to Lord Buddha. For it was the gift of eight strands of hair, from two merchant brothers of a faraway land, to a great king in the land of Suvannabhumi, that the great Shwedagon Paya was zealously built, on the summit of a 10,000-year-old sacred hill.
Two and a half thousand years after the death of good King Okkalapa, the small town that had sprung up around the shrine on the hill has grown into a city. A half-finished work in progress, a picture of dishevelment, the city of Yangon, recently dethroned capital of Myanmar, might have lost ifs good Kings of old, but it has matured into a fascinating and vibrant city. With modern glass office blocks pointing to a wealthier tomorrow but the remains of a colonial past evident in the crumbling architecture of the city we head to ‘Scott Market’ or ‘Bogyoke Aung San Market’ as it is known today. The sprawling market of some two thousand stores offers jewelry, souvenirs, Shan shoulder bags and Lacquerware amongst many other Myanmar products. With a light rain starting to fall the market provides useful cover as we attempt to dodge the showers.
It also provides an opportunity to change some of our absolutely brand new USD bills. Anything other than crisp new dollar bills without tears, creases, marks or blemishes cannot be changed in Myanmar. Wise to this from previous trips we run the usual gauntlet of overly pushy locals wishing to change money. With a decidedly shady looking individual offering a rate 15% higher than that which the hotel was offering we change a relatively modest two hundred dollars into Kyat, as most people will accept our dollar bills. Being handed 160,000 Kyat in 1,000 Kyat notes the counting process takes some time and is relatively easy for a unscrupulous money lender with fast hands to corrupt. Handing over four brand new fifty dollar bills I am harassed for different bills, as the number series is wrong on the bills(!!), hundred dollar bills or Euros instead. Anything to distract. With Trey not allowed near me all the usual tactics of money changing subterfuge or working here. With the moneylender now holding three fifty dollar bills in his hand, after refusing a variety of proffered fifty dollar bills it is clear something is not right. Taking back the three fifty dollar bills so that I can ‘look at the serial numbers’ it is not surprising that he is actually holding four of my bills, one cunningly covered up. Unfortunately, I have no photograph of his disappointed face, as his attempt at theft is identified. Needless to say we left as soon as possible, refusing a request for commission from the local who had brought us to this disappointingly crooked moneychanger. Subsequent conversations with other tourists confirmed that this is standard practice. Every trick in the money changing book was tried on them. From that point on our guard was raised.
It is events like this whilst potentially costly that are rather more disappointing. They cast such a bad light on a country that is largely populated by smiling helpful people. Wherever we go we are greeted by shouts of ‘Hello’ and ‘Where you from’. Unfortunately, for myself being English and living only 40 miles from Manchester conversations invariably revert to football. As in many SE Asian countries the Burmese are fanatical followers of football. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United appear to be the most popular teams. Familiar with some of the players for these teams I am able to hold brief conversations on the topic but am soon lost as memorable victories are remembered, quite often in great detail.
With lunch purchased from an excellent street vendor – samosas, spring rolls, onion bhaji and fish rings – the latter being the only item not delectable we return to our travel agent. It is at this point that we return to independent travel as the previously quoted price has now risen 70% as the per person cost was worked out for three people but we are two. Difficult to understand how that misunderstanding arose and certainly one we could not accommodate. Annoyed at wasting yet more time for no reason we are soon back in a taxi heading for the wondrous Shwedagon Paya, approaching as dusk falls on its golden stupa.
When the mythmakers of the ancient world spoke of mountains made of gold it must surely have been the Shwedagon Paya that they had in mind. It is said that there is more gold plastered onto the sides of the great stupa than in all the vaults of the Bank of England (although given our previous governments propensity to sell gold when the price was at a record low that is probably not much of a comparison anymore). But to many the Shwedagon is so much more than just the jewel-box pinnacle of human creation. Kipling wrote of it, in his book Letters from the East : ‘A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire… “There’s the old Shway Dagon” said my companion… the golden dome said: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about”.
For in truth this two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old testament to religious faith, this gold draped symbol of exotica, is the very heart and soul of this country. It is the reason for all the smiles in Myanmar and it has witnessed all the tears.
Today, as we climbed the steps of the south entrance the rain began to fall. Yet, as my third visit now to the great golden dome I have never seen Shwedagon looking more atmospheric and spiritual. Beating away the tourist crowds the light rain allowed us a rarely seen glimpse of a Shwedagon peaceful and quiet. At times desolate at others alive with the gentle chanting of the devout.
Whilst archeologists suggest that the original stupa was built by the Mon people sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, in common with many other ancient zedi in earthquake prone Myanmar, it has been rebuilt many times, its current form dating back only to 1769. The stupa of today is completely solid with the relics given to King Okkalapa encased in a stupa of gold. Built of this is a stupa of silver, a stupa of tin, a stupa of copper, a lead stupa, a marble stupa and finally, an iron-brick stupa.
Being sure to walk clockwise around the Stupa we eventually found our birth days (in Buddhism the day of the week that we are born has great significance) and made our offering. On previous visits the marble flooring of Shwedagon proved too hot to walk on in the glaring equatorial sun. Today, the marble is too slippy to walk on due to the rain. For a country who only sees sun and rain the floor covering should have been chosen with more care!
Sheltering from a veritable monsoon we leave Shwedagon through the north entrance. As promised Shwedagon continues to provide a sense of mystique and awe. Once seen it can never be forgotten and once experienced it will hold you spellbound forever.