BURMA: GLITTER & RITUALS at ICONIC SHWEDAGON PAYA IN YANGON


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November 4th 2012
Published: November 5th 2012
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YANGON



This is a long overdue blog from my trip to Myanmar last year.

On my first entry on Yangon, I talked about the decay on the areas I visited before heading to the northern part of Myanmar.

As I returned to Yangon, first I got a glimpse of the another face of Yangon, one enjoyed by few. Heading from the airport to my hotel, I passed by the posh part of the city: mansion like homes, with Rangers and Jaguars parked just outside their gates!!! The taxi driver points to the mansion of the controversial owner of Bagan Airlines. There were 6 cars parked on his huge garage!!!

Next came a parade of shops selling golf clubs and western fashion, coffee shops ... all with names in English! "Where did the traditional Myanmar, go?", I thought.

It didn't take long before I got out of this area, and arrived at my hotel.

Hungry, I headed to the restaurant. At its entrance, there were some familiar magazines. There was a People magazine with Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford together, on the cover. I thought: "No ways they are back together!!!!". I grabbed it and cracked up laughing as I look at the publishing date. Decades old!!!!!! Ok, I'm back at real Myanmar. After my not-so-interesting meal, I stop to see what other not-so-recent-stories are on the other issues, which resulted in more laughter. Most Hollywood stars featured were already divorced, some dead.

How surprised I was to hear my name being called from the hallway. It was the couple from Latvia I had met at Inle Lake. We headed down the street to a restaurant, filled with well dressed people, most not tourist. Definitely a different Burmese crowd, a much wealthier one than the ones I had seen all over the country.

The mosquitoes were attacking us, even with repellent applications, so we turned in early.


SHWEDAGON PAYA


Although the iconic 2500 years old Swedagon Paya (temple), with its 98 meter tall golden bell-shaped stupa, is considered one of the highlights of Myanmar, somehow I couldn't get turned on by it. I'm more of a crumbling ruins person, than a glitter one. As I thought of Burma, in terms of temples, I dreamed of Bagan. The Shwedagon Paya for me, seemed kitschy.

However, being "the highlight" of Yangon, and my interest in exploring Buddhist sites, I felt I had to go check it out, and boy, am I glad I did!! I'm somewhat even embassed to admit my ignorance and stupid assumptions about Swedagon, before I "lived" it.

On the day before I left Myanmar, I woke up early and decided to walk to the Paya. It was still cool, or should I say, not unbearably hot yet. I passed through a "gas station", the poorest I have ever seen, selling gas by the recycled individual liter glass bottles, or even less than a liter.

As I approached the Paya, the vibe changed. Local pilgrims were everywhere, unlike semi-deserted Bagan, dotted mostly by tourist presence.

After getting a ticket and taking my shoes off, I entered the grounds of the massive Paya through one of the long interesting entrances, lined with little shops selling incense sticks, flowers for offerings, Bhuda images and more. The entryway is somewhat dark and cool, but as I arrived at the platform, I merged into a "visual cacophony of technicoloured glitter". Had to quote a book, as I couldn't say it better.

The bright gold of the huge stupa illuminated all the shrines, statues, temples, images and smaller stupas aroun it. It was all incredibily bright! The massive stupa is gold-plated, its top has over 5,000 diamonds and 1383 carats of other stones. The very top has a single 76-carat diamond. It is hard to imagine this much richies in such a poor country.

There is a legend and much history about this golden stupa, but I won't go into that. Anyone can read about these details on books, and also about how much gold and diamond is in this Buddhist temple. What I'd like to share, however, is a little about the vibrant energy, the vibe, that makes this place so exquisite.

Following Buddhist tradition, I circled the Paya clockwise, my feet getting scortched by the steaming marble paving. But, observing the crowds of Burmese worshipers was a true delight. In every direction, different ceremonies going on abounded. Thus, I kept on going, giving my feet relief on shady areas, every few minutes.

So much was going on. At different sites, there were people making offering, burning incense, bringing flowers. There were areas where people chanted, others where they participated in some sort of ritual, pouring water over marble Buddha images. And then, there were the processions, many, many processions. Kids and teens dressed in elaborate yellow traditional clothing and head pieces were taken on men's arms, or shaded under beautiful colorful parasols, followed by people caring offerings of fruit, food, and more.

Many girls were taking part on the "ear piercing ceremony" and the boys were starting their monastic life as novice monks. After the festive day, they will be wearing robes and taking bowl, living in monasteries for a certain period of time, accumulating merit for their families.

Groups and groups of all dressed up people posed for photographs under the blasting sun. It was so hot and humid and they wore elaborate, long clothing with head pieces. As sweat dripped from their foreheads, family members quickly wiped their faces, careful not to remove the makeup plastered on their faces. I noted that some teen boys wore make up too. Soon, they will wear Buddhist robes and have their heads shaved... much cooler for sure.

The place busted with action. I was fascinated by all of it, not knowing in which direction to look.

I was submersed in all that was going on, when I was tapped on the shoulder by a lovely young woman, surrounded by kids. She asked if I could volunteer to teach the kids conversational English. She was the English teacher and the kids were on a field trip to the Paya.

I agreed, and soon I was seating on the ground, by the 23-tonne Maha Ganda Bell, chatting with all these children. When lunch time came, as a nutritionist I was impressed by the food they brought in their lunch boxes. Vegetables, jackfruit and a dish of green peas with tea leaves and tons of chili pepper. I couldn't escape trying it and as I did, I set my mouth on fire. The kids got a kick out of my disappear. Boy do they like it hot!!

The books I read talked about sunset being the best time of the day to visit Swedagon Paya, as the colors are superb (and photographs better too). However, none took the time to describe all the ceremonies I witnessed. Thus, I wonder if they happen usually in the morning or if this was a particularly auspicious day when more of rituals happen. I recommend you to check this out before choosing a time to visit. If I was not going to leave the next day, I would come back at sunset.

So, my opinion about being turned off by glitter did change as I visited Swedagon Paya, and I highly recommend a visit, or better yet, two or three visits, to this marvelous place. Definitivelly the highlight of Yangon and one of the most fascinating places in Burma.

I am not much of a shopper, but this market has so many interesting bargains. Traditional itens abound. But what made this market even more interesting was the interaction with locals. I loved wandering around the 200 or so shops, mostly surrounded by Burmese shoppers.

The time to say goodbye to Myanmar came and I felt like I could easily spend many more weeks exploring the country (the areas that the government allows us to visit, of course).

The time at the hilltribes was the most memorable, but I must confess I enjoyed the trip


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Novice nuns, "Dasasilas"Novice nuns, "Dasasilas"
Novice nuns, "Dasasilas"

Not as prestigious as monks


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