Shwedagon the Superlative
I walked away from Yangon with two very distinct impressions of this capital city. It is one of the most beautiful Asian cities I have ever visited - wide, tree-lined boulevards, spacious parks, charming colonial architecture, and towering above it all, the (insert your preferred superlative adjective) Shwedagon Paya. It is also one of the more boring capital cities I have ever visited. I would have been satisfied with a single day visit - I stayed three.
While there is no denying the beauty of this city, the visual charm of Yangon cannot be taken at face value. Yangon is everyone's first glimpse of Myanmar and the government has gone to great measure to ensure that this impression is a positive one. No sooner had I jumped in a taxi and left the airport that I knew two plus two wasn't equaling four. The city is too clean and too orderly. Myanmar has least developed nation status, but in Yangon it doesn't show. There are few beggars, slums, or homelessness; nor is there the general chaos in the streets that one finds in Phnom Penh, Saigon, and other large Asian cities - and would expect to find here.
The government of Myanmar would have you believe it's because these Third World problems don't exist and the rest of the world is just plain wrong about Myanmar. Nonsense, the government cleared out the slums a decade ago scooting all the residents to shantytowns in distant townships far from the public eye. Not less than a few locals told me this.
Yangon is a pleasant window-show. If you visit Yangon, please keep this in mind as you see and enjoy the orderliness, the beauty, the serenity - it's not the natural shape of things - it's a facade - and a good one at that.
The highlight of Yangon, and a highlight of Myanmar, is Shwedagon Paya - the Golden Dagon. With eight hairs of the Buddha said to be enshrined here, this 98-meter high stupa is the holiest Buddhist site in Myanmar. Although its history dates back some 1000 to 1500 years, like much in this country it has been rebuilt again and again - what you see now dates to 1769.
Rather than provide here what would be at best a highly derivative historical account, the following link provides greater detail on the history of Shwedagon and some of its present features. It isn't a particularly comprehensive account, but it's the best I've found on the web so far:
I spent the better part of a very rewarding afternoon at Shwedagon. Shortly after I arrived, a man of about fifty approached me. Speaking very good English he made a skillful transition from general conversation to leading me around the complex describing everything, making sure I missed nothing. While it was obvious he was hiring himself out as a de facto guide and would inevitably ask for some money, he was extraordinarily knowledgeable and kind, his presence significantly adding to my appreciation of the site. I gave him 2000 kyats (a little under $6 US). I considered it money well spent.
I've lived in Thailand since September 1997 and have always been impressed at the extent to which Buddhism plays a role in the every day lives of the Thai people. Then I came to Myanmar. The first thing that strikes you are the number of pagodas around the country - they are absolutely everywhere. And where there are pagodas there are monks, reportedly 250,000 of them, and an untold number of nuns as well.
Most Burmese men will become monks twice in their life. Once before the age of 20, once again after. As this is an important milestone in a young boy's life, quite a ceremony surrounds this event. It's an especially proud moment for the families involved earning them much merit. A number of these ceremonies were taking place at Shwedagon on the particular afternoon I visited.
Many of the intricate details of the ceremony were lost on me - but there were a lot of processions around the main zedi, during which the soon to be novices had to be carried as their feet cannot touch the ground except in special areas. During these processions someone would throw out coins - 1 and 5 kyat coins. Although I never saw one of these coins in general circulation, that didn't prevent a frenzy of people from scrambling to gather up as many of the coins as possible.
I'm told that Shwedagon Paya is just as spectacular in the evenings. For whatever reason, laziness I suppose, I never found out if this is true. My loss, I expect.
Sule Paya sits in the heart of central Yangon. Half the size of Shwedagon, and half as impressive, it still strikes a fine landmark. The area is a commercial district and walking anywhere within a block of Sule resulted in a number of brief but similar conversations, "Hello, sir! May I have the pleasure of knowing where you come from?" My answer, regardless of what country I chose to claim citizenship, would then be followed by "Would you like to change some money?"
Botataung Paya, located near the river, is a rare zedi in that you can walk inside it. A zigzagwalkway through this 40-meter high stupa takes you past small Buddha images and numerous and sundry relics.
Further away from the center of town is the Chaukhtatgyi Paya. There's an enormous Buddha measuring almost 66 meters in length, one of the largest in the country. Upon leaving the paya I allowed one of the many fortune tellers to, hopefully, bring me some good news. He began by telling me about my family life - that one of my parents was dead and that I am one of five children. Wondering whether I needed to make an emergency phone call to the United States to ascertain the veracity of the recent demise of one of my parents and the possible whereabouts of the two long-lost siblings I didn't know I had, he settled the matter by informing me that one of my parents had been dead for some time. "Is that true?" he asked me. Momentarily forgetting about the Asian concept of face, I said "no". Then he asked me to confirm whether I had four brothers and sisters. "No, again," I said, still forgetting about saving his face. "Just be quiet," he told me with a perceptible level of annoyance in his voice. He then went on to further describe a future that I imagine belongs to somebody with one dead parent and four siblings.
Markets are an attraction of any Asian city and the main one in Yangon is the Bogyoke Aung San Market. If I was one to buy souvenirs I'd have bought them here. To watch the locals do their regular shopping, the large Theingyi Zei, also in central Yangon, is the better place to go. I didn't find the offerings there to be of much interest unless one's interest is for the world's biggest and most diverse supply of plastic bowls.
Street vendors abound, crowding the sidewalks, selling all the usual items - clothing, watches, radios, batteries, flowers, vegetables, etc. A group of men surrounded one table; they were all shouting in unison while throwing shirts around. Every minute or so they'd shout even louder and throw the shirts straight up in the air. I'm sure there's a logical explanation for it and someday maybe I'll know what it is.
People are camera shy in this country. Fortunately I met some exceptions, like the two shown here. Still, walking the streets of central Yangon was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours with plenty of "hellos" and "where do you come froms?" to remind me how much of a stranger I was in this land.
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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.