Myanmar: Pagodas and promenades
The former Burma’s former capital, formerly called Rangoon. Keep up.
If it’s Monday, must be Myanmar. So in we flew to the former Burma, landing at a recently remodelled airport in Yangon, formerly Rangoon. The old military junta changed plenty of things, including names and the capital, moving the administrative centre from this thriving city to newbuild Nyipitaw. On Dec 6 1970 they also changed from driving on the left to driving on the right, but the vast majority of (new) cars are still right-hand drive. So there you go.
After a dawn chorus of 6am bells followed at 6.30am by an on-street religious rock festival — hotel receptionist: “it’s a local tradition” — and a breakfast which tried more than it achieved, we hit the road to see some sights. And Yangon has plenty.
Some aren’t on any itinerary but still caught the eye. Under the flyover, piles of bricks at tell-tale intervals: goalposts for an urban kickabout. Do they dream of being Yan Aung Kyaw, star midfielder for Yangon United and captain of Myanmar? Or Cristiano Ronaldo?
But we were headed for a different type of temple. Myanmar is the world’s most Buddhist country in terms of monks per capita, which seems a reasonable yardstick. And Yangon has some of the world’s finest and funnest temples.
First up, the Ngar Htet Gyi pagoda. The immediate thing that hits you about Buddhist temples — well, after the incense, and the cool feel of tiles under your bare feet — is the welcoming atmosphere. The long clong of the ritual bell might well have been produced by a seven-year-old, who then sits with his family in a loose knot, some praying more intently than others. Visitors are welcome, and advice is given freely and without hard sell.
The second thing that hits you in this temple is the size of the (main) Buddha — a mere 45 foot tall, atop a 30ft pedestal.
If size is your thing, pop round the corner to the Chauk Htet Gyi temple, wherein reclines a 200-foot long Buddha. Birds nest in the reclining deity’s nose, which has to test your infinite patience and oneness with nature. Meanwhile, as we sit cross-legged, the local bloke in front of us is checking his Facebook. Apparently you get good wifi in temples.
Temples tend to have several areas that those in the Judeo-Christian tradition might call altars, each a riot of iconography, flowers and incense. Some of the icons are backed by flashing LEDs, calling to mind not so much Vedic Brahmins as Blackpool Prom.
And then, on to the big one — the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the 325ft golden temple that dominates the Yangon skyline by sunny day and floodlit night. Technically it’s a gilded stupa, which sounds like the sort of thing Prince Harry staggers round in. Architecturally it’s a theme park, with many different centres of interest compared to monotheistic structures (everyone facing the sunny end). You wander between dozens of individual temples each with its own design, deity list and, in some instances, sponsor.
If you want Buddhist bling, the main pagoda is made of bricks covered in gold. Toward the top, the crown features 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. Right at the top is a 76-carat (15g) diamond.
And around the bottom, more importantly, devotees in their hundreds. Visit at sunset, when the heat is bearable and the dying light bounces gorgeously off the bling, and the place is pleasingly full of praying locals and agog visitors. Two of the latter were us. May it one day be you.
Originally published on Facebook, 21 Mar 2017.