The highlight on any visit to Myanmar will most likely be Shwedagon Paya. Billed as just a stupa, but with the maze of surrounding structures it more resembles a miniature city or a Buddhist Disneyland. Shwedagon is the most sacred site in Myanmar and the most overblown Buddhist complex on earth.
The 100 metre high centrepiece has an equally hyperbole legend to accompany it which claims it was built 2,600 years ago by the king of Suvannabhumi to house 6 hairs of the Buddha, still there today.
In reality it was most likely built 1,500 year ago and little more that 9 metres high. Around the 15th century its height was doubled and the sides gilded. From then on it became the most famous pilgrimage site in Myanmar. Over the years it suffered terribly form earthquakes and was virtually destroyed in 1768, it was after that quake its current inclination was built.
Shwedagon stupa today is an awesome sight, gilded with 60 tons of gold, it’s like Fort Knox with the vaults in public view. On top are over 7000 precious stones, largest of all being a 76 carat diamond. Around the complex telescopes are mounted to view these.
The complex around boasts hundreds of pagodas, shrines, halls, pavilions, temples, zedi, monuments, plinths, statues, museums, stupas and even bodhi trees. And it is not only a Buddhist site, as around the based are shrines to various Nat (Burmese spirits) where worshippers pour water over them to cleanse them. If you know what day of the week you were born on, you can visit your Nat shrine. Around the complex are littered sacred spots, the wishing spot is where worshipper sit and ask for their wishes to be granted or illnesses to be cured.
The 5 Dollar tickets are valid all day so you can watch sunrise and sunset if you like, leaving and returning as often as you like. However the best time to go is around 4pm when you will see it in daylight, around 5pm the sun will begin to set and the monument be bathed in golden light. Around 6pm the lights will be turned on, the sun will be gone and the sky will turn deep blue creating a stunning twilight scene, finally around 7pm the sky will go black and you have a superb night time experience as the place has filled with worshippers and is positively buzzing.
Thousands of Burmese visit the paya each day. Some monks and nuns on their daily study and meditation programs, some pilgrims coming to pray, many people from around the country on their once in a lifetime trip to the place. Others are locals who spend most days their, chatting with friends and often taking opportunity to meet tourists, practice their English and learn about the outside world.
Around the paya are also a few exact spots where the lights shone on the stupa from the ground reflect off the 76 carat stone at the top making it a glow a rainbow of different colours. If you don’t fancy paying a guide $5 to show them to you, chatting to locals can be a great alternative method of getting shown them.
Burmese people are nice, really nice. I don’t mean nice in a horrible way, you know the kind of nice that makes you want to go out and torture pandas. I mean the kind of nice that if there was a row of nices on the shelf at the supermarket and even if it was twice the price of he others, Burmese nice is the one you would buy. However one place Burmese are not nice is when behind the wheel of a vehicle. Having lived in Bangkok in the 90’s when it was seriously dangerous, few places leave me gobsmacked at the standard of driving. Burmese cities are such places and are as much worse than Bangkok as Bangkok is from Singapore. Vehicles have no concept of stopping, slowing down or even avoiding pedestrians in the road. Even on an empty dual carriageway with no car on either side of the road and a pedestrian 100 metres ahead, the car will make no effort to change lanes or slow down, but just continue straight at them, not even the late hard breaking of Bangkok.
In Mandalay is an amazing speactacle, the city is layed out on a grid pattern so at the end of every block is a four way junction. There are no lights or even give way lines at them, vehicles from all four directions just keep on going and try to miss each other.
The British Embassy is a good place to visit in Yangon. This may sound strange to any Bangkok residents used to sharing a city with the British Embassy, a place that you cannot call sham artists for fear of unfarely insulting all sham artists all over the world.
The embassy in Yangon has a long noticeboard outside well worth a read and is probably the only source of free media in the country as it tells some home truths about the regime. Listing bombings, political unrest and rising, plane and train crashes the government is suppressing knowledge of. I guess the secret police must be staking it out and any Burmese caught reading it are quickly eradicated, perhaps this board has killed more Burmese than the typhoon. It also says British embassy officials are not allowed by the embassy to leave the city because it is too dangerous anywhere else in Myanmar. Which is strange as the board also tells us out of around 5000 British tourists annually visiting and only 2-3 need embassy help, a positive haven of safety compared to Thailand.
Video’s (the four phases of Shwedagon)
Shwedagon in the daylight
Shwedagon at sunset
Shwedagon in the twilight
Shwedagon at night (76 carat diamond reflecting)
Please also visit Part One.