Shwedagon pagoda

19 February 2018

A forest of golden spires, towers & temples surround a giant, gilded stupa, each one catching & reflecting the light from innumerable lamps as the sky overhead darkens through a thousand shades of blue. The smooth, cool stone muffles the sound of hundreds of bare feet as worshippers, sightseers & tourists wander through the space, there is movement in every direction but no sense of haste or hurry. Statues of the Buddha, usually golden or painted shiny white, are everywhere, some in individual shrines but others clustered in larger temples, dozens of near-identical images in geometric arrangements. There's a low hubbub of voices, interrupted by the high twitterings of dozens of tiny birds gathered in the temple eaves and the chimes of prayer bells. The atmosphere is unlike any I've known in the West, a mixture of devotion, sightseeing, and evening strolls with each respecting the others without deferring to them. It's neither (overtly) sacred or profane (or a lukewarm halfway point) but a dynamic equilibrium between the two, a numinous setting for all.

So how did I get here?

After my four-week tour of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia I thought I was done with distant, exotic holidays but as the months passed I found myself thinking about another faraway trip. I'd really enjoyed South-East Asia but didn't want to just return to somewhere I'd seen before so I started looking for something 'similar but different'. In amongst the options was a fortnight's tour through Myanmar, a country who'd only opened its borders relatively recently (and so hopefully would be less touristy, an irony I was well aware of) and which seemed culturally similar to the neighbouring states I'd previously visited - in fact I'd looked across into Myanmar from Thailand on my last trip. Despite its rather dubious political status it appeared to be reasonably safe for tourists so I booked my place. Almost immediately stories about the escalating Rohingya conflict began appearing in the news but the travel company were reassuring about the situation so I resigned myself to whatever fate had in store.

(The full story of my trip can be seen here.)

The first full day on one of these holidays is usually fairly low key, giving time for people to recover from travelling, sort out paperwork, learn the day-to-day basics for the country, get to know the group, and generally reorient themselves for their stay. We began with a gentle walking tour of Yangon city centre in the morning, then visited a big ornamental lake in the afternoon before heading for Shwedagon pagoda as the day began shading into evening. This had been flagged up as one of the main attractions of the city (and the country) by my guidebooks and its illuminated golden stupa was visible from our hotel on the other side of the city.

At the entrance we all dutifully took off our shoes (and socks). The 'dress code' for temples was bare feet and clothes to cover shoulders & knees (and everything in between, of course) and applied equally to men & women, a nice contrast to some religious conventions. We were each presented with a bottle of water and a wrapped wet wipe for cleaning our feet when we reclaimed our footwear and then directed to a large lift that would take us up to the pagoda itself. Personally I'd have preferred to walk up - spiritual succour should be earned! - but there was a steady stream of pilgrims coming in and it was easier all round to just go with the flow. There was something vaguely comical about a small roomful of recently de-shod people clutching bottles and silent grins were exchanged between locals & tourists before we came to a stop and the doors released us.

The first impression was of a riot of gold. The towering spire of the stupa broadened out to an enormous base which was ringed with dozens of individual smaller (but still big from a human perspective) shrines, all of them polished to a golden shine. Around these central structures were temples, shrines, statues & smaller stupas, a forest of gilded towers providing a diffuse enclosure that grew more dramatic as the sun slowly set. Between them all the ground was smooth, polished stone, refreshingly cool underfoot and effectively muting the footfalls. After a brief orientation we are given an hour to explore the site and the group dissolves into the crowd.

After a (relatively) quick circuit of the area in full tourist mode, camera snapping away, I found myself soaking up the atmosphere and settling into a very different mental (& spiritual?) state. It was peaceful, tranquil, & somehow serene but with a light touch, very different from the more ponderous tone I was used to in churches, temples, & other, more ritualised settings. My mind was active but unhurried, alerting me to Interesting Things but then stepping back to let me enjoy my impressions before chipping in with its usual commentary. Overall there was an air of acceptance, it was OK to gawk at the sights, fill up my camera roll, close my eyes for a personal communion with the divine, or feel part of a larger, more diffuse expresion of devotion. In the comfortably warm evening I spent an hour a little closer to the One and came away feeling truly blessed.

August 2020