At the beginning of my stay here in Yangon I said that I would devote a blog just to the Shwedagon Pagoda – but there are other sites that also carry the essence of Myanmar so here is an expanded view and first-hand account of a fateful visit.
The Shwedagon Pagoda
Dominating Yangon’s skyline, the Swadagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred religious site; ‘shwe’ means gold in Burmese and ‘Dagon’ is the historical area in which the pagoda is situated. The structure contains the relics of four Buddhas (those who have reached enlightenment, or Nirvana) and, regardless of one’s personal beliefs, it is an amazing monument. Said to be more than 2500 years old, over the years it has been destroyed by earthquakes and had its treasures pillaged many times, only to be rebuilt; the structure has existed in its current form since 1769.
Standing on Singuttara Hill to the north of downtown Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda is the largest in Myanmar, standing 99 metres tall – it is also plated with 21,841 solid gold bars and has a tip encrusted with thousands of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Shimmering magnificently as it does in the bright sunlight or at dusk as the sun sets and the thousands of lights illuminate the dome, its sheer size makes it a stunning sight. Rudyard Kipling described it as ‘a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun’.
The Sule Pagoda
At the very heart of downtown Yangon, this ancient shrine – said to be older than the Shwedagon Pagoda – is incongruously situated in the middle of a large roundabout. All mileage is taken from this point (as Trafalgar Square in London) so that the fact that I live at ‘6 mile’ and work at ‘8 mile’ gives a very quick clear indication of location and a great help when you live on the Pyay Road – a road 400 miles long. For all its utilitarian uses, it is nevertheless a stunning structure. It also holds great historical significance; it is said to contain a hair of the Buddha, and was a focal point for the 1988 uprising.
The Golden Rock
Mount Kyaiktiyo famous for the huge golden rock perched at its summit, is one of the two most sacred religious sites in Myanmar. Pilgrims come here from far and wide to worship and add gold leaf to the rock, which seems to defy gravity by delicately balancing on the edge of the 1100 metre high mountain.
For many visitors, the rock (standing 7.6 metres tall) and the gilded pagoda which sits on top of it (itself 7.3 metres tall), which are said to cover a hair of the Buddha, are the main draw, but another reason to make the journey are the panoramic 360 degree views of the surrounding Mon State mountains from the summit which can get very crowded during the peak season from November to March.
The journey up Mount Kyaiktiyo involves taking a crowded open-top truck which rushes alarmingly through the spectacular jungle scenery like a roller coaster.
The full religious experience when you get to the summit includes placing small squares of gold leaf on the rock – provided your are male as only men are allowed to approach and touch the rock.
It is possible to trek down from the summit, the walk is mostly covered by the jungle canopy and gives the chance to see breath-taking views and stupas along the way. The path is apparently ‘straightforward and is well paved’.
I mention all this because last Sunday I arranged to visit the Golden Rock for the day, the plan was to get up at 4am, drive to the site, use the lorry to go to the top, view rock, have a quick lunch and then trek down through the jungle – which should take about 4 hours. It didn’t quite go according to plan – we arrived safely enough, transferred to the lorry packed in like sardines which turned out most fortuitous as it was the only thing that kept the people from falling out of the ‘roller coaster’ as it ascending the twisting mountain road at speed. By the time we got to the top it was raining – and thick mist. We could hardly find our way to the rock let alone see the wonderful 360 degree views. On the bright side there was no one there but equally nowhere was open to eat.
Eventually we found a tiny hole in the wall place where we sheltered and they cooked the most delicious vegetables and rice for us. We ate surrounded by monks and police which seemed to sum up Myanmar quite well. Having been advised by a policeman not to take the path down, we sought a second and then a third opinion – and then our driver phoned us and said that the path was very dangerous. We decided that perhaps this wasn’t the best plan we have had. A hilarious ride down in the lorry followed where it was so wet it was like being doused by buckets of water – at least it was warm. We drove home stopping on the way to buy a bamboo chair with a woven back and seat for £1.60, arriving after dark and as exhausted as if we had trekked down a mountain.