Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Incomparable Shwedagon Pagoda.


We arrived into Yangon yesterday afternoon. Our guide, who told us to just call him *Spring* because that's what his Burmese name translates to in English, was there to greet us.  Before taking us to our hotel, Spring took us to the office of One Stop Travels & Tours.  There was a change to our itinerary that needed to be discussed with us.

On the way, Spring already told us what the issue was.  We were slated to visit Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo) Pagoda but apparently, it was under renovation and it was under wrap; it would not be worth the trip to see it.  Spring offered up an alternative which was to go to the city of Mawlamyine which is a little off the beaten path but has some interesting sites.  With no other options in hand, we decided to go with that.

The offices of One Stop Travels & Tours are located on an upper floor of an old office building in Yangon.   It's a small space but inside there were more than a dozen people hard at work behind their computers.  I finally got to meet Bon Bon, the hard working young woman who organized our tour for us.  Our trip has gone off without a single hiccup and I give a lot of the credit to Bon Bon who made sure all the details were covered.  I really regret not having brought her a gift to thank her but truthfully, I didn't know if Bon Bon was a he or a she until I met her today.  I'm going to see if one of my Burmese friends will take a gift back to her for me.


Her manager explained the situation with Golden Rock to us, just as Spring had.  He offered up some alternative ways for how we could spend the time but none sounded as attractive as what Spring had put forth so we countered his offers with the one from Spring.  He was fine with it and had Bon Bon work up the changes.  In the end, we got a slight refund.  I just hoped that Spring was right and that we would enjoy Mawlamyine.

After meeting with the folks at One Stop Travels & Tours, we checked in to our hotel.  We're staying at the Taw Win Garden Hotel which is located just a short drive away from Shwedagon Pagoda, the city's premier attraction.


Dinner last night was a very simple affair. We discovered a shopping mall attached to our hotel.  In the basement were a few small restaurants.


We picked one that served up Malaysian fare.  Yes, we had cheap Malaysian food for dinner.

We started this morning with a buffet breakfast at our hotel.  We're staying at Taw Win Garden Hotel, a nice 4 star hotel in Yangon.  Breakfast was nice.  We all ate well :-)

Spring and our driver were ready to pick us up at 8:30a.  From the hotel, it was barely a 15 minute drive to get to Shwedagon.   When we got out of the van, I saw no one else around.  I was happy at the thought that perhaps we had beat the other tourists here - most tours don't get started until sometime between 9 and 10.

Foo dog guarding the entrance.

Spring got us our tickets and we got stickers to put on our shirts.  We deposited our shoes at the rack and headed on in.


It was a beautiful walkway that lead up to a set of escalators.  Yes, no need to walk up like a pilgrim.  We get to trod on white marble though I have to admit, it was strange to ride up an escalator with bare feet.  We did it in Mandalay as well.  The escalators at Shwedagon take you up Singuttara Hill.



There are four entrances to Shwedagon, each named after a direction.  We entered the complex via the Western entrance.


My pre-trip reading did nothing to prepare me for this place.  In all the images I had see, Shwedagon Pagoda is itself is the massive golden stupa.  That's what I was expecting to see and indeed it's there but this place really is is a religious complex and the Shwedagon Pagoda is its hear.  But all around the massive solden stupa are dozens, literally dozens of smaller stupas and temples. I swear no two of anything are the same.  This is a massive and very impressive complex!  In fact, when you first enter the place, your eyes are so filled with all the smaller religious structures that you don't even notice the famed stupa!

Following everyone else, we walked the kora in a clockwise manner.


There was so much to see and so much going on, it was really hard to focus on any one thing.  My head was spinning like a kid in a candy store. I didn't want to miss out on anything!



One thing for certain, we had come at the right hour.  There were barely any tourists around, mainly locals coming for prayer and devotion.

We noticed several processions with young children dressed up in very elaborate costumes.  According to Spring, the procession is part of an initiation ceremony, known as Shinbyu,  for young boys who are about to become novice monks.  In Burma, becoming a novice monk is a great honor for families and the families go all out for the ceremony.




We followed one group of monks to a corner to see what would happen.  Prayers and offers were given by the family or perhaps families before they all marched away.








We had probably been in the complex for a half hour before we even set our eyes on the massive pagoda that gives its name to this place.  It is a very impressive looking structure that just glistened in the glow of the morning sun.








Some of the carvings and relief work were incredibly intricate and detailed.





All around the central golden stupa are these little niches, each named after a day of the week.  The ritual is that you go to the niche that represents the day of the week that you were born on and you get to bath the Buddha, presumably for good luck and wishes.

As described in Wikipedia:
"It is important for Burmese Buddhists to know on which day of the week they were born, as this determines their planetary post. There are eight planetary posts, as Wednesday is split in two (a.m. and p.m.). They are marked by animals that represent the day — garuda for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday morning, tuskless elephant for Wednesday afternoon, mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and nāga for Saturday. Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. At the base of the post behind the image is a guardian angel, and underneath the image is the animal representing that particular day. The base of the stupa is octagonal and also surrounded by eight small shrines (one for each planetary post)."
I had no clue what day of the week I was actually born on so I just picked Sunday.


I stood for a few minutes to watch what the women were doing before walking up and doing the same.  I only washed Buddha though - forgot the guardian behind him and the animal at the base.  Hope my wishes still come true!



Sitting very quietly and praying was an older monk.  I have seen many monks but for some reason, this one looked *cool* - maybe it's because of his tattoos.  The way he was sitting and where he was sitting, with the smaller Buddhas above and behind him, made for a nice composition. Thankfully, I was standing far away enough and with the crowds behind me that he would not hear the sound of my camera shutter.


Of course, you can't be in a memorable place like Shwedagon and not have your photo taken - neither objected when I asked them to pose :-)



I don't remember what day of the week we picked for Ayşe but she did take her turn to bathe Buddha.











And then it was Bro's turn to say his wishes and prayers and to give Buddha his bath. 


Bro made sure that all three figures got wet.







There were a few very unusual looking temples on the complex.  There were two where both the exterior and interior facades were lined with glass mosaic tiles. It looked like a sequin covered box, shimmering in the light.






And then there was this small square sided pagoda with painted panels with bas relief on the facade.





In one of the temples, we came across a young monk - a very friendly young monk who didn't mind chatting with us and answering our questions. 



We left Shwedagon after we completed the kora, All in all, we ended up spending a couple of hours here and I felt like I had barely scratched the surface.  I would love to be able to come back one day and see it all again.

On the way out, Ayşe left a donation on behalf of all of us. 



The timing of our departure coincided with the families participating in the initiation ceremony for their sons.  Somehow, I had thought the boys would be left behind but I guess that will be another day.  According to Spring, the first monastery stay for the boys is only about 11 days.  If they can endure that with not problem, I guess they can then enter the monastery full time.  Otherwise, it's back to their daily lives!




With our early start, our day in Yangon has just begun!!  I'm looking forward to seeing what other sights the big city holds for us as today is our one and only day here.  Tomorrow, we're on the road to Mawlamyine!