There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Yangon, a Reclining Buddha and the Shwedagon Pagoda: Part 2 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

Swe arrived at 9 o’clock and we had another run at Scott’s Market in search of a money changer.

Scott’s Market is a cluster of one and two storey halls on a grid of cobbled streets. Inside there are dozens, if not hundreds, of stalls selling antiques, handicrafts, cloth, jewellery and anything else non-perishable.

Built in 1926, it was probably named after James George Scott, journalist, colonial administrator, schoolmaster and the man who introduced football to Burma. It certainly is not named after him anymore, it is officially called Bogyoke Aung San Market, but Scott’s Market is easier for foreigners to say and has the advantage of brevity whatever your native tongue.
 
Not quite open yet
Bogyoke Aung San (Scott's) Market, Yangon

Bogyoke (General) Aung San is generally considered the father of modern Burma. He led the independence negotiations in 1946 but was assassinated by political rivals before the final handover of power. He was also the father of Aung San Suu Kyi who was two years old when he was killed. Today Bogyoke Aung San is often referred to as The Father of the Lady, while his daughter is simply The Lady.

Food markets in Myanmar may open at the crack of dawn, but not Scott’s market. At 9.30 stall-holders were beginning to fiddle with their shutters and although both money changers were theoretically open they shook their heads and told us to come back later when they knew the rate for the day. We were not that concerned, Swe had lent us the equivalent of £25, more than the monthly income for many of Yangon’s citizens, and after one night we still had well over half of it left.

Like almost all men in Myanmar, Swe wore a lunghi, a tube of material encasing the lower half of the body like a long skirt. They seem to be one-size-fits-all and the excess material - and there is plenty of it - is knotted at the waist. Inevitably the knot slips and lunghis are forever being unfolded, shaken and re-knotting. Swe suggested I might like to buy one in the market, but although I have no objection to the garment as such – a nation of men in long skirts does not look as odd as it might sound – I declined. A westerner wearing a lunghi is either taking the piss or trying too hard; the few we saw stood out like cats at Crufts and looked just as comfortable.

We drove the short distance to Kandawgyi Lake. The boardwalk running round its southern edge makes a pleasant morning stroll – though lack of shade means it is best avoided later in the day.

Ambling round the lake costs locals nothing, but for foreigners there is a $2 fee, payable in US currency only. There are many places in Myanmar - lakesides, archaeological areas, even whole towns - where foreigners must stump up 5, 10 or sometimes 20 dollars just to enter. Myanmar is a poor country and I do not begrudge the money, but I also know it goes straight to the ruling generals and, despite recent liberalisations (which are real and often commented upon by locals) I am not totally convinced the money will all be used for the benefit of the people.

The boardwalk provides an excellent view of Karaweik - the Sanskrit name of Garuda, the bird ridden by Vishnu (sometimes Hinduism seeps confusingly into Buddhism). This monstrosity is actually a reinforced concrete reproduction of a royal barge. Later, we would later see a smaller version that is still used for transporting statues of Buddha round Lake Inlay (or Inle) at festival time.


Karaweik, Kandawgyi Lake
Yangon
 
It also provides an impressive view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, but then most corners of Yangon do that.
 

Kandawgui Lake and the Shwedagon Pagoda
Yangon
 
Half way along there is a small temple. We had little idea then how many temples we would see in Myanmar, but this was the first, and it was not a bad place to start. We would encounter show temples, ruined temples and ancient temples, but this was a small, everyday temple for local people.


Small temple by Kandawgyi Lake
Yangon
 
Our walk over, we drove to the rather less modest Chaukhtatgyi Temple, home of a huge reclining Buddha.

The Chaukhtatgyi Buddha was built to replace a previous version that collapsed after the 1975 earthquake, which, in its turn, had been an early 20th century replacement for an even older Buddha. At 100m long it is twice the size of the better known – and still enormous - reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok (which we saw a couple of weeks later) but, amazingly, it is not the largest in Myanmar. Down the coast near Mawlamyine a 170m long Buddha sprawls across a couple of low hills. The larger the statue the more ‘merit’ the builder gains, and ‘merit’ is important when it comes to re-incarnation.


Chaukhtatgyi Reclining Buddha
Yangon
Partly covered in gold leaf – some of the higher parts could do with dusting – and with a diamond encrusted crown, the Buddha looks benignly down on those who come to worship and those who just come to gawp. The effect is slightly spoilt by his eyelashes, apparently inspired by Lily Savage (non-British readers might need to click this link and scroll down). On his feet are the 108 Auspicious Symbols and Signs by which the Buddha can be recognised.


Chaukhtatgyi Reclining Buddha
Yangon
 
We gained some merit by making a small donation, and having done that it was necessary to strike a bell, not to say what good people we were, but to share our merit with all those who heard the sound.


Lynne shares our merit
Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, Yangon
 
Leaving the Buddha we headed for the nearby national museum. Like most national museums, it goes on a bit but fortunately the major exhibits are on the first couple of floors so I do not feel too guilty that we never made it to the fourth and fifth.

The Prize exhibit is the Lion Throne, sole survivor of the 8 thrones of the king’s palace in Mandalay. Covered, inevitably, in gold, it looks more like an elevated gateway than a throne. Photography was forbidden so I have stolen this picture from the Myanmar tourist agency.


The Lion Throne from Mandalay Palace, Myanmar National Museum, Yangon
Picture credit Goldenlandpages
On a higher floor, among the display of imperial costumes, we saw a dress resembling samurai armour redesigned for a pixie and rendered in soft fabric. They have a photograph of Thibaw, the last king of independent Burma, and his wife, wearing that very dress, kneeling on the Lion Throne. Chairs arrived late in Burma and even now many people, monks in particular, seem comfortable kneeling on hard floors. To us, kneeling is a way of showing obeisance, but to show obeisance to a kneeling king requires serious grovelling. It is much easier for the king to kneel on a raised platform.

Mandalay Palace was destroyed in 1945 when the Japanese were forcibly evicted from the city.  The Lion Throne survived because it had previously been stolen by the British, though it was ‘generously’ returned at independence

There are many other artefacts from the Palace including one chair - a rickety affair constructed entirely of ivory - numerous gold betel nut boxes and more golden spittoons then I had ever imagined existed. The very concept of a spittoon is somewhat disgusting and the idea of making one out of solid gold seems slightly weird. Owning more than a dozen such spittoons can only be described as weird and extravagant.
 
There's a tea shop down this road somewhere
Exotissimo Travel treated us to lunch at a city centre tea shop. We sat inside the open fronted building while on the pavement a girl was dipping vegetables in tempura batter and frying them in a large wok, while her friend cooked pancakes in clay pots.


Cooking pancakes in clay pots
Yangon
 We ate a thick brown soup, flavoured with fish sauce and delicately and sweetly spiced, tempura prawns and vegetables, dried fish, spiced beans and, of course, rice. We finished with a ginger cookie from the clay pots and a couple of heavy, oily pancakes made from rice flour. We tried the strong, black tea thickened and sweetened with condensed milk - like in an Indian teahouse – but it was not much to our taste. Fortunately a bottomless thermos of Chinese tea featured on every table.


Lynne and Swe have lunch
Yangon
 
From the humble teahouse we went on to a five star hotel where we were at last able to acquire some local money and repay our loan from Swe.

After resting during the hottest part of the day we headed for the Swedagon Pagoda at 4.30. As in Vietnam the word ‘pagoda’ means a temple complex, not a tower.

The hundred metre high stupa sits on a low hill. It is reputedly 2500 years old and enshrines a hair of the Buddha. Archaeology suggests the first stupa was actually built here by the Mon people – who now live in southern Myanmar – between the 6th and 10th century AD. In such an earthquake prone region it has inevitably been rebuilt several times and the earliest parts of the present structure date from 1769.

The great golden stupa is visible from almost everywhere in Yangon, including our hotel room, so I was not sure what else there was to see. It can be approached from each point of the compass by covered walkways which climb the hill in a series of gentle staircases. We took the fifth route; we drove to the base of the hill and used the lift.

Stepping out onto the marble flagged promenade that surrounds the central stupa both of us halted, blinked and looked again. The stupa is encircled by a ring of smaller gold spires interspersed with statues of the Buddha and of spirits and animals real and mythical. The promenade’s outer edge is flanked by chapels, meeting rooms and halls housing huge bronze bells all set among yet more towering golden spires. Gold can look garish and ostentatious (particularly if made into spittoons) but we found ourselves staring at a scene of great delicacy, sublime harmony and outstanding beauty.


The Shwedagon Pagoda
Yangon
We had not walked far before we realised that despite the large numbers of people - monks, tourists and local citizens going about their devotions - there was also an atmosphere of intense calm, even serenity. Lynne uses words like ‘spirituality’ which I find problematic so I will merely say we felt like we were in an enchanted place. Whether people have come to pray......


Praying at the Shwedagon Pagoda
Yagon

..... to meditate,


Meditating monk, Shwedagon Pagoda
Yangon
 .... or merely to walk round, all seemed to feel the power of this special place.


Walking round the Shwedagon Pagoda
Yangon
The days of the week are each represented by an animal, and their statues can be found at 45º intervals around the stupa (that makes eight statues - Buddha achieved enlightenment on a Wednesday so it has two animals, one for the morning, one for the afternoon). To make merit and to concentrate the mind it is wise to honour the statue representing the day of your birthday. Water is poured three times over the Buddha, three times over his supporter behind and three times over the dragon – I was born on a Saturday - ……


Tending to my dragon, Shwedagon Pagoda
Yangon
 
….. or the tuskless elephant – Lynne was a Wednesday afternoon baby.


Lynne with her tuskless elephant, Shwedagon Pagoda
Yangon
 
Before we had walked all the way round night began to fall. As the light faded the gold glowed almost crimson and then, as the floodlights are turned up, it becomes a rich orange and magic seems to float in the warm night air. There is no twilight in tropical latitudes and in fifteen minutes the sky had turned from cerulean blue to inky blackness. A large diamond is set in the stupa’s crown, and if you stand in just the right place, the floodlighting makes it twinkle like a star. By small changes of position you can make it sparkle red or green or any other colour of the rainbow.


The light starts to fade
A group of devotees filling one of the assembly halls started chanting. We stayed to listen as others started to drift away. When they had finished, we too went, descending slowly down one of the walkways into the embrace of the secular world outside, still a little dazed and awestruck by the whole experience.



And 15 minutes later it is dark
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
 
The Shwedagon Pagoda may be the major pilgrimage site in Myanmar but it is not well known in the rest of the world. For me, dusk at the Shwedagon Pagoda must be counted as one of  the world’s greatest sights, just ahead of the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China and a little behind the Pyramids. I need to slot dawn at the Taj Mahal into that list somewhere. Insha’Allah, as the Moghul Emperor would have said, we will see that in February 2013 [update: We did indeed see it and it was magnificent. Here is the link].

Myanmar, Land of Gold
 

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