Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Myanmar: Shwedagon, the jewel of Yangon

shwedagon monk with pink umbrellaTouching down at Mingaladon Airport, passengers are besieged (as anywhere else) by overeager taxi drivers and their middlemen.  I make up my mind to go directly to Mandalay (nearly 700 kms up north) or Bagan on my first day. That is, if i can get a ticket. But first, I must go-see Shwedagon Pagoda right here in Yangon.

So after exchanging a chunk of my dollars for kyats (i got a very good 1,000k - $1 at a small store), My driver cum guide, Aung San, facilitated my procurement of a bus ticket to Mandalay. But not after trying our luck at three bus ticket outlets (there’s an upcoming water festival holiday and many locals are eager to go back home). If I want a ticket to Bagan,  I would have to get it in Mandalay.shwedagon buddhas and monkIt wasn’t even 10.30am yet so with plenty of time to spare, I bit into Aung San’s offer to tour the city’s main pagodas for a princely sum of over 30,000kyats. The proviso: I'll add a few thousand more to include the fare for the trip from the airport to downtown and the trip to the bus station located at the city’s outskirts later.yangon skyline from shwedagonOur first stop: Shwedagon Pagoda right at the heart of Yangon.  It’s hard to miss it as the main stupa is visible from afar, gleaming in the morning sun like a jewel. I opted to take the elevator going up for a glimpse of the city. Looking at the spread of over a hundred smaller stupas, halls and pagodas surrounding the main stupa was a heady experience. It’s a visual overload that made me momentarily forget the blistering heat on my bare feet.shwedagon golden stupas and ladyShwe means “gold” in Burmese while dDagon translates to “three hills” and literally and figuratively, the pagoda lives up to its golden name.  The main stupa alone is a virtual treasure find – plated with 8,688 solid gold slabs, with a tip that glows with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, sapphires and topaz. Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most sacred places in all of Myanmar, built over the shrine containing the Gautama Buddha’s relics. In this jewel of a pagoda, common people mingle with the monks, praying, meditating, reflecting, offering, and making their wishes. I, too, make a wish for this trip to open my mind and allow me to explore a new culture with openness and genuine curiosity. 

Info: Shwedagon Pagoda is open to tourists from 8am-9pm • entrance fee: 6,500kyats (roughly US$5-6.50 • footwear storage fee: 500kyats (suggestion: lug your shoes or sandals to save) • beware of “guides” who volunteer their services but wouldn’t quote their fee outright; they can be an annoyance, demanding several thousand kyats as “donation” later on
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