Yangon, the heart of Buddhism

Yangon Travel Blog

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These young monks were having breakfast when we walked by.

Our alarm clock is in desperate need of attention at 7 am, ending our dreams in a matter of seconds. We’ve slept like babies and with a wonderfull breakfast in our bellies, according to Aart-Jan the best we’ll get in all Myanmar, we head into the city. Our quest today is to discover Yangon and find out what everyday’s life is all about here.

Yangon is known to have quite some colonial style buildings and the Strand Hotel, our first objective, is a famous landmark.

The street leading to Botahtaung.
We go there on foot, we’ve been sitting long enough yesterday. Everyone is going about his business, but fortunately the morning rush hour isn’t as busy as in for instance New Delhi. When we get to the Strand Hotel, we hardly notice it. It’s facade is kind of a disappointment to us, it’s looks nothing special in any particular way. We cross the street and continue our walk towards the Botahtaung Pagoda. We know we are getting closer by the looks of the street. We encounter more and more monks the further we get. We take a right turn, because this will lead to the entrance of the pagoda, but it doesn’t. People start telling us we have to be in the next street and we turn back. What we dó find here is a group of young monks eating in a street stall. At first they’re shy, but when they find out we’re friendly, they want us to take their picture.
The relic of eight hairs of the Buddha.
We say goodbye and start walking towards the “next right”. This street is busier, pedestrians, lots of stalls, and of course cyclists taking short cuts, reminding us to be alert in the Birmese traffic.

Before entering the pagoda we have to pay 2 dollars each and we must take off our shoes. Those we can leave with the employee that collects the entrance fees, you’ll recognise him, he’s got a green army uniform and bright red teeth from chewing beetlenut behind his smile. The guarding of our shoes is included in the price, the use of my photo camera will set me back another dollar. Botahtaung Pagoda was named after the one thousand military leaders who escorted relics of the Buddha brought over from India two thousand years ago Inside a young man starts talking to us and logically he’s a guide.

Prayers and sacrifice at Botahtaung.
Usually I’m not the “guide-type-of-guy”, but this man is polite and friendly so he can tug along. Inside the stupa , in a gold plated altar, eight hairs of the Buddha are kept safe and many people worship them fanatically. As we walk through the stupa we see hundreds of  valuable statues made of bronze, silver and gold. One section has bars and a large chain and padlock to prevent theft, so this must be where the most special items are. Because of the special lay out of the interiour of the stupa you can’t tell that you’re walking in a circle and we are very surprised when we are back where we started all of a sudden. Every buddhist stupa is surrounded by eight altars that are related to a day of the week, an animal and a planet. Our guide knows a lot about astrology and when I tell him my date of birth, within minutes he can tell me that I was born on a Wednesday in the year of the tiger and since I was born in the afternoon my planet is Saturn and my animal is the tuskless elephant (the Wednesday is split in half, otherwise there would be only seven altars right?) Trudy was born on a Tuesday and therefor Mars is her lucky planet and the lion is her animal.
I watched this man for several minutes, he didn't move a muscle.
The complex has some seperate buildings that have some statues of the Buddha and there’s one large bronze statue in the far corner.There are many praying people here, making it all pretty special. When we want to go out, our guide asks if he can come with us to the reclining and sitting buddha. When I ask him how much it will cost us he says that some tourists give him thirty dollars. This is a ridiculous amount of money (about a months wage for someone working in road construction) and I give him 4000 kyats for his effort, thank him politely and say goodbye. The man guarding our shoes thanks us for visiting his country (if I understand him correctly, which is kind of difficult because of his mouthfull of beetlenut) and then we hop on a taxi.

The taxis here are in an awful state, everything rattles and clappers and there’s a hole under my right foot, about the size of a two Euro coin, through which I can see the tarmac flash underneeth the car.

We met this happy family inside the temple of the reclining Buddha.
The fifteen minute ride costs 2500 kyats and brings us to the Chauk Htat Kyi Pagoda, where a 70 metre long reclining Buddha lies waiting for us. The statue looks brand new, but it was built in 1966 when it replaced the original that dated from 1907. The Buddha image is 18 metres high and that is why this pagoda is also called “The six storey pagoda”. Remarkable are the soles of the Buddha’s feet, that have 108 signs, making obvious that he is the enlighted one. When we are having a look around an elderly man is following us, trying to atract our attention. At first we ignore him, thinking he probably is just another guide. When we eventually give in, the man starts telling us about the statue and the monastery adjacent to it. After making sure nobody can hear him, he says that there are still many monks missing after they had been taken from the monastery last year, as a result of the demonstrations near Shwedagon Pagoda.
The reclining Buddha in Yangon.
He offers to show us the monastery and introduce us to some monks, proving that our hunch was right and he really is a guide. Because we are here to see as much as we can we go along and walk into the monastery that consists of many seperate buildings with narrow streets between them, some are covered, some are out in the open. Monks from several ethnic groups inhabit the buildings, but the monks we meet in person are Karen. Two of them (both between 30 and 40 years old) are astonished by the size of my hand when I shake theirs, I on my part, can’t believe how soft their hands are, like shaking hands with a baby. The oldest monk present is about 80 years old and he is struggling to find out what to do with a jar of Paracetamol the doctor gave him. Our guide explains him the prescription and then, knowing his headache will be gone soon, he is very pleased to meet us and of course he wants to know if Trudy and are married and whether we have children or not.
The 108 signs on the statues feet represent the worlds of animals, men and gods.
Once back at the statue we pay the man for his effort and go to collect our shoes. For the safeguarding a donation for the temple is expected. A couple of hundred kyat should do, but since I don’t have any small money on me I have to give the man the largest bank note there is, 1000 kyats, representing a value of about 60 Eurocents.

We walk to the other side of the main road to the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda, where a large sitting Buddha on a lotus throne is worshipped every day. First, however, we are thirsty  and so we start looking for a drink. There are no pubs or restaurants in the vicinity, but near the entrance of the pagoda we find a small ramshackle place with a couple of piles of empty Orange bottles.

A young monk in the monastery of Chauk Htah Gyi.
And where there’s empty ones, there must be full ones as well. The ladies inside are more than willing to sell, but they have no intention of letting us take off with their bottles. Before I have time to react my bottle has been emptied into a plastic bag. Trudy, knowing what happened to my drink, gobbles hers down as quickly as she can. And now what? Drink from the bag? That’ll be messy!? Being the nice tourists we are, we pay the 500 kyats for the drinks and prepare to leave, but before we can go we first get a juicy piece of watermelon for free, as a present. A few minutes later a lady catches us up to bring me the straw they didn’t think of earlier. Thát was the trick!! Some way or another we ended up at the side entrance of the pagoda and we have to climb a short, but steep, covered stretch of road, which is so narrow that only one car can go up or down at a time.
The eighty year old monk was suffering a headache, but still he was very pleased to meet us.
When we go up, a car comes down and the woman inside it is pointing vigorously to the ground besides the road. I think she wants me to walk to the side a bit more so she can pass and move a bit to the right. A little further on a man makes clear to us that we are on holy ground and that we have to take off our shoes. Now the coin drops, this is what the lady in the car meant to point out! We take our shoes off immediately and carry them to the entrance, where I have to put them inside plastic bags that are way too tiny for my ankle high walking boots size 46. I have to put them near the ticket booth where it takes ages before someone has changed my ten dollar bill. Trudy’s sandals go unnoticed, so she can hold on to them when she goes in. When walking up to the temple we heard mantras coming from loudspeakers all over the place, but we didn’t know exactly where the sound came from.
The Five Storey Buddha.
Inside the noise is even louder and it is all live, otherwise they would have cut out the regular coughing of the singer. We sit down on the floor in front of the statue, that is also called the “Five Story Buddha”, making sure our feet are not pointing towards it, because that is a terrible insult. After our little rest we quietly have a look around before going to the exit again. The reclining Buddha was more beautiful than this one, but it certainly is a must see when coming to Yangon.

We take a taxi back to the Panorama Hotel where we freshen up a bit, before going to Global for another meal. We’re lucky to find a table to sit because, as usual, the place is filled with locals.

People praying at Shwedagon Paya.
After lunch we walk to Bogyoke Aung San market, which is not far from here. The market is very famous and has the largest collection of souvenirs is entire Birma. We don’t like it too much though, many of the stalls sell the same kind of junk, it’s very crowded, and there’s a money changer walking with me who’s blabbering my ears off and that I can’t get rid off. It doesn’t take long before we decide to go to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most holy place for buddhists in the whole of Myanmar. We want to go there by public transport, just for the fun of it. This is easier said than done, because even though we know what number van we need, the Birmese writing is a total mystery to me, so we have to ask the drivers that hardly speak any English. After several attempts and being pointed further to the back and finally into another street, we see the bus stop we need.
Mother and child caught off guard at the foot of the 98 metre high stupa.
The first van we try is the right one and we have the honour to sit next to the driver who is doing his best to drive his ancient car with the looks of an army van (except it’s not green) to it’s limits. There’s no lining whatsoever in the doors anymore and the windows cannot possibly be closed anymore, because they are clappering loose somewhere inside the door. And I’ve driven cars that sat more comfortably, too. One common denominator all these vans have is that every single one of them is cramped with locals, at least three people are standing on the footboard above the rear bumper. Half way the ride I feel the door pop from it’s first lock and just to make sure I lean inward a bit more, because in my opinion the door can open completely any second now, sending me skidding over the tarmac. When we get off at Shwedagon Paya I have to pay 200 kyats per person, which is a ridiculous amount compared to European prices.
A monk sacrificing water.

We climb the nicely tiled stairs of the east entrance of the pagoda. We carry our shoes up to the shoe stowing service which only costs a donation for the maintenance of the temple. Nearby we have to pay the five dollar entrance fee and the next three and a half hours we are in a different world. The golden 98 metre high stupa, 64 smaller stupas, monks, more gold leaf, pilgrims mumbling mantras and not too many tourists. We have to do our best not to be ensnared by guides, fortune tellers and astrologers. At one point I even encounter a monk who asks for money after showing me a good photo spot. While wandering through the complex I stumble on a small temple where people are chanting and praying, creating a very special athmosphere with their monotonous sound.

Looks like a fairytale, doesn't it?
When the sun starts going down I set up my tripod on a good spot and watch the stupa shift colours in the waning light. Even when the sun is long gone and the pagoda is bathing in artificial light there’s just no knowing where to look first. It’s quarter past seven when we collect our shoes and walk down the east stairs again. We pay a short visit to another stupa just outside Shwedagon, that in a way is part of the complex, because it is connected to it by an extension of the eastern staircase. The inside of this stupa is very strange, because there are artificial trees and the ceiling is a blue sky with, amongst others, a crocodile, a cat, and a peacock in it.

From here we take a taxi to the hotel.

The strange interior of the stupa next to Shwedagon.
The distance is not the problem, but the sidewalks have huge deep holes in them (50 cm wide and also 50 cm deep) and there’s hardly any light at all. A man can break his leg in seconds. We cross the road from the hotel for dinner at global, we’re becoming regular customers, and then a fantastic shower and a welcoming bed.

globalodyssey says:
wonderful i feel like i am walking beside you
Posted on: Dec 20, 2009
jlchatham says:
fantastic blogs.
Posted on: Aug 12, 2009
mabby says:
Id definitely agree with all those who left their comments here. :) Great blog!
Posted on: Oct 25, 2008
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These young monks were having brea…
These young monks were having bre…
The street leading to Botahtaung.
The street leading to Botahtaung.
The relic of eight hairs of the Bu…
The relic of eight hairs of the B…
Prayers and sacrifice at Botahtaun…
Prayers and sacrifice at Botahtau…
I watched this man for several min…
I watched this man for several mi…
We met this happy family inside th…
We met this happy family inside t…
The reclining Buddha in Yangon.
The reclining Buddha in Yangon.
The 108 signs on the statues feet …
The 108 signs on the statues feet…
A young monk in the monastery of C…
A young monk in the monastery of …
The eighty year old monk was suffe…
The eighty year old monk was suff…
The Five Storey Buddha.
The Five Storey Buddha.
People praying at Shwedagon Paya.
People praying at Shwedagon Paya.
Mother and child caught off guard …
Mother and child caught off guard…
A monk sacrificing water.
A monk sacrificing water.
Looks like a fairytale, doesnt it?
Looks like a fairytale, doesn't it?
The strange interior of the stupa …
The strange interior of the stupa…
Nuns praying for a better next lif…
Nuns praying for a better next li…
Sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda.
Sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda.
Shwedagon in near dark.
Shwedagon in near dark.
photo by: aleksflower