On our way into the heart of Yangon from the airport, the peak of the gilded Shwedagon stupa, rising 325 feet, curiously peered over the tree line up on Singuttara Hill – I couldn’t wait to see it up close in person.
After settling into the tiniest room I have ever paid for, the bears headed west in the late afternoon to catch the sunset over Shwedagon. The elder bears sped off and vanished into the distance as if there were a J.Crew factory clearance going on nearby… but there wasn’t. And because the sunset wasn’t looking too promising as it began to vanish into the smoggy clouds, Daniel and I took our time, soaking up everything around us.
Leaving our shoes at one of the four entrances, we found our way up, up, up until we were blinded by enough sacred gold to make even the most blinged out rapper look like a pleb. Some of the shrines were so flashy and excessive, hyperbolized by harsh fluorescent bulbs that I had to remind myself that no, Elvis was not a Buddhist and therefore you aren’t peeking into a groovy Graceland grotto, and no you are not about to enter a retro-chic discotheque with DJ Sidd spinnin’ meditative beats. But it sure felt that way.
With that much said, Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world, containing many historical relics…including eight strands of Lord Gautama Buddha’s holy locks. Unfortunately those holy locks were not on display. The pagoda itself was built, rebuilt, and reconstructed, between the 6th and 14th centuries CE, but has undergone several repairs and facelifts in the more recent decades.
Visitors are meant to walk around the pagoda in a clockwise direction, passing eight planetary posts marked by auspicious animals representing each day of the week; Burmese astrology suggests that Buddhists pray and make offerings at their planetary post determined by which day of the week one was born. Ashamedly, I’m not sure any of us actually knew this at the time. Instead we took a series of “hey mom” photos.
Daniel and I walked around the crowded posts a couple times, getting distracted by the lighting of some holy candles and went photo crazy until we finally spotted the elder bears.
But before that, I foolishly fell for one of the oldest tourist tricks in the books. Enticed by a myriad of golden-mustard-yellow hues reflecting in the distance. I wandered off into a separate pagoda. I stood off to the side and observed some people praying until a man who looked like an official guard told me it was all right to come in and explore (#warningsigns). When I was finished looking around and was about to leave, the man made the universal gesture for tipping. Crap-olah! I didn’t have any small kyat (#stupidtourist)… Daniel’s mere glare of disappointment on top of reminding me that I had paid him enough to cover that day’s lunch for everyone [and then some] made me feel like the biggest idiot in the world. I didn’t tell the elder bears. Until now (#babybearconfession). The irony is that that specific moment marks the only time I got blatantly cheated on my entire trip and it happened to be at the holiest place in Myanmar (#holyironicjerks). Never again!
A procession with beautiful chants led by monks took place and I stopped for a moment to take in where exactly I was — in the holiest place in Myanmar…holy locccks where are youuuu hiddennnn?