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Shwedagon Paya

January 15, 2011

06.01.11 Shwedagon Paya
Or Shwe Dagon Pagoda if you prefer. There is often 3 different ways of spelling things here and no-one minds too much. So, yesterday we went for our first visit to the famous Shwedagon Paya (temple) which sits majestically at the top of a hill in the middle of Yangon and is a very sacred and holy place of pilgrimage for Myanmar’s if not the world’s Buddhists.
It is a ‘heart-stopping’ (Lonely Planet) ‘golden mystery…a beautiful, winking wonder’ (R. Kipling) or a sort of golden, bobbly dome affair (stupa), 98m from base to top and all covered in gold. And I mean GOLD. Some 60 tonnes of it, it is said, though it is also rumoured that the bottom half is just paint these days. And the official leaflet says there are 79 569 diamonds and precious stones inlaid at the top. Boy does it glisten in the sun! It can be seen for miles around, even at night and is a sight so spectacular, even Pete, who in his own words has seen a few things in his time, said he had seen nothing like it. It is quite, quite lovely.
It sits in a complex of gates and temples reached by a long, long series of steps. Or in fact escalators or even a lift, depending on which side you come in, North, East, South or West. We only discovered this latter fact on the way down but the exercise was good for us. Each gate has a Hall of Adoration and then there are deities and gods for all the planets, days of the week, some animal spirits (nats) and so on around the central golden-ness and also all around the sides too. In some of these temples people sit and eat their food and congregate and chat, it’s all very convivial. And on a lower level around the base people have shops and bustle about their business. It’s not like the Vatican in reverence though it’s probably just as important. And with equal amounts of gold, probably.
We had a great time wandering round, although the sun was blistering so it was nice to pop into a temple now and again. It’s hard to describe how opulent and impressive these are, many have giant Buddhas lining the sides, others have dragons and lions and such. Some are fairly simple, some are stone or marble, a couple are of the most ornate carved teak and all are colourful and beautiful, to my eye at least. There were lots of families and we saw a very sweet young boy of about 4 learning to pray with his mum and dad on each side. He was collapsing with tiredness and tedium and when he spotted us he tugged and tugged at mummy and daddy to look but to no avail. The look of disappointment as we disappeared out of view!
In fact we caused quite a stir all round. As Pete said, the monks could have cartwheeled naked around the temple and no-one would have noticed because apparently a white family with a blonde and blue-eyed boy is much more fascinating. To say we stick out is an understatement. There are tourists here of course, but not many. And not many with a shiny blonde angel child who smiles and laughs non-stop and is carried on his Daddy’s back in a baby-carrier (which also causes huge consternation wherever we go outside England, let alone Myanmar where I bet there aren’t many around).
Although we had been told that feet are considered dirty (we take our shoes off almost everywhere) and that it is considered offensive to touch someone’s head, including children, the first thing anyone did on approaching Alfie was, oddly, to tickle his feet and ruffle his hair. They were also taken by his chubby cheeks and legs which all got a good grabbing – so far he thinks this is funny but I can imagine the novelty will wear off quite soon. ‘He is fat!’ they declared merrily, ‘my brother’ laughed one man, plonking his little girl next to Alfie while the wife took a photo, ‘may I?’ said a raft of young ladies as they lined up with their cameras. If we thought Alfie caused a stir in Milan or Nairobi it was nothing compared with this. It’s the same in the supermarket. Pete and I will be discussing something and turn around to see 12 people surrounding us, pulling faces at our son. It was lovely in the hotel café the other day when the entire staff, from security to reception ran around after him while we had a drink. But at the Shwedagon Paya it got a little out of hand, at one point we couldn’t stop walking for causing such a crowd around us. It’s a bit weird but I am also enormously proud of my son for having such a lovely temperament and taking it all in his stride.
When we eventually set him down he went running off without a backwards glance and delighted in climbing around the temple steps. He is adept at getting strangers to do his bidding, causing much melting of hearts by stretching his arms out to be lifted up (so he can see better) and even bestowing the odd cuddle on an unsuspecting stranger. He even begged a few spoonfuls of rice off a security guard much to her amusement but was very definite in refusing a 4th helping, saying ‘ne’, shaking his head and running off again.
So that was our first experience of the famous temple. In time we will get a season ticket and no doubt take all our visitors there, probably even treat ourselves to a guided tour. But for this time we had seen enough after a couple of hours. And Alfie needed a rest from his fans!

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