I was going to call this post “Getting Sweaty at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda” because that’s what I did, but I couldn’t bring myself to hit publish on that title.
In an effort to ‘err on the side of conservative dress’ as the website suggested, I wore a long sleeveless dress and covered my shoulders with a scarf, then topped the ensemble with a camera around my neck. It got hot real fast. But it didn’t matter, because the pagoda was so beautiful I didn’t even care that I’d have to wear the same sweaty outfit the next day too.
Visitors are required to go barefoot at the pagoda, so conventional wisdom suggests it is best to visit early in the morning or from dusk, when the tiles are cool. I jumped in a taxi as the sun was going down, hoping to arrive before the light disappeared. The driver dropped me off at the north gate, and I took an escalator to reach the level of the pagoda. After emerging from a long hallway I accidentally wandered straight past the ticket booth and a guard had to chase me down.
The entrance fee is eight dollars; in return you get a small booklet and a sticker. I thought the sticker was just to indicate that I’d paid, but on closer inspection it said ‘North,’ indicating the gate where I’d entered. Although the complex has a sensible rectangular layout with four gates, it would be easy to forget where you’d come from.
The pagoda’s stupa can be seen from vantage points all over the city, but up close it is stunning. I have never seen so much gold at one time and let me tell you, it gleams. I did not know where to look, and almost stumbled into the line of women stopped in front of me.
I assumed they were looking at something, but then the entire line began to advance as one, sweeping the ground before them. I later learned that this happens every evening; volunteers sweep the marble terrace to generate ‘spiritual credit’. Tourists, Burmese families, and monks were shoulder-to-shoulder, snapping photographs of the event.
I was amazed by how many young Buddhist monks I saw with smartphones; the technology seemed incongruous to their orange robes and bald heads, making me realize how little I know about the religion.
There were so many things I learned about the pagoda later that I wish I’d known before: dotted around the main stupa are “planetary posts” labeled with the days of the week. Burmese Buddhists traditionally make offerings and pour water at the post representing the day of the week they were born.
As I circled (always clockwise) around the pagoda the sun dropped away and the gold grew even more powerful under the lights.
All around me people were engaged in their own activities – prayer, lighting incense, taking family photos – but no one looked out of place. Shwedagon felt very welcoming, no matter your intention.
A young man in a longyi approached as I was looking at a map and asked where I was from. I’m ashamed that my instinct was to fob him off, assuming that he wanted to sell me something (I can sense my spiritual credit plummeting as I write this). After a minute I realized that he was affiliated with the pagoda; his questions were genuine and he was only trying to ensure that I didn’t go out the wrong exit.
On the way out I got sidetracked, wanting to investigate the outside edge of the terrace rather than the inside, where I’d spent most of my time. To my absolute and utter delight there were no less than five kittens playing in a temple. I spent fifteen hot sweaty minutes attempting to coax them out (hassling pagoda cats: spiritual credit -5) but they steadfastly refused.
A long line of little girls filed in, two by two, just as I was leaving. Their heads were clean-shaven and they wore pink robes, suggesting that they were young nuns-in-training. I associate nuns with somber attitudes (stereotyping nuns: spiritual credit -3) so it was a relief to see these girls acting like kids: giggling, holding hands, and wriggling with energy.
I was in Myanmar for work, which is why my stay in Yangon was less than 48 hours. It is not long enough but I am lucky that I got to go at all; luckier still that time was on my side for this sunset visit to Shwe Dagon.