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Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda

Why politics have kept a potential world icon shrouded in obscurity

By Dave Fox
Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)

Late afternoon rays echoed off Shwedagon as the sun slid toward the horizon. Prayer chants bellowed from loudspeakers and wafted on wisps of incense. White marble slabs warmed my bare feet as I joined throngs of pilgrims, tourists, and neighborhood Buddhists in a clockwise swirl around the gleaming gold stupa.

Stupas are round, pointy monuments that typically contain Buddhist relics. They are places to meditate and make religious offerings.

Shwedagon Pagoda is Burma’s most sacred Buddhist site. Its stupa, built around 2,600 years ago, is the oldest stupa in the country. At a height of 99 meters (325 feet), it’s  also one of the country’s tallest.

As a whole, Shwedagon is a complex of temples and shrines. It crowns a small hill in the center of Yangon. People flock there for spiritual reasons, or just to be blown away by the odd dichotomy of a peaceful sensory overload. Local residents also go simply to hang out. Travel in Burma and you quickly discover the country’s thousands of Buddhist pagodas are more than places of worship; they’re also spots where people gravitate when they just need a momentary place to chill.

A monk snaps a photograph as a group of Buddhist pilgrims from Thailand unfurl a long orange banner and circle the main stupa.

I had heard Shwedagon was mind-blowing, yet I went with few expectations. Living in Asia for the last 16 months, I’ve seen so many awe-inspiring temples and pagodas, my excitement for them has become muted. But as I emerged from the covered hall of stairs that leads up to Shwedagon’s main level, I was mesmerized.

I arrived with my wife, Kattina, and our friend Gary, but we quickly separated, each of us lured in our own directions. I shuffled slowly with the flow of people – stopping at times to take photos, at others to just breathe. I watched flocks of magpies slalom between the spires. I chatted with monks who wanted to practice their English. I felt the earthy clang of giant gongs reverberate through me.

After nearly an hour, I found Kattina. We watched as a couple of hundred Thai pilgrims unfurled a long orange banner, making their way in a jovial line around the stupa. We explored other temples in the complex as a tangerine sunset splashed the sky. Darkness brought an evening breeze, and floodlights transformed Shwedagon into a sparkly gem beneath the moon.

Eventually, it was time to go. As we headed for the exit, I struggled to recall any other structure I’ve seen in my travels that has captivated me so powerfully. Six months earlier, I had not even heard of the pagoda. And that disturbed me.

Like the Great Wall of China or Rome’s Collosseum, the Shwedagon Pagoda is one of those places that stops you in your tracks and leaves you mumbling, “I can’t believe people built this.” It should be an iconic lure for millions of visitors. Why had I never heard of it before I started planning my trip to Burma?

The answer was simple: I hadn’t heard of it because, until recently, the Myanmar dictatorship has kept the nation isolated with its vicious politics. Tourism there has been at times difficult, at others impossible, and at others relatively easy, yet unattractive to travelers who have not wanted to buy into a tourist industry dominated by vicious corruption.

As a travel writer living in Southeast Asia, I like to think of myself as pretty aware of key sights in the area. That Shwedagon took so long to blip across my radar is, on one level, embarrassing – because it truly is one of the most stunning places I have visited. But it speaks to the isolation Burma has faced.

I visited Shwedagon Pagoda four weeks ago. US President Barack Obama went there yesterday. It was the first time in history a US president has visited Burma. Before boarding his plane in Bangkok, Obama told reporters his visit was “not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” but he added he was hopeful the country’s recent steps toward a more democratic system will continue in that direction.

A lone monk climbs the Shwedagon Pagoda stupa to affix an offering of gold leaf.

Next year, a man at the pagoda told me, Shwedagon’s main stupa will be renovated, swaddled in bamboo scaffolding as workers re-gild it. (So check before planning a trip there!) After that happens, will the pagoda take the place it deserves as an architectural and spiritual wonder that millions of travelers dream of visiting? That remains to be seen, and has little to do with architecture or spirituality. Tourism in Burma is on the rise as human rights conditions improve. But residents there told me they’re nervous. After living under a repressive regime for decades, and watching hopes for democracy crushed before, the new reforms still feel tenuous.

Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2012

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