I persevered in my quest to conquer the slopes of Mount Kyaiktiyo in southern Myanmar. It wasn’t a mountain to be approached lightly. The devotion-charged Golden Rock at its pinnacle was the reward.
Most Burmese people pay homage to this wish-drenched balancing boulder–a miraculous pilgrimage site they must visit before they die. Legend has it that a dragon serpent princess found this rock at the bottom of the sea and with her supernatural powers she transported it to heaven. Many believe that touching this gigantic sacred stone allows wishes to be granted. Men struggle up the mountain just to apply more gold leaf to enhance the rock’s already magnificent gilded glow. In the shadows you can just make out the silhouettes of two men who offer scale.
But all is not fair.
While women are free to ascend these sacred slopes, none of them can touch this breathtaking, stupa-graced wonder once they arrive at the top. In a gesture of solidarity I, too, chose not to touch its shiny surface. Who made such rules? I bet the dragon princess is furious. I’ll find other ways to make my dreams come true.
Despite the stranglehold of the staunch military government, everyday people in Myanmar seemed to be happy . . . and I never saw soldiers on the street. It’s only the Westerner who suffers from the nonexistence of ATMs. Many tourists have been known to have exited the country immediately upon arrival because they didn’t have spare dollars in their pockets for exchange. Only a couple of five-star hotels accept credit cards but for that pleasure they tack on a hefty ten percent surcharge. For currency exchange one must bring crisp US dollar bills in tow. And I mean CRISP. Even a tiny pencil mark or slight abrasion renders such notes useless. There was a half-millimeter, microscopic tear on one of my starched hundred-dollar bills but no establishment across the country would accept it in exchange for local currency, which, by the way, is often found in tatters with dangling bits hanging here and there–just like the sidewalks of Yangon.
My self-ascribed mission in life is to find photographic magic amongst the mundane.
Even menacing swirls of military razor wire can bask in a moment of cutting edge glory.
Myanmar is filled with wonder. In Bagan more than a thousand magnificent stupas were built about the same time the Renaissance was happening in Europe.
Sunlight brilliantly reflects from the shimmering golden spire of the much revered Ananda Temple, built in the year 1090 AD. It is located roughly 490 yards east of the awesome pagoda, Thatbyinnyu, 550 yards north of the huge temple of Shwesandaw and about 1000 yards northwest of the magnificent Dhammayangyi. There are about 997 other stupas nearby from which distance could easily be measured. But Ananda’s towering, and perfectly proportioned edifice, is the one that heralds the stylistic end of the early Bagan era. When I was there, a blast of rainbow celebrated the stupa’s existence.
Why have so many people never heard about this marvelous place?
The piece de resistance, however, surely must be the glitter of golden spires and shiny Buddhas that cast an ethereal glow over Burma’s most sacred pagoda, Shwedagon Phaya, which looms above the country’s commercial capital, Yangon, or Rangoon as it was known in a former existence.
Shwedagon can take your breath away.
Myanmar Buddhists dream of visiting here at least once in their lifetimes. No one, even tourists, ever forgets such a visit. It’s said there is more gold laced on Shwedagon’s surface than exists in the vaults of the Bank of England and perhaps even more than the mega tons stored at Fort Knox. Perhaps such overstatement is justified when setting the tone. This is an amazing place.
Long ago Rudyard Kipling waxed lyrical about this gold-swathed icon, “A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon–a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun . . . “
Allow me to put this explosion of glitter into perspective by describing just the top portion of the main spire which is clad in 13,153 plates of solid gold measuring one square foot each. The top-most vane of this tower is sliver-plated and studded with 1100 diamonds totaling 278 carats with 1383 other precious stones embedded nearby. At the very top of the vane is a golden sphere enveloped with 4351 diamonds, weighing 1800 carats. And at the very tip of this orb is a single 76-carat diamond perched more than a hundred meters above worshipers below.
There’s a telescope off to one side for those wishing a closeup view of the jewels.
My photo below shows only a handful of the hundreds of Shwedagon’s shimmering spires that encircle the complex where Buddhist monks circumambulate to pay homage. Perhaps I should add that the gilded glaze you see was granted by an overcast sky. Imagine the spires when the sun shines brilliantly. Your eyes could launch into pain.
I allowed myself to be held spellbound.
Shwedagon has existed for two and a half millennia. Perhaps myth makers of ancient times visited here for inspiration. Clustered around the mighty golden stupa of Shwedagon is an awesome array of temples and zedis and shrines and pavilions and gilded Buddha statues in altars that defy description. One’s imagination can fail in comparison to what exists here. Temple walls are adorned in an endless display of reflective glass mosaic tiles laced with azure-tinted grout that lured me into a fit of mind-boggling amazement.
The golden glow you see in the photo above is God’s reflection of Shwedgon’s glory towering against the sunset behind me.
Often my eyes are drawn toward distraction. But with Shwedagon my attempts at prosaic amplification fail and my photos struggle to offer validation. Go there one day and you will understand. This place really exists. Kipling was not lost in a dream.
After Yangon I made my way up-country on “The Road to Mandalay.” Mr. Kipling wrote about this, too, in his book of the same name. Today the city can be a bit scruffy around the edges but its magic can still be found. The royal palace reflects in shimmering sunset-lit waters and you can climb Mandalay Hill to see its commanding golden Buddha with outstretched arm.
Most of Burma’s Buddhas are gilded . . . even the novice ones seem to glow.
But I found some moody-eyed white ones, too . . .
The lotus is associated with Buddhism because its flower signifies the law of “Cause and Effect” or karma. The lotus has the rare quality of manifesting the blossom simultaneously with its seed. More symbolically, the magnificent lotus flower flourishes most when it rises from the muddiest of swamps. When we find ourselves trapped in such muck, Buddhism promises that our lives can still blossom.
Being a Buddhist country, there are many historic Burmese temples of tourist interest. Religious structures tend to endure over time. Burma has some of the most colorful, if not garishly outlandish, temple sites I’ve ever seen, some with turquoise walls and red pagodas.
And perhaps big Buddhas are better. This one towers 423 feet above worshipers. The reclining version nearby is of similar dimension. Notice the tiny people paying homage and lending scale and check out the size of the two people standing just under the “G” of my copyright watermark in the righthand photo below. The tall Buddha stands in the distance just above the feet.
Or there’s this moody version of the same reclining giant from my previous trip nine years ago before his big brother was built.
The ethnic tribes in Burma offer interesting glimpses into unique lifestyles, especially the Paduang long-neck women from Kayah State. From a young age, they insert brass rings around their necks one at a time over time until their heads get far removed. One story has it that long ago village elders wanted to make their women look ugly so marauding Mongols wouldn’t be interested. Today these are some of the most unique women of the world. It’s also said that if they take their rings off, they can’t hold up their heads. Sad, but still this elderly lady has a presence of serene dignity about her even when she naps. At least she has no problem with her head falling over. Of course, this is no laughing matter. I found this other lady puffing away on a big hand-rolled cigarette while she lugged a load of wood strapped to her head. Clearly, her neck muscles are strong.
Despite staunch military repression, Burmese enchantment still envelopes this magic land.
On Inle Lake in eastern Myanmar fishermen deftly balance on one foot at the tip of their small canoes while their other leg is wrapped around an oar with one end tucked under their arm. They pivot and row in a one-legged corkscrew fashion while their hands are left free to manage the net.
With permission, I climbed aboard one of these tiny boats mid-lake for an insider’s view through the net. In the process I almost caused capsize. But the agile boatman executed perfect counterbalance to my photograph of his precarious stance.
Toward the end of my visit to Burma I found myself at the remote Buddhist pagoda of Yan Aung Nan Aung Hsu Taung Pyi. It’s a quiet place; I was the only one there. No crimson-robed monks were nearby. It was just me and the huge outdoor Buddha sitting there in a moment of ponder. I lingered for a while, then carefully folded my umbrella and put it away. The rain had finally departed, perhaps signaling it was time for me to bid farewell to this incredible land. Reluctantly I slipped back into my sandals and turned to leave. Then, off to one side I spotted a sacred pond whose waters appeared not to be clear.
I drew closer and found rain droplets dancing on lotus leaves that had defiantly risen from the muck.
And so, I leave you till next time . . .
See these books to learn about the unique culture of Myanmar.