The number one attraction in Yangon, Myanmar

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The Shwedagon Pagoda is firmly at the top of all tourist lists. It dominates the skyline with its huge complex of skyward stretching stupas decorated in gold and white. There are four entrances, each prefaced by a long flight of covered steps. These walkways are filled with stalls selling everything from religious offerings to wooden statues and sun hats. The stall holders and their families seem relaxed, the children wandering from stall to stall, the parents offering up their wares with a friendly smile.

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The first thing you notice when you step through the entrance is the huge golden stupa at the complex’s centre. It is partially obscured by scaffolding when we visit, but its size is still impressive. The sun is high above our heads, glaring down from behind the towers, a beacon that you cannot look at. The tiles beneath our feet are burning with its heat. You can’t stay in one place too long, unless you strategically head for the shade. The huge central stupa is surrounded by many smaller ones that lie in concentric rows. Some of the ones nearest to the front have days of the week written on them and hold small painted statues. These are strewn with flower garlands – offerings from the people born on that day.

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The immense size of the complex is the most awe inspiring part of this place. You wander off towards a corner to look at something thinking you will return to where you started, but then you see something else, and something else, and it leads you on until you realise you have completely missed another section. Endless halls, stupas large and small, shrines with Buddha statues, rooms painted in every colour – they all make up a complex that is overwhelming in size and almost so big it feels disjointed. There is a hall filled with mirror work, the silver shards forming geometric patterns, embedded in walls painted an alarming green that is somehow balanced out by the silvered reflections of your face in the mirrors. A wooden hall holds a large Buddha statue with a handful or worshippers sitting at its feet. In a silver hall, a monk lies peacefully on his back, a bottle of water propped by his head, his eyes closed in respite. A big ornate roof balanced on four pillars offers shade to families lying together in groups, resting from the burning sun, snatching the chance for a rest. Tourists fill the complex – more here than anywhere else we have been in Yangon. The flashing of cameras comes not just from westerners, but from Asian tourists too. Monks take camera phones and camcorders out of their saffron cotton bags to take photos of the stupas silhouetted against the blue sky. It seems somehow incongruous to see a monk, with bare feet, shaved head and red robes, reach into a bag and pull out an I-phone.

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We wander through the numerous halls aimlessly, having long since abandoned the idea of following any pattern or trying to see everything. Instead, we meander through the quieter halls at the edges, smiling at friendly families, posing for photos with the locals. It is a wonderful place for people watching. We watch a big group of 10 or more as they all take it in turns to strike a big brass gong that hangs in the grounds. They laugh and the children giggle before running off, calling loudly to each other. To them this is a playground. We allow ourselves the time to sit cross legged at the base of the Buddhas, looking up at their immovable smiling faces and breathing in the serenity evident in the devotion of those around us.

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Sitting in one of these halls we begin talking to an old monk with a wonderful face full of character drawn with smile lines and age spots. He wants to know all about us. He shows us photos on his phone of people he has met here, at this pagoda – “These people are from Germany…These from America….China…..Thailand” He talks about his beliefs, about how if you do good things you have nothing to fear when you die. About how you shouldn’t love too much, or it will only bring you pain. About how people always think they need more and it never makes them happy, and so they deal with this by buying more – a better camera, a newer phone. It is never enough. He tells us we must have done something good in a past life, that is why we have been born in a good country, with lots of food, lots of wealth, lots of opportunities. His views are fascinating, a melding of religion and superstition. He laughs a lot. He talks of his own death with complacency. He is 70, which to me doesn’t seem that old. But his face is deeply lined and his back is bent. Life here is harder than it is in the west.

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Realising the time, we have to drag ourselves away. We are running late for our sleeper train. We reluctantly say goodbye and hurry out, down the long, store lined passageway, to hail a taxi and continue our adventure.

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Tips

Any of the four entrances are fine to enter by, though the North is the most popular. If you leave by the North entrance you can cross the road to the Peoples park. Entrance costs 8000 Kyat or 9$. You need to allow at least two hours to spend here. As with all religious monuments, a conservative dress code is expected. Cover shoulders and knees and you should be fine. This seems to throw some tourists, but a simple t-shirt and longer shorts or skirt solves all problems. The Burmese people do not dress revealingly, so it really is an important mark of respect.

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