The Shwedagon Pagoda Experience
I was asked to try-out Khiri Travel Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda tour to take photos. As expected, this excursion turned out to be a photographer’s dream! Khiri’s tour of this iconic spiritual landmark is something different altogether. For both amateur and professional photographers alike, this trip into the past is an experience not to be missed!
Khiri’s approach to the pagoda starts at a small restaurant down the street from Shwedagon. It’s a down-to-earth start for the heavenly destination ahead! We sampled some tasty local favorites at a modest restaurant popular with locals before venturing off through some small lanes into the heart of the area surrounding the magnificent gold pagoda.
Souvenir shops abound, usually small alcoves and operating right on or near the footpath. Often located in a private home, the distinction between the shop storefront and the house’s living room is happily ignored. Here are some of the impressions I tried to capture on film:
- Early every morning monks, both young and old, are walking their alms rounds, collecting food in their brass bowls. It is Buddhism as it has been for centuries and very photogenic.
- Most men wear traditional longyi (sarongs) such as the two old men sitting outside reading their newspapers, a scene which probably hasn’t changed in the last 50 years.
- Modernity is juxtaposed on the past, hence the sight of a flower seller browsing Facebook on her mobile phone.
On a weatherworn stone staircase, a monk is happily chatting away on his mobile phone.
We entered an area of tiny shops, all stacked together selling vegetables and fruits. The vendors were a motley bunch either busy haggling with customers or quietly reading the morning paper. Everywhere I turned, I snapped more photos:
- Tools used are mainly traditional: hand scales, old sewing machines and pieces of glass.
- A wood carver sits outside on a kind of pedestal with a piece of wood between his legs carefully treating it with a chisel and hammer.
- In front of one of the massive staircase entrances to the Shwedagon Pagoda (there are four), flower sellers make garlands for those inclined to bring an offering up to the main platform.
- Vendors with birdcages offer another form of making merit selling captive birds for release in exchange for a small donation.
Up the flight of steps towards Shwedagon are many shops selling souvenirs and religious items. Chains of prayer beads are popular as are religious texts and images printed on cloth.
On the lower level circling the pagoda, we walk past the traditional wooden dwellings of the monks.
Finally, when we reached the top, the main platform reveals a complex of numerous stupas and small temples housing Buddha images all overshadowed by the massive centerpiece: the Shwedagon’s towering golden bell-shaped stupa. I recorded more impressions with my camera:
- A nun reciting Buddhist chants or scriptures in front of a Buddha statue.
- A young monk taking photos of his family in front of the golden stupa.
- Light blue mats make a path along the platform’s tiles since everyone is barefoot and the tiles get really hot.
- A young woman with the traditional yellowish-white ground bark paste (tanaka) on her cheeks selling gold leaf for devotees to rub on Buddha images.
Shwedagon Pagoda has seven specific “corners” representing the “day of one’s birth” where pilgrims pay respect by pouring water over a Buddha. Devotees sit respectfully with their feet tucked away while saying their prayers. Some stupas and Buddha images have received a different, shinier gold leaf coating. Besides visitors and tourists, there are also plenty of monks walking around, usually dressed in burgundy robes.
The amount of detail in the decorations is staggering. Some of the temple pillars are decorated with a mosaic made from mirrors, adding even more dazzle to the glittering colors. While a group of female devotees are listening intently to a sermon, others are sitting holding their offerings ready and a couple nearby pays more attention to each other. Plenty of crows and pigeons are enjoying some of the more edible offerings, while an old monk slowly shuffles forward while keeping his balance with his faithful walking stick.
Nearby, a red Buddha statue receives a lacquer coat and someone drapes a flower garland across the hands of a statue. Back at one of the entrance staircases a man is trying to spot the 76-carat diamond on top of the Shwedagon with the help of a large telescope while a couple cheerfully take a selfies in front of a golden Buddha. Pagoda visitors can sit with a fortuneteller hidden behind curtains in another small alcove.
We departed Shwedagon to go visit a huge, reclining Buddha in another part of town. I admire the details of the robe and the impressive inlay on the soles of its feet. Remarkably, my camera is quiet until a monk pops up to fee some temple cats. One last photo is the perfect ending to this spectacular tour!
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