Monkly business in Burma: Part 1

After four days in Burma I had learned almost nothing of the country or its people. My tour guide was Junta Government approved, a well to-do girl of significant privilege and very little imagination. She was not unaware of the political drama that has unfolded in Burma during recent decades, but was clearly unaffected by it. So one afternoon I escaped the organised tour to search for the real Yangon, and I found him sitting beside a stupa.

Uttama is a monk and he's trying to improve his English. Learning another language in Burma costs about $40 a term, which is enough money for a week's food. Monks have to work part-time to pay for their English lessons so meeting travellers is cheap practice. It can be hard to find locals in Yangon who speak the English language but you can nearly always find a monk who wants to try out new language skills at Shwe Dagon Pagoda.

Shwe Dagon Pagoda
Monks like Uttama travel to Shwe Dagon from across Yangon and all over Burma. All day long they walk around the main stupa in circles, chanting prayers to themselves or recounting parables to each other. Prayer halls and libraries surround the temple and are almost constantly in use. This an active place of worship and study.

Yangon's shining pinnacle is the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, resting on the highest hill above the city. Hundreds of golden stupas, brilliant white shrines, detailed statues of Buddha and deep maroon pagodas cover the hill-top in a bold display of colour. Shwe Dagon is a peaceful sanctuary from the cars and concrete of the metropolis below, almost isolated from the world's visual impact and its noise.

On a cloudless afternoon the sunset turns orange and the magnificent golden stupa of Shwe Dagon changes from yellow to gold to pink. Parasols on the tips of spires mute the last rays of sunlight and even the monks sit and pause to take a few photos. Spirituality can sometimes look as beautiful as it feels.

Wednesday on Wednesday

As I watched the sunset so did Uttama, a middle-aged monk enjoying a day away from his parables and waiting to meet a friend. Without the assistance of mobile phones and irregular access to email the people of Yangon use the temples as well known meeting points for social engagements. Uttama and his friend arranged to meet at the temple a few weeks before.

"We said to meet at Wednesday on Wednesday," says Uttama. Every day of the week has a designated marble statue of the Buddha located around the stupa and Buddhists offer prayers for their name-day according to which day of the week they were born. Uttama was meeting his friend at Wednesday's statue on Wednesday.

Once the sun has gone the scant number of tourists quickly thins out. We watched residents blessing their name-day Buddha with fervour, tipping cups of water over the statue and tying garlands of flowers around the neck. They meditate while they wash the Buddha, contemplating thoughts of kindness for their friends and family with each gush of water.

My monk walked me around some of the shrines away from the central stupa, where poses of the Buddha are as varied as Burma's ethnic groups. Palms facing up, out or away inform the well trained monk as to the stage of enlightenment represented by the figure. Symbols are hidden within every element of the temples, from the stepped roof top of pagodas, the lotus leaves embossed into stupas and parasols that adorn each spire.

Everything we see points to the different stages of enlightenment and lessons learned along the way.

Tune in tomorrow for the next installment of Ewen's Burmese encounter. Learn more about the country, where it's come from and where it is headed.

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Why not take a trip to Burma, and meet the fascinating people for yourself. Take a look through all our trips to South East Asia and find the one for you.


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