“You can take a picture on this spot. You’ll get a better view of the stupa here” a voice told me in somewhat a better Burmese-English while I was taking a photograph inside one of the pavilions in Shwedagon Paya. I looked back to see a young monk with glasses. He introduced himself as Xanther. He volunteered to take my photo. Thinking about it, I don’t have a personal photo here yet so I obliged. He seemed like a friendly guy and offered to take me around the paya if I wanted. I wasn’t sure at first but he might be one of those young monks trying to practice their English so I let myself be entertained.
I really planned to do a guided tour of Shwedagon Pagoda when I return on my last day in Myanmar, but I did not expect to have little kyat left as a guide would cost about 5000 kyat. On my first visit, I was just looking around appreciating the aesthetics but never really understood the significance of each pieces there. Now would be a great time to do a tour. I figured if Xanther would ask for a donation it would be less than that.
The amount of detail in Shwedagon Paya can be really overwhelming and it’s a good idea to look at them in parts. Here are some things that I remember Xanther told me.
+ At this year (late 2011 when I visited) they are commemorating the 2600 years of the Pagoda. Items and memorabilia are sold there.
+ The Shwedagon is literally a treasure trove, the main stupa has layers of Gold Leaf accumulated through the years.
+ At the center of the stupa, there is a 3-feet Buddha made of pure gold. No one can get inside or see it aside from the LCD screens outside.
+ There’s a 200-year-old Banyan Tree there from India where people lined up to make a human chain to distribute water to the tree from a far away lake to make sure it grows in a hot and humid day.
+ There are other elements of the paya that were donated by other countries and entities amalgamated that its easy to miss. Like this one bell donated from Korea or a pure jade Buddha encased in glass, crowned with real diamonds and rubies donated by a Mining Company
+ The best time to look into the binocular stations would be around 6-6:30pm where the jewel-studded umbrella at the top of the main stupa would be beamed with light and would gloriously sparkle in different colors
+ Of course he also explained the concept of the bathing Buddha as it brings cleansing and good fortune to those would practice the ritual. (I also partook of the very short ritual)
In the duration of the tour, I also learned a lot from this young monk. He’s 28-years old and has been a monk for 6-7 years. He has been studying English on a school outside their monastery for 2 years which explains why he is good in English with only a few minor lapses in grammar. He came from a province west of Myanmar near the border of Bangladesh. He claims his blood is half Bangladesh and half Myanmar. He calls those people like himself Rakhine, one of the Ethnic groups of Myanmar.
As our last stop, Xanther showed me his favorite meditation spot. A quiet corner behind multiple giant Buddhas. That is when he asked for his donation of 4000 kyat. I found it ridiculous and sad at the same time that he had to put a price on a “donation”. Unfortunately for him, I’m down to my last few kyat and could only give him half.
I stayed for a while until dark not only to capture the dying light but also think of what had transpired. More than a week in a Myanmar and I still somehow got duped by an act of pseudo-kindness. But I’m not leaving Myanmar with that impression but of understanding. Myanmar with its exotic beauty is also home to people who have lived a life of long-term repression. A lot yearn for connection from the outside world, but they also try to live the best way they can.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.