I finally made it to Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city! On our first day, we hit the tourist track hard with 5 temples. Here are my impressions and some factual information about each.
Bohtahtaung Pagoda was a really neat pagoda. The gilded bronze Buddha image in the main hall was in the Royal Palace in Mandalay until the British stole it in 1886. They took it to Britain but returned it in 1951 and moved into the Bohtahtaung temple in 1981.
The temple also houses three of Siddhartha Gotama Buddha’s hairs and a bit of tooth. Apparently, two Burmese brothers (Tapussa and Bhallika) traveled to Gaya just 49 after Buddha reached enlightenment. They offered the Buddha honey cakes and he gave them 8 strands of his hair because he knew the “Buddhist doctrine would flourish in Myanmar” (according to the brochure given on site). When the brothers returned, the hairs were put on display here for 6 months. The king allowed the brothers to keep one each. One brother built a pagoda where Bohtahtaung now stands. Later other kings added 2 more hairs and the teeth. The other hairs were moved to Shwedagon pagoda. In World War II, the pagoda was destroyed but they found a cylinder containing the relics within the rubble. The well where the cylinder was found is still open in the main shrine hall within the new pagoda.
The golden room is filled with many offerings. The hall itself is built in a maze or star? of golden hallways displaying intricate decorations along the walls as well as an array of artifacts from various sacred Buddhist locations and traditions around Asia. The items are behind wire walls so viewing isn’t easy, but it’s worth a look! The other halls were interesting as well. There was a mirrored sparkling hall with a shining Buddha from Britain. Another small hall houses the teeth and a Buddha image for 8 different Buddhist principles. There was also a small pond with a bridge for turtle-viewing. They take tourist visits seriously at this temple and request you bring your passport though they didn’t look at mine. They also gave us a Yangon mini-guide that we found very helpful. The temple is next to the river and some cruises leave from the dock next door.
Sule Pagoda is considered the center of Yangon. There was an immense collection of ripe colorful fruit here as offerings. I actually felt that this pagoda was sort of typical for pagodas in Myanmar. It’s famous, but not characteristically special aside from its location. It was the center of British Rangoon and so all distances are measured from this pagoda in the middle of a round-about. It was also meeting point for political rallies. According to legend, the nat (spirit) who revealed the site for the Shwedegon pagoda lived on the place where this pagoda now stands. Also, another one of Buddha’s hairs is believed to be enshrined within the pagoda. From the park next door, you can see Independence Monument, City Hall and 1885-built Emanuel Baptist Church.
Chaukhtatkyi Buddha is housed in a warehouse-like building. The main hall is massive! Inside, there in a reclining Buddha that is longer than the Statue of Liberty is tall. The name of this Buddha means 6 stories in Myanmar. This Buddha is so beautiful he almost looks feminine, with massive eyelashes and blue highlights near the eyes. The feet are decorated with auspicious signs.
Ngahtatkyi Buddha is across the main road from Chaukhtatkyi and not considered a major sight in Yangon. This was however my favorite temple of the day. The impressive large Buddha inside is a really special one. It’s in a style that is unique to South East Asia, possibly even to Myanmar. He is “seated wearing highly decorated armour.” In the temple, there were several presiding elderly monks. There was clearly a festival of some sort going on but the atmosphere was still very serene. Lots of donations were on display, including everything monks might need from instant coffee to robes. We seemed to be the only tourists in the temple. People definitely noticed us, but weren’t bothered by our presence.
On the right side of the aisle leading to the statue there was a row of young seated nuns in their bright pink robes. Along the walls of the temple, there were many interesting statues of characters, some of which I’d never seen before. Myanmar Buddhism is interesting because there are characters and creatures pictured here that I haven’t see in other cultures in Asia. I know the traditional story of the Buddha common in the Far East but I am always perplexed by the dreamy and fanciful murals painted in a rainbow of pastels on Myanmar temple walls.
Shwedagon Pagoda is *the* sight in Yangon. You haven’t been to Yangon, and hardly even to Myanmar, if you haven’t visited Shwedagon. It is the largest golden monument on Earth (99 meters in height). It started out only 66 feet tall, but kings have progressively added to its height until it reached the present 326 feet. It is around 2500 years old. The Yangon tourist brochure states “you will find that words cannot describe its beauty enough” but I will try. First a bit more info from the map given for free at the entrance.
The pagoda’s shape is made of 10 different sections- the base, 3 bells shaped terraces, bands, an upside down monk’s alms bowl, a lotus flower, a banana bud, an umbrella, a flag shaped cane and a diamond bud. There are 3154 gold bells and 79569 diamonds and other precious stones. The pagoda is finished with gold plates, gold leaves and thinner gold leaves.
King Okkalapa, who reigned at the time of the brothers’ visit to Gaya, enshrined the Buddha’s hairs inside the chedi here with relics from the three Buddhas before him—the staff of Kakusanda Buddha, the water filter of Kawnagamana Buddha, and the netherrobe of Kassapa Buddha (later I want to learn more about these other Buddhas!). These were THE found Buddhas of the time so Shwedagon means “the Reliquary of the Four.” 33 kings and a queen have been responsible for maintaining it.
This temple is pretty massive, especially when viewed in the heat of the day. Around the main pagoda, there are 4 pagodas, 18 Buddha images (each in their own hall or shelter), 2 bells, a museum, Buddha’s footprint, a stone inscription, a Bodhi Tree, a pond, and several other sites I don’t know how to describe. Everything is glittering in gold and gem-tones. There doesn’t seem to be any particular order to the way things have been arranged. Buildings are at different angles with different stairs and entry ways protruding from the halls. In each cardinal direction as close to the main pagoda as possible sits one of the 4 Buddhas. There is a “planetary post” for every day of the week. Visitors pray to the “planetary post” of their day of birth. I thought I was a Thursday, but I recently saw a calendar and discovered that I am a Friday. Visitors wash the Buddha and pray to him at their post. Other temple goers are “taking a rest” (as my coworkers love to say) in temple halls- some fully horizontal! It seems like a place where devout Buddhists come to worship and other people come and just hang out. It’s an interesting combination. There are also monks and groups in matching longyis chanting. Of course, a large number of tourists are also present, all with their cameras at the ready. While everything at Shwedagon was beautiful, I found it a bit overwhelming. It’s hard to even remember which side of the pagoda you are on aside from the sun beating down on one side and the immense shadow on the other.
I really enjoyed visiting the temples in Yangon. I was impressed by all of the gold and glitz and mesmerized by the tranquil Buddhist calm. During our short weekend visit, we also fit in lots of great food, some touristy shopping, a visit to a lake, a train ride AND a foot massage. Also check out