On our first full day of the Myanmar tour extension, after a break for lunch and some pool time back at the hotel, we headed for Myanmar’s most famous and revered religious site – Shwedegon Pagoda. It is a pilgrimage destination and all Burmese hope to visit at lease once in their lives. I was reminded of Wat Phra Kheo in Bangkok, but the scale here is much grander.
Even the entrances are impressive, guarded by twin 30ft-high chinthe, or legendary half-lion, half-dragon creatures. A huge complex dominated by a massive single, golden chedi is surrounded by a veritable sea of smaller shrines, all topped by golden pinnacles. Unfortunately, the main chedi is being re-gilded so is covered by mats and scaffolding. But it is still impressive, especially the latticed network of bamboo scaffolding itself. And it is Myanmar’s largest temple - the stupa pinnacle stretches 322 feet into the sky.
The entire complex covers 12 acres and sits on a hill, adding to the sense of scale. At the top a gold and silver coated weather vane stands sentinel. It is inlaid with 1100 diamonds totaling 278 carats and more than 1000 other precious stones. At the pinnacle, is a hollow golden sphere decorated with 4351 more diamonds, totaling another 1800 carats. The ultimate top is graced with a single, 76-carat diamond.
The temple has an impressive history. According to legend, the chedi was first built 2500 years ago. Rebuilt or added to many times the present incarnation was finished in 1769. The gold leaf gilding began in the 15th century. The pagoda suffered numerous earthquakes, the worst in 1768. Today, it is re-gilded every 5 years - 9272 square feet. The work and materials are paid for by donations, primarily from devout poor and middle class citizens.
There is a waiting list each year and not everyone who wants to is able to contribute. It is not only the religious but also the social heart of the nation. Aung San Suu Kyi addressed thousands of protesters here in 1988 and the monks’ protests of 2007 also began at the temple.
But all the history and legends are secondary to the beauty and aesthetic appeal of the complex. When the last rays of the sun hit the complex all the gold its electrified! We spent about 90 minutes exploring the compound with its myriad Buddha statues, buildings, pavilions, stupas, and bejeweled monuments. As dusk fell, the stupa is illuminated, adding another dimension to its mystical wonder. The bright reflective gold is increasingly and dramatically contrasted by the darkening sky. It was a fitting end to our first full day in Myanmar.