“I’m going to give you a present,” says the young monk and hands me a string of mala beads (prayer beads). They look like the kind of mala beads you could buy at any market for about ten cents. He then looks at me expectantly.
“Can I … umm.. .give you something in return?” I ask.
“Yes,” says the young monk and suggests a donation to a meditation center that his superior is going to build in a forest. I start to dig into my bag for a few Burmese kyat notes.
“We prefer dollars or Euros,” says the smiling monk.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The Shwedagon is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar (Burma).
- Myanmar has thousands of pagodas but the golden Shwedagon is easily the most impressive. If you visit just one pagoda in Myanmar, make it the Shwedagon.
- Good for: anyone who likes sacred sites or is interested in Buddhism, architecture or history.
The monk, with his shaved head and his maroon robe, had caught my attention a few minutes earlier. I had been walking barefoot around the giant golden Shwedagon Paya in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma). I was a little startled at first, because somehow I thought real monks are not allowed to chat to women. Of course it is possible that despite his robes he was not a real monk at all.
He spoke good English and we talked for a while about meditation. Next to the young monk sat an older man in similar red robes, and the young monk explained that the older monk was planning to build this meditation center in a forest. But of course the center could not be built without money. And this was where I came in, because in return for the ten cent prayer beads (and a promise that the older monk would pray for me) I handed over several brand new dollar bills.
The Holiest Pagoda in Myanmar
As the most sacred site in Myanmar, the Shwedagon Paya is the main tourist attraction in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. The pagoda itself is approximately 100 meters (330 ft) high – estimates vary – and it is covered entirely in gold. The main pagoda is surrounded by smaller pagodas, temples, Buddha statues, shrines and images that have been added over centuries. Pilgrims come from all corners of Myanmar to visit the holy site.
The age of the Shwedagon is even less certain. Legend claims it was built in the time of the Buddha, but archaeology claims it was probably built between the 6th and the 10th centuries. All pagodas contain holy relics and the Shwedagon is said to contain eight hairs from Buddha himself.
It has taken centuries for the pagoda to reach its current size as different rulers have added to its height and also to the gold that covers it. Queen Shin Sawbu (1453-1472) donated her own weight in gold; her son-in-law donated four times his body weight plus the weight of his wife. It is said that the top of the pagoda is encrusted with more than 4500 diamonds, although you cannot see these when you stand at the bottom.
I still carry those prayer beads with me. I don’t believe the money I donated will ever go towards building a meditation center. I would like to believe, though, that the old monk did say a prayer for me.
Practicalities for Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda
- The Shwedagon is open daily from early morning to late at night. Allow a few hours for exploring the site. The best times to visit are early in the morning or at sunset. The platform the pagoda stands on can be hot to walk around at midday.
- There are several entrances, some with stairs and some with elevators. The main platform is wheelchair accessible. Entrance fee is $5.00 (payable in US dollars).
- Dress conservatively: wear long skirts or trousers, shirts that cover the upper arm, and loose-fitting clothing in general. Avoid tops that do not cover your shoulders and avoid shorts or short skirts. Shoes are left at the entrance.
Copyright 2012, Satu Susanna Rommi. All rights reserved.