After meeting my G Adventures group at the hotel in Yangon on the Saturday night, our first activity was to visit Shwedagon pagoda - which is the most sacred site in the country - on Sunday morning.
In pretty much most of downtown Yangon you can't miss this immense stupa - the city's defining image and a symbol of Burmese identity for 2500 years. We took an elevator up to it, but you get more 'merit' by walking up the long covered steps, so this is what the locals tended to do (bare foot of course - no shoes allowed in pagodas in this region!)
The stupa is built on a hill, enshrining the hair relics of the Buddha and has grown in size as gold leaf was added to the outside. It's now 98m tall and has more than 53 metric tonnes of gold!
Inside there is not just the large stupa but 82 other buildings - smaller stupas, temples and statues representing the guardian animals for each day of the week. There are 8 of these in total as Wednesday is split into 2 - elephant with tusks and elephants without tusks. Each person would make offerings to the statue that represents the day of the week they are born - with Wednesday morning and afternoon being different.
Can't remember which day this one was...
When we went it was raining and being Sunday lots of local people were visiting in their days off - so trying to get a picture without umbrellas in it was a challenge that some of the group were determined to try, not sure if they succeeded though! Walking bare foot in the rain made the ceramic tiles very slippery and after an hour there we all had pruned toes!
So a little education on pagodas for you - pagoda refers to a religious site generically, however the focus of the site can then be either a solid monument, which is a stupa, or hollow, which is a temple. Sometimes the main stupa or temple is surrounded with ancillary stupas or temples. The Buddhist belief in Myanmar is that paying for a stupa or temple will bring merit for the next life and for Shwedagon this is the out holy place in which to gain the merit - hence the 82 buildings surrounding it and also the accumulation of gold on the main stupa (gold leaf is commonly used as an offering around Myanmar - more on this later!)
After the stupa we headed out of Yangon up to Mount Kyaiktiyo, stopping briefly at the Second World War cemetery and monument on the way. This honoured the British and local groups who fought and fell in the region during the war as Burma was under colonial rule at the time.
When we got to the town of Kyaikto we had to transfer to a truck with benches (padded for the tourists, not for the locals!) to make the trip up to the 'base camp' at Kinpun. From here is either pay more to get the truck to the top, hire a sedan chair (!) or walk up the winding path. A few of us elected to walk and we got wet! Not from the rain, which thankfully held off, but just from sweat - boy it was humid!!
The reason to come here though? To see the Golden Rock at the top of the mountain - the third most sacred place in Myanmar. This rock balances precariously on a ledge at the top of the mountain and has remained there even through earthquakes - surely proving that it must be a miracle?!
The rock is golden due to the gold leaf applied by many pilgrims and visitors and is topped by a stupa containing a Buddha hair donated by a hermit in the 11th century. Interesting fact - only men bare allowed to get close and touch the rock, I'm not 100% sure why - there doesn't seem to be a restriction at less sacred sites.... So I paid Stephen to do the deed for me, I should have some merit for the next life!
We were lucky to have a beautiful sunset at the rock with most clouds chased away and those remaining adding contrast to the sky by being lit up.
We also saw some of the ubiquitous Burmese dogs - a lot of the dogs and cats live off the offerings at the temples and unfortunately with walking around bare foot and not paying attention to the tiles can result in some squidging between the toes - best not to look and just find a puddle to wash it off in!
Early morning cloud view from the hotel up the mountain.
The next morning we were up early to walk back down the hill - I think harder than going up - and also to see the monks collecting alms. All Buddhist households give alms - usually this results in an extra pot of rice and food being made to dole out to the monks at their early morning collections. For wealthier families it will include donating to the temples and monasteries - the monks collect all things, including sweets and cash, not just rice and curry. The food they collect is communal - gathered up at the monastery and dished out equally. However they only eat before midday - nothing after, I guess if you're up at 4am you go to bed early!
When we'd finished walking down the mountain we headed to the airport to fly up to Mandalay, the second biggest city in Myanmar.