In the late afternoon we hailed a taxi from the center of Yangon to visit Shwedagon Pagoda. We were dropped off at the bottom of a large covered stairway. We started up at the dark teak ceiling, climbing in layers until is disappeared into the distance above. Wildly flaming gilded decorations ran along the high walls. The shops lining the stairs were moving their chintzy golden wares back inside and closing their doors, leaving an unbroken line of wooden panels running along the cool stone steps. A neglected, dusty air of richness clung to the place. Whispering pilgrims walked gingerly down the stairs holding their sandals in an outstretched hand. Without knowing it, we had taken the longest, best-preserved stairway to the top.
Shwedagon pagoda is arguably the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar. It is an enormous, bell-shaped stupa covered with over 700kg of gold and topped by a solid gold “hti” (a kind of wind vane hung with bells) that is studded with over 5000 rubies and 2000 diamonds. A 76-carat diamond, invisible to the crowds below, sits at the top of the spire like a Christmas-tree decoration. A stupa has occupied the site for more than 2000 years. It has been damaged and rebuilt many times in the past. Around the base of the chedi are additional shrines, giant Buddhas, large bells and even a bodi tree grown from cuttings of the original tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment. As night fell, we could see the blinking, swirling lights that decorate the Buddha statues in their niches around the interior courtyard. Pilgrims come from all over Myanmar to pray and make offerings.
Unlike the booming towns elsewhere in South-East Asia, Yangon still has a neglected, dilapidated feel to it. The tenement blocks that line the grid of downtown streets are streaked with dark stains from numerous monsoons. Crumbling balconies overlook broken sidewalks while ancient, groaning busses dodge huge potholes in the streets. Hawkers sell cheap imported Asian trinkets along with fruit and other kinds of snacks on the narrow sidewalks. At night the streets to the north of the main thoroughfare are transformed into a giant market, selling everything from cast-off clothes to fresh fish by candlelight.