Monday, December 28, 2009

Vamos a la Paya

Our days in Yangon are spent in the old city centre of streets crowded with stalls and tea shops. Because of sanctions Myanmar, like Iran, is not connected with the international banking system and once again we are carrying dollars (in mint condition, no fold, no tears, no marks) which we have to change on the black market - the official rate is way below market rate. We change money with an Indian jeweller in one of the big markets. The largest bank note here is equivalent to 1 dollar, so we emerge with our pockets bulging with bricks of notes. At first you feel a little self-conscious with these voluminous bill-folds but then even the fruit sellers sat on the pavements can be seen counting their wads of cash. It soon feels normal.

In the mornings we see lines of monks parading the streets with black bowls tucked under one arm, collecting offerings of food from homes and businesses. Nuns too, in bright pink and orange robes and often a brown parasol to protect their shaven heads. They are not begging - merely providing the people an opportunity to gain merits. One afternoon we catch a bus to Yangon's main tourist attraction and Myanmar's most famous stupa: the Shwedagon Paya. The bus, an old crusty thing with loose bench seats and open windows that catch nothing but hot air, crawls through the traffic. Incongruously there are two flat-screen TVs showing Burmese pop videos and TV programmes. Nothing we see on Burmese TV ever looks like anything we see here. The people are nearly always white, often in western dress and the streets are invariably paved with....well, they're paved. It's unreal.

The paya can easily be seen on the approach - a huge gilded stupa on a hill casting the sun's reflection far and wide. We climb the steps barefoot to the complex of shrines, temples, pagodas, statues and smaller stupas. Momentarily blinded by the dazzle from so much gold up here, we stagger forwards only to be called back to pay the 5 dollar entrance fee. Shame really, because the money goes straight to the government. Shame also, because it appears that the lower half of the Shwedagon Paya is covered in brown paper. Like a modern art installation. And as with most modern art installations we are disappointed. This is a phenomenon we now know as the 'Milan Duomo Effect' . It is the sense of being cheated of the glory of a building by the untimely and lengthy restoration work in progress. (Friends from Milan tell us their cathedral is permanently wrapped in scaffolding.) But there's plenty to see - the complex is alive with locals who have come to make offerings, pray and meditate. A young boy is going through the ordination ceremony to becoming a novice monk. Plenty of older monks are hovering around and eager to strike up conversation with tourists - practising their English, talking football (not politics),hoping to solicit donations. Tourists mill around, listening with glazed expressions to their guide's explanation of the religious and historical significance of a large bronze bell. And cameras are inevitably to the fore. Anything Buddha-ish is gilded, usually by gold leaf applied by the hands of the devoted. Some Buddhas have been electro-plated in shiny gold and look more like C3PO out of Star Wars. The sun sets and night descends. The complex remains busy and peaceful.

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