With the amount of gold leaf that covers the surface of Burma, you'd think it was the richest country in the world.
We've remarked here before about the contradictions inherent in the state of the towns. The ever-growing piles of plastic waste, the dust-covered shacks where people make their homes, the ravaged state of men's mouths from chewing betel juice...
...and the impeccable condition of the pagodas.
Seriously, you could eat off the floor of these temples. They occupy all the best sites with their bombastic architecture, and hold this nation of Buddhists (80% of the population practice Theravada Buddhism) together.
The Shwedagon is probably the most luminous of them all.
We woke up with the sun and, after eating another fantastic breakfast courtesy of the guesthouse and picking up our laundry (Chan Myaye charges 6,600 kyat for a medium load), walked up north to Kandawgyi Lake.
Located directly east of the Shwedagon, it is a lovely place to rest and relax before embarking on the pagoda madness directly next door. Incredibly quiet and peaceful, with a fountain in the background and the Karaweik Palace in plain view. We were lucky enough to time our visit at the same time a Burmese wedding party waltzed past on the promenade in their best longyis. Another glimpse into normal life for people here.
But all isn't as beguiling as it appears. Beware of bold local children coming up to you and asking for money. They stand there, hands out and hardened glances on their faces, refusing to move until you either give in or they spot their next target. It reminded us of the kids who surrounded us at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, imploring us to buy something.
We distracted them by playing Gin Rummy. Kids are just kids, and for a brief moment they forgot about hawking souvenirs and just enjoyed watching us play. But here today, a combination of illness and dodgy stomachs left us with little patience. Maybe they really needed whatever they hoped to get from us. Maybe they think we're awful people. Sorry, kids, we were just feeling terrible, and you can do better than giving tourists the guilt trip anyway.
Only a few meters away from the lake sits The Garden Bistro where you can see Burmese businessmen in action as they broker their next deal with visitors from China or the Czech Republic. People watching's about the only thing you can do since you wouldn't want to pay what they're charging, and it's undoubtedly going to line government pockets anyway.
We came up the southern stairway of the Shwedagon and paid 8,000 kyat each (plus a nominal "shoe deposit" fee because you have to leave your footwear at the door) to spend the next three hours completely engrossed by this most excellent of all temples.
Dating back to around 600 BC, the Shwedagon Pagoda is the holiest shrine in Burma and also a massive symbol of national identity for the Burmese people. It is said to house eight strands of Buddha's hair, among other relics from his equally revered predecessors, and is a meeting place for many locals as they gather here to pray.
We started walking clockwise as was customary, and soaked everything in under the clear blue sky.
The giant stupa is crowned with a hti (umbrella) and is covered with thousands of diamonds, rubies and golden bells, alongside other gems. At the very top is a single 76-carat diamond which is designed to catch the first and last rays of the sun every day. If you stand at a specific spot on the eastern side at a very particular time, you can see the whole thing illuminated in a glittery light. Neil witnessed it the last time he was here, but we unfortunately weren't able to catch it this time around. If you do get to see it during your visit, make sure to mark the spot clearly so that others after you can enjoy the same.
No matter though - the golden sheen throughout the pagoda is enough to blind you regardless. The sight is truly arresting.
Wonderful as the Shwedagon is, one particular incident will stay with us forever which had nothing to do with the architecture. As we stood and took in the ever-changing spectacle of the sunset, an Asian female tourist walked by, paused right in front of us, and released a 10-second rippper of a fart before continuing on her merry way. Even the monks behind us stopped their dusk chanting in astonishment.
We don't know much about enlightenment, but she definitely walked off with a spring in her step.