A Golden Morning
One of the most popular excursions to visitors to Myanmar is a tour of Shwedagon Pagoda. The golden pagoda dominates the skyline of Yangon, reflecting the suns rays in the day time and illuminated in the evening. Most tourists go in the late afternoon to enjoy the evening prayers of the local people and watch the colours change on the stupa as the sun sets.
Having visited Shwedagon numerous times in the evening, I decided to go in the early morning hours. The pagoda opens around 4.30 AM, depending on the time of year, and a local friend of mine told me this was her favourite time to go. I had no idea what to expect but I trusted her recommendation and woke up very early on a Saturday morning and headed to the southern entrance of the pagoda.
Walking up the stairs barefoot – as is required when entering most Buddhist monuments in Myanmar- I was immediately struck by the solitude. During the day and evening the staircase is lined with small shops selling offerings and souvenirs yet at that early hour the shops were closed and there was no chatter from the vendors. I emerged on the base of the pagoda and welcomed the cool marble against my feet which in the late afternoon is radiating heat from the day time sun.
The tinkling of the small bells atop Shwedagon and the murmurs of Buddhist chants filled the air with a gentle melody. There were only a handful of people walking around. Most of the visitors at that hour were knelt in prayer or silent meditation. The sun began to rise and the colours on the gilded Shwedagon began to brighten with the natural light. Lay people came out to start to sweep the walkway around the base of the pagoda and those who had been in prayer began to stand and make their way home. I came to find out that many of that morning’s attendees come every day, starting the day at the country’s most holy site being a privilege for them.
I wandered out via the eastern staircase and was, again, taken aback at the contrast to the evening scene. There are many buildings to the east to house pilgrims from around Myanmar who come to worship for a day or week or longer. Normally in the evening they are quiet but as I walked by people were out cleaning, doing laundry, feeding the birds or neighborhood dogs and heading to the market to shop.
At the base of the stairs local craftsmen were opening their shops and preparing to carve wooden or marble statues or create Buddhist shrines. A small but lively fresh market was located behind the craftsmen and I went in to discover mounds of chilies, piles of bananas and other fruits and dozens of small stalls selling breakfast noodles and flowers.
From there a short walk took me out the side to where what could be described as ‘monk row’ was abuzz with shoppers. Here one can find a huge array of donations for monks – from robes to alms bowls and fans to sleeping mats. One family was there making a huge purchase and through a combination of signs and broken Burmese language on my side I managed to learn that her youngest son was about to go through his noviation ceremony to become a novice monk. This ceremony and short residency as a monk is a very important occasion in a Buddhist family’s life and yet the mother, to whom I was a complete stranger, invited me to attend. Unfortunately it was the next week when I was away but the kindness of Burmese and their hospitality never fails to amaze me.
I was beginning to feel the effects of my early wake-up so I headed to a near by tea shop for a cup of sweet tea and a bowl of noodles. Perched streetside, I had a perfect view of the passers by and Shwedagon gleaming in the distance. I felt as if I had truly seen a different side of Shwedagon in the early morning and it remains my favourite time of day to visit. If you want to escape the tourist crowds and feel the serenity of Shwedagon, I highly recommend a sunrise visit!
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