Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Approaching the Shwedagon Pagoda, up one of four long wide and covered staircases, is like trying to reach Nirvana itself.
It takes time (ok, only about five minutes), patience (there are a lot of stairs that seem to be neverending) and good karma (by trying to politely decline all the offers to sell you a souvenir).
But, like entry to the holy eternity, it is worth it. Because here in the middle of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, is the breathtaking centre of the country’s Buddhist belief.
Shwedagon Pagoda is at least a thousand years old – although legend says it has actually been around for much longer. Over the centuries it has gradually been extended and repaired and it’s now 99 metres tall.
The (actual) gold plates on the exterior catch the sun’s rays and the whole complex glows around you. At the very tip of the stupa is a 76 carat diamond.
The stupa is the focus and each of the compass points is an altar where people stop to pray. But circling the base are dozens more small statues of Buddha and shrines where people gather to light incense and wash the figurine.
Shwedagon dominates the skyline around much of Yangon and all you can see is the tall golden spire. But up the top here now, I appreciate that there’s much more.
It’s like a large religious complex with maybe forty or fifty other small buildings around the outskirts.
Some of the pavilions have more statues of Buddha in various poses, others have monks sitting in quiet contemplation, or sometimes families are just relaxing in the shade and having something to eat.
The sounds of a choir lure me to one shrine where I stop for a while and enjoy their melodies.
Foreigners pay five dollars for entry but the pagoda is, naturally, free for locals. For them, it seems to be about more than just simple religion. It is also a bit of a sanctuary from the chaos of the Yangon streets below.
If you’re planning to visit yourself, I’ve got a little inside tip for you. Most people will go and see the pagoda and then go on their merry way. But at the base of the southern staircase is another pagoda that nobody seems to know about it.
It’s called the Maha Wizaya Pagoda and it’s quite unique because the stupa is hollow. But it’s not just hollow – it has the most incredible design inside to make it look like a forest and a ceiling which shows the constellations of the sky.
I was the only foreigner there when I wandered up to have a look. When I tried to inconspicuously take a photo inside, a man saw me and stood up from his mat.
I thought he was going to come and berate me but he actually when to turn on the lights in the ceiling so I could get a better shot.