Myanmar: Last stop, Yangon

We fly to Yangon, our last destination in Myanmar. Once known as Rangoon, capital of British colonial Burma for 100 years, it was reestablished as Yangon in 1989 when the Myanmar military came into power. The capital has since moved to Naypyidaw though Yangon remains the largest city and commercial center of the country.

We are picked up by Desman, our guide for the next and last 24 hours of our time in Myanmar. He takes us to a local tea house for lunch where I try milk tea, much like a chai beverage and naan with peas while Steve has fried fish wantons. All delicious. We go to tourist attraction #1: Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda that houses a huge reclining Buddha image with exceptional feet; 108 segments representing the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha painted on the soles. I also learn the difference between the reclining and the merely relaxing Buddha. One shows his acceptance of his death while the other is at peace in a leaning pose. Who knew???Desman is orienting us to this both marvelous and crumbling city: its wide tree lined boulevards and narrow cross streets; the beautiful parks with blooming lotus ponds, the tidal Yangon River, with ports to the sea and its riverside markets, the upscale neighborhoods with gates and alarm systems, art galleries, government housing for civil employees, the colonial buildings struggling to survive their age and disrepair and the huge monastery complexes that are intimately connected to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred of them all.

Egg plant decoration on a city street
Apartment building on electronics row
Classic colonial buildings repurposed and still standing

We are fortunate enough to find the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue open, the one and only in all of Myanmar. The original wooden building was built in 1854 and renovated in 1896 for the 2500 member congregation that enjoyed services until they left during WWII. Only 20 families remain. The temple does Shabbat, the high holy days and holidays. Usually closed on Sunday, they opened for a presentation and tour for an Israeli delegation and it seems for the Feldman’s, too.

Hanna Samuels, of the family that has maintained the temple for generations

I am excited to be finally going to Shwedagon Pagoda, the jewel of Burmese Buddhist shrines. It is believed to be 2500 years old, the oldest in the world, completed in the 6th century by the Mon tribe. We climb the ancient steps, pass the giant mythic leoglyphs, leave our sandals at the East gate, and wander in on the cool marble tiles that cover the entire complex. I feel like skating across the polished surface. The atmosphere is immediately one of peace and timelessness and awe of the beauty, the scale and the spiritual.

I almost float from one stupa to the next, the space is so airy and light. The large pagoda sits on a hill and is visible from many parts of the city. Like most stupas, it is made of brick and covered in gold. This most auspicious pagoda has many relics, including 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha. The spire at 330 feet, is topped by a parasol about one and a half stories tall and contains about half a ton of gold.  It is covered with over 5,500 diamonds, 2,300 rubies, sapphires and other gems, and 4,000 golden bells donated over the centuries by monarchies and the populace. I imagine a gold surface studded with jewels while in reality it is a structure laden with layers of people’s jewelry; earrings, necklaces, baby bracelets, goblets and the like. The very top is studded with a 76 carat diamond; all the gemstones a symbol of devotion and merit. There is a protective mesh covering the pagoda that, with earthquakes and time, required reinforcement and re gilding, the gold coming from the very business in Mandalay we visited 3 weeks ago. We are a week premature for the unveiling.

The Shwedagon pagoda dominates the central area but the numerous stupas and buildings along the perimeter make it cozy like a community park as well as a place of worship. People stroll, relax, honor their ancestors, their birth day, give donations and enjoy the day with family. There are novitiations happening for both Shan and the rarely seen Mon ethnicity.

A Shan novitiation

A Mon novitiation procession in traditional red and white

His novitiation is several years from now

We continue our explore around the city, lingering, taking it all in, knowing these are our last moments in Myanmar. My heart hums with overflowing appreciation and a twinge of awareness of the imminent nostalgia from experiencing something very precious.

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