Myanmar's religious sites and historic landmarks hint at its history

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Locals and foreign tourists are drawn to the gold-shimmering Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at night. It is Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site. (Photo by Wyatt Olson / Stars and Stripes)
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Locals and foreign tourists are drawn to the gold-shimmering Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at night. It is Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site. (Photo by Wyatt Olson / Stars and Stripes)

Myanmar's religious sites and historic landmarks hint at its history

by: Wyatt Olson | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: June 07, 2013

When I approached the taxi stand in front of Yangon International Airport after arriving in Myanmar recently for the first time, I asked the young attendant for a car with a meter.

She looked at me like I’d requested a cab ride on a snake.

“Meter?!” she yelped with a laugh. “Our country doesn’t have meters yet!”

And, that, in a nutshell, is a primary reason tourists are now swarming this nation nestled between China and India: modernity and crass consumerism haven’t significantly altered its culture.

Yet.

The sad irony is that the crush of foreign tourists — about 1 million in 2012 and estimated to double this year — could erode the very things that make the country formerly called Burma so appealing.

For example, the Myanmar government is preparing to sell the century-year-old High Court and Police Commissioner Office in downtown Yangon to a consortium of local and Chinese businessmen, who plan to convert it into a hotel. A grand red-brick edifice with looming clock tower, it’s adjacent to the Independence Monument obelisk that commemorates the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Together they comprise the city’s center.

The proposed sale has prompted public demonstrations, most notably a few hundred local attorneys who argue that the building is a national heritage site and should remain publicly owned.

International economic sanctions and a corrupt ruling military junta kept the country isolated for decades. But with millions of tourists crowding into the country, the impetus for more hotels is too great a force to hold back.

Many Burmese people are happy to pursue a tourist buck — one of which is worth about 880 Myanmar kyats.

It’s worth spending a couple of days, and a bit of that kyat, in the former capital city of Yangon before following the crowd north to Mandalay’s renowned expanse of ancient temples and stupas.

Even in the capital city, most men over the age of 20 wear traditional longyi skirts. Sidewalk stalls offer a concoction wrapped in a betel leaf, which is chewed by men for its euphoric high but stains the teeth red. Many women smear their faces with a yellowish cream made from the bark of the thanaka tree. It’s worn for cosmetic beauty and for its cooling properties.

Yangon is home to the country’s holiest Buddhist site, Shwedagon Pagoda. Sitting atop a hill, the pagoda is visible from many parts of the city, particularly at night. The center stupa, standing more than 300 feet high, is gilded in actual gold and glimmers under the daytime sun and nighttime spotlights.

Time your visit to Shwedagon for late afternoon so that you’re there after the sun goes down. Its transformation from daylight to dark is striking. You’ll also have a lot more elbow room during the day. Throngs of locals gather around the central stupa in the evening, visits that are a combination of religious observance and the kind of lolling that urban dwellers partake of in parks around the world.

Foreigners must pay $5 to enter. You’re likely to be greeted by would-be guides. I hired Saw Lin, a young college student, well worth the $5 fee for a 90-minute tour.

As we strolled barefooted clockwise around the stupa — no shoes are allowed in this or any pagoda in Myanmar — Saw explained the eight animal figures circling the stupa. Each represents a day of the week, with Wednesday split into day and night, all in accordance with a blend of Buddhist and Hindu astrology particular to Myanmar.

Thus, the day, rather than date, of one’s birth is important in determining the Burmese “zodiac.” After asking for my birth date and year, Saw pulled out a dog-eared reference book that covered decades to pinpoint my day of birth: Monday, represented by a tiger.

When we reached the tiger statue, I did as throngs of Monday-born have done in the past and poured cups of water atop the tiger’s head to bring a blessing upon mine.

Shwedagon is notable for its bell lore. In a northwest pavilion hangs the 23-ton Maha Gandha bronze bell. Paintings surround it depicting British soldiers plundering it from the pagoda in the 1820s. Attempting to ship it to Calcutta with the eventual goal of melting it for use in armaments, the soldiers dropped the bell into the bay while loading it onto a ship. Locals later retrieved it and returned it to the pagoda.

Two centuries earlier a Portuguese warlord named Philip de Brito y Nicote had stolen the massive Dhammazedi bell from Shwedagon. By rolling it with the use of elephants, he managed to get it to the Yangon River where it was lashed to a raft. The massive bell ended up destroying the plunderer’s flagship, and it slid into the Yangon River, where it rests to this day — despite efforts to retrieve it throughout the 1990s. (The Burmese subsequently executed de Brito by impaling him on a large wooden stake – the punishment for all defilers of pagodas in the 17th century.)

A short walk from Shwedagon is Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, which houses the largest figure of a reclining Buddha in the county. Stretching about 240 feet, the Buddha differs from similarly posed figures in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos in that its skin is a shiny, milky white. Its lips are scarlet and long-lashed eyes are shaded in blue – a much more “human” depiction of Buddha than most.

For a glimpse of 1900s-era colonial Myanmar, head to the Bogyoke Aung San Museum in the northern part of the city. It’s the former of home of General Aung San, considered the founder of modern Myanmar as a major contributor to the country’s quest for independence from British rule.

The museum was closed for many years by the ruling junta because one of the general’s three children is Aung San Suu Kyi, who headed the National League for Democracy party that won a majority in the 1990 general election. The junta refused to accept the results, violently cracked down on protests and, for much of the following 20 years Kyi was under house arrest.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Congressional Gold Medal and many others during her captivity, she was released in November 2010.

With the junta stepping aside to civilian rule a couple years ago, the government has embraced its founder once again. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday and occupies the general’s former home, where he lived from 1945 until he was assassinated July 1947.

Built in 1921, the grand two-story captures the colonial style of the time with high arched ceilings vented to ease the oppressive tropical heat.

The home is filled with the teak furniture used by the family, and photo exhibits document the general’s life – most with English translations. A collection of books in his library reveals his fixation on winning self-rule for his country. Among them are “The French Revolution” by Hilaire Belloc, “The Mahatma Letters,” “When China Unites,” “Memoirs of a Chinese Revolution” by Sun Yat Sen and “Empire or Democracy.”

In 1940 Aung San traveled to Japan to seek that country’s assistance in gaining independence from Great Britain. The Japanese government promised him aid and arms. Aung helped found the Burma Independence Army, which threw its lot in with the Japanese when they occupied Burma in 1942 during World War II.

But by 1943, he was secretly meeting with the Allies after it became evident Japan wasn’t going to grant the country independence. In March 1945 he led the army in a revolt against the Japanese.

Aung San negotiated the terms for Burma’s independence from Great Britain in January 1947. He and six cabinet members were assassinated by a group of gunmen six months later.

Shortly before he was killed, he called for national unity during a dinner speech, two sentences of which have been translated and greet visitors of the museum: “If you are divided into various groups like Bamar, Kayin, Shan, Kachin, Chin separately, there will be no effectiveness. Only unity among ourselves can be more beneficial.”

olson.wyatt@stripes.com