Tonight is the robe ceremony at many pagodas throughout Myanmar and specifically at the largest and most imposing temple, Shwedagon, in the center of Yangon. It has recently been regilded and its brilliant gold-layered spires come into view on many corners throughout the city. As our group ventures out with our guide to experience this festival, I take Susan to the SOS International Clinic for medical care and then back to the hotel to rest.
Mary had spoken earlier about how Yangon has changed so much it is now a little like L.A., referring to the more Northern part of the City where she visited her cousin. Now I understand what she was referring to as we drive by taxi into the posh section of town where the SOS Clinic is located. I glimpse shopping centers with stores like Victoria’s Secret and Clark’s Shoes and then as we turn off to the residential area, see concrete walls on well-paved streets lined with trees behind which you can catch a glimpse of housing complexes and mansions. We drive through elaborate gates to the Inya Lake Resort which is where the clinic is located – which makes sense: high end modern medical care for the wealthy. With Susan back at the hotel well medicated, I then go by myself to the Shwedegon to visit the robe weaving competition. Below: looms set up for the competition in another temple. I could not get a photo in the Shwedegon due to the crowds. The competitors stay up all night and see who can weave the fastest (and perhaps best) monk’s robe in the shortest time and then present it in the morning to the head monk.
There is a difference between seeing places and experiencing them. What is remarkable about Myanmar is the people’s deep devotion to its form of Buddhism which can be palpably felt. We have seen many temples along our way the last few weeks and after a while one more gorgeous golden pagoda no longer leaves a great visual impact. But it is finding oneself among the families sitting and praying, presenting fruit and flowers to the various alcoves of Buddha images scattered throughout each temple, bowing and lighting candles and teaching their children to follow their example, which makes these temples stand out in memory. I think about Karl Marx’s belief in the abolition of religion to allow for a more perfect society and that certain totalitarian regimes have benefited by leaving the local religion intact to soothe the populace and allow it to accept hardships and inequality — such as here in Myanmar. When I arrive at the Shwedegon it is packed with people camping out, with mats and children spread out everywhere on the floors but there is less a sense of a great party then a communal form of worship. Candles are being lit and offerings are being offered up to Buddha figures and it is relatively quiet for such a large number of people crowded together. The golden dome in the center dominates the space and people are ringing bells to announce their devotion.
The next morning, Susan decides she should return home to get medical attention and I arrange for her to leave this very night. While Susan rests, our group heads across the bridge over the Yangon River to Thanylin, a local port. Everywhere we find large numbers of people at temples and in processions on the roads heading for their local place of worship, bearing donations for this holiday. The long-deserted Portuguese Church is the only quiet place we see today. Two young boys were playing in the roofless, deserted shell of a once well-used church.
The Yayle Pagoda is jammed with people. This temple is by itself across the water and is known as a place to obtain good merit by feeding fish.
Disembarking from our motorized boat, we see dozens of local people throwing rice balls and bread into the swirling brown waters below the temple steps as well as sizable groups of the faithful in various side temples. It is an intense experience to be a tourist among those who are there for such strong religious belief — and the numbers of tourists are few indeed compared to the local population thronging on these holidays to show their devotion.
Myanmar Buddhists have no problem mixing the sacred and secular. In addition to the steps up to most highly elevated pagodas being lined with shops selling trinkets, and the monks sitting with bowls at various places to collect donations, we have seen, in more than one sacred space, right in the midst of all the Buddha halls and altars of worship — ATM machines. Our times have taken a different tact from that of Jesus sending the money changers out of the temple!
In the evening, before dinner, Ginny and I head to the local fruit market only 2 blocks away and I indulge in my favorite fruit only found fresh in SouthEast Asia – Durian.
We have a last meal together as a group as Susan gets ready to leave for the airport and Michael and Mary leave us tomorrow morning. A good group of people. And, like everything in life, there is constant change and transitions as our group shifts form and shape over time.