Shwedagon Pagoda – and how not to offend the Buddha when there

“A visit to A is not complete without B” – a claim found in many guidebooks and one I usually don’t agree to, because how is a visit ever complete really? Either way, in this case I’m going to have to make an exception, because a visit to Yangon simply isn’t complete without a trip to Shwedagon Pagoda. This place is about as impressive and magical as it gets. Visiting one of most important religious sites in Myanmar as a foreigner, or rather as a non-Buddhist, most people with common sense will put some effort into behaving appropriately. Needless to say, many tourists there still prefer to be assholes instead. But even if you try you hardest, there are some cultural tripping hazards around – trust me, I would know.

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We visited Shwedagon in the late afternoon – an option with both up- and downside to it. Obviously, it is a fabulous time to marvel at the pagoda, because around 4 or 5 pm, the heat starts to slowly decrease, allowing you to wander about the ample grounds without considering where would be the best spot to avoid the sun for a while. I can’t imagine being there in the midday sun and actually being able to concentrate on what I see – let alone enjoy it. Maybe it’s just me, but the december sun in Myanmar was SERIOUS, so I chose the time I spent in it wisely. Especially at the pagoda, where you walk around without shoes, the floor tiles roasting in the sun could be real bummer for your feet during the day. But let’s get to that in a second.

Late afternoon is also a great time because you will get to see the pagoda dazzling in the bright daylight, then radiate golden light during sunset, then shine mystically when it’s dark – I mean, how many more reasons do you need?

The fact that this would be the most popular and thus most crowded time at Shwedagon comes naturally (here’s to the downside), but I’d still recommend for everyone to see it at that time – it’s just too beautiful to miss.

footwear, no

So, what’s to bear in mind when visiting Shwedagon Pagoda (or any other Buddhist site really)? As has been said before and you probably knew anyway, footwear is prohibited, and that goes for every kind of footwear. Don’t be like the guy I saw who put his socks back on as soon as he’d entered. It makes you look inconsiderate and even if you think your feet hygiene is more important than showing some respect: You won’t get away with it anyway. (Also because you’re reading this, I like you and don’t think you’d ever do that in the first place).

dress it up… or down?

As to the dress code, it’s safest to dress modestly. I was wearing a simple t-shirt and a floor-length skirt that day, which would have been fine, but my skirt had a knee-high slit, which I was asked to close somehow or cover up with an additional longyi*. I jubilated because I had brought along some clips for just that occasion, which I used to close up the slit and feel well-prepared. As mentioned, you could borrow some additional clothes to cover up if your own weren’t sufficient – that would be a shawl for whatever bodyparts are popping out on top, and a longyi for the bottom half. Obviously again, some assface tourists use these only to go through the entrance, then take them off inside to look prettier pictures, but hey.

*= A traditional burmese garment worn by both sexes, but tucked in elegantly by the hip for women and tied up more pragmatically in front of the belly by men. It makes the Burmese look stylish and laid-back at the same time, and it makes tourists look like idiots, but it’s great fun trying to figure out the techniques for twisting and wrapping the cloth, so who cares really?

pictures

dscf2379So as soon as you look presentable, you get to go inside and be astonished. I don’t even want to try and give you a full picture because that is simply not possible, but it’s safe to say that despite the crowds, I have experienced such calm and silent admiration for the magnificient golden stupa that reaches out in the sky with 99 metres of height – to not even speak of the thousands of diamonds and rubies and whatnot that is glistening all over the place. The sight of it is simply astonishing – although apparently not astonishing enough to stop some people from acting obnoxiously.

I mean, if you want to snap a picture of yourself in front of this beautiful scenery – go ahead and do that. If you think it’s cool to take a fake praying position for your picture so you can use a medidation hashtag when you post that shit on your Instagram, well, I don’t really agree with you but – if you must. Just try not to disturb the people that are actually praying there, wouldcha?! I’m looking at you spanish girl at Shwedagon!

feet – nobody likes them

Another rule in Buddhist sites is to not ever point your feet at something important (not sure what it is with feet and their beastliness, but I feel you there). The thing is: At Shwedagon Pagoda, there are hundreds of buddha statues, images, bells, stupas, shrines, you name it: So the best way not to point your feet at any of these would be having no feet at all – or, well… you could just stand, but I can’t guarantee on that.

At some point though you will probably want to sit down to let the energy of this place flow over you for a while, so you will have to figure out how to do your sitting business without insulting anyone. I tried to just keep my soles on the ground with my knees bent, but it still didn’t feel right because my feet were clearly turned in the direction of the giant stupa I was looking at. Instead of awkwardly shifting your legs around, not knowing what to do, just watch the locals: Most of them tuck their legs in to one side, thighs to the ground, which makes their knees point towards the holiness instead. Apparently, it’s ok to have your feet pointing to the religious symbols behind you, and I just happened to be overthinking the feet thing.

I wish that would be true for the British gentlemen I watched taking pictures of the stupa while lying on the floor with their feet stretched out right to the centre of it. Wave your camera in the air like you don’t care, is it? They were acting right out disrespectful, even talking loudly about how you actually SHOULDN’T point your feet that way, but doing so anyway because of the good camera angle. I mean, could you fucking not?

on other inappropriate body parts

As I said, even if you’re strolling around there, trying your best not to bother anyone with your very obvious visitor-status, it can be hard. I really like to think of myself as thoughtful in that respect, but that still didn’t save me from interacting with the “tourist police” at Shwedagon Pagoda. (Honestly, I don’t remember if they were really called that, but I do remember “tourist police” forces at other places in Myanmar, so I’m just gonna trust Marvin on that, although I laughs his ass of everytime he gets to tell someone the story).

Upon entering, each visitor receives a brochure with some info on the place, which is great of course, but I wanted to look at everything first, then read later, so I didn’t want to keep the paper in my hands all the time. Without too much consideration, I tucked it into the belt of my fanny pack (ohh yes, you heard me, I’m not gonna pretend I don’t love these things), sort of onto my hip/or rather butt section, so it would be out of my way. I mean, it was just a map, right?

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It took about two minutes for someone to approach me and ask me politely to please remove the map from there because “it has the Buddha and you can’t put the Buddha on your…”. I don’t think he had intended to finish that sentece in the first place, but with all the apoligizes spilling out from my mouth, it wouldn’t have been possible anyway. I felt terribly embarrassed, although thinking about it, I didn’t do it on purpose and at least the offense I committed wasn’t one of those that a sign told you about every other metre.

There we are, Marvin in his fashionable longyi and me very uncomfortable trying hard to figure out where to put the map in my hand.

not being stupid

One more piece of advice I can only give to everyone: If you’re really visiting at a busy time of the day, and you’re not visiting by yourself: ALWAYS let the other person know exactly where you are. Marvin and I ventured about the grounds, sometimes a few metres apart, but at one point, I decided to sit down for a while and I THOUGHT he had seen me do so, but turns out he hadn’t. When I got up a few minutes later, I couldn’t see him anywhere. I wasn’t too worried, how am I gonna lose sight of probably the tallest person around, I thought.

But that’s exactly what happened. I couldn’t find him, he couldn’t find me and then we both started to look for each other in the dimly lit place crowded with people and that sure didn’t help. With no working phones on us, that started to feel pretty uncomfortable after a while, no kidding. To spare yourselves an hour of desperate walking in circles around the pagoda looking for someone, just don’t be like me and lose them in the first place. Make better use of your time and marvel at the pagoda instead.

Finally, when we found each other, we were both pretty worn out and happy to get out of there and get a beer to be honest, but as soon as we’d turned our backs to Shwedagon, I thought it quite a shame to end your visit like this. It had gotten late though, so instead of turning around right then, I planned to come back and visit Shwedagon once more on our last day in Myanmar, when we had to return to Yangon for our flight home.

When the last day of our whole trip had come, we were of course so exhausted that we didn’t go back to see Shwedagon as planned, although that did make me feel a little sad. But when we sat down to eat a last Burmese dinner that night, the view we were surprised with kind of helped me get over that.

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Quite ok, isn’t it?

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4 thoughts on “Shwedagon Pagoda – and how not to offend the Buddha when there

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