Shwedagon Pagoda

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I prepared for my trip to Myanmar by reading “Burmese Days” by George Orwell and the much more recent “Finding George Orwell in Burma” by Emma Larkin. After reading both books I wasn’t sure I felt comfortable heading into the country with serious camera gear looking like a journalist. First of all – thousands of journalists are jailed every year in Myanmar. Many are jailed for simply expressing a popular opinion and many more for vague reasons that are never explained. The laws are so vague and flexible that the locals call them rubber band laws since the government can arrest citizens for pretty much anything. A second reason to not go to Myanmar was that they just held their first elections in over a decade. The elections seem to have been a complete sham and further solidify the illegitimate and brutal military junta as the “rightful” rulers of the country. Finally Aung San Suu Kyi, former General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, was released only days before my arrival in Myanmar. For those of you not familiar with her – she won 89% of the vote in the 1990 election against the incumbent military junta but the government nullified the results of the election, refused to hand over power, threw most of the opposition politicians in jail or drove them out of the country, and put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She has remained under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years and still has a very strong following. Her release was a very politically charged move. Thankfully Yangon was not erupting in violent protests while I was there, though that would have made the trip just a little more interesting!

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The first thing I did when I landed in Yangon was to head to Shwedagon, the massive gilded Buddhist monument on the holy Singuttara Hill. Historians say it was built in the 6th century but local Buddhist monks claim it is over 2500 years old. As tall as a football field and covered in gold, it is considered to be the most sacred Buddhist pagoda to the Burmese. Shwedagon contains physical relics of the past four Buddhas within its walls – Koṇagamana’s water filter, a piece of Kassapa’s robe, eight hairs of Gautama, and Kakusandha’s staff. Buddhists from around the world make pilgrimage to this most holy site.

Shwedagon was also the site of the 20,000 monk march against the government in 2007 so I felt it was a fitting start to my trip. It is truly a sight to behold, golden stupas in every direction rising up to the sky. Monks and non-monks alike praying, meditating, and performing rituals.

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There were hundreds of elaborate Buddhas everywhere. Many covered in gold, some had their own bizarrely lit shrines, and others were possibly thirty or forty feet tall.

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As it got darker, more and more people piled in to pray at eight different stations – representing birth dates. There was one for each day and apparently two for Wednesday morning and evening. People began to light candles and they completely surrounded the entire main stupa. It was absolutely breathtaking. The candles seemed to go on forever.

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Shwedagon is also where I learned how beautiful the children of Myanmar are. For the rest of the trip I spent probably 75% of my time photographing children and it is thanks to this stop. Despite all the oppression and hardships, the next generation of Burmese are almost universally happy and bright-eyed. That gives me a lot of hope for the future.

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If you do visit Myanmar, definitely don’t miss the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in all of my travels.

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