February 2 to 4, 2019
After Phuket we spent two days at sea before reaching Yangon, Myanmar. The ship docked around two in the afternoon, where it remained overnight. Two hours later we climbed aboard coaches and rode through the city’s colonial centre on our way to the Shwedagon Pagoda, glistening gold on Singuttura Hill atop the Yangon skyline as sunset approached.
The Shwedagon pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar, stands 100 meters tall (326 feet) on a six-hectare terrace, which the temple shares with other pagodas, shrines and a museum, among other things. The pagoda culminates in a 22-inch orb encrusted with 4,351 diamonds having a total weight of 1,800 carats. The apex diamond weighs 76 carats. (What an engagement ring that would make, eh?)
We stayed a couple of hours, wandering around awestruck. It struck me as somewhat odd to see flashing neon halos around the statues of so many Buddha statues, a bit Las Vegas.
A cadaverous monk sitting in deep meditation in front of a shrine fascinated me. He sat as inert as the Buddha in the shrine behind him, his eyes closed and not a flicker of life emanating from him.
I watched him for a long time, wondering whether spending long periods of one’s daily life with body and mind completely separated served any useful purpose other than to stop his own suffering. If we all spent our time that way, who would grow food? How would we attend to each other? Then the universe sent me the answer by way of a fellow passenger, an elderly gentleman, a former university professor of religion. He told me action is not confined to bodily movement. He said such monks serve as an example that existence extends beyond the body, and that accessing that realm can influence the physical world to the good while the rest of us stumble along on the continuum between very good and very evil.
According to legend, the main pagoda houses eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha brought by two traders, which the then king enshrined in a 66-foot temple. In the 15th century queen Shin Saw Pu had the temple raised to a height of 302 feet and donated her weight in gold. Since then individuals and groups have donated the gold leaf which today covers the temple. The temple reached its current height in 1774 when King Sinbyushin had it rebuilt.
Bright and early the following morning, a Sunday, we boarded coaches once more. This time we went to the newly renovated National Museum and its five floors of treasures.
The highlight was the 150-year-old Lion Throne, last used by King Thibaw, the last king of Myanmar, in his judicial role before the country was annexed by the British Empire. It is constructed of gilded Yamanay wood. This throne is the only remaining one of nine thrones remaining intact. The other eight were destroyed during WWII.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, since anything that glitters attracts me my next favourite exhibits were in the royal regalia and ancient ornaments showrooms. Objects fashioned out of pure gold and studded with jewels.
Our visit lasted only an hour, only long enough to zip through the national races, the epigraphy and calligraphy showrooms, and the art gallery. I would happily have spent the day there.
On the way back to the ship, we stopped at the Bogyoke Aung San Market (once known as the Scott Market) where I only had time to check out a small percentage of the more than 1,600 stalls selling everything from antiques to clothing to lacquerware, jewellery (yes!) and street food. In the end I ended up buying only one item: a dressy royal blue cotton top with a lovely beaded front. The cost $5 U.S.
We had lunch on the ship then Felicia and I headed off to explore what we could of the city on foot. The part of the city accessible on foot can’t be described as pretty. But the people are truly friendly. The street food looked luscious, but I do so much eating on the ship food is the last thing I’m interested in when I go ashore.
We walked and walked, drenched from the heat. At one point we stopped at the British consulate to asked for directions to a non-profit store which sells goods made by impoverished local women. Would you believe they gave us the wrong directions?
Towards the end of the afternoon, the pair of us ended up having a cocktail (yes, the teetotaler I am had a cocktail) at the gorgeous, century-old Stand Hotel. We sipped the drinks in the hotel’s Sarkies Bar, named in honour of the Sarkies brothers, the original owners of the Strand, where such luminaries as Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Orson Welles hung out in days gone by.
Next stop: A return visit to Port Blair, Andaman Islands