“OBAMAAAA!” I was welcomed to Myanmar over and over with sincerity, and this was the ecstatic reaction I received after telling Burmese people where I was from. They would proudly announce my president’s name and begin the inevitable Obama informational. (I was the one being informed.) Almost everyone in Myanmar can tell you the exact time that he visited, down to the hour. Although he was only in Myanmar for 6 hours (duh, common knowledge), he made it to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is a huge point of pride for the Burmese.
Despite all the problems in Myanmar, he is the first president to visit, offering a ‘hand of friendship’, which has earned him a spot right up there with Aung San Suu Kyi as an icon of democracy. I would like to take a minute to say: THANK YOU OBAMA; travelers should never underestimate the power a president has on the way locals treat you.
However, Shwedagon Pagoda is not popular just because Obama visited. Myanmar is home to some of the most captivating, glistening, pagodas that exude vivacious, hearty vibes. Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is no exception. It’s even fun to say: Shhh-wedagon. Diamond encrusted, gold-plated, and enshrined with holy relics from Buddha, it is the most sacred site in the country- a mecca for the people all over Myanmar.
However, is its magnificence unfortunate? The people of Myanmar have so many godforsaken prayers that it’s almost necessary for the pagodas to be overly awe-inspiring. In a country with nothing else to fall back on, it’s as if the grandeur of places of worship must overcompensate for the weight on shoulders of the souls who have been undermined and repressed. In the context of this country, which holds so many in need of having their voices heard and prayers answered… no wonder Myanmar’s religious dwellings are so damn fabulous.
The richness and splendor of Shwedagon assuages the people of Myanmar, at least when they are inside its walls. It’s an asylum for peace and prayer in a country coping with violence and poverty. People spend the day sprawled out on top of worn oriental rugs praying, chatting, lounging, eating homemade food out of metal ware, and drifting in and out of sleep.
As I was drifting in an out of my own thoughts, an old history professor approached me and inquired about what day of the week I was born on (a very important piece of Burmese culture). Our conversation was brief, but before he left me, he shook my hand and said, “You Christian [I’m not, but I played along], I Buddhist, but it’s all the same! Just different in our minds!” He tapped his index fingers harshly on his temples. “I wish you and your family many blessings and the end of suffering.”
Feeling overheated, yet content, I left the temple, and sat on the entrance steps for a while. Inspired by ‘About Time,’ a movie that encourages humans to live each day in a lighter and happier way, especially if they got the chance, I went back into Shwedagon for a second time. The second time, I noticed the chinthe (the mythical half lion, half dragons).
Their roving eyes and loopy smiles stuck on their flat faces cracked me up, actually.
I smiled more and noticed some little Buddhas who were cozily tucked into their above eye-level crevices.
I was also interviewed by a Vietnamese news station on how I felt about being a tourist in Myanmar.
And I found some… polar-bear rats? Dog bunnies? Whatever they were, I wouldn’t have noticed them, had I not given myself an uninhibited second time.
Weather you’re a solo traveler inside the pagoda for the second time, or a Burmese man trying to forget about the troubles in Myanmar, there is nothing more encouraging than a safe haven- a place with sturdy walls inside of which your prayers can be heard, a place where you can laugh at unidentifiable, mythical animals, a place to where Obama has brought hope… There is nothing like Shwedagon’s splendor to assuage the weary souls and give tired ones a new perspective.