Yangon is a ruin...a completely despoiled city. Everywhere there are faded buildings, the remains of British colonial rule, crumbling, once white but now with stains running down the front and sides. At ground level it is a warren of doorless restaurants and shops, vendors squatting in the streets, roads and sidewalks part concrete, part dirt, open sewers, habitations carved willy nilly into these buildings. Recent construction is charmless and utilitarian, and very dirty. It is a city where, for decades the people have been descending ever deeper into poverty. There is no visible evidence yet of the "Burmese Spring", except perhaps in the vitality and the cost of hotel rooms...
Just outside the central part of the city is Shedwagon Paya, the most famous and possibly largest in the country.
As we enter through the south gate - the only one with a lift to take us the five stories to the entrance, Elliott remarks that it looks like Disneyland for Buddhists. He is right. We have entered another world. There are myriad stupas and other temple buildings, pavilions, enormous bells and the most gorgeous statues, everything covered in mosaic, intricate wood carvings, fabulous murals everywhere. Many of these, including the main stupa are completely covered in gold leaf. It is hard to imagine so much gold in one place in a country so impoverished. Throughout the history of this place, rulers have donated gold - some many times their own weight in gold, for this monument. Whatever else has occurred in Myanmar, this is an unambiguously Buddhist country.
Today is Sunday and there is a carnival atmosphere. There are groups and families sitting in pavilions eating, ringing the bells, making offerings of flowers and washing the Buddhas. There are also groups of tourists wandering alone and with guides. It is a visual feast and we walk around the huge golden dome - clockwise in proper Buddhist fashion watching the sun lowering in the sky. Sometimes we sit and simply watch: the parade of people in this place of such beauty.
On a ledge completely surrounding the stupa, they are laying butter lamps. First, they place small black ceramic bowls, each one the approximate size and shape of a wasabi bowl in a sushi restaurant, in precise rows . They are filled with ghee from large pitchers and then a cotton wick is placed in each.
We sit on the marble floor in the center of the plaza, watching: a small group of students approach us and sit down. They tell us they are studying English and would like to talk with us for practice. The most outgoing of them, a young man of about 22, asks us questions about our travels and where we came from. They are very curious because there are very few Americans here. Most tourists from the west are European, predominately German, and they are excited about the prospect of opening relations with the United States. Although we are cautious about discussing politics - we don't wish to lead these children into danger, the young man is soon telling us that he thinks the "Burmese Spring", what the ruling junta calls "discipline flourishing democracy", is a reaction to the events in the Middle East. He tells us that they believe there will be a revolution in this country if there is not serious political reform. The young woman is most interested in whether I have children, why I don't have a husband and whether or not I want another one.... She seems a little confused by my independence. She lives at home and cares for her parents. She hopes she will one day have a family of her own.
As we talk, darkness has fallen and the butter lamps have been lit, reflecting from the stupa and bathing everything in golden light. There are candles attached to long sticks and we take our turn walking around the circle to relight those that have gone out. As we light each one, I say a prayer for that young man. I hope he will get his wish and I hope he will not be harmed by the struggle that is coming....