Day 23 | Wise old men teach us about Myanmar Buddhism

Our last full day in Yangon and my schedule was ambitious. Having covered downtown Yangon and the suburban circle train yesterday, today was going to be all about Buddhist temples, parks and the mythical creatures that reside in them. I called the tour guide we met two days ago Uncle Khaing from the hotel reception desk and made plans to meet with him at 5 PM for our tour of Shwedagon Pagoda – I was certain this was going to be the highlight of our visit to Yangon.

We started after breakfast at the hotel with a taxi to Kandawgyi Lake (translation: great royal lake) on the opposite side (east side) of town. The lake is famous for its huge Karaweik, a concrete structure housing a restaurant / traditional dance theatre made to resemble a classic royal barge. I’m pretty sure this giant lunk of a “ship” does not actually float on the lake.


The majestic ship is headed by two mythical birds called karaweik.

Karaweik front view

For those paying attention, this royal barge also serves as the logo for the ubiquitous Myanmar brand beer. Which by the way has one of the best slogans: it’s a country AND it’s a beer. Yes, yes thank you for reminding us the name of the country is Myanmar; so stop calling it Burma, you Westerners!

We then walked up and down around Kandawgyi Lake which is not large in area but is shaped like a serpentine jigsaw piece so we got some exercise tracing its perimeter from the east side through to the northwestern side. As we’ve learned throughout Myanmar, its public spaces are often not under good care. While walking across a long bridge, Maurice fell through a wood plank!

Watch where you walk

Just kidding, we avoided this and other holes but thought this would make a funny photo. After walking through the aging bridge we realized we were at a dead end since it led to a construction area for repairing a nearby hotel. We carefully trod back across.

On our walk through Kandawgyi Nature Park and Bogyoke Park (both are parks along Kandawgyi Lake), we saw a stray mama dog nursing her two puppies. First time either of us has seen a stray dog nursing.

Next, we walked north through some nice looking gated streets on our way to Ngahtatgyi Pagoda. We passed by the Bogyoke Aung San Museum (also his former residence) which was unfortunately closed on Mondays (today). Bogyoke (aka General) Aung San is a national military and political hero who is celebrated as the founder of independent Burma. He is also known as Nobel Peace Prize winner / National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s father.

We arrived at Ngahtatgyi Buddha Temple after some twists and turns on the hilly unmarked roads. The huge white Buddha cloaked in gold filigree clothing dotted with jewels was a sight to behold within its large airplane hanger-like home. Check out the intricate teakwood carvings behind the Buddha.

Ngahtatgyi Buddha

Surrounding the walls of the cavernous temple were dioramas illustrating scenes from Buddha’s life. I especially liked this one, a lot of the dioramas are quite cheesy, this one is cheesy too but in a cool way.

Buddha life story diorama

We moved on to the temple’s north entrance / exit, which had a long covered stairway leading to the road on the bottom of the hill. An old man wearing coke-bottle glasses approached us asking where we were from. He then asked us in very good English if we were headed to the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha (Reclining Buddha) Temple next. We were.

He offered to show us the way. Being the skeptical New Yorker I am, I motioned to Maurice that we will have to tip him. The elderly man who introduced himself to us as Alexander told us about himself: he had been living in the Yangon area his whole life, his father is Hakka Chinese and his mother is Burmese, he is a former monk and now runs or works at the monastery.

He told us a big conference was being held here with thousands of monks coming to visit from all over Myanmar and other nearby nations. He gave us a tour of the monks’ humble living quarters, where they sleep on thin bamboo mats.

Monk living quarters

He also introduced us to his monk friend who we took a picture with.

With a monk

Then Alexander led us around the monastery complex to the Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Centre where he showed us a large meditation class in progress. He urged us to take pictures of the monks of all ages sitting up front.

Monks meditating

And the nuns and other lay worshippers sitting behind them all meditating in mass chorus.

Nuns and other worshippers meditating

Alexander led us up to the covered path that led to the Reclining Buddha temple and said his goodbyes. But not before he told us he had an upcoming eye surgery and asked us to wish him well and if possible to give a donation of 10,000 kyats ($8). We complied and he was very grateful. He gave me the jade bracelet he was wearing as a token of his appreciation. Maurice and I were okay with being scammed by a sharp old man, he did spend half an hour showing us an intimate part of the monastery we would not have seen on our own anyway.

The Reclining Buddha here was quite different from the one we saw in Bangkok four days ago. It had the smooth white face and gold cloak very similar in style to the seated Buddha we saw earlier in Ngahtatgyi Buddha Temple.

Chaukhtatgyi Buddha

On his feet are carved symbols retelling his story.

Don't point YOUR feet at the Buddha

At the giant airplane hanger, I mean, temple housing the Reclining Buddha, a gang of small kids (around 4-8 years old) picked up little stray kittens by the necks and tossed them at each other. One boy even picked up and threw around the scared mama cat. Maurice and I were both horrified and didn’t know what to do. One of the older monks yelled at them and spoke sternly to their parents who were all sitting picnic-style nearby. The kids finally dropped the kittens and moved on to play with something else.

At the other corner of the temple, we saw this mama cat nursing her two kittens. Six other foreigners also crowded around to take photos and videos too. Locals didn’t seem to care. (This reminds me of Battery Park where European and Asian tourists love crowding around taking photos of squirrels while Americans just walk right past).

We were done with the two neighboring temples as planned. We walked back to the main road and waved hi to Alexander. He was leading another Western tourist across the same street and to the monastery and meditation center he took us to. Good for him. The next stop was either to have an overdue lunch or go straight to Shwedagon Pagoda to meet our tour guide Uncle Khaing. There were very few restaurants on the way to Shwedagon and we did not want to rush so we went straight to the pagoda.

Street leading to east entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda

We entered Shwedagon Pagoda through the east entrance this time, two chinthes guard this entrance as well. Two kids immediately ran up to us with plastic bags for our shoes. We both declined as we kept the plastic bags from two days ago in our backpack. I refused a few times and the little boy following me eventually left me alone. The little girl tailing Maurice would not back down so easy. “Your bag is too small. Take mine!” Maurice refused saying the bags are the same size. She tucked the plastic bag in between Maurice’s arm and torso and bolted away. Maurice told her again he didn’t want the bag. She refused to take it so he placed the bag on the ground and walked away. She then came back in a huff and picked up the bag. I told Maurice, why did she give it to you and run away? How were you supposed to tip her?

Chinthes guarding the entrance

Maurice wore shorts today so the modesty police demanded that he wear a longyi over his shorts. Go Myanmar for demanding that men (and not only women) have to cover their gams.

We took some more photos under that beautiful 99 meter stupa before meeting up with Uncle Khaing.

MiMo at Shwedagon

A little after 5 PM, we met up with 69-year old Uncle Khaing who was a little bit flustered since he rushed here from an all day tour he was giving another couple of downtown Yangon.

Uncle Khaing loves little kids and babies, during our tour he stopped to hug and kiss half a dozen babies. Including this little blonde baby that he chased around the plaza for a few minutes. He’s not the only one. Crowds of Burmese gathered around this baby girl, snapping photos and pinching her cheeks. It must have been surreal for her parents to be mobbed at every turn. It’s true that Western tourists are still sparse here, Maurice got stopped to pose in photos a couple times. But for a little blonde haired blue eyed baby, forget it, instant celebrity.

Little blonde girl and papparazzi

Instead of 1.5 hours as he advertised, our tour ended up being almost 4 hours long! Uncle K’s stories ranged from Burmese mythology tales such as those about the half-human half-bird lovers Keinnaya and Keinnayi

Legend of the bird lovers

To historical news about a 19-year old Armenian boy who found a secret passageway under the ancient pagoda which reportedly houses relics from each of the four Buddhas among countless other treasures. The boy reported that the chambers were booby-trapped and he retreated as fast as he could. A couple novice monks followed his metaphorical footsteps and never came back… Some real Indiana Jones-level stuff! The Armenian boy came back to Shwedagon as a 90-year old man and could not locate it anymore, as dozens of smaller pagodas, stupas and shrines cropped up around the plaza since then.

Sunset at Shwedagon

Uncle K also brought us up close with many of the Buddha images. He highlighted this one for example has being one of the most valuable in terms of how much bling he’s wearing. Myanmar really is blessed with some of the best natural resources in the world: jade, rubies, emeralds, gold, teak, and both onshore and offshore oil and gas. Despite such wealth, it’s a shame that its modern history and economy have stagnated so dramatically (but let’s not get into that with this blog post).

In the photo of this blinged out Buddha, you’ll also notice the cheesy neon LED light halo which is still all the rage in Myanmar Buddhist temples.

Blinged out Buddha

The highlight of our tour was when Uncle K taught us how to ask our Buddha and Burmese zodiac animal for good fortune and longevity. Here I am pouring one cup of water for each year of my life over my Monday Buddha, the first Buddha Kakusandha, and one more cup of water over my Burmese zodiac animal the tiger for longevity. (I’m a double-tiger as my Chinese zodiac animal is also a tiger!)

Maurice is shown here doing the same ritual with his Wednesday evening aka Rahu Buddha, the present Buddha Gautama, and his Burmese zodiac animal the tuskless elephant. There are seven days of the week but eight segments in this zodiac, Wednesday is split into two to correspond with before and after Buddha was born.

The second highlight of the tour was Uncle K pointing out the four exact spots to stand in the plaza to see the huge diamonds, emeralds and rubies on the gold umbrella topping the stupa. They can only be seen at night. Depending on the angle of the light, you can see just the diamond in brilliant white, move up and down and you can see that spot of light change to ruby red, orange, yellow, emerald green and deep sapphire blue. The orange, yellow and blue colors are created from a prism effect of the light reflecting off the rubies, emeralds and diamonds and blending into those secondary colors (sapphires don’t reflect light apparently). The camera does not capture this well. In any case, doesn’t the whole stupa have an otherworldly glow compared to its neighboring structures?

Nighttime Pagoda

I’m a bit obsessed with Shwedagon Pagoda, here’s a last look at it from outside the south exit.

Ethereal glow of the pagoda

We were really happy with the tour, I won’t bore you all with the rest of the anecdotes and fun facts. I will note that Uncle K is a pretty big deal in Shwedagon. He uses his big umbrella to shoo away any and all teenagers loitering around any parts of the temple that he wants to show us or wants us to photograph. He kisses all babies, no matter how tentative their mothers look as he grabs their children. And when four young photographers-for-hire could not understand what a customer was saying in English, they immediately sprinted to Uncle K asking his help in a translation emergency.

We parted ways with Uncle Khaing and gave him our crispest $20 bill. He looked a little disappointed and said he actually wanted kyats, he needed to pay his rent. We misunderstood thinking he wanted actual USD. No problem at all we gave him 25,000 kyats.

MiMo with Uncle Khaing

For dinner he recommended a restaurant only a few blocks away that he said was clean, had good food and had a menu with prices on it so as to not price-gouge foreigners. Kids were zooming around at a grassy area near the restaurant.

Children playing at night

We walked to the restaurant by 9:15 PM, but it was too late, they were closed for new customers. Never too late for ice cream though, so we bought two packaged ice cream cups from their freezer cart. Upon paying for the ice cream, we realized we didn’t have enough money for dinner anyway. We also didn’t have enough money for a cab back to the hotel, so we walked for 30 minutes. We started today not expecting to pay Uncle K in kyats and we did give a 10,000 kyats “donation” to our friend Alexander for his eye surgery.

Immediately, I noticed the ice cream tasted bad. It was mostly ice flakes. I discussed with Maurice during our long walk if this was because (A) Myanmar just had poor quality ice cream with very little milk, (B) this package of ice cream had been sitting in that freezer unsold since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, (C) the prevalent power outages caused this ice cream to melt, sit in room temperature and refreeze or (D) all of the above. Perhaps we’ll never know. However, this ice cream did give me horrible diarrhea and vomiting for the next 48 hours, but that’s a story for another day!

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