A Keyhole into Burma – Shwedagon Paya, the mother of all payas

While in Burma I would eventually see more payas (temples) in 10 days than most people see in two lifetimes, including most Burmese, but none of them could hold a candle to the monstrous Shwedagon Paya in Yangon.

Aside from the towering main stupa (A.K.A. “pagoda” – a solid dome, often gold, sometimes white washed, that usually tapers into a weathervane-like spire at the top), there are 82 other buildings in the complex, including simple zayats (small rest houses) with a single modest Buddha and numerous pathos (temples) that are exceptional in their own right.

The main stupa is over 1,000 years old according to archeologists, though Burmese will testify that it’s closer to 2,500 years old. With various royalty and Burma’s rich and famous donating their own weight in gold leaf to cover the stupa over the centuries, it was estimated in 1995 that there was 53 metric tons of gold covering the thing with only the security of a bunch of monks watching over it. Very telling of the Buddhist mindset, eh? A similarly rich and unprotected fortune like that wouldn’t last seven seconds in any major city in the US.

We walked around Shwedagon for hours, during which time I rarely shut off my camera. Every structure, every Buddha, every angle was stunning, unique and seemingly going to be the greatest picture ever. One building had a photo exhibit of the paya, including close ups of the staggering amount of gold, silver, jade and jewels hanging off the top of the main stupa (allegedly over 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 other rubies/emeralds).

Wandering the compound, we encountered a ceremony for children being inducted into the monastery. Families offer their children to monasteries at a shockingly young age to begin their Buddhist training. The novice ceremony kicked off with a woman leading a procession, throwing out candy to the children spectators. Then the inductees, kids that appeared to be between the ages of four and eight, paraded by, carried by a parent. Bringing up the rear of the procession, the young, female, virgin escorts (my favorite part).

The kids were dressed in ceremonial robes, orange for the boys and a peach-like color for the girls, and all were wearing decorative hats. Arranged in front of the main stupa, the kids were put through some kind of oath while a team of photographers and videographers documented everything including, at one point, me as I stood to the side taking my own photos.


After the sun goes down, huge spotlights are trained on the main stupa. This is the only time that one can hope to catch a glimpse of the jewels shimmering 321 feet above. My guide tried his very best to position me perfectly, even taking my head in his hands to fine tune my angle, but I was never able to see anything more than a non-descript flicker or two. Though the general sight of this gargantuan illuminated gold spire was enough of an overall thrill for me.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.