Shwedagon…and on…and on

I’ve been lucky enough to see some pretty amazing places in my life – the Taj Mahal, the pyramids at Giza, Machu Picchu, Mount Everest, the Potala Palace, Khan Tengri, Swayambhunath, Rakaposhi, Ushguli, Paro Taktsang – are you noticing a bit of a theme (or rather two) here? Mountains and ‘spiritual’ places? Well, the latest addition to the (hopefully ever increasing) list is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

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People (including me) maybe overuse the superlative ‘breathtaking’ but this literally did take my breath away. I am an inveterate atheist and nothing, not even an incredible, gold leaf- and diamond-encrusted pagoda is going to change that, but I admit to welling up and my knees feeling just a little bit wobbly as I got to the top of the stairs. The quiet beauty of the place just gets to you.

I was supposed to visit Myanmar in the early 2000s, but history got in the way. This year I was lucky enough to finally get there. And Shwedagon was worth the wait. Leave your shoes at the entrance, climb up the stairs with everyone else – monks, little kids, old ladies, young canoodling couples, everybody – make sure you have plenty of time and absorb it all. The first time I went very early in the morning when it was relatively quiet, with just a few people lighting incense and praying, kneeling on the soaking wet marble.

Possibly the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world (so some say) Shwedagon is believed to house various relics of the Buddha, including four hairs, and is 110 metres high. The pagoda holds eight planetary ‘corners’, one for each day of the week, with Wednesday split into morning and afternoon. Each day is also represented by an animal. I was born on a Saturday so apparently my animal is a giant snake (naga). I don’t mind snakes but I’m not sure I’d want to be one.

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When you come down again (literally!) don’t forget to collect your shoes – I almost did. Whatever you think about religion, whatever beliefs you do (or don’t) hold I don’t think you could leave this place without feeling at least a little moved. And then you can go on to the next place feeling enlightened…

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All photos by me 🙂

 

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Part 2: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

Thankfully I’d asked for an alarm call for my first morning in Thimphu as the bed was so comfortable and everything was so quiet that I could easily have gone on sleeping. The contrast with Nepal is striking. I’m so used to waking up in Kathmandu at about 5am to the dawn chorus of motorbikes revving, taxis honking, dogs barking, pigeons cooing, people chattering away, shutters going up, bells ringing for puja etc etc. Thimphu was the total opposite. The only sound was the chirping of the birds who had made their nest above my window. At breakfast I shocked the staff with my prodigious English tea-drinking ability. In the end they just gave up and brought the whole pot over 🙂 By 7.45 there was still nobody around, the clouds had begun to lift and the sun was streaming down onto the square.

After breakfast our first stop was the memorial chorten built in honour of the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck. The nice thing here was that it wasn’t just a sight, it was also obviously well used by local Bhutanese people, including those doing their prostrations first thing in the morning. I had seen this in Lhasa too. Some people do it for miles and miles, and in fact when we were on the road from Thimphu to Paro later in the trip I did actually see a man on the main road lying flat out, getting up again, moving slightly forward, and repeating the whole thing. It must take months to get anywhere.

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Most people here were spinning the prayer wheels on the way to work or school, and it was a peaceful place to start the day.

From here we drove up, up, up the windy road to visit the Buddha Dordenma, an absolutely enormous (51 metre tall) statue of the Buddha, which overlooks the Thimphu valley (and has great views). Many people from around the world have donated money to help finish the Buddha, which is still being constructed. Once finished it will contain thousands of smaller Buddha statues. An amazing thing to see standing guard over the valley.

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View over Thimphu from the Buddha

View over Thimphu from the Buddha

Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu

Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu

As I’m interested in crafts my tour included a lot of visits to craft workers. Our next stop was the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre at Changzamtog, just outside Thimphu. I was lucky enough to see some of the women weaving beautiful fabrics, which are for sale upstairs in the shop. I managed to restrict myself to just one silk scarf that has the most amazing colours. Many Bhutanese women have looms at home and spend time every day weaving; in fact I saw this myself on the drives through the country. The houses have wide verandahs that can accomodate a back-strap loom and a pile of fabric ready for sale.

Weaving at Changzamtog

Weaving at Changzamtog

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If you’ve been following the blog for a while you’ll know how keen I was to see takins, the national animal of Bhutan. You’re unlikely to see them in the wild unless you’re super-lucky, so I tromped off to the Motithang takin preserve which houses a few of these amazing animals. The fourth king was not happy that animals were being kept in an enclosure (I guess it’s not good for their gross national happiness!) so they were released into the wild. However, as they were so tame they ended up strolling round Thimphu in search of a meal, so they were put back into captivity. I was lucky to see them close up, as one of the takins was unwell and was being treated, so they were all close up to the fence. They are rather odd-looking but I have a soft spot for anything like that, so I really enjoyed visiting them.

Takins

Takins

Well hello there

Well hello there

The Bhutanese have 13 traditional arts and crafts (Zorig Chusum), including carving, painting, weaving, embroidery and paper making. I was excited at being able to visit the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu and watch some of the students learning their trades. I felt slightly uncomfortable at first, as I was worried about disturbing the hard work going on, but none of the students batted an eyelid. They must be used to tourists sticking zoom lenses into their faces and just got on with what they were doing. They have a shop onsite where you can buy pieces that the students have made. Touchingly the students write their names on the back of whatever it is that they’ve made so I now have a beautiful piece of embroidery made by a student called Dawa Choden (thank you Dawa!).

Embroidery class

Embroidery class

Painting a thangka

Painting a thangka

A paper factory was my next stop. Making paper is a laborious process – first the plants are stripped and boiled in a huge vat. The pulp is washed, pressed and dried, and then the paper is made. The smell is something you have to experience to believe. The end product is worth it though. I found the way they dry the paper on huge electric heaters interesting, as I’ve only seen it dried in the sun in Kathmandu (think of a big washing line).

Preparing the lokta

Preparing the lokta

Drying the sheets of paper

Drying the sheets of paper

The lokta bush

The lokta bush

The National Textile Museum was a lovely place to see. In the first toom I watched a DVD which explained the different types of weaving and how different ethnic groups in Bhutan make different types of cloth. There are then two main rooms of exhibits: one contains clothes that the royal family have worn, for example at weddings, along with some of the history, and the other was a more general display of traditional clothes and jewellery. This was all beautifully presented and if you have even a vague interest in textiles, I would recommend a visit.

The last stop on my full itinerary today was the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, which contains the government offices and also houses some monks. It is only open for an hour or so in the evening, once the civil servants have gone home, but it’s worth the wait. The buildings are atmospheric, with monks wandering around, and the sound of horns and chanting coming from the rooms on the first floor. The rooms are painted with lovely murals and one of them is lined with small golden statues of the Buddha.

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Prayer wheels at Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Prayer wheels at Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

By the time I got back to the hotel I was more than ready for a sit down, dinner and a beer. I had had a great day, and was looking forward to the next. But first another massive dinner to get through 🙂

Travel arranged by the lovely Thinley at Sakten Tours and Treks (thinley@sakten.com).

All photos by me 🙂