I'll begin my account of my travels in Burma with the first site that we visited upon touching down in Yangon and after setting our things down at our guesthouse. We went to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, a very important religious site for the Burmese and perhaps the biggest attraction that Yangon offers.
Tourists pay a small fee for entering and must wear very conservative clothing. If you are wearing shorts or an above-the-knee skirt, then you are asked to wear a longyi, which is a traditional cloth folded into a skirt that both men and women wear. Additionally, we had to take off our shoes before entering the pagoda. We went right around sunset, the best time as the fading sunlight catches upon the golden temples and statues quite beautifully!
There are several entrances to the pagoda. I forgot which side we entered from but the doors were guarded by two enormous lion statues. There is a great hall, and escalators inside to take visitors up into the actual pagoda area. I was not sure what to expect at all.
It's simply stunning. At the top of all the escalators is a surreal land of shiny temples, statues, Buddhas. Local Burmese families mix with tourists from all countries. People mill about, some praying, engaging in religious rituals, taking photos. Reverence fills the air.
Everywhere I looked, the architecture was breathtaking. There were almost too many points of interests - I couldn't focus on any one object since there were hundreds more to look at - shiny, carved rooftops, temples, various deities, fountains, burning incense. Everything was so detailed and intricate, and full of symbolism that I sadly did not understand.
The golden pagoda, the one at the center, is the main religious feature of the whole area. It's the building at the left in my photo below. The photo doesn't depict the scale accurately, but it's enormous and towers over most of the surrounding area. It's about 100 meters tall! There is a large diamond bud at the top.
Shwedagon was at once peaceful and bustling with people. We spent about an hour there, looking around at the architecture. At dusk we sat down before one of the temples and watch the play of light on the pagoda as the sun slowly set. Later, we went back down to collect our shoes and to wash off our feet, which had by that time collected a pretty thick layer of dirt and dust!
I wish I could have gone back at night time, as it must be a completely different visual experience. The pagoda does open until 10pm.
The popularity of the pagoda reflects the highly religious nature of Burmese society. I've never seen such a high concentration of monks before in general public. The men wear dark crimson flowing robes, and I later saw some female monks wearing bright pink robes. Some cite these strong Buddhist beliefs as a reason why the country is relatively safe.
I definitely felt very safe walking around Yangon, even alone. I find in a lot of countries where I stick out as a tourist, people will notice me and try to aggressively sell me things or offer me a ride in a taxi or tuk tuk - for example, in Cambodia. In this type of atmosphere I often feel defensive and stressed when walking around, and do not feel like interacting much. It's natural - no one wants to feel taken advantage of!
In contrast, in Myanmar, though I did stand out, people mostly paid me attention out of curiosity or a desire to learn more about me, or to help me find my way to a place. I was greeted most often with a simple "min-ga-la-ba," which means hello. People were really kind and gentle, and I felt that most people did not try to take advantage of the fact that I was a foreigner - besides some taxi drivers who maybe would try to charge me 1000kyat ($1) more than they would a local.
Perhaps this is the case because the country is still opening up and a tourist industry has not fully formed yet - I'm not sure! I like it the way it is now though; I was able to comfortably interact with and talk to more Burmese people. Who knows what will happen in a few years though?