Measuring Social Change at Yangon's Iconic Shwedagon Pagoda

By Ben Schreckinger


Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. (Natalie Keyssar/GlobalPost)

YANGON, Myanmar -- On the first morning we set out into Myanmar to discover how the country is changing, we went to one of the places in Yangon that for centuries has largely stayed the same: Shwedagon Pagoda.

The 368-foot gold structure predates the city itself and serves as an emblem of the country. It has existed in its present form for centuries, and archeologists believe that the pagoda houses more ancient structures within its gilded walls (Burmese Buddhists believe it also houses eight hairs plucked from Siddhartha Gautama's head).

But we were concerned with more recent history. The day before, senior AP correspondent Aye Aye Win had expressed to us her skepticism at the breathless tone with which foreign media have been reporting on the country's reforms. The reforms, she said, had not yet changed the lives of average citizens.

So, besides winning merit by applying small squares of gold leaf to the chests of Buddha statues, we went to the pagoda -- the place where thousands of monks converged in September 2007 in support of the so-called Saffron Revolution -- to get a sense of whether the high-level reforms initiated since 2011 were being felt on the ground.

The hill on which the Shwedagon Pagoda sits is packed with lesser Buddhist shrines. The covered stairs of the approach we took were lined on either side with shops. The young shopkeeper at one stall -- whose wares included Russian nesting dolls and plastic Angry Birds figurines in addition to jade rings and small Buddhas -- said sales have improved  in recent years.

Kyaw San Oo, a 42-year-old tour guide who works at the pagoda, said the volume of tourists has increased tenfold over the last decade, to about 300-400 a day (Myanmar has only been open to tourism since the 1990s). He added that tourism has picked up noticeably since 2011. President Obama's November visit to the site, he said, has given tourism an extra boost. 

It's a promising sign that the country's new openness could foster a large tourism sector that sustains new jobs. But early on a Thursday morning, the dozen-odd tour guides hanging around the northern entrance easily outnumbered the foreigners at the site (excluding those in our group). 

Standing at the foot of the pagoda, Myo Myint, a retired ship's captain who has been coming regularly to Shwedagon since 1964, was in no mood to talk about political change. He hated the old government, opting to retire in 2002 and take a pension rather than remain on its payroll, and he says he's not happy with the new government either.

Instead, he insisted on talking about the personal change that daily attendance at the pagoda has wrought. Not only, he said, has his soul improved, but his health too.

"Because my soul is at peace, my face is also peaceful," added Myo Myint, who did not stop smiling over the course of an hour. 

He chafed at the notion that Myanmar is a poor country, gesturing at the golden pagoda and surrounding shrines, all lavishly decorated with gold and gemstones.

As if to make the point, he then invited us to a nearby shrine that doubled as a tea shop.

There, he ordered us an enormous mid-morning feast, which we ate cross-legged on the floor -- under the watchful eyes of nine gilded Buddhas.