Nearly 100 metres high, the gold-plated and jewel-studded stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda stands on Singuttara Hill and dominates the skyline of Yangon.
To reach it from its southern side, you first have to enter a passageway at the junction of Uhtaung Bo Road and Shwedagon Pagoda Road, which is housed in a long, spired pavilion climbing the hillside. Inside, the alternating staircases and stretches of gently-rising floor are flanked by varnished red columns; and set behind those columns are rows of little shops selling figurines, flowers and religious souvenirs.
Yes, the passageway is really a tourist-shop drag. But I have to say that it looks very smart. There’s barely an ounce of the tattiness that you’ll find among the tourist-stalls crowding the entrances of most popular religious sites in the world. In fact, you have to remove your shoes and hand them in at a reception desk at the bottom of the passageway, before you enter it. Here, evidently, even treading between the souvenir shops qualifies as treading on sacred ground.
There are other entrances to Shwedagon Pagoda, on its east, north and west, but I don’t know if their approaches are as grand as this one.
I tried to take photographs as I ascended the passageway, but my cheap camera was defeated by the subdued but shimmering light that filtered into it through the various openings along its sides. Here’s the only photograph that achieved anything close to clarity. (For some reason, someone had left an open umbrella abandoned in the middle of the floor behind me.)
As I climbed the final flight of stairs leading to the entrance of the pagoda proper, I realised that the low, open walls on either side had, reclining on top of them, two monstrously big and monstrously long crocodile statues; their backs notched and serpentine, their jaws frozen in a bemused rictus, their eyes bulging and sinister. And immediately I found myself thinking of the children’s poem Crocodile, written in Scots by the late J.K. Annand, which goes thus:
“When doukin in the River Nile,
I met a muckle crocodile.
He flicked his tail, he blinked his ee,
Syne bared his ugsome teeth at me.
Says I, ‘I never saw the like,
Cleanin your teeth maun be a fike!
What sort a besom do ye hae,
Tae brush a set o teeth like thae?’
The crocodile said, ‘Nane ava.
I never brush my teeth at aa!
A wee bird redds them up, ye see,
And saves me monie – a dentist’s fee!’”