When we went to visit the Maha Myat Muni Paya, the second holiest pilgrimage site in Myanmar, a few people expressed some disappointment. They had seen the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the holiest pilgrimage site in Myanmar, and Maha Myat Muni was paling in comparison.
The Shwedagon Pagoda was pretty much the only place in Yangon I cared to see. Yangon proved to be similar in feel to many of Southeast Asia’s other cities: crowded, overladen with traffic, and multi-cultural. It had the worst driving etiquette I’d seen on the continent. Most traffic in Southeast Asia is navigable by a jay-walking pedestrian; you just need to be visible to the driver at all times and walk purposely, without any sudden changes in direction. Most drivers can respect this, but the ones in Yangon just didn’t care.
Anyway, we arrived in Yangon by night bus from Bagan. It was five in the morning, so we took a tea break before taking a taxi to our hostel. Luckily for us, our hostel let us check-in early and we all took naps until lunch. Then we had a walkabout and a nice stop in a park where we lolled around on the grass, sprinklers occasionally sending cool, refreshing and always surprising water.
We took a taxi to the Shwedagon Pagoda that night. As we were climbing the escalator, I realized something. They were going to ask us for the foreigner fee of 8000 kyats (~$8USD) and I could skip it. My face was heavy with thannaka, the golden sunscreen/makeup popular among the Burmese and this helped me look like a local. The entire time I was in Myanmar, I kept getting mistaken for Burmese. If I just stayed some distance from my white, European friends, I might be able to pull off the ruse and pay nothing.
I have never, ever taken advantage of looking like a local before. At Angkor Wat when I was paying for my three day pass, the lady who sold it to me actually asked me if I wasn’t sure I was Cambodian. And at Bagan, when they had all the foreigners disembark to buy the foreigner pass of $20USD/22,000 kyats, I expressed to my friends that if I had just stayed on the bus, no one would have even bothered me about it.
I am not the kind of person who breaks laws. But against a regime that’s using the money from these fees, not on the preservation of the temples and pagodas (something I would thoroughly support, and did when I was in Kyoto), but more likely on the ethnic cleansing in the North… I’m down.
It was time to go incognito.
At the top of the escalator, there was the little booth where you paid your fee and two or three attendants. I stood right next to them and I didn’t even register. Once they saw my friends behind me, they went to get the fees from them. I took off like a shot.
I walked quickly around the main pagoda, not daring to say a word. I passed Asian foreigners with the little “fee paid” sticker and was scared to death. I had never done anything like it before. I told myself that I was close to overdosing on temples and therefore didn’t need to stay at the Shwedagon for long. After the walkaround, passing by the group of monks in their burgundy robes, I left, trusting that my friends would go out the same exit when they came looking for me.
I ended up waiting awhile. Nobody paid me any mind. Almost as if I was invisible. Or, a completely, unremarkable local. At one point, I tried getting back up the escalator to find my friends and at least indicate to them what I was doing. I tried mimicking the way the locals walked, wondering if that would make a difference. Someone handed me his plastic bag for shoes as he left, murmuring in Burmese. It seemed that no one suspected at all.
Finally, my friends did emerge. They were accompanied by Burmese friends of theirs who they had met upstairs. The Burmese friends told me that I did indeed look very Burmese. My friends were very worried, and said that if I had just stuck around, their Burmese friends would’ve covered for me. In retrospect, I think I would’ve been safe just sitting in a corner of the Shwedagon, watching the sun fall. As it was, here’s what I missed.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is otherworldly at sunset and nightfall. It looked like a cover of a fantasy novel for a different planet, but it wasn’t. It was on Planet Earth, in Myanmar, beautiful and golden and lit like a birthday cake.
We had dinner at a local restaurant called Feel and it was delicious.
[This post was originally published on May 15, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]