Myanmar has always been in my dreams, for a very long time. Despite that, for some strange reasons that make me loathe flying on small planes (necessary to visit this country in the most efficient way), the trip had been postponed and postponed. Finally, in March 2014, I decided I had to overcome this fear (as I also firmly believe in the guiding hand of fate) and after a few months, together with other two ladies, I was on the plane to Yangon.
I was skeptical about Yangon, thinking that it would look like a ‘run-down Bangkok’, but – to my great surprise- I soon discovered that it was – to my eyes – a beautiful city!
I loved the colonial buildings! Many of them have not been yet restored, and they proudly stand there in all their decaying beauty. They have nothing to do with the few and often too modernly restored ‘colonial buildings’ in Singapore or Hong Kong or elsewhere in Asia.
I loved the cute and unpretentious look of The Strand Hotel. The Sarkies brothers – the founders- were also the hand behind the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. But the Raffles- due to its modern renovation- has lost all its original charm, still visible at The Strand.
I loved the ‘Sula Paya’, a golden pagoda in the middle of a crossroad.
I loved the fact that motorbikes are banned in Yangon ( there are many rumors about this ban. One version of the story says that a person riding a motorbike made a threatening gesture to a military general…). I wish this could happen in Ho Chi Minh as well!
I immediately and immensely loved the people of Myanmar and their candid smile, their smart glances, their proud past…
But the place that blew my heart away was Shwedagon Pagoda, an amazing Buddhist pagoda 110 meters tall, dating back to 2,500 years ago. The Pagoda is covered in gold and the top of its stupa is encrusted with thousands of diamonds and jewels of any kind. To me, none of the sacred places I stepped in during my travelling in Asia could ever compare to this majestic site.
What amazed me was not only the site in itself, so vast and yet so warmly hospitable, but its sense of calm, quiet, peace, and – in a word – its unique spirituality.
We sat there, next to the paya (Burmese word for ‘pagoda’), and waited for sunset. The experience in itself was enlightening, and made me feel so blessed for being there, at the right time, in the right place.
My poem Shwedagon stems from all the emotions that overcame me during my visit of this sacred place. And it could not have been otherwise…
Once back from Myanmar, I immersed myself in the reading of The Glass Palace, by Amitav Gosh. I highly recommend this reading as a completion of this unique journey.
Here I am, at last.
Sitting below the huge and tall umbrella
Loaded with golden jewels, pearls, rubies and diamonds:
Offerings of time past and present.
Monks walk around the golden terrace at sunset.
Their eyes open, look up in search of the glimmering of a gem
Fallen from its nest, from the sky above.
Rituals forever calming down the souls of pilgrims
In the vast square occupied by magnificent sacred buildings.
A woman prays, surrounded by many Buddhas.
Not far from her, sits a monk:
Eyes closed, hands joined, mind levitating to another level.
Little bells are twinkling in the sunny air,
Leaving a tray of vibrating chimes in the afternoon breeze.
Birds are chirping softly and flying low above our head.
They too are gentle and discreet.
They too respect the stillness.
Hundreds of Budhhas in meditation, in prayer, in nirvana
With their smile of love and peacefulness.
They gaze at those offering prayers and donations,
Who search for a respite in their troubled souls.
I happened to be at the right time, in the right place.
On a sunny and dry March day.
The sky is a blue canvas devoid of any white paintbrush.
The sunset hits the huge pagoda,
changing its hues of gold into copper and orange.
Sacred stories of the past come to my mind,
As history changed its course, but the paya is still proudly standing.
Various people surround me.
Pilgrims and tourists walk barefoot,
Trailing their sweaty feet behind.
Everyone is silent, respectfully wary of this sacred place,
not daring to speak more than a couple of whispered words.
Suspended between time and space,
Blessed for being able to step on such otherworldly holy grounds,
I leave my footprints on the cool tiles,
Wondering if anyone will ever notice them
Or discern a trace of the passage of my heart,
Brimming with the immensity of Shwedagon.
Paola Caronni (01.04.2014)