Monsoon period in Myanmar, and, specifically in Yangon, means that it rains a few times per day, without the possibility to easily determine when will the rain start, and when will it stop.
Due to this reason we have been postponing the visit to Shwedagon pagoda, country's main religious monument, for a few days. It was constantly rainy, with dark grey sky and no sun. A definite no-go, especially having photography in mind.
The last day of our stay in Myanmar is July 1st, meaning that there are no more chances to postpone. An early start, just before the sunrise, enabled us to appear on the spot at 6.30, before the official opening hours of the stupa, and in that way allowing us to avoid paying the 5 USD entrance fee. At last we thought so, until the security guards on their way to open the ticket booth noticed us and inevitably sold the tickets.
This, and not the looks of the pagoda, was the first thing that riddled my mind during the stay in the area.
Isn't visiting religious sites supposed to be free? From when is religion paid? Doesn't Shwedagon have a maintenance budget from the state? I can understand that some archaelogical 1000 year old temple may require repairs, thus, visitors' donations, but this is a bustling, golden gilded place filled with praying citizens.
I thought to myself "I've yet to remember the time when I paid for the entrance to Christian church", but dismissed the accumulating discontent with emerged memory of my discussion with one local, claiming that in Myanmar, the junta and religion are closely interlinked together. "That, and junta's thirst for dollars may be the reason".
"We are at least very happy with a weather" - I tried to bring myself back on a positive track looking at the blue sky, white clouds and soft morning light touching the pagoda.
With these thoughts I lost my concentration, slipped, and was very close to falling on the tiled floor, which was totally wet, probably because of last night's rain.
The water on the floor by itself was not a big obstacle for safe walking around the pagoda, but the requirement to be barefooted was. This is not something unique to Shwedagon - a visitor to any of the buddhist temples has to take the shoes off before entering. In Shwedagon's case the size made a difference - footwear must be removed before stepping on the first of many wide stairs. Climbing up, one has to watch out and avoid stepping into pieces of trash, plastic bags and occasional food residues. The challenge after reaching the top was to walk slowly and carefully enough, in order to not fall down and break a leg, as some of the poor monks obviously have.
Trash, dampness, bare feet - perfect conditions for breeding and growth of bacteria, and not only. What if I have fungus on my feet, would you like to follow my steps? What if somebody has HIV, and a cut on his foot, and I have a bruise as well?
I do believe that most of civilization's (or religion's) traditions and rituals are there for a reason, very closely connected to hygiene and healthy living. In that way, following the religion's postulates guarantee that you do not only live an ethical, but also a healthy life. I just have a very hard time connecting reason with requirement to be barefooted in buddhist temples.
Leaving the pagoda, we chose a different exit than the one we used for entering. There was an escalator bringing visitors down.
Guess what - we still had to be barefooted. Grotesque.
Otherwise, Shwedagon was nice and quiet, with random buddhist chanting and a spiked fence circling all the area.