For the downtown area the Sule Pagoda in Yangon is a good starting point for touring the area. It is the major temple of the downtown area and can easily be found towering over the intersection of Maha Bandula and the Sule Pagoda Road. When I visit it was during the Thingyan festival (Myanmar New Year) as I stayed in nearby Chinatown. While not quite as majestic as the Shwedagon Pagoda the Sule Pagoda in Yangon is more local and a lot less touristy. For entrance there is a $3 fee paid at each gate, leave your shoes at the door and poke around. On my visit t0 Sule Pagoda I am joined by a guide (and scam) who tours the temple with me, guiding me through the processes of merit making.
Walking the perimeter of the Pagoda are a number of small Buddha statues decorated with flowers and water bowls and at the foot of each Buddha is an animal statue which signifies the individual day of the Burmese Zodiac. The Burmese Zodiac pairs a day of the week to the Gods of Burmese animist tradition; Sunday (Garuda), Monday (Tiger), Tuesday (Lion), Wednesday (Elephant), Thursday (Rat), Friday (Guinea Pig), Saturday (Naga). We search Sule Pagoda to find my given animal which corresponds to the day on which I was born – Monday and the tiger. Like many I was clueless to the day I was born and the guide flicks through a book to find it. At the tiger shrine I pour nine small cups of water on the Buddha statue which (I think) represent the nine Gods of Burmese animist tradition. I then pour five small cups to the Tiger statue below for good fortune to my five immediate family (my parents, my wife, my cat and myself).
As with most temples I follow the usual traditions of merit making at Sule Pagoda, I hit the temple gong five times, I press five pieces of gold-leaf to a larger Buddha statue, I donate $0.50 to the fingers of an obscure statue and I join locals in prayer and listen to Buddhist scripture. Again the significance of the five time repetition is one for each member of my immediate family.
Scammers are simple to spot at Sule Pagoda, the conversation starts “hello, what country are you from” followed by pushy politeness and helpfulness. I knew from the start that my guide was a scam but I go along with it anyway, knowing either way I wouldn’t part with any unwarranted money. The ‘guide’ says he teaches at the temple and was happy to show me around, he insists he wants no money. I follow the guide with the only intention of a $5 donation or tip at the end. I make small donations along the way. Of course arriving to the end he asks for $20 to cover the cost of gold leaf (as above). Note gold leaf costs next to nothing so I tell him this. He says $10 for the gold leaf and $10 for his assistance, which he had before insisted was free. Instead of the $5 I planned to part with I give $2.50 and leave Sule Pagoda.
Often the best time to visiting Yangon’s Pagodas is night time when the golden Chedi’s are lit up for the perfect photo op. Pagodas also stay open to late and locals bustle through Sule Pagoda from 0.400am to 10.00pm on everyday of the year. Directly next to Sule Pagoda is Independence Monument and park with dancing fountains, lighting and exciting local life at night.