Date
8 December 2016
The gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda glows in the dark and can be seen from anywhere in the city. Photo: Chong Yuen-yu
The gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda glows in the dark and can be seen from anywhere in the city. Photo: Chong Yuen-yu

Burmese temples: Go barefoot and experience Thanaka

For most Hong Kong people, Burma is synonymous with Aung San Suu Kyi, the influential democracy and human rights icon immortalized in a movie.

Burma made headlines when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake devastated the central part of the country in August, destroying pagodas, temples, monasteries and other historic structures. The ancient city of Bagan was badly damaged.

Burma has a Buddhist majority in which the Theravada tradition is practised.

It was stunning to see Buddhist monks in their long, rust-colored robes everywhere.

In Burma, each male is expected to serve as a monk twice in his life — once as a novice and then as ordained monk.

The Burmese show their deep love and respect for Buddha and his symbols not only from the heart but also in deeds.

Devotees buy gold leaves and apply them to pagodas and Buddhist statues.

The gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda can be seen shining from anywhere in Yangon.

“Building pagodas is the noblest way to perform good deeds and earn merits,” a rickshaw driver told me.

“People regardless of whether they’re rich or poor are devoted Buddhists. Wealthier people often fund the construction of whole temples.”

The damaged pagodas can be restored quite quickly given the people’s faith in the rehabilitation work.

House rule

There’s one important rule everyone must follow when entering a Buddhist temple — go barefoot.

Travelers to the country have to be mentally prepared for this ritual.

The floors can be slippery tiles, tough stones, itchy sand or uneven bricks that might feel like a sizzling hot plate.

Urban people used to wearing comfortable shoes or professional hiking boots will find it challenging.

The whole exercise requires a great deal of determination and endurance, entering one temple and then another.

Looking at the Burmese people, you find some faces are painted with white powder.

It’s called Thanaka, which is made from ground bark. It felt cool and fragrant when a temple attendant applied it on my face.

She also helped me get to a restaurant which serves authentic Burmese cuisine.

I found it too oily and ordered simple dishes of fresh vegetables instead.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 9

Translation by Darlie Yiu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Burma has a Buddhist majority in which the Theravada tradition is practised. Photo: Chong Yuen-yu


Young Buddhist monks (left photo) can be seen everywhere in Burma. A painter (right) works inside a temple. Photos: Chong Yuen-yu


Everyone paints Thanaka on their faces. Photo: Chong Yuen-yu


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