Myanmar is a proudly and profoundly religious place. It is one of few officially Buddhist countries left in Asia – a continent that in ancient times had embraced Buddhism as its creed in the vast region stretching from the mountains of Afghanistan and deserts of Uzbekistan to the islands of Japan and the Malay Archipelago. There are perhaps thousands and thousands of temples and pagodas across Myanmar. Some are magnificent monuments built by monarchs to instill reverence and awe. Others are less ostentatious and more prosaic and purposeful in their design and construction. But most if not all are coated with gold so that they glitter in the hot sun and glimmer on nights when the moon is out. For maximum special effect, many pagodas are built on elevated ground including the first one I ever spent a night in called Hpo Oo Taung near Pyay, a historically important town 5 hours north of Yangon.
During the wet season Zin Mar invited me to join her together with her husband Myo and her fortune-teller father-in-law on a pilgrimage to their family’s favorite hill top pagoda. Getting there involves a half-day car ride from Yangon, then a one-hour boat trip from Pyay heading upstream along the western banks of the Irrawaddy to the village of Yartaya and finally a breathtaking (literally) 50-minute hike up a scenic hill.
An enthusiastic troop of children from the village at the foot of the hill come to the jetty to greet us and to help us carry our bags, luggage and provisions to the pagoda. The temple is built on a boulder on the summit. As I gaze up at the white washed stupa from the temple hall I am reminded of the temples in Nepal.
I am not a zen devotee but joining Zin Mar and Myo in their night time meditation at the hill top shrine surrounded by swirling clouds and soothing sound of rain on the zinc canopy I feel a strange sense of silence and calm. That night as I rest my tired body on a thin mattress insulated from the cement floor of my 80 square feet guest room contemplating sleep wisp of white mist blew in through the open window.
According to online information I found after the trip, Hpo Oo Taung is actually a very significant holy site. Myanmar oral tradition has it that the Buddha visited the very hill on which the pagoda now stands and surveying the broad bend of the Irrawaddy River from up high predicted the founding of Sri Kshetra, Myanmar’s first ever capital city pre-dating Bagan by six hundred years.