Shwedagon pagoda is Burma’s most famous Buddhist shrine, a bit like what Lourdes is for French Catholics. Parts of the site have been traced back 2000 years. There are said to be relics of several ancient Buddhas here, including 8 golden hairs of the Gautama Buddha, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. Shwe means ‘gold’ in Burmese, ‘dagon’ is an old name for Rangoon. The stupa, or main spire, was originally covered with 40kg of gold, a legacy of a queen who had pledged her weight in gold to cover the stupa. Pasting leaves of gold onto a buddha or temple is considered a way to ‘buy merit’ and increase your chances of a successful reincarnation, and is a common activity in Burmese temples
The pagoda is fascinating, full of the faithful walking around the central pagoda barefoot in clockwise motions, spraying the buddha corresponding to the day of their birth with holy water and worshipping their chosen ‘nats’ or local spirits. This dustbin is a light orange, the colour of monks’ robes in most of South East Asia, although the monks in Burma tend to wear dark red. Some of the bins in the pagoda are sponsored by wealthy donors or organisations who want to ‘buy merit’. Many bins sit next to spitoons, so that locals can spit into them after chewing betel nut, a very common habit here. My 18 year old motorcycle driver in Mandalay chewed betel and I was worried I’d get red stains on my clothes from sitting downwind of him.