On the night before full moon in November, the pagodas of Myanmar stay open all night to welcome visitors. People lie on rough blankets on the marble pagoda floor and set up small camps beside golden Buddhas and under golden awnings. People stop pray, pour water and light candles in honour of the symbol of the day of the week they were born.
Shwe Dagon Pagoda is a giant Buddhist temple built in the 6th century. In its golden tower, alongside diamonds and jewels are eight hairs from the head of the Lord Gautama Buddha. It is located in the centre of Yangon, at the top of long steeps flights of stairs. The central courtyard makes a wide circle, decorated with lines of shrines, fountains and candles on the inside. On the outside there are small houses with Buddha statutes in different forms shapes and sizes, with lanterns, fairy lights, marble and glistening golden walls.
Tazaungmone is the festival to make new robes for the Buddha statutes in the pagoda. Groups work on looms to weave new cloth in a bright golden yellow. Crowds cheer on as the competition to be the first group to finish gains momentum. The crowd watch on via video transmission into the central room of the Pagoda.
Everyone smiles, stops, stares as I pass.
” Minglabar” they all say.
“Minglabar” I say back and they are delighted with my one word of Burmese, laughing and pointing
“Minglabar!” We communicate by signs, pointing to their children, or sweet smelling jasmine flowers. One little boy jumps in front of the camera, grins as I take a picture, then rushes forward to shake my hand piping:
“Nice to meet you.”
Others are keen to practice English and they stop me to discuss religion, politics, my home country, my job and pop music. One monk and his friends ask about my taste in music.
“Do you like Justin Bieber?” I ask
“No” the monk laughs back, “I am a monk, I cannot listen Justin Bieber!”
Others consider more philosophical questions. A young boy asks about the meaning of life.
“We have one life and it ends.” He announces. “So what will we do then?”his eyes wide and round, his mouth wide in a smile.
As night goes on, more people prepare to sleep, it feels like Christmas and New Year all in one night. When the sun starts to come through the clouds it casts warm light onto the golden tower, people hand out sweet rolls and red juice, monks lay out their wooden bowls to collect donations. Some sitting humbly, other walking among the crowds, others moving in groups, descending on the generous and the tourists in groups of ten or twenty like children trick or treating at Halloween. Some seem delighted with their gifts. One young boy monk struggles to carrying his collection of gifts, his bowl and hands overflowing with bits of cake, some money, fruit, piles of noodles.
As day hits the pagoda the temple loses some of its magic. People disperse into the city and everyday movement returns to the towers and statutes of the Pagoda. The full moon gives way to the sun and the monks move to eat a donated breakfast in another part of town, before getting on buses back to their monasteries, their bags of goodies tucked like a children’s presents under their robes.