Why should Westerners be generally more cynical about religion? It is arguably a cultural signifier. Foremost academics and philosophers have long held that modern consumer culture gradually erodes spirituality (even before Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people” back in 1843).
Perhaps this is why many Western travelers—including myself—are nonbelievers. However, many of us skeptics confess to enjoying Eastern holy heritages. Devout naysayers are regularly enchanted at the timeless vision of monks placidly padding their alms rounds. We marvel at bejeweled temples and ornate pagodas; linger at incense-laden shrines.
Such gilded novelties enrich our travel experiences, rather than demonstrate abject hypocrisy. I could never be “converted”—but I once flirted with something akin to a spiritual revelation—on my maiden voyage to Rangoon, Burma, in 2007.
From its hilltop vantage point, Shwedagon Pagoda is Burma’s spiritual talisman. It has drawn superlatives from literary greats. Rudyard Kipling called it a “beautiful winking wonder.” Playwright Somerset Maugham compared the shrine “glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.” Aldous Huxley noted the “merry-go-round style of architecture,” extending his metaphor to the pagoda being “a sort of sacred fun fair” for pilgrims.
A long-term resident had suggested a visit “will change your life.” He couldn’t say how—but I was already sold. I went on my last morning in Rangoon. Historically, the pagoda has hosted celebrated rallying calls. The morning of my visit, all was peaceful. Dawn’s rays were starting to fizz off the mounted golden spire. From the shade of a temple bow, I watched the faithful circumnavigating the dome on their morning pilgrimages; people of all ages sharing a reverential, soft-stepping communion. The mesmerizing ambiance of guttural chanting, punctuated now and again by the soft clang of prayer bells, created a spine-tingling atmosphere; it felt like time had paused for a rejuvenating breath.
Presently, I noticed a lone, twentysomething monk mount the base of the glittering spire. With special permission from trustees, men may meditate on the plinth terrace, 6.4 meters above the base. This fellow was aiming higher, gradually winding round the circular bands forming sloped transitions to the bell-curved centerpiece.
He continued, purposefully without hurrying, miraculously finding foot and handholds where I could see none. He ascended confidently, never pausing to take stock (or survey what must be a thrilling view over the city). His steadfast intent suggested he knew exactly where he was going.
Just before he reached the sheer-vertical, intricately adorned spire, he vanished. Suddenly and soundlessly disappeared as if melting into the ether. Had he ascended to Nirvana? Was this divine intervention? If there’s a discreet antechamber or vertiginous hidey-hole up there, I’ve never found any reference to it…]
To my side, a couple of the climber’s brethren stared after him visibly spellbound—judging from their rapt expressions of wonder. It was strangely reassuring that monks also seemed compelled by the mysterious vanishing act.
Was it a transformative moment? Had I—like John Belushi at the altar of James Brown in The Blue Brothers—seen the light? Did I now believe?
Well, in a word: No. But it was truly unforgettable; a pleasantly perplexing episode leaving me with a cherished memory.
In a literary flight of fancy, Kipling daydreamed that the pagoda spoke, confiding that he had arrived somewhere “quite unlike any land you know about.”
He was certainly right.
The Shwedagon is situated in Rangoon to the west of the Kandawgyi Lake, on the Singuttara hill. It is open every day from 4. A.M. to 9 P.M.