July’s full moon was supposed to be a supermoon: the moon was almost the closest that it gets to earth. As a result it was 30 percent more luminous than a typical full moon. An outer pagoda in the Shwe Dagon complex at nightIn Thailand this full moon marks the festival called Loy Krathong, when people float decorated baskets on a river. I was in Bangkok that night, but missed out on what must have been a beautiful sight. The previous night we stood near the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon and watched the bright and nearly full moon asserting itself against the bright gold of the stupa. Already it was brighter than a normal full moon.

The night after Loy Krathong I was on a flight back home. A couple of hours into the flight, cabin lights were dimmed and I looked out to see the bright moon paint the horizon a deep blue. The flight was empty, so I moved to a seat over a wing. The light was brighter than a normal full moon. Around local midnight I could take the featured photo without a tripod to steady the camera. I can see that the wing has come out sharp, but the engine is a little blurred from the vibration of the jet. But the spectacular bit is the sky: blue at the horizon at midnight!

The Shwe Dagon Pagoda

One story about the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon is too good to be true. According to this story, two brothers from Myanmar were travelling in India 49 days after Gautama became the Buddha. They met him, and offered him moon cakes. In return he gave them eight strands of his hair. The puzzled brothers returned to their country and gave the hair to the king. The king was quite as puzzled, but decided to build a pagoda. This was the first Shwe Dagon pagoda, and, if one is to go by this story, it was the first Buddhist pagoda in the world.

The Shwe Dagon pagoda in YangonThe historical record says that the pagoda probably predates the Bagan kingdom, since one of its kings rebuilt the pagoda in the 14th century. Various datings of the pagoda reach back to the 6th century. I don’t know what these datings are based on, since there has been no systematic digging at the site.

Given the religious status of the pagoda, one doubts that there will be organized archaeology here. The only recorded attempt go dig here was made, for all the possible wrong reasons, by British military officers during the early 19th century, and had to be given up because of the resulting popular anger. What is known is that the current structure dates from the late 18th century, after an earthquake brought down the previous spire. The real history of the pagoda is probably as beautiful as a myth, and more elaborate.

An outer pagoda in the Shwe Dagon complex at nightNaing Naing Tuan, our guide for the day, brought us to the complex just before sunset, knowing how beautiful it looks at that time. As we walked through the place with him, he showed us little details which we might have otherwise missed. The sky turned from blue to gold, and eventually into a deep purple. It was very close to the full moon, so the moon was high in the sky in no time. The masses of cumulus clouds lent an edge to views. About a third of the crowd consisted of tourists like us, and the rest seemed to be made up of devout Buddhists from all across Asia.It is hard for us to imagine a more spectacular visit to the Shwe Dagon pagoda.