Yangon, Myanmar-- Smack in the middle of the most holy of Buddhist shrines, the Shwedagon Pagoda (seen below), is a toddy palm, Borassus flabillifer. It is the on the leaves of this palm that the Burmese developed an alphabet and writing.
The letters, confusingly small circles, were developed to stay within the narrow segments of the palmate leaves and the writing continues to be plump to this day.
Shwedagon itself is to Buddhists as Meccais to Muslims, and the enormous bell-shaped central part of the shrine is coated with 24-caret gold to a depth of 21 as a sign of reverence.
The top of the shrine reaches 99.98 meters and the circumference is 125 meters. Around it are small shrines where worshippers can make offerings and pray.
Bare feet take pilgrims clockwise around the structure. It is a spectacular sight, where monks finger their worry beads and children play, where tourists mingle with the devout.
There are 58 million people living in this country, which was known asBurmauntil 1990. Eighty percent of the people are Buddhists, 7 percent Christians, 6 percent Muslims and 2 percent Hindus. No matter what one's belief, the fabulous stupa is a draw for everyone. (A stupa, also called a pagoda, is a shrine that is solid and requires you to walk around the exterior while a temple is a shrine you may enter for worship.) Stupas are everywhere here. Building a stupa is a way for Buddhists to earn merit on the road to Nirvana, and kings often built many of them.
Just as spectacular is Yangon's reclining Buddha. An androgynous figure lies on his side in the teaching pose, supporting his head with one hand, and stretches his legs some 60 meters. Originally this statue was built outdoors in 1905, but a natural disaster caused it to crumble 20 years later. This version of the reclining Buddha was rebuilt of brick and stucco and given a steel shed by the British. The day we visited, monks were suspended from ropes cleaning his face!