One afternoon in Yangon, I walked along Kabaye Pagoda Road and passed a cluttered kiosk selling dusty cans of condensed milk, boxes of soap powder and tins of sardines. The video store next door was a lean-to of makeshift boards and corrugated iron where photos of Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone films were pasted on a wooden divider. I walked by dilapidated old mansions, their once beautiful façades overgrown with moss and ivy, their gates rusty and collapsing and their gardens choked with weeds.
Later I took a taxi to the Shwedagon pagoda. The sun was bright on Inya Lake as we turned into University Avenue. By the roadside, a young woman with beige thanaka make-up cooling her face, cooked rice over an open fire and waved off flies with her fan.
The steaming rice magnified the heat of the day. Smoke from a nearby tea stall wafted in the breeze. Sitting at a rickety table, two old ladies conversed, puffing on fat cheroots and drinking lucid green tea.
Two men sat beside them, playing checkers on a piece of cardboard with bottle caps. Playing happily in the breezy street, children chased a newspaper kite attached to a piece of string and two small boys rolled an empty tin can down the street with wooden sticks.
At the Shwedagon Pagoda, the long covered stairway to the platform was lined with stalls selling ivory carvings, Buddhas, opium weights, gilded shrines and antiques. A bearded old man in a brown robe and turban, prayer beads around his neck, squatted over a makeshift altar and prayed over a black cloth with Burmese scroll that held a dish of fruit, flower offerings and a faded sepia portrait of a family in formal Burmese dress, surrounded by burning candles.
I stepped out to the pagoda platform, squinting from the bright sun reflected in the mosaics of colored mirrors and gems on the temple façades.
Gold and ochre temples, tiered platform steeples and filigreed wooden spires framed the giant golden dome of the Shwedagon pagoda. Shimmering heat rising from the black squares on the white marble walkway cast a haze over figures bowed in homage before the shrines. Sun flooded the pagoda sky as silent prayers lifted with the breeze.