As he smooths a gold plaque on the glistening flank of Burma’s most prestigious Buddhist pagoda, a merchant pays his ancestors the highest honour — and contributes to a bumper year of donations to re-gild the sacred site.
The Shwedagon Pagoda, which rises in a stately conical tower above downtown Rangoon, has been at the heart of Buddhism in Burma for hundreds of years, as well as providing a luminous arena for political resistance in the former junta-run nation’s more recent turbulent history.
Authorities managing the monument are now cladding the structure with a fresh layer of gold — a five-yearly exercise to replace the older, weather-worn coating.
“This round of donations have come at the right time for me. So I am donating to make merit,” Phone Myint Thwin, 40, told AFP, delighted to finally be able to honour his late grandparents with a gold plaque.
Officials had expected to match their 2010 donations of 9,000 gold plates to clad the stupa, but a surge of enthusiasm from the Buddhist faithful means they now have 16,000 plates — a gold glut that will enable more of the structure to be gilded.
“People are delighted to witness their own donations on the body of the pagoda. Then they want to donate again because they can make the offering themselves,” said Tun Aung Wai, deputy officer of Shwedagon Authority Office.
At 600,000 kyat (US$600) each, the plates are a big expense in a country where World Bank figures put the per capita gross domestic product at $1,105.
Financial prosperity is still a dream for many in the impoverished country.
But Burma’s small-yet-growing middle classes are gradually getting richer, as the economy opens up after years of atrophy under military rule.
The Asian Development Bank has predicted Burma’s economy will grow 8.3 percent in the 2015 fiscal year, from 7.7 percent in the 12 months to March.
But inflation is also on the march — predicted at 8.4 percent in 2015 — partially due to expected wage rises.
In a report last year, research group Euromonitor said consumer product sales boomed in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, over the five-year period to 2013, with middle class consumers helping to boost demand for non-essential luxuries like home and beauty care products.
For devout Buddhists it is also essential to donate to pagodas — as well as monasteries and charitable causes — to “make merit”, a sort of credit for pious living.
This practice helped the Buddhist-majority nation to be named the joint most generous nation, with the United States, by Charities Aid Foundation in its 2014 World Giving Index.
Shwedagon, which according to legend is over 2,000 years old, is particularly sacred because it is believed to house several strands of hair from the Gautama, whose teachings form the basis of Buddhism, and relics from three previous Buddhas.
The Shwedagon is arguably Burma’s most recognisable building, its peak soaring above swirling eddies of barefoot devotees who crowd the pagoda’s terrace from dawn to dusk, alongside the burgeoning ranks of tourists.
It has long captured the imaginations of visitors from author Rudyard Kipling — who called it a “beautiful winking wonder” after a visit in the late 19th century — to US President Barack Obama in 2012.
It was the site of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s first major political speech as student-led protests against the then military regime swept the country in 1988 — and also at the centre of the 2007 monk demonstrations that ended in bloodshed.
Gold itself has long had a crucial role in Burma.
During the colonial era, Burmese women wore almost all of their wealth in the form of jewellery made of gems and gold.
After independence, gold became even more integral as the junta’s socialist policies eviscerated the economy, leaving the population suspicious of government banks.
Even the word for gold in the Burmese language, shwe, is a hugely popular girl’s name.
In the jumbled workshops of the central city of Mandalay, craftsmen hammer gold into slivers for devotees to paper Buddha statues at temples.
They are considered some of the finest gold artisans in the country — their craft a testament to the country’s deep connection with the precious metal — but competition for machine-produced gold leaf has raised concerns for their future.
Hla Hla, who has worked in the trade for more than six decades, shrugged off those worries.
“If some like machine-made, they will buy it. But those wanting handmade will buy from us,” she told AFP.