Thais Find a Spiritual Home in Yangon

By May Sitt Paing 22 July 2014

YANGON — If you happen to be visiting Botataung Pagoda one day and suddenly notice a lot of Thai being spoken around you, don’t be surprised. The pagoda, which is one of Yangon’s most important Buddhist sites, is also home to a nat, or spirit, shrine that has recently begun to attract a growing number of tourists from neighboring Thailand.

The shrine’s fame has increased dramatically since it was featured on a Thai TV program that told the story of Amagyi (Sister) Mya Nan Nwe, a devout Buddhist famous for her devotion to the pagoda, located just south of the Strand Road in Botataung Township.

Amagyi Mya Nan Nwe, who was born on Dec. 22, 1897, and had family ties to Myanmar and Shan royalty, dedicated her life to making merit. A
vegetarian from her early childhood, she donated generously to religious projects, and played a key role in rebuilding Botataung Pagoda after it was destroyed in an air raid at the height of WWII.

Following her death in 1957, Amagyi Mya Nan Nwe became a revered figure in her own right. In 1990, a shrine containing a statue of her
was erected inside Botataung Pagoda, and from that point on she was worshipped as Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi (Goddess), a nat with the power to grant the wishes of those who appealed to her for help.

According to Ma Sagawah Soe, a Thai interpreter, no effort was made to introduce Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi to visitors from Thailand.

“They just saw the crowds of people who gathered at the shrine, and we explained about Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi and how Myanmar people believe in
her,” she said. “Many Thais also believe in nats, so some made offerings to her, and when their wishes were fulfilled, Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi’s name spread among Thais by word of mouth.”

Common Ground

Although Myanmar and Thailand have a long history of enmity, nat worship—like Buddhism—is one thing they have in common. And as Myanmar opens up after decades of isolation, many Thais are now finding it easier than ever to explore this shared spiritual heritage.

Despite the fact that Thai nationals (unlike citizens of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines) still need a visa to visit Myanmar, more than 600,000 of the 1 million tourists who came to this country in the first four months of 2014 were from Thailand, according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. When visa-free travel for Thais—expected to be approved by Parliament later this year—becomes a reality, that number will likely rise even further.

For many Thais, Myanmar’s reputation as a country where people still take nat worship very seriously makes it a natural destination for
those in need of supernatural assistance.

“A colleague told me about Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi after visiting Myanmar,” said a Thai woman who identified herself only as Fah. “That’s why I’m
here now to ask for her help with a problem I have. I pray to her and believe that my wish will come true.”

Ning Ning, another Thai woman who was traveling with Fah, expressed similar faith in Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi’s wish-granting powers. “I believe in her. I will pray to her for my health and economic well-being,” she said.

According to U Kyaw Win, the person in charge of caring for the shrine, Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi seldom disappoints. He added that many Thais who come to the shrine are repeat visitors. “They often come back to offer money and pay obeisance to her when their wish to overcome some difficulty has been fulfilled.”

Steady Traffic

Thanks to her newfound status as a nat, Amagyi Mya Nan Nwe continues to be a boon to Botataung Pagoda more than half a century after her death. Her shrine alone receives more than 600 visits a day, including at least 30 from foreign—mostly Thai—visitors, according to U Kyaw Win.

Supplicants typically offer baskets full of flowers, fruit and incense, available at the shrine for 2,000-12,000 kyat (US$2-12). Many also pay an extra 500 kyat for soy milk—Amagyi Mya Nan Nwe’s favorite drink—or make cash donations.

Those with a request to make lean in closely to the statue to whisper their prayers into Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi’s ear while rubbing her hands and
back. Then, when they’re done, they shout “Success!”—and hope for the best.

Of course, Myanmar being Myanmar, there is also a shady military connection to this story. When the country was still under direct army rule, the former dictator, Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe, reportedly had the statue of Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi handcuffed at night after she appeared to him in a dream, warning of “bad consequences” for his brutal suppression of the country’s people and monks.

No strangers to military rule themselves, Thais might find this bizarre side note yet another reason to feel that the people of this country are their kindred spirits. In any case, if Mya Nan Nwe Htayyi can help bridge the differences between these two neighbors, she will surely have more than earned her place among the pantheon of the

This article first appeared in the July 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy Magazine.