Irrawaddy River

exploring bagan by car: old bagan & the north plain {part 2 of 4}

Thursday, February 19:  After we finish our tour of the Myinkaba area, we head next to Old Bagan.  Our first stop is Bupaya on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River.  This small pagoda has a bulbous shaped dome, and is widely believed to have been built by the third King of Bagan (formerly Pagan), Pyusawhti, who ruled from 168 to 243 AD.  As the bulbous-shaped dome resembles a pumpkin or gourd, it was named “bu” which means pumpkin or gourd, and “paya” which means pagoda (Wikipedia: Bupaya Pagoda).

The main pavilion at the entrance is guarded by white and gold Chinthes, Burmese mythological lions.

Entrance to Bupaya on the banks of the Ayeyarwady

Entrance to Bupaya on the banks of the Ayeyarwady

In 1975, a severe earthquake caused the original Bupaya to fall into the Irrawaddy River.

Bupaya

Bupaya

guardians of Bupaya

a white and gold Chinthe, a Burmese mythological lion, guardian of Bupaya

The Pyu-style monument is modeled on an Indian style.  It was rebuilt after the earthquake as a gilded structure with modern materials.

Bupaya's cylindrical Pyu-style stupa from the 3rd century

Bupaya’s cylindrical Pyu-style stupa from the 3rd century

Buddha at Bupaya

Buddha at Bupaya

Legend has it that Pyusawhti, before he was King, managed to free the Bagan Kingdom of five nuisances, one of which was the infestation of the Irrawaddy river banks by the bu, a kind of gourd plant. As a reward he was given the hand of the King’s daughter. It is said that when he became King, he built the pagoda at the spot where the bu plant was eradicated. Buddhist relics were enshrined in the pagoda (Renown Travel: Bupaya Pagoda).

boats lined up on the banks of the Ayeyarwady - view from Bupaya

boats lined up on the banks of the Ayeyarwady – view from Bupaya

Buddha at Bupaya

Buddha at Bupaya

another guardian at Bupaya

another guardian at Bupaya

My driver takes me next to Mahabodhi Paya, modeled after the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India, which commemorates the seven sacred places where Buddha attained enlightenment.  The temple is built in an architectural style typical during the Gupta period, and contains a large pyramidal tower with many niches containing over 450 images of Buddha (Wikipedia: Mahabodhi Temple, Bagan).

Mahabodhi Paya

Mahabodhi Paya

Mahabodhi Paya

Mahabodhi Paya

On the ground floor is a Buddha image with the right hand in earth-touching posture (BaganMyanmar.com: Maha Bodhi Temple).

Buddha at Mahabodhi Paya

Buddha at Mahabodhi Paya

I didn’t take pictures of all the weeks of the Buddha’s enlightenment, but here are a couple:

  • “The Second Week, Buddha Gazed Intently Without Winking On Animisa At His Throne Under the Bodhi Tree.”
  • “The Fourth Week, Buddha Spent In The House Of Gems, Ratanag’hara, N.W. Of The Bodhi Tree, Meditating The Abidhamma.”
  • “The Seventh Week, The Two Merchants Tapussa and Bhallika Offered The Rice Cakes and Honey To The Buddha Under The Rajayatana Tree At The End of The Seven Weeks.”

Mahabodhi Paya has hundreds of niches with Buddha statues in different postures – sitting, standing and reclining.

Mahabodhi Paya details

Mahabodhi Paya details

niches at Mahabodhi Paya

niches at Mahabodhi Paya

After we leave Mahabodhi Paya, the driver takes me to the Shwe Wah Thein Myanmar Handicraft Shop, telling me it’s a lacquerware workshop.  It isn’t a workshop at all but just a shop, so I walk quickly through.

Shwe Wah Thein Myanmar Handicraft Shop

Shwe Wah Thein Myanmar Handicraft Shop

Puppets at the Handicraft shop

Puppets at the Handicraft shop

We drive to the North Plain to see Htilominlo Pahto at this time. This temple was built around 1211 by King Htilominlo, also known as King Nadaungmya and several other names. It is made of red brick and stone and stands 150 ft (46 m) high on a low platform.

Htilominlo Pahto

Htilominlo Pahto

Buddha at Htilominlo Pahto

Buddha at Htilominlo Pahto

inside Htilominlo Pahto

inside Htilominlo Pahto

There are four Buddhas images on the ground floor that face the four cardinal directions.

Buddha at Htilominlo Pahto

Buddha at Htilominlo Pahto

niche at Htilominlo Pahto

niche at Htilominlo Pahto

flowers for the Buddha

flowers for the Buddha

offerings for Buddha

offerings for Buddha

Htilominlo Pahto

Htilominlo Pahto

This temple is referred to in Lonely Planet Myanmar as “vendor central” as there are scores of vendors here. I can’t resist buying some things: 3 pairs of cotton printed pants ($3 each!) and a life of Buddha fold-out accordion-like pictogram.

Vendor Central at Htilominlo Pahto

Vendor Central at Htilominlo Pahto

Vendor Central at Htilominlo Pahto

Vendor Central at Htilominlo Pahto

Htilominlo Pahto

Htilominlo Pahto

Behind Htilominlo Pahto is a monastery. I climb up with some other tourists for a great view of Htilominlo Pahto.

view of Htilominlo Pahto from the monastery out back

view of Htilominlo Pahto from the monastery out back

There are also some smaller temples in the North Plain that we can see.

view of some minor temples from the monastery

view of some minor temples from the monastery

view of Htilominlo Pahto from the monastery out back

view of Htilominlo Pahto from the monastery out back

me at the monastery out back with Htilominlo Pahto behind me

me at the monastery out back with Htilominlo Pahto behind me

After leaving Htilominlo Pahto, my driver takes me to have some lunch at a lovely open-air restaurant called Sarabha I, where I have a tasty lunch of cauliflower and snow peas.

After lunch we continue seeing the sights on the North Plain by heading to Ananda Pahto. This is the first of the great temples in Bagan, as well as being one of the largest and most beautiful.  It was built by King Kyanzittha around 1090-1105, after he was inspired by eight visiting Indian monks who told of their lives in the Nanadamula Cave in the Himalayas. After they described the cave in great detail during a meditative state, they subsequently built the temple.  It didn’t end well for the monks, however, as the king executed them so they wouldn’t be able to build another temple like it anywhere.  This insured the temple’s uniqueness (Sacred Destinations: Ananda Pahto Temple, Bagan and Wikipedia: Ananda Temple).

Inside Ananda Pahto

Inside Ananda Pahto

A small nut-like object held in the hand of the east-facing Buddha and in the hand of the figure below is thought to resemble an herbal pill, and may represent the Buddha offering dhamma (Buddhist teachings) as a cure for suffering (Sacred Destinations: Ananda Pahto Temple, Bagan and Lonely Planet Myanmar: Ananda Pahto).

figure holding a nut-like object

figure holding a nut-like object

the nut-like object, possibly representing a herbal pill

the nut-like object, possibly representing a herbal pill

Four impressive 30-foot-tall gilded teak standing Buddhas, facing the four cardinal directions, represent the four Buddhas who have attained enlightenment in the current world cycle.

The main purpose of the temple was to educate the people of the region in the religious beliefs of Theravada Buddhism in accordance with the personal beliefs of King Kyanzittha (Wikipedia: Ananda Temple).

gilded sitting Buddhas

gilded sitting Buddhas

Chinthe at Ananda Pahto

Chinthe at Ananda Pahto

Ananda Pahto is designed on a symmetrical Greek Cross plan (+).  Several terraces lead to a small pagoda at the top covered by an umbrella known as hti, which is the name of the umbrella or top ornament found in almost all pagodas in Myanmar (Wikipedia: Ananda Temple).

Ananda Pahto

Ananda Pahto

Ananda Pahto

Ananda Pahto

Finally, we leave the North Plain and drive back to Old Bagan to see Thatbyinnyu Pahto, Bagan’s highest temple, at 61 meters in height.

Thatbyinnyu Pahto

Thatbyinnyu Pahto

It was built in the mid-12th century during the reign of King Alaungsithu.  It is adjacent to Ananda Pahto. Thatbyinnyu Temple is shaped like a cross, but it isn’t symmetrical. The temple has two primary stories, with the seated Buddha image located on the second story (Wikipedia: Thatbyinnyu Temple).

Thatbyinnyu Pahto

Thatbyinnyu Pahto

Buddha at Thatbyinnyu Pahto

Buddha at Thatbyinnyu Pahto

at Thatbyinnyu Pahto

at Thatbyinnyu Pahto

the white boxy stories of Thatbyinnyu Pahto

the white boxy stories of Thatbyinnyu Pahto

I come upon a group of monks posing for a picture and I sneak a shot from the back.  When they disperse, I capture a couple of them walking into the temple.

monks posing for pictures at Thatbyinnyu Pahto

monks posing for pictures at Thatbyinnyu Pahto

monks at Thatbyinnyu Pahto

monks at Thatbyinnyu Pahto

Finally, we leave Old Bagan and head to the Central and South Plain.

Categories: Ananda Pahto, Asia, Ayeyarwady River, Bagan, Bupaya, Burma, Htilominlo Pahto, Irrawaddy River, Mahabodhi Paya, Myanmar, North Plain, Old Bagan, Sarabha I, Shwe Wah Thein Myanmar Handicraft Shop, Thatbyinnyu Pahto | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

a slow cruise down the ayeyarwady river from mandalay to bagan

Wednesday, February 18:  I get up at the crack of dawn to go to the jetty in Mandalay, where I’m to take the N Maikha Shwe Keinnery ferry down the Ayeyarwady River to Bagan.  It’s supposed to be a 10-hour trip.  I should have remembered that from when I booked it ahead of time online for $40, but for some reason I’m confused this morning and am expecting a 5-hour trip!

The Korean guy, Peel, who I met yesterday at breakfast, shares a taxi with me; he gets dropped off first at one jetty and then I get dropped 5 minutes later at another.  The approach to the boat is a steep dusty embankment and I wonder how on earth I’ll get my suitcase onto the boat.  A porter appears to save the day and asks for 1,000 kyat, or $1, to carry the suitcase onto the boat. He hoists it over his head and walks across a rickety gangplank to the boat, with me following.

It’s dark when I board at 6:30 a.m., and my seat is at the very front.  I’m one of the first to board, so I get to watch all the European tourists, mainly German and French, get settled.  I hear some American women complaining about the sum they had to pay their porter to carry their suitcases on board.  The porter is apparently asking for more money than they think they should pay.  I paid mine 1,000, which I assume is the asking price, so I’m surprised they’re complaining.

Here’s my view as we get underway at 7:00 a.m.

N Maikha Shwe Keinnery Boat

N Maikha Shwe Keinnery Boat

As the ferry pulls away from the jetty, we can see the sun rising over the river.

Sunrise on the Ayeyarwady

Sunrise on the Ayeyarwady

Taking off down the river

Taking off down the river

Once we’re underway one of the boat crew announces that we can go up to the dining area for breakfast.  I already ate some of the boxed breakfast provided by my hotel,  but of course I have to take advantage of the breakfast provided on the boat trip.  It turns out to be a hard-boiled egg, a piece of toast, and a cup of coffee.  After I eat, I go outside to the upper deck to watch the scenery go by.

boats on the Ayeyarwady

boats on the Ayeyarwady

It isn’t long before we’re passing by Sagaing Hill, where I went on Monday.  It’s 7:35, but here we slow down as the boatmen use poles to push the boat along the river.  The river is obviously very shallow here.  I hope we don’t run aground!

passing by Mingun

passing by Sagaing Hill

passing Mingun

passing Sagaing

Mingun

Sagaing

colorful boat

colorful boat

Another ferry approaches us from behind; it seems to be moving faster than we are.  They soon pass us by.  I wonder if Peel is on that boat.

another ferry comes up behind us

another ferry comes up behind us

pagodas and Buddhas

pagodas and Buddhas

Boat on the Ayeyarwady

Boat on the Ayeyarwady

We cruise under the Sagaing Bridge, and then the Ava Bridge in short order.  By this time, I’ve moved from the seat in the enclosed lower level of the boat to the top deck, where I can watch life in Myanmar go by.

Bridge over the river

Sagaing Bridge

I love this kind of slow leisurely travel.  I always love to travel by boat — not in a big cruise ship, which doesn’t appeal to me at all, but in small locally owned ferries or boats of any kind.

passing under the bridge

passing under Sagaing Bridge

all hands on deck!

all hands on deck!

passing under another bridge

passing under Ava Bridge

ferry in our wake

ferry in our wake

The landscape bordering the river is flat and the air is hazy.  There really isn’t much to see but sandy shores or miles of uninhabited land.  I do love looking at the colorful fishing boats, houseboats and commercial barges and tugboats.

colorful boats on the river

colorful boats on the river

boats all lined up

boats all lined up

green boats

green boats

tugboat & barge

tugboat & barge

I love watching the fishermen or the people cruising down the river in boats, or boat crewmen doing their jobs.

boatman

boatman

sandy beaches

sandy beaches

the flat land along the river

the flat land along the river

sandy beach along the Ayeyarwady

sandy beach along the Ayeyarwady

a boat brimming with people

a boat brimming with people

Apparently, Burmese fishermen erect temporary houses when the water levels are low, which they are in February.  When the water levels rise, they’ll move their houses to higher land along the river.

riverfront homes

riverfront homes

more riverfront huts

more riverfront huts

flat shoreline

flat shoreline

We even see some livestock grazing along the riverbank.

livestock

livestock

It’s a long, lazy day on the boat, but I’m enjoying every minute.  I’m able to talk to a number of fellow travelers.  We sit in bamboo lounge chairs and watch the river go by and chat about our travels. I meet James and Molly, a couple who are teaching in Yunnan province.  James is from Nashville, Tennessee, and Molly is from New York.   They have only been dating a short while as they met when they came to China and they don’t even teach in the same town.  This is their first trip together.  We share a lot of stories of our travels and our lives.

Molly also recommends the Agga Youth Hotel in Yangon.  The Germans and Shaun and Sarah had all recommended it when we went to Mingun together, and I booked it when I was in Mandalay.  This place must be really great because everyone is recommending it.

barge in the Ayeyarwady

barge in the Ayeyarwady

barge

barge

I also meet another guy, John, who has been in Beijing for 8 years.  He’s trying to start an entertainment company.  It’s when I’m talking to him, nearly 5 hours into our trip, that I say “We should be arriving in Bagan soon.”  He says, “But the boat ride is 10 hours.  We still have a long way to go.”  I’m surprised, but then it dawns on me that I do remember something about this.  Later I consult my Lonely Planet Myanmar and find the ferry ride is in fact 10 hours!

riverfront village

riverfront village

tugboat and barge

tugboat and barge

As it gets hot in the afternoon, I go downstairs where it’s cool to read a while.  I’ve brought along The Crazed by Ha Jin, which is good, but not nearly as engaging as his book Waiting, which I adored.  I also read in Lonely Planet Myanmar about what I’ll be seeing in Bagan.

under another bridge

under another bridge

boats and bridge

boats and bridge

The sun starts to sink in the sky.  I’ve been on this boat from sunrise to sunset and I’ve loved every minute of it. It reminds me of ancient journeys I’ve read about or seen in movies.  I feel like I’ve stepped back in time by 50 or even 100 years.  The journey is nostalgic, unhurried, relaxing.  Sometimes I think we rush through things too quickly and don’t really savor moments like these.

sunset on the Ayeyarwady

sunset on the Ayeyarwady

fellow travelers

fellow travelers

sunset on the Ayeyarwady

sunset on the Ayeyarwady

the sun sets on the river

the sun sets on the river

sunset and boaters

sunset and boaters

sunset on the river near Bagan

sunset on the river near Bagan

sunset as we approach Bagan

sunset as we approach Bagan

We can finally see the shoreline at Bagan, with some of its pagodas and temples.

first glimpse of the shore of Bagan

first glimpse of the shore of Bagan

Finally, after what it turns out is closer to a 12-hour journey, we dock at the jetty in Bagan.

coming in to the Bagan jetty

coming in to the Bagan jetty

At the jetty are a lot of taxis waiting for the tourists to disembark.  I find a driver to take me to the Floral Breeze Hotel for 15,000 kyat.  I settle in and head outside to the courtyard, where I have a dinner of potato and pumpkin curry for 9,000 kyat. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect day. 🙂

Categories: Asia, Ava Bridge, Ayeyarwady River, Bagan, Burma, Irrawaddy River, Mandalay, Myanmar, N Maikha Shwe Keinnery Boat, Sagaing, Sagaing Bridge, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

a boat ride down the ayeyarwady & an oxcart tour of mingun

Tuesday, February 17:  Today, my second day in Myanmar, is where my true journey begins.  My first day was a whirlwind of activity, from visiting temples to taking a horse-cart ride through a former kingdom to walking atop a long teak footbridge at sunset. It was fascinating and fun, but I felt like a tourist rather than a traveler.  I wasn’t changed or transformed.  It was just me, Cathy, the same mundane person I’ve always been, making the rounds in an exotic culture: I was the person who crosses things off a list, who was wary of being ripped off and was easily annoyed by people who beat their horses or held me captive or snapped at me for honing in on the “model they paid for.” I didn’t think these were right behaviors and I was vocal about my intolerance of them. I don’t think my behavior in response to these annoyances was horribly wrong, but I wasn’t my best.

Today, I am transformed.  I become someone else entirely. I become someone exotic, someone daring and laid-back at the same time.  This is when I start to feel like my heroine, Freya Stark.  She was a British explorer and travel writer who lived from 1893 to 1993. She wrote more than two dozen books on her travels in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as several autobiographical works and essays. She was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian Deserts.  Her book, Passionate Nomad, inspired me to become a traveler.

Today, I really begin to feel like one.

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

The day begins in the breakfast room at the Mandalay Inn, where I meet a young Korean man named Peel.  He asks if he can join me at my table, and we share stories of our travels.  He travels for cultural experiences, immersion into the daily life in a place; the epitome of his travels was attending an African-American church service in south Chicago, where he clapped and swayed and sang hymns with vigor and passion.  I know many Koreans, and an African-American church is not where I’d envision them feeling at home. This is the kind of experience Peel lives for.

At breakfast, Peel and I discover that both of us are going by ferry down the Ayeyarwady River early tomorrow morning.  The boat ride will take around 10 hours. It’s the slow route to Bagan.  He’s booked on a different boat than mine, so we check with the front desk and find the jetties where the boats take off are not far from each other.  Thus we both arrange to share a taxi tomorrow morning; he will get dropped off first, then the driver will take me to my jetty.  I’ll be on the N Maikha Shwe Keinnery Boat, while he’ll be on another.  We find we need to be ready to leave our hotel by 5:45 a.m. for check-in at the jetty at 6:30.

However, that’s tomorrow, and there’s still the day ahead to explore.  Peel and I part ways and at 8:20, my driver Mimo picks me up at the hotel and takes me to a jetty in Mandalay.  Here, I get on a boat down the Ayeyarwady River to Mingun and I begin to relax into a pace of life that I don’t think I’ve experienced since I was a child.  I feel like I’ve gone back in time by at least 50 years, possibly more.  This is where I fall in love with Myanmar, or what I still like to think of as Burma, and from this morning until I arrive in Yangon, my love affair with this country deepens and expands and fills my soul. I become a traveler from the early 20th century, someone exploring before modernization, before places were ruined by tourism.  I’m a time traveler, an adventurer, an open book waiting to have my experiences written upon the pages of my life.

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

Tomorrow’s boat ride will be 10 hours, and we’ll arrive at a different destination: Bagan.  But today, we cruise for 1 hour south to Mingun, after which we’ll return to Mandalay.  It’s a microcosm of the experience I will have tomorrow, a way to get my feet wet, so to speak.

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

Boats on the Ayeyarwady

The boat has bamboo chairs that are a bit like shortened lounge chairs. It’s a warm day and we settle into the chairs for the duration.   On the boat, I meet Shaun from Britain and Sarah from Scotland; like me, they teach English in China, she in Hong Kong and he in Wuhan.  They came to China with the British Council and met through that organization. They’re not boyfriend and girlfriend, just very good friends who enjoy traveling together.  It turns out when we hit shore in Mingun, we all three share an ox-cart for our tour of Mingun.

Our boat to Mingun

Our boat to Mingun

The Ayeyarwady River and its surrounds are very flat.  There’s not much civilization along its shores, so there isn’t a lot to see or take photos of, though I love to take pictures so do so anyway.  There are some interesting barges, fishing boats, small skiffs carrying families, and channel-marking boats.

barge on the Ayeyarwady

barge on the Ayeyarwady

According to Encyclopedia Britannica: Irrawaddy River, the Irrawaddy River, Burmese Ayeyarwady, runs through the center of Myanmar (formerly Burma).  Myanmar’s most important commercial waterway, it is about 1,350 miles (2,170 km) long. Its name is believed to derive from the Sanskrit term airāvatī, meaning “elephant river.” The river flows wholly within the territory of Myanmar. Its valley forms the historical, cultural, and economic heartland of Myanmar.

captain of our boat

captain of our boat

We believe some of the people in boats along the way are measuring the depth of the river to mark the channels for the ferry boats.  Apparently the river varies greatly in its levels due to the monsoon season from May-October and rapid snow and glacier melt-off in the summer. The lowest water level occurs in February, and the highest in August.  We are here during the lowest of the low water levels, at the end of February.

In general, from December to March the river varies between the lowest level and 5 feet (1.5 metres) above it, while from mid-June to mid-October the river is 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 metres) above the lowest level. The river ports therefore find it necessary to have separate high- and low-water landing points. (Encyclopedia Britannica: Irrawaddy River)

fishing boats on the Ayeyarwady

channel-marking boats on the Ayeyarwady

boats on the Ayeyarwady

boats on the Ayeyarwady

the flat Ayeyarwady

the flat Ayeyarwady

the front of the boat

the front of the boat

After about 45 minutes, we start to see the shore of Mingun, with its backdrop of pagoda studded hills.

fishing boats on the Ayeyarwady

fishing boats on the Ayeyarwady

heading into Mingun

heading into Mingun

chairs on the boat

chairs on the boat

Mingun from the Ayeyarwady

Mingun from the Ayeyarwady

We see our first spotting of the huge Mingun Paya.

the Mingun jetty

the Mingun jetty

When we arrive at the jetty, we disembark.  We can either take a walk around town or take an ox-cart ride.  The ox-cart drivers are waiting for the tourists with offers too enticing to turn down.

boats at the Mingun jetty

boats at the Mingun jetty

boats at the jetty

boats at the jetty

Sarah, Shaun and I find a gentle toothless old man with a hat who offers us a two-hour oxcart tour for 6,000 kyat, or about $2 each!

Sarah and our oxcart driver

Sarah and our oxcart driver

We get settled into the ox-cart and begin our tour of Mingun.  I love how our oxcart has “Taxi” written on its roof.  This is indicative of so many charming things we see in Myanmar.

our oxcart

our oxcart

Our first stop are the Chinthe ruins.  They’re the 29-meter-high brick and stucco ruins of the haunches of what would have been gigantic chinthe, Mingun Pagoda’s half-lion, half-dragon guardian deities (Lonely Planet Myanmar).  During the 1838 earthquake the heads of the giant Chinthe figures broke off and rolled into the Irrawaddy river, according to Renown Travel: Mingun Pagoda.

Chinthe ruins

Chinthe ruins

Cute souvenir shops line the way to the Chinthe ruins.  In one of the shops, I buy a piece of fabric to wear as a longyi, the Burmese skirt worn by Burmese women, for $5.  While I visit Mingun Paya, next door to the Chinthe ruins, the woman who sells me the fabric sews a tie on to the rectangle of fabric. I pick up the skirt after we climb the pagoda.

umbrellas & hats

umbrellas & hats

Chinthe ruins

Chinthe ruins

Across the way from the Chinthe ruins is the highlight of Mingun, Mingun Paya, also known as Mingun Pahtodawgyi, or Mingun Pagoda. As is common when visiting any pagoda in Myanmar, we must take off our shoes.

A common sign seen throughout Myanmar

A common sign seen throughout Myanmar

The Mingun Pagoda is a massive unfinished pagoda begun in 1790; it was meant to be the largest pagoda in the country.  In 1797, when the bottom third of the pagoda was complete, work slowed considerably for several reasons.  There were probably technical difficulties in building the largest pagoda of its kind at that time.  Apparently, some of the slave labor also escaped.  In addition, there was a prophecy going around that the kingdom would end when the pagoda was finished, deliberately slowing construction.  Funding may have also been a problem. Work on the pagoda completely stopped when King Bodawpaya died in 1819 (Renown Travel: Mingun Pagoda).

The structure is still huge, a 240 ft cube sitting atop a 460 foot lower terrace.  The massive paya makes for an impressive site on the banks of the Irrawaddy river.

At the center of the 50 meter high pagoda facing the river is a huge richly decorated entrance. Inside the pagoda is a small shrine with a Buddha image.

Mingun Paya, or Mingun Pahtodawqyi

Mingun Paya, or Mingun Pahtodawqyi

Mingun Paya

Mingun Paya

Two large earthquakes did considerable damage to the Mingun Pagoda. During the 1838 earthquake, large cracks appeared in the Paya’s structure.

It is possible to climb to the top of the pagoda using a stairway to the right of the structure.  It’s quite a scary climb, with many broken and narrow stairways and people trying to climb up and down in tight spaces.  When we finally get to the top of what is often called “the world’s largest pile of bricks,” we have sweeping views of Mingun and the Ayeyarwady River (Lonely Planet Myanmar).

View of Mingun from the top of Mingun Paya

View of Mingun from the top of Mingun Paya

There are no railings at the top of the paya, so it’s a little scary for people (like me) who might be afraid of heights.

View of Mingun from the top of Mingun Paya

View of Mingun from the top of Mingun Paya

I take some pictures of Shaun and Sarah atop the pagoda.

Shaun and Sarah at the top of Mingun Paya

Shaun and Sarah at the top of Mingun Paya

The views from here really are magnificent.

View of Mingun from the top of Mingun Paya

View of Mingun from the top of Mingun Paya

View of the Ayeyarwady from the top of Mingun Paya

View of the Ayeyarwady from the top of Mingun Paya

View of the Ayeyarwady from the top of Mingun Paya

View of the Ayeyarwady from the top of Mingun Paya

View of Mingun from the top of Mingun Paya

View of Mingun from the top of Mingun Paya

We return to our ox-cart where we take some pictures of each other with our kindly ox.

our oxcart

our oxcart

half an ox

half an ox

Me with the oxcart

Me with the oxcart

Next, we visit the bronze Mingun Bell, commissoned by King Bodawpaya in 1808 to be placed at the top of Mingun Paya.  It’s 13 feet high and over 16 feet across at the bottom and weighs 55,555 viss , a Burmese unit of measurement equal to about 90 tons (Lonely Planet Myanmar).  The weight, 55555 is inscribed on the outside of the bell, which is rung by striking it with a wooden log.  People can climb inside of it; you can see people’s feet under it in this photo.

According to a placard at the site: “This bell is the second largest bell in the world, being one-third of that at Moscow and fourteen times of that at St. Paul’s.  It’s supports were destroyed by the earthquake of 1839, and it rested on the ground until 1896, when it was raised, slung on an iron beam, and placed in the present building.”

The Mingun Bell

The Mingun Bell

tree on the grounds of the Mingun Bell

tree on the grounds of the Mingun Bell

The bell is housed in a Burmese-style, multi-tiered pavilion.

The Mingun Bell

The Mingun Bell

We get back into our ox-cart, where I snap a photo of Sarah poking her head out of the front of the cart.

We’re all having such fun on this journey, wearing flip-flops, our feet covered in dust, and hopping in and out of our own personal ox-cart. 🙂

Sarah pokes her head out of the oxcart

Sarah pokes her head out of the oxcart

Next, we visit Hsinbyume Paya, built in 1816 possibly using materials taken from Mingun Paya.  It rises in seven wavy whitewashed terraces representing the seven mountain ranges around Mt. Meru, the mountain at the center of the Buddhist universe (Lonely Planet Myanmar).

Entering Hsinbyume Paya

Entering Hsinbyume Paya

Hsinbyume Paya

Hsinbyume Paya

Hsinbyume Paya

Hsinbyume Paya

Hsinbyume Paya

Hsinbyume Paya

inside Hsinbyume Paya

inside Hsinbyume Paya

Hsinbyume Paya

Hsinbyume Paya

flowers for the Buddha

flowers for the Buddha

We stop at some souvenir stands to buy something to drink, as it’s quite hot today.

umbrellas for sale

umbrellas for sale

Our oxcart driver, much more laid-back than my horse-cart driver in Ava, is waiting patiently for us.

our oxcart driver

our oxcart driver

Finally, we stop at Pondaw Paya on the banks of the Ayeyarwady.  This is a small-scale version of what Mingun Paya would have looked like if it had ever been completed.  We do some fun posing with the figures at the pagoda.

Pondaw Paya

Pondaw Paya

Me with the Pondaw Paya guardians

Me with the Pondaw Paya guardians

Me at Pondaw Paya

Me at Pondaw Paya

Pondaw Paya

Pondaw Paya

Inside Pondaw Paya are some very serene looking Buddha figures.

As we’re walking back to our boat, I see the woman with the huge camera who snapped at me yesterday for honing in on her model.  I tell the story to Sarah and Shaun and they’re baffled why someone would act so proprietary about a model to whom she likely paid a very small fee.

at the jetty in Mandalay

at the jetty in Mandalay

On our way back down the river to Mandalay, we talk to some friendly Germans on the boat who recommend a hotel in Yangon called the Agga Youth Hotel.  I take note because I haven’t yet reserved a room in Yangon and they say the location is superb and the staff is great, as is the breakfast. Shaun also recommends a free English tour in Yangon by someone named Sandie, and he and Sarah both recommend taking the Circle train in the westerly direction.  I ask the Germans if they’ve seen Enlightenment Guaranteed, about two German brothers who go to Tokyo to spend some time at a Buddhist temple.  They haven’t seen it but take note of it.  I tell them it’s one of the most hilarious movies I’ve ever seen.  Finally, we’re all sharing stories about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and how horrible they were, and the German says Germany did the same thing under Hitler, so as Germans they have to own their part in their horrific history.

This is what I love about slow travel such as long leisurely boat rides, talking to fellow travelers and sharing stories and lessons learned along the way.

the Mandalay jetty

the Mandalay jetty

boats on the Ayeyarwady

boats on the Ayeyarwady

Mimo is waiting for me at the boat dock, and we head directly to a chicken and vegetable lunch at a riverside restaurant in Mandalay at 1:30 p.m.

My lunchtime restaurant

My lunchtime restaurant

After lunch, we’ll head to the Mandalay Royal Palace.

Categories: Asia, Ayeyarwady River, Burma, Chinthe Ruins, Hsinbyume Paya, Irrawaddy River, Mandalay, Mingun, Mingun Bell, Mingun Pahtodawqyi, Mingun Paya, Myanmar | Tags: , , , , , | 14 Comments

sunset on mandalay hill

Sunday, February 15:  After zipping up the switchbacks of Mandalay Hill on the back of the motorbike, my driver deposits me, along with crowds of Western tourists, at the Su Taung Pyai Pagoda.  We’ve all come to see the sunset looking over Mandalay.

Sunset at Mandalay Hill

Sunset at Mandalay Hill

I have to say that the sunset itself is not that great, as the air is hazy and there’s not much to see of Mandalay except a dry dusty plain.  However, I do find the glittery pagoda in the waning light quite wonderful.  I also adore seeing all the monks out and about in force.

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

In the distance, I can see numerous pagodas and the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River as the sun sinks on the horizon.

Mandalay from Mandalay Hill

Mandalay from Mandalay Hill

Su Taung Pyi Pagoda means wish-granting pagoda. It was built by King Anawratha in 414 Myanmar Era.  It was patronized and renovated by successive KonBaung Kings.  Mandalay Hill has been a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists for two centuries.

There’s a breeze on the hill, and I love seeing the monks in conversation and the weary travelers taking a break against the columns of the pagoda.

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

View of Mandalay

View of Mandalay

I love the endless archways with with Burmese script, the shiny floors and the colorful inlaid mirrors on the columns.

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Monk at Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Monk at Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Two girls strike up a conversation with me, asking me where I’m from, what I’m doing here.  I think they just want to practice their English, as apparently many of the monks also want to do at this spot.

One of the girls is wearing the traditional clothing worn by women in Myanmar, the longyi, pronounced “long-ji.”  In Burma, longyis worn by males are called paso, while those worn by females are called htamain.  The styles are different between men and women, as the pattern is usually a small plaid for the men and floral or striped for the women.  The women often wear a matching blouse that covers the shoulders.  The fabric of the htamain is a long rectangle of cloth wrapped around the waist with the end tucked into the waist, not knotted.  Mostly, they are ankle length.

Burmese girls at Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Burmese girls at Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Mandalay from Mandalay Hill

Mandalay from Mandalay Hill

Pagoda in Mandalay

Pagoda in Mandalay

Once the sun has set, suddenly all the tourists dissipate, and I have almost the entire pagoda to myself.  I stroll around and take photos in the waning light, enjoying the peace and quiet.

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

One of the last to leave the pagoda, I find my motor taxi driver waiting patiently.  He takes me back down the hill, back and forth along the switchbacks.  I love riding on motorbikes in Asia!!  It’s so thrilling!  He returns me to my hotel.

I talk with one of the hotel staff women about arranging a tour for tomorrow.  Then, I walk around the corner about two blocks to an open air restaurant called Unique Myanmar.  There are a couple of large tour groups there, and of course I’m a solo traveler; I think restauranteurs don’t like to deal with people who don’t fill a table for two.  They deliver me a basket of curly tofu crackers with a sweet sauce, and I order prawn curry topped with a beer.  All for $12.  The atmosphere is wonderful, although I am quickly forgotten by the waiter and have to go in search of my bill.

I love arriving in a new country and tasting the local cuisine for the first time.  It’s a lovely end to my first day in Myanmar.  So far, I’m loving the laid-back vibe of this country that is so different from China.

Categories: Asia, Irrawaddy River, Mandalay, Mandalay Hill, Myanmar, Su Taung Pyai Pagoda, Unique Myanmar | Tags: , , , , | 13 Comments

arrival in mandalay & an afternoon motorbike ride around the temples

Sunday, February 15:  This morning, Alex and I leave our hotel in Kunming at 9 a.m. and head to the airport.  Alex is returning to the USA via Beijing, and I’m heading on to Mandalay, Myanmar.  Our flights are within a half hour of each other, with Alex due to leave ahead of me, so we check him in first at China Eastern. His first leg of the flight is considered a domestic flight since he’ll be going to Beijing.  I’m going to Mandalay on China Eastern as well, but mine is an international flight, so I have to go to another check-in counter.  After checking in and having a snack in a restaurant, we part ways with big hugs.  He heads to the domestic departure terminal, while I go to international departures.

I start getting texts from Alex as it gets close to his departure time at noon. He says there is no sign of anyone at his gate and there has been no word about boarding.  He only has about a 2 hour layover in Beijing, during which time he has to get his suitcase from the baggage claim, go through customs and then check in again at another terminal for his flight to Virginia.  As the time ticks by, he becomes increasingly panicked as he doesn’t want to miss his flight and have to stay a night in Beijing.  He’s ready to get home.  I advise him that there isn’t that much of great value in his suitcase, so if things are terribly delayed, he can simply ditch the suitcase and head to the next terminal in Beijing with just his carry-on.

Meanwhile, as I’m worrying about him, my flight, which was due to leave after his, is also delayed, but only by a half-hour, so when I board, he still hasn’t.  Of course I worry about him, but I figure he’ll work it out and if necessary, he’ll spend a night in Beijing.  He’s in touch with Mike from here on out anyway, so I take off into the wild blue yonder in a business class seat.  I don’t know how I happened to get this seat, but I’m pleased as can be to fly in style.  The sad thing is that the flight is only 1.5 hours long, so I don’t get to enjoy it for long.

Flying into Myanmar

Flying into Myanmar

Myanmar from above

Myanmar from above

I’ve been traveling throughout China and so have seen all kinds of Chinese landscapes from the air, but I’m really fascinated by the landscape in Myanmar.  I really wasn’t sure what to expect.

the Irrawaddy River

the Ayeyarwady River, also known as the Irrawaddy River

Mountains in Myanmar

Mountains in Myanmar

Farmland in Myanmar

Farmland in Myanmar

the Irrawaddy River

the Ayeyarwady River, also known as the Irrawaddy River

I arrive in Mandalay at around 2:00 and go directly to the airport money exchange with my $1,000 in brand new large U.S. bills.  I’ve read the best exchange rate for the Myanmar kyat (MMK) is at the airport, using brand new U.S. bills.  For my $1,000, I get 1,031,000 kyat in 5,000 bill denominations, all rubber banded up into two stacks of 500,000 each, and some smaller bills in another rubber band!  They have to give me a plastic bag to carry all my money in.   I guess this is what it feel like to be a millionaire! 🙂

As I am walking to the money exchange, some young men approach me and ask if I’d like a shared taxi for 4,000 kyat, or about $4.  Well, I’ve never taken a taxi anywhere for $4, especially not from an airport, so I tell them yes, I’ll take the shared taxi.  In our shared taxi are two Canadians also teaching in China, and like me, traveling to Myanmar on the winter holiday, and a really cool Italian girl from outside Milan.  Funny thing, she’s an Italian English teacher, just as we are.  We have a taxi full of teachers.

After about an hour drive into town, and after dropping some of the others at their hotels, I get dropped off at the unpretentious Mandalay View Inn.  I’m a little disappointed at first sight.  The proprietor is a grizzled, toothless old man who seems a little strange, but the young ladies who work at the hotel are really friendly and make me feel right at ease.

I alight in my room briefly and then head out immediately to try to make something of the afternoon.  The hotel staff recommends that I catch a motorbike to scoot me around to a few temples and then head to Mandalay Hill for sunset. I always love to ride a motorbike, so we agree on 10,000 kyat and we’re on our way, zipping through the dusty streets of Mandalay.

Our first stop is the teak monastery Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, or Golden Palace Monastery. According to World Monuments Fund: Shwe-nandaw Kyaung once served as the northern chamber of Mandalay’s Glass Palace. It was built by King Mindon in the 19th century; he died inside of it in 1878. The chamber was later moved to its current location and refurbished as a monastery in 1880 by King Mindon’s son, King Thibaw, who believed the building was haunted by his father’s spirit. It is of great historic importance as it is the only apartment of the former royal palace that survived the bombing of Mandalay during World War II.

The building is almost entirely constructed of intricately carved teak, which was once completely gilded inside and out, as was almost all of King Mindon’s Golden City. The outer gilding is now mostly washed away, and the untreated teak is darkly tanned by the sun.  However, much of the gilding still remains inside (Asia for Visitors).

At first I’m a little surprised and put off by the crowds of western tourists, especially Europeans, at this spot.  There seem to be a lot of tourists my age, which is highly unusual.  It is the high season in Myanmar in February, so I guess I’ll have to brace myself for crowds in my travels over the coming two weeks.

Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

detail at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

detail at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

Inside the monastery, I spot this young Burmese lady standing in a pool of light and I snap a picture, a very blurred one at that.  Immediately, a blonde American woman with mannish features and a huge camera in her hand snaps at me: “I paid for this model!” I say, “Sorry!” but immediately I’m really not sorry and regret saying it.  She probably paid the model about 1,000 kyat, as that’s about all the girls ask for.  If it were me in that situation, I would never yell at someone who happens to take a picture of someone I paid a small fee to photograph.  Later, I see this American woman in many spots throughout Mandalay and even in Bagan, and I’m annoyed by her arrogance and her pretensions of being some kind of privileged photographer.

“I paid for this model!” said the witch.

elaborate roof of Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

elaborate roof of Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

three tiers of roof at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

three tiers of roof at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

intricate details at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

intricate details at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

view from below of Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

view from below of Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

staircase at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

staircase at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

more detailed carvings at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

more detailed carvings at Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

wood carvings

wood carvings

Standing on a tier of the monastery, I can see the gate to Mandalay University, the second oldest university in the country, and the largest university in Upper Myanmar. The university offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in common liberal arts, sciences and law disciplines.

Gate to Mandalay University

Gate to Mandalay University

In this same area, I go into Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) – KyaungDawgyi.  This unusually shaped temple is a series of diminishing stupa-dotted terraces over an arched base decorated with peacock motifs. When built in 1857 by King Mindon, it was built of teak, covered with stucco on the outside, and it housed a famous Buddha image clothed in royal silk clothing with a huge diamond set on its forehead. However, the image was stolen following the 1885 British takeover, and the monastery was gutted by fire five years later (Lonely Planet: Atumashi-Kyaungdawgyi).  The building in place today is a 1996 reconstruction by Burma’s Archeological Department, who used prison labor for the reconstruction (Wikipedia: Atumashi Monastery).

Stairs up to Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) - Kyaung Dawgyi

Stairs up to Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) – KyaungDawgyi

Ornate door

Ornate door

Buddha under the ceiling

Buddha under the ceiling

One of hundreds of Buddhas I see in Myanmar

One of hundreds of Buddhas I see in Myanmar

Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) - Kyaung Dawgyi

Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) – Kyaung Dawgyi

Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) - Kyaung Dawgyi

Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) – Kyaung Dawgyi

Finally, my moto-taxi driver, who can’t speak English and has had other people translate for us when necessary, asks one of his friends at this complex to let me know that we need to move a little faster if I want to make it to Mandalay Hill by sunset.

I hop back on his motorbike and soon we’re on our way to Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda, also known as the World’s Biggest Book.  This pagoda was built by King Mindon in 1859.  The inscribing on the 729 marble stone slabs of the Buddhist Canon (Tripitaka texts) was started in 1860 and completed in 1868.  The contents of the 729 monoliths of the white marble stone slabs are as follows: 3 books of Sutta Pitaka on 410 marble slabs; 5 books of Vinaya Pitaka on 111 marble slabs; 7 books of Abhidhamma Pitaka on 208 marble slabs; and the inscribing history of all marble slabs on 1 slab.

The World's Biggest Book - Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

The World’s Biggest Book – Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

According to Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma), “another 1774 similarly ensconced marble slabs (collected in 1913) ring the nearby Sandamuni Paya with Tripitaka commentaries. Collectively these slabs are often cited as the ‘World’s Biggest Book.’  When King Mindon convened the 5th Buddhist Synod here, he used a team of 2,400 monks to read the book in a nonstop relay.  It took them nearly 6 months.”

The World's Biggest Book

The World’s Biggest Book

I’m in awe of the long lines of stupas housing the marble slabs that reach in every direction like an army of soldiers standing solidly in formation.

The World's Biggest Book

The World’s Biggest Book

The World's Biggest Book

The World’s Biggest Book

The World's Biggest Book

The World’s Biggest Book

The World's Biggest Book

The World’s Biggest Book

The World's Biggest Book

The World’s Biggest Book

The World's Biggest Book

The World’s Biggest Book

The World's Biggest Book

The World’s Biggest Book

Kitschy Buddha at The World's Biggest Book

Kitschy Buddha at The World’s Biggest Book

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Buddha's footprints

Buddha’s footprints

Silvery Buddha

Silvery Buddha

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Bare feet on cool tiles at Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Bare feet on cool tiles at Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Buddha at Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Buddha at Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Sunset at Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Sunset at Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda

I can see that the sun is getting ready to set, so I rush along back to my motorbike driver and we zoom off toward Mandalay Hill, where we climb the hill via a series of switchbacks, the wind whipping our hair about our heads as if we’re a pair of Easy Riders. 🙂

Categories: Asia, Atumashi Monastery, Burma, Irrawaddy River, Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) - KyaungDawgyi, Mandalay, Mandalay University, Mandalay View Inn, Myanmar, Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda, Shwe Nandaw Kyaung, The World's Biggest Book | Tags: , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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