When you’re tired of Mandalay with all of its heat, smog, and traffic – consider visiting the surrounding towns on the outskirts of the city on a day trip. Since these places are not too far away, you can either hire a taxi or rent a motorbike to take you around. To hire a car, you don’t really need an advance booking, just walk to a hotel where taxis are usually parked and haggle with the driver on the price and itinerary. We went with Mr. Po, our personal cabby, who took us to the villages for 45,000 Kyatt ($38 USD). Here is a breakdown of the places we visited, organized by location:
After spending the morning at U Bein bridge in Amarapura, we continued on to Inwa (or Ava as it was previously known), an ancient imperial capital situated 20 km south of Mandalay. Throughout history, it had been sacked and rebuilt numerous times, now what is left of the city is quite spread out. To get there, you have to take a ferry across the river, which costs 2,000 Kyat per person.
Once across, there are plenty of horse-drawn carriages waiting to take you around. Most people choose to tour Inwa by horse cart , although it’s possible to tour the 5 km circuit on foot or even on bike if you brought one with you. We decided to try the horse buggy, paying 10,000 Kyat to the driver to take us around to the sites.
Most of the temples, built around the 18th century, are located in a loop that took us about 2 hours to cover for the main sights. Some of the interesting places to visit include the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery, the leaning tower and the Bagaya Monastery:
Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery – The yellow brick monastery is a fine example of architecture during the Konbaung dynasty. Even though it was built in the same style as the wooden monasteries of the same time period, its use of non-traditional brick as opposed to teak wood is quite unique. It has a multi tiered roof with ornate stuccoed sculpture decorations throughout. At the entrance are two large Chinthes, the Burmese mythological lions, to guard and protect the temple.
Nanmyint Watch Tower – The 27 meter high “leaning tower” is one of the only structures remaining from King Bagyidaw’s palace. It used to be a watch tower, but after many years of neglect it is not safe to climb to the top in its current state of disrepair.
Bagaya Monastery – Built in 1838, it is made entirely of teak wood. It has seven tiered spires, 267 wood posts and many intricate carvings of flowers, birds throughout. It was used during the peak years to educate the royal children. Today, it provides housing and schooling for local children. It’s not as preserved as the golden monastery in Mandalay.
Sagaing is 20 km south-west of Mandalay, located on the opposite bank of the Ayeyarwady River. Sagaing is an important religious and monastic center with over 400 temples in the surrounding area. As you cross the bridge, you’ll notice countless white and gold stupas peaking out over the green hills.
Umin Thounzeh – The name literally means “30 caves”, which was derived from the crescent shaped colonnade that appeared cave-like. Inside are 45 Buddha images in a row. On the other side, you’ll see donation plaques adorning the walls. The donations are made by people from all over the world and for as little as $50 USD, you can also get your name on the wall.
Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda – Soon Oo Ponya Shin is one of the oldest and richest pagodas in the area. Because of its status, the temple often receives the first alms offerings. It is located on the top of the Sagaing Hill with a great view of the Ayeyarwady River and the surrounding hilltops. It’s a great place to relax, sit back and let a nice breeze cool you down on a hot day, while you enjoy the view
Aung Myae Oo – Another pit stop we made in Sagaing was to visit a school that provides free monastic education for the poor and orphaned children in the area. Aung Myae Oo was founded in 2003 by Buddhist monks and entirely funded by donations. It has grown substantially over the years, from 31 children to over 2000 today. The young novices and nuns are either accommodated in the school compound itself or in surrounding monasteries. They are being educated according to Buddhist traditions and values.
During our short visit we got to learn about the school and their worthy causes. We also played with some of the children during their recess. They all seemed happy and well cared for. The young nuns were busy jumping rope while the young novices gathered around a rowdy game of kickball. I even got to chat with this quiet little lady who stole my heart.
Mingun is small town, located about 11 km up the Ayeyarwady River. The easiest way to get there is to take the public ferry, which leaves the Mayanchan jetty every morning around 9am. The ferry ride only costs 5,000 Kyatt per person, whereas a private boat will cost upwards of 30,000 Kyatt.
After many days of hectic travel, it was nice to wind down for an hour, sitting back and enjoying the peaceful scene as we drifted down the river. It was glorious to not be surrounded by traffic.
Once we disembarked in Mingun, we were once again surrounded by a group of locals selling us stuff or offering their advice for tips. Even though I enjoyed visiting these smaller villages, I feel like you’re trapped once you’re there and the locals want to ensure you part with your money. We paid an admission fee of 5000 Kyatt per person to get into all of the temples in Mingun. Everything was within walking distance, but there are ox cart taxis waiting around in case you don’t want to walk.
Mingun Pahtodawgyi – The King at the time wanted to build the largest temple in the world that would rival the Great Pyramids of Giza. His ambitious project drained local resources and was unpopular with the locals. When he passed away, the pagoda was left unfinished and currently stands as an impressive gigantic pile of bricks. An earthquake in the early 19th century left a giant crack along the face of the stupa. The increasingly decrepit building is surrounded by overgrown vegetation, as it is slowly being reclaimed by nature.
Around the front, there are steps leading to the top, but there is a big sign discouraging the climb for safety reasons. Over the years, the dilapidated buildings have become unstable due to the cracks from within the structures.
We, in our false bravado and infinite wisdom, decided to ignore the warning sign and climb up to the top. The awesome part is, even though this structure is abandoned and falling apart, it’s still a pagoda, so you’re not allowed to go up unless you’re properly attired. That means bare feet with a long skirt/pants that cover your knees. Walking bare feet in the heat is barely tolerable, but when you add in a rocky surface to the mix, it gets even better.
Once at the top, you will have magnificent views of the Ayeyarwady river and the surrounding areas. On a clear day you can even see all the way to Sagaing and Mandalay. Some of the places are hard to get to and require you to balance precariously on shaky bricks while jumping over a ravine. By this point, I was having major regrets, not quite remembering why we decided that climbing up was a good idea. One of the local girls had followed us around and tried to help us through the difficult areas. Once we were kinda stuck, she started to mention about how she needed money for school. At that point, we were more than happy to pay her to make sure we got back down in one piece. It was an interesting experience.
Bell – The bell was initially built to go inside the colossal Pahtodawgyi Pagoda. Despite not completing the stupa, the construction of the bell did finish. It weighed in at over 200,000 pounds and stands 12 feet high, the size of a small house. Twenty people can fit comfortably underneath, as you can see from the picture. The massive bell is rung by striking a wooden post against the outside.
Hsinbyume Pagoda – This white pagoda stood out in the sea of greenery like a big wedding cake. Unlike other more traditional pagodas, Hsinbyume’s architecture was modeled after the mythological Mount Meru, the center of the Buddhist cosmology universe. The seven terraces leading to the stupa represent the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru. Throughout the temple the mythical monsters – nagas, ogres, and nats stood guard.
The Pagoda was built in 1816 by King Bagyidaw as a gift to his wife who died during childbirth. This is one of the must visit places for its originality alone.
We bought a coconut and a cold beer for the boat ride home. Boarded the boat, sat back with our drinks and enjoyed a quick ride back to Mandalay.