Mandalay and Away

The real allure to visiting the Mandalay region lies in the surrounding ancient capitals that skirt the city’s edge, crumbling reminders of bygone kingdoms. We were determined to burn out one last car driver before departing this incredible part of the world. Our final day would be a whirlwind tour of these wondrous places, a composition of ancient cities, abandoned sites, an incomplete pagoda, and the longest teak bridge.

Subdued Sunrise and a Rickety Teak Bridge

Normally this tour has a late start and ends with sunset at U Bein Bridge, which spans two shores of Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura. However, that plan ensures that every place is crowded with tourists and hawkers are fully prepared to hawk at us. As we did at Inle Lake, we flipped the tour and began with sunrise at U Bein Bridge and just enjoyed the peace and quiet of a small town waking up.

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U Bein Bridge

It’s also common to hire a boat to watch the sun rise or set behind the bridge, but there were no boats going out when we were there.

Instead we positioned ourselves at a partially submerged monastery that had great compositions of its own, along with sweeping views of the bridge.

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There is normally farm land surrounding this monastery
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Flooded monastery where we positioned our cameras

Walking on the bridge after sunrise we observed fishermen checking their nets and a local lady feeding crows. The 19th century teak structure did have some loose planks but wasn’t as rickety as some people suggest.

Shakedown at the Unfinished Pagoda

Our driver suggested we go to Mingun first, a small town along the Ayeyarwady River, to visit the Pa Hto Taw Gyi (Unfinished) Pagoda. As soon as we arrived at the pagoda, we were surrounded by kids trying to sell us incense and postcards. Failing at that, they followed us around, giving us an unsolicited tour of the pagoda hoping for some payout later.

The structure itself is huge and looks more like a natural rock formation than the bottom of a pagoda. Only 1/3 completed, the construction of the pagoda was delayed, and then eventually abandoned, when a prophecy warned that the king would die once the pagoda was completed. The pagoda was later damaged by two separate earthquakes which left deep open scars zigzagging across its facade.

Tucked away on the right side was a long steep stairway that led to the top of the pagoda. Ignoring the sign in English warning us not to go up, we climbed the stairs anyways so we can get a view of the surrounding area and the adjacent Ayeyarwady River. Why have a stairway if you didn’t want us to climb it?

Unable to shake off the kids, they accompanied us to the top along with two teenagers who joined the party hoping to get in on the action. Our collection of “tour guides” just grew from three to five.  Do we even have enough kyat to pay off  tip everyone?

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Our enterprising “tour guides”

Our intention was to just reach the top and have a quick look around. The tour guides had other plans and led us up a trail to the highest part of the structure. We followed them jumping over wide crevasses and scrambling over large sections of rubble that have fallen off and lying around us. Not sure what we were doing, but enjoying ourselves nevertheless, we figured it was our last day so why not risk our lives. It was actually fun and the views were pretty nice. As we were ready to head back down, the two teenagers strongly “suggested” that we “tip” them for the tour and help. Not wanting to tempt fate we agreed but only after they helped us down. Afterward we also rewarded our little extortionists kids paying one US dollar each having run out of kyat.  They seemed pretty happy with their hard-earned booty.

Views from top

The 100 ton Mingun Bell was originally cast to go inside the temple.

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The nearby picturesque Hsinbyume Pagoda

Crashing 1,000 Monks Lunch

When we were ready to move on, our driver tried to make a suggestion for a side trip to something he couldn’t explain well in English. After some frustrating minutes of blank stares, he whipped out his phone and showed us a picture of Buddhist monks having lunch. D immediately recognized that as the lunch time procession at Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura.  Apparently we were early enough to catch the lunchtime ritual and so we took off towards the monastery to witness this unique event. We got to watch monks of all ages dutifully line up in two lines, each carrying a covered bowl, mug and towel/napkin.

Hundreds of Monks lining up for lunchtime

It was interesting that although they all dressed and shaved their hair identically, they were still able to display a bit of personality with their choice of colorful napkins and mugs.

Check out the different mugs and napkins

The pre-meal ceremony was conducted and the line began to move with volunteers and nuns serving huge scoops of rice and other dishes into the monks’ bowls.

Food service without holding back. Like rice?

We also had a chance to check out the kitchen and food prep area. Feeding hundreds of people is a major operation and the scale of the equipment showed it.

Kitchen and food for an army

Although it was interesting to see this lunch time ritual, the monastery should just ban tourists during this time. There were some tourists who jumped in front of these monks just to take a selfie. I can’t imagine what this place is like during high season.

The Pagodas of Sagaing Hill

We then drove back across the Inwa Bridge getting views of white and gold pagodas poking out from Sagaing Hill, our next destination.

After driving to the top of the hill, our driver dropped us off at the entrance to the Soon Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda. We followed the maze of covered walkways from structure to structure until we reached the top.

The views from the top showed us many more interconnected pagodas and structures like the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy complex.

The curved interior of U Min Thonze Pagoda containing 43 seated Buddha statues.

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U Min Thonze Buddhas
Enchanting Inwa:  Ancient Capital of Ava

Inwa or Ava was our final and definitely most favorite stop. A former dominant capital of Myanmar, Inwa is now an idyllic rural village. Scattered across its green verdant landscape are ancient ruins and monasteries, holdovers from a more grandeur period, that makes this place so enchantingly beautiful.

To get to Inwa, we were supposed to take a boat across the Myitnge River and then hire a horse drawn carriage or bicycle to explore the island’s many sites. It was hot and we were tired, so riding a horse drawn carriage in the heat did not appeal to us. Since following tradition is not for us, we talked our driver into driving into Inwa and giving us the tour himself. He was reluctant but after we paid extra he was more than happy to go out of his way. Money does solve all problems!

He showed us the most heralded sights, including the Nanmyin watch tower, Yadana Hsemee Pagoda ruins, the all teak wood Bagaya Monastery and the Maha Aungmye Bonzan building complex. We were captivated by it all. We passed many other structures worth exploring that were unique and picturesque. It was too bad that we visited this place at the end of the day and at the end of our trip. If we had it to do over again, we would devote at least a half day to Inwa alone.

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Nanmyin Watch Tower

Yadana Hsemee Pagoda

Bagaya Monastery

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Maha Aungmye Bonzan building complex

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