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Archive for November 2013

Mystery flower children and glowing pagodas in Pyay

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Buddha images at Akauk Taung, near Pyay

Perhaps inspired by the sound of monks chanting at a nearby monastery, I started the first full day of my three-day visit to Pyay by sitting on the balcony of my bungalow at Mingalar Garden Hotel and reading a few pages from Snow in the Summer, a book on Buddhist mindfulness and meditation by Sayadaw U Jotika that had been given as a gift a few weeks before. A light morning rain was falling on the hotel’s pond, where catfish swam near the surface waiting to be fed. The air was cool, the wind pushing low grey clouds across the sky. It wasn’t quite as miraculous as snow in the summer, but it was a rare pre-monsoon rainfall and therefore welcome relief from the usual heat of April.

When my wife Pauksi woke from her sleep, we ate breakfast at the hotel’s pond-side gazebo, gave the catfish spoonfuls of fish food and then walked out to the main road to Payagyi Pagoda, a tall, spherical structure made of bricks thought to date back to the 5th or 6th century AD. Whatever its actual age, the abundant plant life growing out of the vast network of cracks on the pagoda imbued it with an ancient ambience. Three terraces of diminishing circumference were built around the base of the stupa, and I walked a circuit of the men-only upper tier while Pauksi kept pace on the level below. I had an unfair advantage, of course, because I had a shorter distance to cover, but such are the privileges of being a man in a Buddhist country.


Payagyi Pagoda

There were plenty of trishaw drivers in the vicinity of the pagoda, and we hired one to take us on a long ride through the countryside east of Pyay to the site of Thayekhittya (Sri Ksetra), a pre-Bagan Pyu city that was at the height of its power from about 400 to 800 AD. There was a small museum displaying artefacts from the Pyu era, and it was also here that we hired a bullock cart to take us a three-hour tour of the ancient city.


Rush hour in Thayekhittya

By now the rain had stopped but clouds remained. We passed through idyllic farmland with few other people in sight, stopping every now and then to explore Thayekhittya’s crumbling walls and monuments. Rahanta Cave Complex contained eight Buddha images and was said to be the tomb of a revered monk. Bawbawgyi Paya, a 46-meter-high cylindrical stupa, was undergoing repair work during our visit. It was covered with bamboo scaffolding providing entry to a mysterious opening high up on the dome that otherwise would have been inaccessible; it was tempting to climb up and peek inside, but I’m afraid of heights and the bamboo looked rickety. A Myanmar-language sign said it was off limits anyway, so we moved on to the tiny Bebe Paya, which had three Buddha images inside, while nearby Lamyethna Paya was looking a bit worse for wear, requiring an iron framework to prevent collapse. Inside were four Buddha images facing outward from a central pillar.


Bawbawgyi Paya covered with bamboo scaffolding

Other sights included the cemetery of Queen Beikthano, where six half-buried funeral urns made of stone were barely protected from the elements by tin roofing, and the overgrown East Zegu Paya. Our tour was all very pleasant but the biggest surprise came in the form of laughing children who, in the middle of nowhere, would occasionally dash from the fields and run behind our cart for a moment to hand tiny wildflowers to Pauksi, then stop and wave as we disappeared around the next bend in the dirt road.


Local kids run behind our bullock cart to hand flowers to
Pauksi, before disappearing back into the fields from whence they came.


Pauksi with a flower delivered by the mysterious children of the fields

Upon our return to the museum we paid the cart driver his modest fee, and Pauksi honoured the real workers – namely, the two oxen that had pulled us for miles around the countryside – by tapping them lightly on the head with her umbrella and saying “chezubeh” (thank you) to each one.

We returned to our hotel for a brief afternoon rest, then hired a trishaw to take us in the opposite direction we had gone in the morning: This time we travelled west toward downtown Pyay and the Ayeyarwaddy River. We disembarked from our three-wheeled transport in the vicinity of the towering Shwesandaw Paya but decided to bypass the landmark pagoda for the time being. Instead, we walked up a set of stone stairs to a hilltop bristling with various pagodas, including Wunchataung Paya, which provided a fine view of Pyay, its many golden spires peeking out of a canopy of green, and towering above them all Shwesandaw and the huge sitting Buddha at Sehtatgyi Paya. The wide, brown Ayeyarwaddy flowed by on the edge of town, and beyond that low hills disappeared into the haze.


Sitting Buddha at Sehtatgyi Paya

Rather than backtrack, we explored a network of footpaths leading past a collection of hilltop monasteries, and finally found a brick stairway that took us down to a solitary colonial building built in 1910 that also seemed to be in current use as a monastery. We eventually came out on the south side of Shwesandaw, which was our next stop. There were more nice views of the town from the pagoda platform, and walking down the east stairs past a mossy old shrine with crumbling statues, we made our way to the big sitting Buddha we had seen from Wunchataung. Of more interest to us was the crew of painters who were using bright colours to refurbish the scenes of the Buddha’s life on display around the pagoda. They were quite happy to pose for photographs next to their handiwork and explain the significance of the individual scenes they were working on.


Pagoda paint crew

By now dinnertime was approaching. We walked past the statue of Bogyoke Aung San – the father of Myanmar independence – on our way to the river, where there were a number of restaurants overlooking the water and serving a variety of Myanmar and Chinese dishes. We settled on Hline Ayay Restaurant, where we ate fried fish with mushrooms, rice and fried potatoes, drank a couple of beers and then skedaddled before the singing girls took the stage. We ambled for awhile along the river, where many locals were also walking and where kids were flying kites in the darkness of early evening.

We dedicated the next day to exploring an intriguing area well beyond the town’s limits. After breakfast at the pond-side gazebo, Pauksi and I hopped into the back of a small truck we had arranged to hire. We blasted through the streets of Pyay, across the Ayeyarwaddy River on the Nawade Bridge, through a landscape of rolling hills and flat rice fields, past the charmingly named town of Ok Shit Pin, and then along the road toward Pathein before turning down a dirt lane to the village of Hton Bo. The whole ride took about two-and-a-half hours so we were happy to finally get out and stretch our legs.


Goat watches boat in Hton Bo village

There was a bit of a lull while authorities checked my passport, then we boarded a rickety wooden boat and chugged a kilometer or so downriver to Akauk Taung. This is what we had travelled all this way from Pyay to see: rows of Buddha images in alcoves carved into the riverside cliffs by men who collected boat taxes in the 19th century. The images – most in sitting or lying down positions – are arrayed in rows from just above water level to high up on the cliff face, and many of their robes had been painted red or gold. Although Akauk Taung (Tax Hill) is not heavily promoted as a tourist destination, it’s one of the more striking sights I’ve seen in the country.


Pathway beneath the carvings at Akauk Taung

For a close-up look at some of the carvings, we stopped the boat at a nondescript spit of sand along the river, from which a steep pathway was hewn into the cliff. The trail passed just underneath – and within arm’s reach – of a group of carvings, which revealed themselves to be much bigger than they had appeared from the river. At the top of the trail was a monastery overlooking the water. The boat pilot told us there was a waterfall nearby, but reaching it required an hour of walking along a confusing network of trails. He didn’t know how to get there and we had no guide, so instead we opted to sit for awhile talking with the head monk of the monastery, who offered us green tea and biscuits, before we started the long journey back to our hotel.

We began our last day in Pyay as we had the previous days: with breakfast at the hotel’s pond-side gazebo. By now the catfish seemed to know who we were and swam over to where we were sitting. Pauksi greeted them with a friendly hello before spooning fish food into the water and watching the ensuing feeding frenzy.

Our agenda for the day called for a car ride to Shwedaung 14 kilometers south of Pyay. The main attraction there was Shwemyetman Paya, home of a large Buddha statue wearing funky gold-plated spectacles. Many pilgrims believe that the image has the power to heal eye ailments, and nearby is a glass case full of eyewear abandoned by people who claim to have achieved perfect vision during their visit to the pagoda.


The myopic Buddha at Shwemyetman Paya

The town itself is quite tranquil, with several more pagodas and a smattering of colonial architecture. Breathing in the serenity, it was hard to imagine that this small town was the scene of a major tank battle during the early days of World War II, when the Japanese were forcing the British to retreat into India.

I asked our driver if we could stop by Shwenattaung Paya, but he told me it was “so far” and “in the jungle”. I asked for clarification because I knew from my years of experience in Myanmar that “so far” can mean anything from 50 miles to 50 feet. This time “so far” apparently meant that it would cost me extra money on top of the amount I was already paying for the car. I might have forked over the additional cash to see the remote pagoda if we weren’t due to leave Pyay by bus in a few hours to return to Yangon.


Small shrine at Yahanar Shitseh Theindawgyi

On the way back to our hotel we did stop at  (80 Monk Pagoda), named after the 80 monk statues (79 with eyes closed, one with eyes open) arrayed around the site’s main shrine. The ancient structure has been refurbished three times over the centuries, first in the Pyu style, then Thayekhittaya style and then Inwa style. During our visit it was undergoing the process for the fourth time, presumably in Nay Pyi Taw style. Onsite were hundreds of small Buddha figures said to have been found when the pagoda was discovered hidden in dense forestland many years ago; it was uncovered after a monk had dreamed of its location and led a search party straight to the ruins. Locals say that 28,000 figurines were found, as well as old wooden monastery pilings that had petrified into stone.

For our last stop our driver swung down a dirt road to Shin Hlaing Gu, a pagoda and tomb near Shwe Pyay Aye Meditation Center on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. There was no one around except a lone pilgrim, who nonchalantly told us that the pagoda was sometimes known to glow at night. I didn’t comment but didn’t necessarily disbelieve him either. In a land where children appear from nowhere to hand wildflowers to passing strangers, where tax collectors create stunning artwork in homage to the Buddha, and where mystical visions provide guidance for the unearthing of ancient ruins, a luminescent pagoda didn’t make any less sense to me than rain in the dry season or snow in the summer.

Monywa: A hot destination in central Myanmar

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Goatherd near Monywa in central Myanmar

We were in no hurry to leave the hotel room on our first day in Monywa. My wife Pauksi and I had arrived by flight around noon, winging in over north-central Myanmar’s flat, dry-season-dead landscape. It was mid-May, and the air crackled with summer heat during the slow, 15-kilometre tuk-tuk ride from the airport to Monywa Hotel.

So we sheltered in our air-conditioned room and waited until late afternoon for a walk around town. Monywa – located in Sagaing Region, about 136km northwest of Mandalay – spreads along the east bank of the wild Chindwin River, and the waterfront seemed like a good place to witness the waning of the daylight.

The temperatures weren’t exactly cool by the time we left the hotel, but we still enjoyed the long, casual amble that took us past a statue of national hero Aung San on horseback, the town’s central clock tower, a buzzing street market and Shwezigon Pagoda. Once at the riverside, we enjoyed fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice as we watched the sun descend toward the horizon. It was late in the dry season, and the Chindwin had been reduced to a modest ribbon of ochre water winding among wide sandbanks. 


Making sugarcane juice

Nothing was going to keep us in our hotel room the following day; we had big plans, which we would see through no matter what the weather held in store. We hired a trishaw first thing in the morning and set out on the 50-minute drive to the Bodhi Tataung pagoda complex, located about 25km south of Monywa. There was still a bit of night-chill in the air as we drove between the neem trees that lined the road on both sides.

Bodhi Tataung is famous for being home to a 128-meter-tall standing Buddha image, whose hilltop location adds to its towering command of the landscape. Myanmar’s tourism boosters are fond of declaring that this statue is one of the tallest such images in the world, but given the Buddha’s teachings on humility and impermanence, these trifling boasts seem somewhat contrary to the spirit of the religion.


The standing Buddha image at Bodhi Tataung

Still, the spiritually flawed materialist in me recognized it as an impressive sight. It’s also hollow, which means it is possible to go inside and climb up into the Buddha’s chest cavity. We ascended a dozen or so flights, enjoying the galleries filled with kitschy, cartoonish paintings of Buddhist hell and the various forms of torture meted out to sinners. The gleeful devils seemed partial to using cooking techniques to deliver pain, as various victims were shown being tenderized, chopped, sliced, diced, julienned, skewered, sautéed, roasted and boiled. 


Miscreants get skewered in Hell

We descended the hill on an obscure footpath and happened across a monastery where elderly men were engaged in esoteric alchemical pursuits. We watched as they stuffed shards of various metals – iron, copper, silver and gold –  into small clay pots, which were then placed on an open flame. The melted metals formed an alloy that was used to make magical rings known as daloun.

One of the monks explained that these rings provide the wearer with supernatural powers, such as extraordinary good luck, self-confidence and protection from harm. Before I had the chance to ask whether I might buy one, he added that only monks and those who were pure of heart could benefit from these powers because others are “too greedy or angry”.

The “pure of heart” requirement pretty much disqualified me from status as a ring-bearer, so we retreated to the trishaw and headed back toward town. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside shack selling barbecued rabbit and pigeon, as well as a mystery meat the shop owner vaguely described as “wildcat”. We opted for rabbit, which the shop owner – a woman with 10 children – said her family caught using nets after their dogs had flushed the animals out of their warrens. The meat was a bit dry, but we washed it down with a few cups of sweet, fresh palm wine.


Enjoying barbecued rabbit

Our last stop before Monywa was Thanboddhay Pagoda, which was beautifully painted in a riot of bright colors and decorated with thousands of small Buddha images. The concrete platform surrounding the pagoda was foot-searingly hot, but the atmosphere inside was dusky, cool and tranquil.


Thanboddhay Pagoda



Inside Thanboddhay Pagoda

After lunch, we set out for an excursion to the Hpo Win Daung cave complex across the Chindwin River. This time we hired motorcycles, and the journey took about an hour. We drove north a few miles to cross the river by bridge, passed through an arid, savannah-like landscape, and flew by the Letpadaung copper mining area. Last year, Myanmar riot police had used unnecessarily heavy-handed tactics while confronting monks and villagers protesting against the environmental and communal impacts of the mining operations here.


Workers’ lodging at Letpadaung copper mine

Hpo Win Daung consists of a network of footpaths and stairways winding through an area where, between the 14th and 18th centuries, alcoves and small caves were dug into the hillsides and filled with Buddha images. A few of the shrines are quite big, housing large Buddha images and masterful, intricate religious murals dating back to the 16th century.


Hpo Win Daung


Murals at Hpo Win Daung

There were no other tourists about, and we reveled in the sense of discovery and isolation. In some places the recesses were quite eerie, like portals through which the undead might issue in the dark of night. We wandered around the main hill, saw a few Buddhist monks looking into the alcoves, and ran into a group of local kids who asked for packets of shampoo.


Kids at Hpo Win Daung

For the rest of the time, it was just us and the gangs of wild monkeys that scampered around the rocks and trees. They weren’t as aggressive as the primates at Mt Popa, but I had the feeling that if I dropped so much as a crumb they would swoop in for the kill.

As late afternoon set in, large numbers of monkeys started making their way up a particular set of old stone stairs. My wife and I followed, and we found that scores of the animals were gathering inside a large, dim shrine containing a reclining Buddha image. The monkeys sat quietly in a group in the middle of the room, for what purpose we couldn’t determine. We continued walking to the top of the hill to take in the view of the countryside, and when we came back down 20 minutes later the monkeys were gone, and the shrine was empty and silent.


Monk and monkeys at Hpo Win Daung

The motorcycle ride back to Monywa bordered on the apocalyptic: Dark clouds moved in from the west, and a fierce wind began to blow. Thunder rumbled ominously across the sky. At one point we raced past a brushfire that sent heat and smoke billowing across the narrow road. Near the bridge we stopped at the hilltop Shwe Taung Oo Pagoda, from which we enjoyed expansive views of endless farmland to the west and the Chindwin River to the east.

The wind was howling ferociously and kicking up a thick, beige haze from the Chindwin’s exposed sandbanks. It was the first time I’d ever seen a dust storm form over a river. We were enveloped by the brown cloud as we motorcycled across the wind-whipped bridge, but on the other side, the air was clear as the wind had shifted and was blowing the dust and the thunderstorm to the north.


Dust storm over the Chindwin River, with the bridge barely visible in the haze

We had time the next morning for a half-day trip north of town to the Twindaung volcanic crater. Again we opted for motorcycles, buzzing through sun-scorched farmland to the town of Budalin, where we turned west onto a flat, straight dirt road that took us directly into the heart of nowhere. The heat of the day was building fast, and with the motorcycles struggling through the frequent stretches of sandy soil, we had to stop a few times to allow the engines to cool.


Allowing the motorcycle engines to cool on the long, hot road to Twindaung

The road eventually started sloping upward, at first gently and then quite steeply. As we gained altitude, the air cooled and more tree started appearing around us. I realized we were climbing up the outside of the volcanic cone, and before long we reached the rim and found ourselves looking down at circular lake nestled in the ancient crater. It was a beautiful sight, the placid water ringed by a forested ridge, its shoreline graced with swaying palm trees. It seemed like the perfect place to establish a small eco-resort, complete with hiking trails through the trees and kayaks on the water.

Unfortunately, such a resort does not exist. Instead, this potential Eden has been sullied by the establishment of an unsightly spirulina factory in the crater, dedicated to harvesting algae from the water for use in “anti-aging” dietary supplements. As long as we were there, we decided to walk down and take the self-guided tour of the facilities. Cameras must be left at the sign-in desk, apparently to prevent international spirulina spies from documenting the concrete cultivation tanks, algae drying racks, water-displacing squeegees and other advanced technologies in use at the factory.


Twindaung volcanic crater, with the spirulina factory on the near shore

Having learned everything we always wanted to know about the wonderful world of algae farming but were afraid to ask, we climbed out of the crater to where our motorcycles were parked in the shade of a small tree. A pleasant breeze blew across the remote ridge top, rustling the tree leaves and cooling the air. We paused to enjoy the magic of the moment, and then climbed onto our motorcycles, started the engines, and glided back down the outside of the old volcano and into the sweltering scrublands below.

 This story was published in the October 2013 issue of My Magical Myanmar travel magazine.