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Posts Tagged ‘Wunchataung Paya

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.