Most people going form Mandalay to Bagan, or vice versa, travel directly between the two places, either by bus or by boat. Those who like Buddha images, however, should make a small loop northwest to the provincial riverside town of Monywa. A mix of modern Disneyesque sites and culturally significant Buddha chambers make for an interesting day out.
Going for ease: hiring a taxi
To be time-efficient we hired the taxi driver who had taken us on a tour of the sights around Mandalay a few days earlier to drive us from Mandalay to Monywa (which normally takes three hours), visiting several sights en route to and around Monywa. We payed 100 USD for the day, which is quite expensive, but it saved us a day (no need for backtracking) and it was an easy and comfortable way to see the sights for a change.
It was a long day nonetheless, leaving Mandalay at 7 AM and arriving at our hotel well after sunset. Our driver still had to drive back to Mandalay that same night. Phew.
Giant Buddha image at Bodhi Tataung
After stopping at a nice big golden stupa (we forgot the name though) about 45 minutes after leaving Mandalay we drove to Bodhi Tataung, which literally means 1.000 Buddhas. This number mainly refers to the nearby gardens full of identical sitting Buddhas under concrete parasols.
The two that draw the most attention though are a 130 meter high standing Buddha, supposedly the tallest in the world, and a 95 meter long reclining Buddha, lying in front of it. There’s also a big golden stupa. The big question is: Why on earth did they build this in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got to see it to believe it.
Both Buddha statues are hollow on the inside and can be visited. The reclining Buddha was completed in 1991 and is entered through the right buttock. It has some poorly maintained an lighted scenes inside. The standing Buddha was built as recent as 2008.
We climbed 24 storeys in the giant image. The first ten storeys depicted gruesome scenes of hell that were to be our destiny if we were to deviate from the right path. After that each storey brought us closer to nirvana. From the 24th floor on it seemed a work still in progress, but I guess we were almost in the head, so we must have nearly reached nirvana.
A riot of colors at Thanboddhay Paya
Maybe nirvana looks like nearby Thanboddhay Paya, the most over the top religious kitsch you’ll ever find. It’s like with Bodhi Tataung: You’ve got to see it to believe it. Despite its appearance it’s a bona fide religious site, with people praying and meditating and of course donation boxes (but you have to pay an entrance fee as a foreigner as well).
A riot of bright colors and architectural styles greet you from the outside, millions of Buddha images – ranging from (very) small to very large – make up the inside. It is said that a grand total of 5.823.631 Buddha images can be found inside the temple. We didn’t check if this figure is correct….
‘Old school’ Hpo Win Daung caves
Contrary to relatively new Thanboddhay Paya and Bodhi Tataung, the chambers with painted and carved Buddha images at Hpo Win Daung are more ‘old school’: Between the 14th and 18ht century Buddha images have been carved in the limestone hills creating shallow ‘caves’. As they are not heavily restored, they exude a lot of charm and authenticity.
Freelance guides offer their services for a few thousands kyiats. They walk with you if you want them to or not. Ours seemed quite knowledgeable though. There were many monkeys around but they didn’t seem too aggressive. Their main attention was focused on the girls selling snacks to feed them. When food was in the picture the monkeys sometimes got a little overexcited.
We visited Monywa in November 2014
Travel tips Monywa
Stay – We stayed in a superior room at the Chindwin Hotel for one night. It was rather pricey for what it offered. Bathroom could use some tlc and water in the shower wasn’t even lukewarm (so no sense drawing a bath in the tub). And what’s with the extensive pricelist in the room in case you damage the TV, fridge, sheets or doorknob? Not very welcoming. That being said: rooms were well proportioned and had good working air-conditioning. Buffet breakfast was OK. Staff were helpful in arranging bus tickets to Bagan.
Eat – We had dinner at a restaurant with terrace on the street next to the Chindwin Hotel. Dishes of Chinese and Myanmar food were big, cheap and tasty.
Transport – We traveled by taxi from Mandalay, but there are also regular buses. We booked our bus tickets to Bagan through our hotel as there are not many buses going directly from Monywa to Bagan, but this wasn’t really necessary as there were enough tickets available at the bus station when we got there the next morning.
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