Freshly squeezed orange juice was so tasty that the young girl at the breakfast counter could hardly contain her ‘shock and awe’ when I consumed a couple of glasses of the nectar standing near the dispenser. During the travel in Myanmar I had seen loads of melons being transported and sold along the road side and I was keen to try some. The portion I had for breakfast did not taste so good. By 7.45 am we were ready to leave for Mandalay. For records, the distance from Monywa to Mandalay is less than 130 kms that could be done in slightly over two hours. Silver Hills, the travel agency in Myanmar, built a bit of sightseeing to the schedule around Monywa as well as Mandalay.
As I was driving out of Monywa I saw a large number of Buddhist nuns, young and old, clothed in pink, walking briskly through the streets with a large flat vessel on their heads. Tun Tun told me that they were out seeking alms. They do this twice a day, morning and evening. People donate rice and other articles meant to be cooked for breakfast and lunch. The monks and nuns are not supposed to buy their meals.
The first diversion from the route to Mandalay was to appreciate the beautiful Mohnyin Thanboddhay Pagoda, which was rebuilt by the monk Mohnyin Sayadaw on a 14 century 15 hectare site. The monk was no architect; upon meditating over a long period he came to erect the pagoda between 1939 and 1959. The claim to fame of the pagoda is the main stupa which contains 582363 Buddha images of all sizes, much of them donated by the faithful seeking nirvana, fame, beauty or some such personal favours. The compound of the pagoda is vast and contains many pavilions and ponds that has fish and turtles, which are fed by those visiting the premises. The pagoda festival is held in November.
The Maha Bodhi Ta Htaung monastery is just a few kms away in the Monywa township, founded in 1960, now spans over 250 acres. The monastery is famous for over a thousand Buddha images and Bodhi trees. The Giant Standing Buddha statue on a hillock near the monastery is considered to be the second biggest in the world at 424 feet. The large reclining Buddha statue is 333 feet in length. I was told that efforts are on to build a large sitting Buddha soon. At the base of the hillock is a pagoda that looks like the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon.
The roads, as I have come to expect in Myanmar, are nothing flashy but, at the same time, extremely motorable. Add to that the discipline of the road users and motoring here is a pleasant experience. One has to only come to terms with the large number of two wheelers. Tun Tun told me that Chinese two wheelers cost as low as $400! On the way one can see a large number of bullock carts transporting farm produce. They do not use the roads, but the dirt tracks beside them. Roads are normally lined with vendors retailing fuel and food. Petrol, diesel and kerosene are displayed in one litre plastic bottles, normally used beverage bottles. Daily commuters and floating population buy locally produced fruits, vegetables and home made food.
At the outskirts of Mandalay is Sagaing, which is located on the Ayeyarwady River. Driving across the large bridge is itself a lovely experience. Sagaing, with its many monasteries, is an important religious centre. The central pagoda on top of the 240m hillock is the Soon U Ponya Shin. The 45 Buddhas, seated in an arc, is an important place of visit. The inscriptions on the walls show the large number of donors from all over the world; many are from India too.
Next on the list was the U Bein Bridge, signposted sometimes as the U Pain Bridge (!), that was built in 1851, in Amarapura. It is possibly the longest wooden teak bridge in the world with 482 spans over 1.2 kms across the Taung Tha Man Lake. The wood for the bridge was reportedly reclaimed from a former royal palace! It has over 1000 solid teak pillars, many of which are in various stages of decay now. The curved bridge has nine passage ways, the floors of which can be lifted to let large barges and boats pass under them. The original bridge, I was told, did not have a single iron nail on it. But, restoration over a period of time saw them used in large numbers to make the bridge safe, which is the only access for people living on both sides of the lake. During summer, with the waters in recess, people using traditional fishing rods and nets to catch the large number of fish that populate the lake. Local enterprise also flourishes on the land that ‘surfaces’ during the summer months. All these vanish when the lake fills up between July and August. All along the bridge are vendors selling local food, art and souvenirs. A brisk walk over the bridge, after a hearty lunch, helped digestion.
A little before 3 pm we arrived at the Mandalay hotel. The money changer at the hotel gave me a good exchange rate for USD – 1037 per USD for 50 dollar bills. Since I did not have local currency at the time of getting into Myanmar, Myu Min of Silver Hills had loaned me some till I could change the dollar bills I had on me. After the check in Tun Tun suggested that we leave for the Mandalay Hill by 4.30 pm. I did the laundry, in the meanwhile. The 240m Hill was a thirty minute drive from the hotel. Tun Tin told me that a person who climbs the hill is sure to live a hundred years; driving up may lessen it if you do not drive the curvy slope patiently. Two gigantic stylised lions guard the entrance to the walkway up the hill. We drove up to the car park and took the escalators to the summit which was not so crowded when we arrived there. The view from the summit is panoramic of the city and its neighbourhood. Pilgrims and tourists come there to view the sunset. I spent over an hour there observing visitors from all over the world as well as watching the sun go down. During the time Tun Tun explained to me the significance of the Hill in the context of WWII; it was a major centre of Japanese occupation and resistance, which took a Gorkha battalion to storm and penetrate.
I had dinner at the hotel restaurant. I had a bottle of Tiger beer before having a large portion of Malay chicken noodles. The day had been full and exciting. It did not take me long to sleep after I returned to the room.