The unique and fascinating sites in the Ayerarwady River Valley south of Mandalay in Myanmar are a wonderful surprise. From sparkling pagodas to scenic bridges there is a large variety of things to see.
The country’s largest Buddhist Monastic College is located in the town of Amarapura. Tourists are welcome to visit the monastery during morning alms and meal service. Two thousands monks live at the college and most attend the morning meal. As you can imagine feeding them every day is quite a challenge. The college’s kitchen has developed a great system to get this accomplished. There is a large storage area filled with bags of onions, potatoes, carrots and rice. Several kitchen staff prepare huge quantities of vegetables. Large woks are used to cook soup and curry over a fire. A few buildings away is a large pool for cleaning the dishes.
At 10:30 am, 2,000 monks exit their quarters and parade in silence down the main walkway, carrying their alms bowls (patras). The sidewalks are filled with tourists watching the procession, but the monks mostly ignore the constant clicking of cameras. They walk toward the dining hall, stopping to recieve their portion of food. Then they then sit down in a large, open dining hall and, in silence, eat their meal.
It was such an interesting custom to witness. The only complaint we have about this site is that there were a lot of tourists. Both sides of the street were lined with tourists, all vying for the most Instagram worthy picture. We were with them, adding to the problem. Although it’s a revenue souce for the college, the mass of tourists did take away from the experience.
On the other side of the Ayerarwady River, Sagaing Hill sparkles in the sun. The hill is covered in countless gold and white zedis and pagodas. You have your choice between walking up the stairs or driving to the top where there are, of course, more pagodas. We stopped to visit U Mine Thonze Pagoda. A row of golden statues of Buddha, each with its own arched door, wrapped around the pagoda’s exterior. From the top of Sagaing Hill there are nice views of the river valley below.
Set on an island in the Ayerarwady River, the village of Inwa is a charming spot. A 5-minute long-boat ride takes you up the Ayerarwady River to reach the island. It was the capital of Myanmar from mid 1300 to mid 1800s. Scattered around the island are a few remnants from this time. The sites are very far apart so we took a horse and buggy to get around.
The most impressive site is the Maha Aungmya Bonzan Monastery. It’s a grand building with thick brick walls covered in intricate stucco designs. The inside of the monastery was mostly empty, but the long hallways have beautiful arched doorways decorated with sculptures. Behind the monastery is a group of Bagan era (1200 AD) stupas.
From the monastery, a short horse and buggy ride took us to a beautiful teak monastery built in the 1800s. Bagaya Kyaung Monastery has massive teak pillars decorated in detailed carvings. Inside huge teak pillars fill the open room. Other than the new tin roof, it is completely composed of teak and is still a functioning monastery today.
The oldest and longest teak bridge in the world is nearby in Amarapura. The bridge was built in the 1850s and is over 1 km long. Most of the original 1086 teak poles remain, only a few have been replaced by concrete. We walked accross the long pedestrian bridge. It’s pretty shaky in the middle though so maybe more posts need to be replaced.
Being here at sunset is the nicest time and we were lucky to have a beautiful, smoke-free sunset. If you look closely at the first picture you can see a monk walking on the bridge in front of the sun!
Mandalay was briefly a capital city, but only a few remnants of its reign are left. Today, it’s a busy, congested city with a few attractions.
The original royal palace was made of teak and included over 40 buildings. The palace burned down so the museum is a reconstruction of the original. Unfortunately, it has not been maintained and the remaining structures are in rough shape. The buildings that were rebuilt allow you to imagine how spectacular it must have been.
One block north of the palace is Mandalay Hill. At the base of the hill is the world’s largest book. Kuthodaw Pagoda is actually 729 white pagodas set in tight rows around a golden pagoda. Each pagoda contains a marble slab etched with a mantra from the Buddhist Pali Canon (Buddha’s teachings). It’s a stunning view.
Further north are the south east steps going to the top of Mandalay Hill. While walking up the steps of the hill, we passed a number of different zedis, shrines and pagodas; many are covered in gold, coloured glass and mirrors. On the walk there should have been good views of Mandalay but the sky was very smokey, so it was difficult to see too far. At the top of Mandalay Hill is Su Taung Pyi Pagoda which means wish-granting pagoda. When we were there, we saw many pilgrims from neighbouring villages dressed in colourful, traditional attire.
Traffic is a nightmare in much of Myanmar and especially in Mandalay. Most intersections are uncontrolled with no traffic lights, stop signs or even yield signs. The only thing preventing accidents is that the speed limit is only 48 km/hr. The funny limit is a straight conversion from the British rule when it would have been 30 mph!
Visiting Mandalay and area
Tickets for the Mandalay archeological zone are USD $10 and is valid for a week. It includes access to most of the sites around Manadaly including Amarapura, Innwa and Sagaing. We purchased tickets and hired a private tour from our hotel.
Coming next – Yangon’s Glittering Shwedagon Pagoda
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