Sunday, February 21, 2016

On the Shores of the Irrawaddy. Mingun.

Hsinbyume Pagoda (also known as Myatheindan Pagoda), Mingun.

We're very quickly getting into our sightseeing rhythm in Myanmar. Down for breakfast at 8a, ready to go by 9a. Today's itinerary to Mingun, a town located on the shore of the Irrawaddy River, about a 45 minute boat ride from Mandalay.

It was barely 9:20a when we arrived at the boat dock.  I'm not sure you could really call it a dock.  More like just an area along the river's edge where boats congregate.  There's not even a paved walkway leading down to the boats - you just follow a dirt path down the hill.


There were quite a few house boats moored as well.  I have a feeling that the folks who live here are the ones who also work on the boats.  Looking down at the very, very basic living conditions, it's a realization that life is not easy here.


Beyond the cluster of moored boats you could see others plying the waters of the river, a reminder that this is a working river; in many ways a lifeline for the people who live along its shores.



I noticed the planks that spanned between boats.  I was wondering how you would get out to the boat that is moored furthest away from land.  This was my answer.  It all looked a bit precarious but I'm guessing it works just fine.  Crude but effective!


Happy to start the day!

After arriving at the dock area, Zaw had gone off presumably to find a boat for us.  When he returned, he led us down the hill.


Then, we had to walk the planks.  Notice the look on Ayşe's face.  She's intently watching Bro take his steps so she can do the same.


Thankfully, there was also a bamboo pole that we could use to stabilize ourselves.  Here, you just set up the pole (i.e., have two guys hold it up) when it's needed. Very convenient :-)


As it turned out, ours was a private boat - just the four of us.  I don't know how much it cost to rent the boat but it must be very reasonable.

Removing the planks so we can push off.

As we boarded the boat, we made our way to the upper deck which had a canopy covering it.  That was  perfect as otherwise, we would be riding in the blistering heat of the morning sun.   There were only 4 rattan chairs set out.  To balance out the boat, we had to spread ourselves between the two sides of the boat.

Soon, the boat captain fired up the engine and we were off!


We literally sputtered our way from where the boat was moored.  There as a warm breeze in the air which helped to dissipate the strong odor of gasoline spewing out of the motor. 


For the next 45 minutes or so, we  just sat back and took in the views.  I have to admit, this is not exactly the prettiest river to be boating on. 


The landscape around us was flat, dry and arid.  I was so surprised by that.  I always assume Myanmar to be a country filled with tropical rain forests and so I had expected we would be on a river flanked by lush greenery but in fact, it's like a desert here.



I was also surprised to see how much boat traffic there is on this river.  It seemed like a non-stop stream of boats passing us in both directions.  Engines are not exactly the quietest pieces of machinery - there was quite a lot of *put, put, put* sounds filling the air.



When there were no boats, this is what the view was like. 


Seriously, given its geographic proximity to Thailand, I never expected Myanmar to be flat and arid.  This could easily be a view from somewhere in north Africa or the Middle East.


The scenery was pretty boring and the hazy skies didn't help matters any.  Thankfully, the ride was a short one.

A free standing boulder soon appeared in the horizon.  I had no idea what it was but given that the bow of our boat was pointed in the direction of that big rock, I figured that was Mingun.


On the opposite shore were more golden topped pagodas.  Indeed, such sights dot the countryside here.


Soon the boulder was in clear view.  The thing is massive.  The boulder is actually not a rock but the brick ruins of the Mantara Gyi Pagoda (commonly known as Mingun Pahto), which was built by King Bodawpaya who intended for it to be the biggest padoda in the world.  It was originally suppose to reach a height of 152 meters (498 feet).  Legend has it that between 1790 and his death in 1819, Bodawpaya had thousands of prisoners of war and slaves working on the construction of the stupa.  However, construction of the boulder came to a halt following a prophesy that as soon as the building of the pagoda was over, the country would also be gone.  Other stories have it that the prophesy was that the king would die if the pagoda was completed.  Either case, the consequence was not desirable. 

Some historians speculate that there might have been other causes, such as technical difficulties, insufficient labor and lack of funds that prevented the King from completing the stupa.  Whatever the real reason might have been, in the end, only a third of Bodawpaya's dream was completed. Twenty years later, the mighty brick edifice was badly damaged in an earthquake.



Our captain found a spot to moor our boat.  No problem getting right next to shore.


On our walk up from the shore, we passed by the ruins of two giant lion statues about 29 meters (95 feet) high, that guard the pagoda.  All that are left are the paws so it's hard to imagine what the completed lion would have looked like.




There were numerous vendors set up around the area in front of the pagoda - some were selling souvenirs, others were selling food.  I did a quick scan to see if there was anything interesting and my eyes did fall on some nice paintings and some snacks.  I made a mental note to take a closer look at things on our way back to the boat.






The entrance to the pagoda was open but for some reason, Zaw never took us in and I didn't think to ask to go inside.  The Wilted Lily was not thinking straight.  My suspicion is that because the pagoda was never finished, the interior is probably just and empty space - nothing worth seeing.


Instead, Zaw led us to a set of stairs, located to the right of the pagoda.  They would take us to the top of the unfinished pagoda.  He stayed behind while the three of us ventured on.  I'm sure he's been to the top more times than he even cares to remember.

Shoes off.  Yes, we're outside but we're on sacred ground.

I never look forward to climbing anything as my lungs struggle to get air into my body.  I always start out with a big sigh.  Perhaps my workouts in the gym are finally paying off because I no longer huff and puff as badly as I used to.  I still have to take breathers but far fewer these days.  Yay!  Small victory for mankind; major victory for me!


A view back down to the area in front of the pagoda; the Irrawaddy River in the distance.

On the side of the pagoda, devotees have inserted bunches of thin sticks.  As best as I can tell, they are sticks of incense.


Some of the incense sticks looked like they had been deliberately bent so as to be able to fit into the space between the old bricks.



The stairs ended before the top of the pagoda.  To continue on required climbing up on unpaved ground.  With my ankle still healing from the injury in Bangkok, I decided I didn't want to go further than the end of the steps.  I let the other two go on while I just took in the view from the top of the steps.


When the other two were ready to descend back down, I followed them.  Zaw was waiting at the bottom of the stairs for us.

We continued our walk towards our next destination, passing along more street vendors as well small art galleries and shops selling souvenirs.  This place is definitely set up ready to cater to tourists.

Local children at play.  The girl is standing up rolled up kyat bills on a small mounds of sand.

Housed inside a small pavilion is another another relic of King Bodaypaya's reign-  the Mingun Bell. With a height of 3.7 meters (12 feet), it is said to be one of the largest working bells in the world.

Weighing 90 metric tons (2204 pounds), the Mingun Bell was cast in bronze in 1808.  Legend has it that once it was completed King Bodaypaya had the master craftsman executed in order to stop him making anything similar.  Do a good job and be killed.  Hmmm....not exactly an incentive to become a master craftsman.


Inside the pavilion was indeed a massive bell, hanging from the ceiling.

Those are a pair of legs peeking out from beneath the bell; not a clapper :-)

The stats.


There were feet peeking out from the bottom of the bell. 




People were taking turns to use a pole (don't known what you call this thing in the world of bell ringing).  In any case, a deep sound reverberated through the room as the pole struck the bell.  It didn't take but a tap to accomplish that.




Of course, I encouraged both Bro and Ayşe to climb underneath the bell and stand inside.  I was going to strike it with the pole so they could experience the sound from inside the bell but the pole was being passed around but never made it to me.


I recognize those feet :-)





Of course, as I was walking out of the pavilion, I spotted a spare ringer, sitting on a window ledge.  Why hadn't I spotted it earlier, when I needed it?


After the bell, we made our way back to the row of vendors and shops.  We made one quick stop so I could buy a couple of the fried shrimp fritters that I had had my eyes one earlier.  They were greasy but mighty tasty.


Pretty rattan hats.  Very practical for Myanmar.

A sign posted outside the clinic. I think healthcare should be free for anyone 70+ years in age!

What's being dried?  A flower of some sort?

We passed by a few small stilt houses.  They reminded me of the homes I used to see in the Malaysian countryside when I was a young child.  With so many years spent under military rule, time has stood still in Myanmar.  I don't think these houses have either electricity or running water.



Accommodations may not have progressed much in the last 50 years but neither has transportation.  This guy and his ox pulled cart was the local taxicab.  I'm sure the same oxen do double duty pulling the field plough.


Like many a taxicab driver, working in a popular tourist area, this guy had parked his cart in front of a Hsinbyume Pagoda (Myatheindan Pagoda), built by King Bagyidaw (grandson of Bodaypaya) in 1816, in memory of his favorite wife.  Its all white facade and unusual architectural style most certainly makes it stand out from other pagodas.  The only bit of gold is the umbrella ornamentation at the top.


Positioned near the entrance was this very so friendly woman. She was selling what I would describe as coconut filled crepes.  The crepe batter is made from rice flour.


After the batter is allowed to cook for a few seconds, she cracked an egg on top of it and spread the egg around.


She sprinkled some nuts and shredded coconut on top of that and then folded the crepe into a small square.


I had said I wasn't really interested in having any of this as I had just had my shrimp fritter but I was wrong.  This thing was scrumptious.  I could've easily downed 2 or 3 or more....most likely more :-)


With a small sugar buzz on, we entered the pagoda grounds, depositing our shoes at the entrance first.


Supposedly, the architecture of the pagoda is based on the Sulamani Pagoda, on the peak of the mythical golden mountain of Meru, which is the center of the universe in Buddhist-Hindu cosmology.


Seven terraces with with undulating rails, representing the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru,  lead up the stupa.


All around the terraces are niches in which mythical monsters such as nats, orgres and nagas (mythical serpents) stand guard.



The pagoda is ringed by a wide terrace.





Looking over to Mantara Gyi Pagoda from the terrace.






After visiting Hsinbyume Pagoda, we were done with sightseeing at Mingun.  On our way back to the boat dock, I stopped in a couple of art galleries.  I had my eye on a painting with monks carrying umbrellas but after seeing umpteen zillion versions of basically the same painting, I lost interest.  What I thought was a unique painting was so common it no longer held any attraction for me.

What I ended up buying was a Burmese tattoo pen, made of heavy metal and very nicely engraved. that came in a wooden case along with a folded booklet of designs.

My tattoo pen.  The more I look at it, the more I like it.

The whole thing, which was made to look old, but is probably newly made from a factory pumping out thousands of these things, set me back $20 USD.  Highway robbery really as the thing was  probably worth less than half that!  I should have walked away but in a moment of weakness, which came on the heels of walking by a row of ramshackle stilt houses, I decided to not bargain further.  I have no idea how I'm going to display the pen at home but I'll figure that out.  Plus, I want to read up more about the art of tattooing in Myanmar.

Soon, we were back on the boat and less than a half hour later, back in Mandalay.  It was time for lunch.  Another Myanmar restaurant serving traditional food to tourists. I decided to go for a bowl of mohinga followed by a sweet Southeast Asian dessert.



Combination of jellies and shredded coconut served up in thinned out coconut milk.  My Southeast Asian side absolutely craves sweet desserts like this!!

After lunch, it was back to our hotel for our midday siesta.  The Wilted Lily needs her air conditioned break to recover :-)