A Road Less traveled
Monywa is a less traveled destination in Burma, approx. 126 KM due west of Mandalay. It is generally considered a bit of an off the beaten track destination for travellers to Myanmar as it is out of the way of the general route most (heading south to Bagan) people tend to take.
Getting there: From Mandalay there is two options, by bus and rail-car. However, due to the fact there’s only one train departure per day to Monywa the most flexible option is by bus. A Mini-bus to Monywa costs 3000 Kyats and there are departures every hour from Mandalay Bus Station. The run time to Monywa is approx. 3 – 4 hours. NOTE: there is two bus stations in Mandalay, so be sure your taxi from your hotel understands you are getting a bus to Monywa. The buses (they are mini-buses) are local transportation, meaning they will potentially stop dozens of times on the way to pick up and drop off paying passengers. The buses normally depart on time and may take at least an hour to clear the city limits of Mandalay, as the driver and his assistant hustle to get a full compliment for the run across to Monywa. The route goes along the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River then crosses to the western side, over a very large iron work bridge. NOTE: if you are using buses regularly to get around Burma you’ll quickly notice that most provincial roads are not much more than narrow, sealed tracks. Overtaking is quite hazardous and made even more so by the fact most vehicles are designed for driving on the left side of the road, and not the right. This creates the situation where the driver has a completely obscured view of the road ahead – as the steering wheel is located towards the inside edge of the road – and he will need to use his assistant (who usually sits with his head sticking out of the sliding door on the left side) to give him a safe call to overtake buses and lorries. As mentioned most roads are in quite a poor state, but the authorities are trying to rectify this with a road upgrade program, through toll collections. On virtually every stretch of highway there is a checkpoint with a toll to pay by every vehicle traveling.
With all the stops to pay toll fees, the trip will be lengthened by a few minutes or so. If you depart from Mandalay bus station at 9 AM (as I did) you will arrive at the Monywa Bus Station by 12.30 PM. There’s then a melee of tuk-tuk touts hustling you for a ride to your hotel. The town area is very close, no more than five minutes away, so pay no more than 1000 Kyats per person for a tuk-tuk ride to your hotel
Recommended Hotel in Monywa: The King and Queen Hotel – http://www.megaworldasia.com/hotels-and-accomodation/burma/king-queen-hotel-monywa/
Sightseeing in Monywa:
Maha Bodhi Htaung
The Buddha Forrest
Po Win Mountain
The Shwebataung Maze Caves
There are two main sightseeing locations in the Monywa area; the standing Buddha/Thanboddhay Pagoda, and the Po Win Mountain/Maze Caves. If you arrive in Monywa in the early afternoon, you’ll have time to see the standing the Buddha/Thanboddhay Pagoda as these are nearer ones. A round trip in a tuk-tuk is 15000 Kyats and the staff at the King & Queen Hotel can arrange it for you. A motorbike hire from the hotel is 7000 Kyats. To get to the standing Buddha/Thanboddhay Pagoda area you need to go back along route # 71 (the road from Mandalay) for 10 km then turn left and drive a further 9 km to an attraction called the Maha Bodhi Htaung (aka the world’s tallest standing Buddha statue). Two kilometres before this attraction there are a couple of others which are also worth checking out as well.
The Thanboddy Pagoda: with is five hundred thousand Buddha images, of varying sizes, is quite possibly one of the most spectacular Buddhist temples in the world. The external structure is a maze of spires, and the faded colours give the building a bit of a worn look. Upon stepping inside though, the picture changes dramatically with dozens of passageways filled with an array of golden Buddha statues filling the entirety of the spaces within.
The seated Buddha Forrest: After viewing the Thanboddhay Pagoda you can make your way to the Maha Bodhi Htaung for the sunset. However, before doing so there’s a very interesting site to spend a bit of time checking out just a kilometer or so before arriving there. Right next to the road, in a wooded area, is a field of hundreds of seated Buddha statues in in neat lines facing towards the standing Buddha. What makes this attraction even more bizarre is that each of the seated Buddha’s has an umbrella as part of the construction. The best time for viewing this attraction would possibly be at sunrise when the sun is shining on the faces of the statues and in the cool of the morning, the enshrouding blanket of fog would give quite a surreal effect to the site.
Maha Bodhi Htaung: After spending 15 – 20 minutes at the seated Buddha forest, move on to the standing and reclining Buddha attractions just a kilometre or so further along the road. For access to the site there is two options; take the sealed road all the way to the top of the hill or do the climb up the stairway from the bottom entrance. The benefit of doing the stairway climb (which is a gradual ascent) is that it takes in the temple and reclining Buddha on the trail to the top. If you take a motorbike taxi all the way to the top (straight to the standing Buddha) you’ll need to then walk back down to the reclining Buddha. Both statues are incredibly impressive and although the reclining one is massive in its dimensions I was told reliably by many Burmese there’s an even longer one at another location in Myanmar. The Maha Bodhi Htaung is officially the world’s tallest free-standing Buddha and in the golden hue of the late afternoon sun, is incredibly impressive. There is an internal stairway which ascends to the shoulder area of the statue for spectacular views across the terrain. However, you’ll need to get to the site a bit earlier as the access doors at the base of the statue are closed at five PM. After watching the sunset from the viewing area around the base of the statue a nice option for getting back to the bottom of the hill is to walk back down the road. Towards the bottom of the hill (on the right-hand side of the road) you’ll be able to have a look at a massive sleeping Buddha.
Po Win Mountain and The Shwebataung Labyrinth: These two sites are both in the same area and approx. 36 km from Monywa. For those considering trying to do the standing Buddha site and these sites, on the same day, I would say that would prove a difficult task as they’re in the opposite directions from Monywa. To get to the Po Win Mountain area I had the hotel arrange a taxi for myself and two other travelers, and the price was a very reasonable thirty thousand Kyats (a touch over USD 20) for the round trip and waiting time. The road is reasonably good initially but towards the end (as you get closer to the site) it gets narrower and rougher due to the remoteness of the area. It is for this reason it takes almost an hour to get there by taxi. For those considering a cheaper option, such as a tuk-tuk, its not worth it when considering the difference in price and comfort for the ride. The quoted tuk-tuk price is twenty-five thousand kyats, just 5000 less than the taxi. The time of day to go there is really a personal choice and will depend on your time schedule obviously. Due to the time constraints of my fellow travelers, we went in the morning. Which, when one considers the harshness of the light towards midday, was a poor choice. If you want to get some good photos, plan to get there by 4 pm. Or do the maze caves first as they are all internally lighted, and not effected by the time of day.
Po Win Mountain is a large sandstone outcropping in which an estimated 780 made caves, of varying sizes, have been carved into the vertical sides. The site has several levels, with stairways and footpaths, and will absorb quite a bit of time to fully negotiate as there is no dedicated route to take. The entry fee is 300 Kyats (approx. USD 2.50) From the parking area you follow a trail up towards the top of the rock mound and you’ll begin to observe, almost immediately, the small man-made caves carved into the sides of the rock. Some of the entrances are small and almost impossible for the average person to go into. Other caves are much larger and have cement construction doorways which allow you to enter and see the arrays of Buddha statues inside. You’ll see Buddhas in varying positions: sitting, reclining, and standing. Many of the smaller caves have carved doorways which one can mistake as a cement construction. A closer inspection reveals the arches, and surrounding artwork, are carved entirely from the rock.
Monkey alert: Po Win Mountain is a great site to explore and its size means you could possibly spend at least two hours or more checking out every nook and cranny of the labyrinth of caves and small pagodas. The only slightly negative aspect of the site is the pesky Macaque Monkeys which inhabit the place. Just as with many temple type attractions all over South East Asia, these monkeys are mischievous and have been made even more so by generous tourists handing out food to them. They can be entertaining to watch but they are also prone to the attempted theft of tourist’s belongings. While there I had two occasions to observe monkeys jumping on the back of sightseers and trying to tear open their backpacks. Take care of your belongings, especially hand-phones if using them to take photos, and make sure any loose items such as hats or caps are secured in a backpack to avoid theft. Once you lose something, the Monkey will scurry off and you’ll not get it back.
The Shwebataung Labyrinth: Unfortunately, due to the time constraints of my fellow sightseers, I didn’t get to look at the Shwebataung Labyrinth. After later checking other websites and seeing the photos of the place, it is with great regret that I missed this site as my perception is it’s a superior sightseeing experience compared to Po Win Mountain. Perhaps on another trip. If you are limited in time, do the Shwebataung Labyrinth first. For some reason the taxi drivers and tour guides just automatically take you to Po Win Mountain first, assuming that’s the place you want to see. Language issues make it almost impossible to ask them which site is better so if you have the information when you arrange transportation at the hotel, be sure to tell them which location you want to see first and they can pass the info on to the driver.
TBC on the Bagan trip report…….