While Myanmar is new to the tourist scene, there is a definite tourist trail that has appeared. Getting off that tourist trail is easy enough, and Monywa is a good place to start. It is well worth a visit, and can be enjoyed in the small timeframe of two days.
Monywa is a small rural city residing conveniently between Mandalay and Bagan. It draws the attention of foreigners on rare occasions for its unique and often disorienting displays of Buddha. It has two special places that will certainly raise your eyebrows: the Thanbodday Pagoda with its half a million Buddha images and Bodhi Tataung, which is home to two giant Buddhas, one standing at 116-metre (424ft) and one reclining at 95 metres (312ft).
Getting to Monywa is relatively easy and cheap. In the high season, you can catch a slow boat from Mandalay, which provides some beautiful scenery. I was travelling in the low season, and that limits you to a minivan all the way. The cheap fare provides a fairly comfortable, if not bonding journey with your fellow passengers. In my case the gentleman in the seat adjacent just couldn’t stay awake long enough to sit upright and like to use my shoulder as a pillow. But aside from that, the journey was enjoyable.
At the city’s bus station it is always a pleasurable chaos. However, add in a monsoon rain and it becomes chaos on steroids. We managed to secure a Tuk Tuk to take us to our hotel. In hindsight, paying the extra to have rain cover would’ve been a better option. Driving down the road, through newly formed road rivers and having cars spray water on you and your luggage as they drive by was not pleasant. But i was not the worst off on the road. Travelling behind the Tuk Tuk were a number of motorcycles doing their best to evade the raindrops. It was futile though. We all looked like drowned rats.
After checking in to my hotel (there are no hostels in the town yet), and drying off, I spoke to the reception to see how best to get around.
One thing you have to be understanding of is Monywa is not the touristic hotspot yet. Only a few travelers visit the town, and only sporadically. With this you get the benefit of having an authentic Myanmar experience, but the downside is that it does not have the tourist facilities that a place like Bagan offers. But finding your way around is pretty easy, and the people are happy to help you. We negotiated with a Tuk Tuk to hire him for the day, to take us to the main attractions.
Our first stop was the flamboyant and disorienting, Thanbodday Pagoda. This pagoda is famous for the some 500,000 images of Buddha that adorn the walls. Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. From some as big as your palm to towering statues that leave you feeling smaller than a mouse. While the Pagoda is fairly new, built in 1939, the design is so different to many of the traditional pagodas that we had already seen. Every inch of the structure, exterior as well as interior, is covered with Buddha images. It’s design is both dramatic and surreal at times. It was a real pleasure to experience.
Maha Bodhi Tataung
Maha Bodhi Tataung, roughly translated to 1000 Bodhi trees, is a relatively recent constructed monastery. Residing within it, is two (technically three) giant Buddha statues, one reclining, one standing and one sitting (still under construction). This place is enjoyable, though a little perplexing because it is a little way out of town, so you can’t help but wonder, ‘why did they build these giant statues in the middle of nowhere?’
Putting that aside, the two accessible statues are hollow and contain colourful frescos that depict scenes of punishment from Buddhist hell. It is a little disturbing to look at. However in the standing Buddha you can also climb halfway to a viewing platform to see a nice panoramic of the area.
Looking at the rural landscape I was instantly reminded of Australia in late summer when the grass turns yellow and the ground emits a heat like the surface of the sun. Yep...while it was raining earlier, now the heat was making everything look like a Dali painting.
We jumped in our Tuk Tuk and headed down the road to the home of the monastery’s namesake. A large area containing 1000 bodhi trees, and beneath each tree, a statue of a Buddha. Each with a different face and pose. Walking around in the shade of these trees was also a great relief.
Each of these sites was interesting and definitely worthy of a photo or two.
Myanmar offers so many great places where Monywa most of the time is being skipped in preference of Mandalay, Kalaw and Bagan. I loved my time here, however brief it was. Monywa is defnitely worth a visit if you have enough time to spend in Myanmar.