Monywa, the capital of Sagaing Region, usually serves as a mere stopping point for tourists traveling between Bagan and Mandalay, but it’s worth lingering in the city to see some nearby attractions.
One of these is the ancient A Myint, a charming riverside village dotted with 336 Bagan-style stupas, and another is Bodhi Tataung, a picturesque hill home to the world’s second largest Buddha. Together, A Myint and Boddhi Tataung make for an excellent day trip from Monywa.
A Myint sits on the edge of the Chindwin River, 24 kilometers south of Monywa, and is supposedly the site of an 11th century love scandal involving King Anawrahta, his foremost general and Princess Manisanda, the king of Bago’s tribute ‘gift’
to Anawratha. To reach this delightful town, you’ll need to arrange a private taxi from Monywa or hire a motorbike – you can do the latter for 10,000 kyats from the Shwe Taung Tarn Hotel.
I opted for the motorbike, planning to head first to A Myint and then to Bodhi Tataung on my way back. It was a good plan, but don’t take the direct road from Monywa to A Myint, as I did: it’s easily the worst road I’ve ever ridden on, riddled with potholes and bounding with dirt moguls. Take the longer – but quicker – route round: follow the main road to Chaung-U, then take a right onto the bumpy, but asphalted, country lane leading to A Myint.
Unsurprisingly, I was the only tourist there, and as such I was warmly welcomed by the village community. An old lady with a scratchy voice force-fed me tealeaf salad at an alms collection, and many locals invited me into their homes for tea and broken conversation. Aimless wandering along the dusty roads between wooden houses is highly recommended. If you stumble into someone’s garden, don’t worry: they’ll probably be pleased to see you – expect giggles and an embarrassed chorus of “mingalabar”!
On my journey round, I saw children doing high jump, men playing tway – a gambling game which involves casting small seashells into a bowl and seeing which way up they land – and novice monks playing the rural favorite, Hit-the-Pile-of-Rocks-With-a-Flip-flop. A visit to the river won’t go amiss either; under clear skies, the riverside setting is quite attractive. Locals are currently working on expanding the port.
The main attraction of A Myint is its historical stone stupas, a few of which contain beautiful, original murals. The central stupa complex surrounds a small teak monastery, but wander round the village and you’ll find stunning pagodas scattered all over. The pagodas date back to the Inwa, or Ava, period, which began in the 14th century; though most are now dilapidated and sprouting vegetation, they’re still a delight to behold. The restoration techniques used in Bagan may be controversial, but A Myint appears to make no effort whatsoever to preserve its ancient heritage: locals litter in and around the pagodas, and livestock has taken over others.
My stroll round was accompanied by frequent loud bangs. Eventually, I became curious and so ventured to their source. It was two novice monks and two young boys in a new pagoda complex. None were older than eight; all were playing with firecrackers. The monks came over to ask for money, and then one of their friends threw a firecracker toward us. The monks fled, and there was a deafening bang! But the firecracker hadn’t exploded: one of the monks had smashed his head against a metal pole.
The boys began laughing as blood gushed from the monk’s shaven head and onto his bare feet. I dropped everything and handed him some tissues. His friends continued to light explosives, and the other monk began brushing down my bag because the ground had made it dusty. (Traditionally in Myanmar, you don’t leave belongings on the floor. Whenever I do, somebody picks them up and puts them on a chair. Nevertheless, I was shocked that the young monk prioritized cleaning my bag over helping his friend). I told him not to bother, and then replaced the blood-drenched tissues. The injured monk’s face was an awkward mix of embarrassment and concern; when I applied the plaster, it became one of ashamed relief.
“Leq-s’aun! Leq-s’aun!” cried the other monk, and he gave me a firecracker the size of my index finger as a thank-you gift. I offered the patched-up monk some water and suggested he sit down. But he didn’t want water, and he certainly didn’t want to sit down: he wanted to light more firecrackers.
Karma high, I rode onto Bodhi Tataung. Situated 18 kilometers east of Monywa and 10 kilometers off the Monywa road, it’s the perfect place to stop on your way back from A Myint. Its name means “1,000 Buddha,” and its hilltop setting affords wonderful views. The grounds are dominated by Lay Kyun Sakkya, the 130-meter high standing Buddha built in 2008, but the compound also houses one of the world’s largest reclining Buddha (95 meters long), and construction is underway to create an enormous seated Buddha. The place is simply abundant with Buddha – some of which you can even climb on or enter – and entry is gratis.
The main road into the site passes Thanboddhay Paya, an impressive gilded pagoda guarded by two commanding white elephants (3,000 kyats admission). Drive on toward the biggest Buddha, and you’ll see something that might also be a first for you: a Buddha lying flat on his back with a roof over his face – a form of sunglasses, perhaps? Even more curiously, you can climb on this Buddha, though his legs were strewn with smashed beer bottles when I scaled it.
Further up sits Aung Setkya Paya – whose upper rim, accessed via an inner passageway, offers photogenic, panoramic vistas – and on from this reclines a big golden Buddha, which has an entrance so that visitors can view its decorated innards. But these won’t blow you away – wait to get inside Lay Kyun Sakkya. This giant standing Buddha is the master of Bodhi Tataung and a popular pilgrimage spot for locals. Best of all, you can climb up it – well, 27 of its 33 total inner floors – and marvel at the gruesome murals contained within: giants stewing humans in a gigantic pot; people being cast from mountains onto burning stakes – condemnation scenes depressed Renaissance artists would have rated. Infernal images only occupy the first few floors, though. As you near Buddha’s head, ascending the steep, interminable stairways, images of enlightenment become the norm – coincidence? Decide for yourself. Sadly, deep-set windows caked in grime deny any opportunities for good views. Doors close at 5pm.
The tall guy wasn’t my favorite Buddha, however. I found the seated Buddha under construction more fascinating, and there was something oddly satisfying about being greeted by someone sitting in a Buddha’s elbow. Currently, the seated Buddha is covered in bamboo scaffolding and capped with a red crane – an outfit it is likely to be wearing for a while. To reach it, take the right fork at the earlier crossroads (instead of going straight up toward the standing Buddha). Behind its back, you might see an entirely female workforce chopping up stones soon to be part of the structure.
Heading off the beaten track can often be a hassle that goes unrewarded, but visiting A Myint and Bodhi Tataung was easily one of the better trips to lesser-known places that I’ve made in Myanmar. A Myint has all the quirks and charm of rural life, combined with a rich history and spectacular stupas; Bodhi Tataung is a fabulous scene of towering Buddha atop a hill that offers excellent views, simple but stunning. Navigation is easy, so find yourself a ride in Monywa and get going – a rewarding day out awaits you.