Escape the monsoon

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Construction of a sitting Buddha at Bodhi Tataung.

Travel writer James Fable lists his favorite places to visit in Myanmar when the rains come. Photos by the writer.

Although it’s searing outside, the monsoon season is on its way—and in Yangon it’s a long one. But don’t let that dampen your spirits: not everywhere in Myanmar suffers as much as the south; escape is still possible, and places are much quieter than the dry season.

The most obvious rainy season destinations are those around Bagan, while the Magway region enjoys an almost Mediterranean climate all year round. Here are some other destinations that also remain relatively dry and which personally served me well during last year’s wet months.

Monywa
Sagaing capital Monywa is Myanmar’s forgotten tourist destination. It offers little besides countless beer stations, but serves as a good base for a couple of enjoyable daytrips. The best accommodation is Win Unity Resort in the north of town, particularly its lakeside wooden bungalows (US$80). For budget travellers, Shwe Taung Tarn Guesthouse is your safest bet; its pergola restaurant is not so bad either.

For the following excursions, hire a motorbike from Shwe Taung Tarn (10,000 kyats) or arrange a taxi (roughly 30,000 kyats for the day).

Hpo Win Daung Caves

This complex of 492 Buddha chambers carved into a limestone hillside dates back to the 14th century. Most of these caves are small, but a few retain colorful original murals. Beyond Hpo Win village reside chambers home to larger, newer Buddha statues, though tourists will likely be more impressed by the limestone pathways than these Disneyesque structures.

Package groups occasionally visit Hpo Win Daung, but your main accompaniment will be hungry monkeys. You can also employ an informal guide (5,000 kyats), though they will likely provide better company than information.

A Myint Ancient Village

Original murals inside of a stupa in A Myint ancient village.

This quaint riverside village is scattered with 336 stupas built in the Inwa period, which began in the 14th century. Stroll along the dusty, intertwining roads and you may see kids playing high jump or Hit-the-Pile-of-Rocks-with-a-Flip-Flop, a rural favorite.

Many of the stone stupas are sprouting vegetation or are patrolled by livestock, but a few sport fabulous murals. Unless a Chindwin River cruise has timed its arrival with yours, you can be fairly certain there won’t be other tourists.

If you have a fetish for bone-shuddering rides and sore bottoms, take the direct road to A Myint. Otherwise, follow the main road round to Chaung-U then turn onto the bumpy but asphalted lane leading to the village.

Bodhi Tataung (18 kilometers southeast of Monywa)

The hillside of Bodhi Tataung, or “1,000 Buddhas,” is dominated by the climbable Lay Kyun Sakkya, the world’s second tallest standing Buddha. In front of him reclines a 95-meter Buddha, and construction is underway to build a gigantic seated Buddha. The windows of the standing Buddha’s chest are grimy and afford few views—for panoramic vistas, climb the nearby Aung Setkya Paya—but his innards are decorated with intriguing murals that begin as grim condemnation scenes and finish with depictions of enlightenment as you near Buddha’s head. Entrance is free.

Pyay

Follow Pyay Road far enough and you reach Pyay, a quirky city where the urban and rural sit side by side. Turn off the main road and you’ll soon be strolling past stilted wooden houses and lakes. Pyay sits just far north enough to avoid the delta deluges, though don’t expect to remain completely dry. It rained on one of the three days I spent there last July.

Accommodations options are varied though not abundant. For $70 you can stay in the tranquil Mingalar Garden Resort, set in the grounds of a former cheroot manufacturer while budget travellers have Myat Travel Lodge (roughly 10,000 kyats).

Akauk Taung (31 kilometers downstream of Pyay)

Meaning ‘Tax Mountain,’ Akauk Taung is an awe-inspiring series of Buddha images carved into cliffs overlooking the Ayeyarwady River. They are the works of talented 19th century boatmen as they waited for their vessels to be taxed.

The round trip takes about four hours. Either hire a motorbike from Myat Travel Lodge (10,000 kyats) or pay 60,000 kyats for a return taxi. Head to Htonbo, where for 15,000 kyats you can enjoy a 45-minute look while cruising down the mighty Ayeyarwady. Bring waterproofs though, because a wet journey would be unpleasant.

Thayekhittaya (or Sri Kestra; eight kilometers east of Pyay)

Myanmar’s only UNESCO World Heritage site, Thayekhittaya is a sprawling ancient Pyu city. According to legend, King Duttabaung built it with the help of ogres and supernatural beings in 443BC, though the earliest Pali inscriptions date to the 5th or 6th centuries.

Entrance costs 5,000 kyats and includes a map of the site. Don’t believe the guidebooks: bicycles are permitted and highly recommended. There’s little shade nor shelter, so come prepared.

Some of the structures are mere remains, and others have suffered questionable reconstruction. If you don’t want to commit the money and time, or aren’t an archaeology enthusiast, head to the east of the Pyay, where you can visit a couple of the most impressive ancient stone stupas gratis.

Inwa, Mingun and Sagaing

These historic towns can be visited over two days from Mandalay and combined with a sunset visit to U-Bein bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge.

Ancient ruins in Inwa near Mandalay.

Inwa was my personal favorite and is best visited by motorbike. Having served four times as royal capital, Inwa is dotted with the remains of beautiful 19th century buildings. Foremost among these is Maha Aungmye Bonzan, a grand, stuccoed monastery built in 1822, and a good place to hide if it rains. You will be asked to buy the 10,000-kyat Mandalay combo ticket.

Hilltop pagodas in Sagaing Region.

Mingun is home to the world’s second largest bell and to the world’s ‘largest pile of bricks’—Mingun Paya. This unfinished stupa, which would have been the world’s tallest, was built on the orders of King Bodawpaya. The price to visit Mingun and Sagaing is 5,000 kyats; you can get your money’s worth in the rainy season because the tourist numbers are low.

Sagaing is everything Mandalay isn’t and therefore lovely. White and shwe pagodas crown verdant hills overlooking the Ayeywarddy River, connected by a web of rural roads. The most important pagoda is Nya Shin Paya, whose central gilded stupa was conceived in 1312, but I recommend finding your own peaceful hilltop pagoda.

Shwebo
Situated west of Kyaukmyaung on the Ayeyarwady River, Shwebo is an historic town that briefly served as Myanmar’s capital in the 18th century. The area is famed for its thanaka and was the birthplace of King Alaungpaya, one of Myanmar’s most successful kings. For that reason it’s good luck to take home some of its soil. Sann Tinn Hotel offers reasonable ensuites from 25,000 kyats.

You can visit part of his palace and view his towering gold throne rooms at Shwebon Yadana. The $5 entry ticket includes Hanlin, a nearby archaeological site. The remains are disappointing, but the village itself is enchanting: crumbling brick stupas make it vaguely resemble A Myint, as does the terrible road there (10,000 kyats return motorbike).

Bhamo
Continuing up Myanmar’s mightiest river and into lower Kachin State, Bhamo is an attractive riverfront town whose sleepy charm is reminiscent of Hsipaw’s. Old teak houses are dotted here and there, and the locals are friendly. Best of all, Bhamo is lined with magnificent ‘rain trees,’ whose flowers bloom a fabulous pink in the monsoon season.

There are a few nearby attractions—including a rickety bamboo bridge and Theinpa Hill, which offers panoramic views—but Bhamo’s relaxed atmosphere is the real draw. Friendship Hotel ($25+) is good value for money.

Places to avoid during the monsoon season are the hill regions and the delta, but otherwise travel remains possible and rewarding. In particular, the central regions escape the worst of the rain. So don’t feel condemned to cabin fever in a damp and dreary Yangon, escape to warmer climes and continue to explore Myanmar.

James Fable is a freelance travel journalist in Myanmar. Follow him on fabletravelmyanmar.

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