Journeysmatter

A blog on journeys, great destinations and fantastic travel experiences

Monthly Archives: December 2018

Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – Glories of Mingun

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The Mahamuni of Mingun

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality
The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

In Part 1 of this blog series we explored the U-Bein bridge in Mandalay. We took The Strand cruise boat got us across the shore towards Mingun. Here we set out to explore on a Trishaw. Myanmar is a Theravada Buddhist country with over 90% of its population practicing the religion. Practitioners of the Theravada Buddhist school of thought claim to adhere most closely to the original doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are the other countries where the Theravada Buddhism prevails. In a Buddhist countries, Pagodas are unmissable. A temple complex, Pagodas have been used to house relics or remains of saints and Kings. They also served as seats of learning and as a resting place for mendicants. Kings built numerous pagodas to earn the goodwill and blessings of the saints who were part of the kingdom or were passing by.

The Mahamuni

We set out to get an understanding of how these play a role in peoples lives. Starting with the Mahamuni Pagoda. Built in 1785, the pagoda is very reverend to the locals as it is said to be hosting a living expression of representing Buddha’s life. The king of Arakan is said to have hosted Buddha and his 500 disciples when he was on tour and the Buddha agreed to have his image crafted by the king. The Mahamuni’s face is washed daily by priests and also has his teeth brushed. The towel used to wipe the face is later handed over to the devotees to keep in their homes

The richly decorated interiors of The Mahamuni Pagoda. The Yellow paint already gives a feeling of the Pagoda glistening in gold. The impressive work on the arches in the corridor and the Jade stone walls are to be observed for their richeness. THe devout are seen in plenty and many come in with their travel bags enroute to their destinations.
The richly decorated interiors of The Mahamuni Pagoda. The Yellow paint already gives a feeling of the Pagoda glistening in gold. The impressive work on the arches in the corridor and the Jade stone walls are to be observed for their richeness. THe devout are seen in plenty and many come in with their travel bags enroute to their destinations.
Devotees get close to the Mahamuni and humbly submit their offerings usually in the form of gold leaves that are applied on the supporting pedestal along with a silent prayers.
Devotees get close to the Mahamuni and humbly submit their offerings usually in the form of gold leaves that are applied on the supporting pedestal along with a silent prayers.
The Myanmarese place their faith in the living entity that is the Mahamuni. The crown is adorned with precious stones etched in gold. Rest of the Mahamuni's structure is enriched with Gold Leaves
The Myanmarese place their faith in the living entity that is the Mahamuni. The crown is adorned with precious stones etched in gold. Rest of the Mahamuni’s structure is enriched with Gold Leaves

One of the interesting things about Myanmar is about the Gold Leaf. This forms the main offerings at all the Pagodas. Sharing a video from the archives of the Smithsonian Channel showcasing the making of the Gold Leaf.

The Gold Leaf Making factory. Kind courtesy – Smithsonian Channel

Bagaya Kyaung Monastery

Teakwood is native to Myanmar. The water reistant nature of Teak makes it an ideal material suitable for furnitures, ship building and as we have seen in the case of U-Bein, even for bridges. In Mandalay however you should be able to visit the Bagaya Kyaung Monastery that has been completely built in Teak. Said to have been built in 1834, the monastery has over 267 columns, all resting over stone pedestals. going by the carvings in the Monastery, the Craftsment would have found Teak as an excellent medium for expressing their skills.  

The Majesticity of the Bagaya Kyaung monastery has been achieved with the simplest of materials - Wood. Even after two centuries, the monasteries do not seem ravaged by time. One takes of their shoes before entering the Monastery. There are many quiet places around for a 21 minute meditation session.
The Majesticity of the Bagaya Kyaung monastery has been achieved with the simplest of materials – Wood. Even after two centuries, the monasteries do not seem ravaged by time. One takes of their shoes before entering the Monastery. There are many quiet places around for a 21 minute meditation session.
The main shrine is in the auspicious East-West direction. Large parts of the monastery are served by ample natural light and excellent cross ventilation. Figurines representing door keepers to the shrine can be seen along with frescos which detail Buddha's life.
The main shrine is in the auspicious East-West direction. Large parts of the monastery are served by ample natural light and excellent cross ventilation. Figurines representing door keepers to the shrine can be seen along with frescos which detail Buddha’s life.

Mingun Pahtodawgyi

This one reminded me of Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, India. Construction of this enormous “unfinished” pagoda began in the year 1791 to house a replica of a Buddha tooth relic. Massive earthquakes in 1821 and 1839 are said to have led to abandonement of construction. The pagoda currently has only only limited use as a place of worship

What looks like a massive granary is actually an unfinished Pagoda. It is not as frequented as a place of worship. One can just stand and look at PahtoDawgyi and imagine what could have been. It is massive and if it was completed could have been a structure to rival the pyramids. Alas, time decided to tell other stories.
What looks like a massive granary is actually an unfinished Pagoda. It is not as frequented as a place of worship. One can just stand and look at PahtoDawgyi and imagine what could have been. It is massive and if it was completed could have been a structure to rival the pyramids. Alas, time decided to tell other stories.

Hsinbyume Pagoda

Mount Meru is said to be the axis Mundi or at he center of the Buddhist cosmos. The Hsinbyume Pagoda is said to have been built in the early part of the 19th century and is said to represent Mount Meru. The White Pagoda has seven concentric terraces that represent the seven rivers and mountain ranges encircling Mount Meru. The Pagoda is named after a princess who died in childbirth in 1812. Climb up to the shrine for prayers and fantastic views of the Irrawady river. 

The first sight of the Hsinbumye is absolutely spectacular. By the time one reaches Hsinbumye you are already expecting another gold peaked Pagoda; A spotless white Pagoda is an absolute delight. The story behind the Pagoda is heart wrenching.
The first sight of the Hsinbumye is absolutely spectacular. By the time one reaches Hsinbumye you are already expecting another gold peaked Pagoda; A spotless white Pagoda is an absolute delight. The story behind the Pagoda is heart wrenching.
The Hsinbyume is said to resemble Mt Meru, the axis of the universe that is attained after one crosses the 7 seas seen here in a beautiful representation. The climb up is short and each step is about a foot higher than the other. It is well worth the effort to climb up to the top.
The Hsinbyume is said to resemble Mt Meru, the axis of the universe that is attained after one crosses the 7 seas seen here in a beautiful representation. The climb up is short and each step is about a foot higher than the other. It is well worth the effort to climb up to the top.
Clear views of the Irrawady river and the nearby Pahtodawgyi pagoda can be seen from atop the Pagoda.
Clear views of the Irrawady river and the nearby Pahtodawgyi pagoda can be seen from atop the Pagoda.

The Rockstar of Mingun

On our way from Pahtodawgyi to Hsinbyume, we came across this Rockstar of a lady who had set up a Cheroot stall just outside her home and served as the best ambassador/endorser for her product. Cheroots are popular truncated cigars made from a choice blend of tobacco, bark, stems, roots and sundry leaves wrapped in a corn husk tied with a red silk thread. More popular than smoking cheroot is chewing of Betelnut.

The lady had Tanaka paste all over her and was probably enjoying her post lunch Cheroot. She was also hawking them. Houses are built on stilts probably to escape from flooding and reptiles.
The lady had Tanaka paste all over her and was probably enjoying her post lunch Cheroot. She was also hawking them. Houses are built on stilts probably to escape from flooding and reptiles.

Our next stop as part of the cruise was Innwa, another former kingdom of Myanmar with its own set of stories to tell. Mandalay and Mingun ended Day 1 of the Cruise.

Getting to Myanmar

Travelling to Myanmar is now a breeze. Number of airlines fly in to Yangon with a single stop at any popular hub. Mandalay and Bagan are well connected from Yangon.

  1. China Southern, All Nippon, Bangkok Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways among the carriers from the Asian and South east Asian region
  2. Qatar Airways and Emirates from the middle east
  3. Air India offers twice a week flight between Kolkata and Yangon on Saturdays and Mondays. Its a surprise that the two countries which share such a common heritage still dont have good direct connectivity.

Tourists can check visa requirements on The Myanmar eVisa website. This is a government website and one can apply online for an e-visa. Check out for countries for whom Visa is provided on arrival. Indians can now apply for visa upon arrival. A recent government order to this effect. However, as a travel best practice it is always wise to utilize the e-visa facility offered. One however has to be careful while entering the passport details in to the Visa application form. Mismatch very clearly results in deportation.

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Seeing Myanmar along the Ayeyarwady / Irrawady River – The U-Bein Bridge

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U-Bein Bridge in Mandalay

The Irrawady river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the country’s largest river flowing from North to South and also a commercial waterway. Yes, the country flourishes along its banks. What better way to experience Myanmar. Towards the latter part of the Monsoon, we embarked on a 3 night cruise on the river on board The Strand.

The Strand Luxury Cruise boat on the Ayeyarwady complete with luxury cabins, great food, wines and the best of Asian hospitality

The Strand on the Ayeyarwady

The cruise begins from the Amarapura township in Mandalay city. Amarapura was one of the capitals of Myanmar. You are initiated straight away to experience a pride of Myanmar, The U-Bein bridge.

The bridge is named after a gentleman of the same name who served as a clerk to the Mayor of Amarapura. Facts and History behind the bridge

  • Bridge is over 160 years old, measures 1.57 kilometers
  • Built with over 1000 teak wood pillars over Taungthaman Lake
  • U Bein Bridge connects to the village of Taung Tha Man Inn (Yadanar Bon University) to the east and Htan Taw to the west
  • The planks of teak that make up the surface of the bridge were taken from the old royal palace of Inwa, a former Burmese capital, that had been razed a number of times

In the past, Taungthaman Lake was a natural reservoir that would fill during monsoon season along with the Irrawaddy River’s rising water levels, and see waters recede in the summer months.

Given the extreme humidity, wear light clothing, a sun hat and of course plenty of the locally used sunscreen – The Thanaka. A round trip on the bridge (2 miles/3.2 kms) by foot is free of charge and offers a fine glimpse in to the daily lives of people living around the lake. These days with tourist influx, a number of joints selling souveniours and local snacks have come up. Yet, the place still feels authentic while the people are slowly discovering that that their country is now on the world map.

Fishing is the most lucrative occupation for residents living on the periphery of Lake Taungthaman. Solo fishing, Family Fishing, and Sitting on tubes for small catch.

Fishing is the most lucrative occupation for residents living on the periphery of Lake Taungthaman. Solo fishing, Family Fishing, and Sitting on tubes for small catch.

Students going to the university on the western side of the bridge, Vegetable sellers, Daily wagers, Government officers, Contractors and of course very well trained tourist guides traverse the bridge everyday.

Students going to the university on the western side of the bridge, Vegetable sellers, Daily wagers, Government officers, Contractors and of course very well trained tourist guides traverse the bridge everyday.

If you cannot make it from one end to another in the sweltering sun, the builders very thoughtfully erected small rest points along the length of the bridge. Bite in to a spiced mango while resting and enjoying the waft of cool breeze blowing across the Taungthaman lake.

If you cannot make it from one end to another in the sweltering sun, the builders very thoughtfully erected small rest points along the length of the bridge. Bite in to a spiced mango while resting and enjoying the waft of cool breeze blowing across the Taungthaman lake.

Floods have prompted replacement of wooden pillars with Concrete ones at certain places. Presently undergoing conservation works – Department of Architecture at Mandalay Technological University, the Department of History at Yadanapon University and officials from the Mandalay Department of National Museum and Library in cooperation with three wood conservation experts from Germany and an expert in conservation management.

Conservation works are regularly carried out on the bridge by replacing the wooden sleepers. All efforts are afoot to keep this Heritage structure the way it was built.

Conservation works are regularly carried out on the bridge by replacing the wooden sleepers. All efforts are afoot to keep this Heritage structure the way it was built.

Cleanliness efforts near the U-Bein bridge – Phyo Wai Kyaw/The Myanmar Times

Students lead the way towards bringing in a culture of cleanliess. Here they are seen participating and leading a cleanliness drive along the banks of the U-Bein bridge.

Students lead the way towards bringing in a culture of cleanliess. Here they are seen participating and leading a cleanliness drive along the banks of the U-Bein bridge.

U-Bein bridge brings an assortment of experiences. Cheerful youngsters wanting to take a snap with you, tourist souvenir sellers, photographers, local snack sellers and of course people who go about their lives caring two hoots of who is around them.

Fresh catch from the lake pasted with spices and fried - include shrimps, crabs and fresh fish. Along with this, there are stalls selling tropical fruit. These are usually mixed in the form of a salad spiced up and served. Mangoes, papayas, watermelons are popular. Steamed groundnut is another delicacy and a perfect accompaniment when taking a break in the rest house.

Fresh catch from the lake pasted with spices and fried – include shrimps, crabs and fresh fish. Along with this, there are stalls selling tropical fruit. These are usually mixed in the form of a salad spiced up and served. Mangoes, papayas, watermelons are popular. Steamed groundnut is another delicacy and a perfect accompaniment when taking a break in the rest house.

The choices are in front of you. The traditional bark of a tree ground in to a paste called Thanaka has been used by the Burmese for over 2000 years as a natural sunscreen. This is placed at almost all points across the country for people to use free; even in 5 star  hotels. Once you apply this, the Sun hat option fades.

The choices are in front of you. The traditional bark of a tree ground in to a paste called Thanaka has been used by the Burmese for over 2000 years as a natural sunscreen. This is placed at almost all points across the country for people to use free; even in 5 star hotels. Once you apply this, the Sun hat option fades.

Students dominate the bridge and they dont miss an opportunity click a snap with tourists. They are friendly and look colorful in their local dress. The Men wear a Longyi and a Taipon for a vest where as the ladies wear a Thummy. The Thummy fabrics vary with various regions of Myanmar. Flip Flops are the most common footwear.

Students dominate the bridge and they dont miss an opportunity click a snap with tourists. They are friendly and look colorful in their local dress. The Men wear a Longyi and a Taipon for a vest where as the ladies wear a Thummy. The Thummy fabrics vary with various regions of Myanmar. Flip Flops are the most common footwear.

Travelling to Myanmar is now a breeze. Number of airlines fly in to Yangon with a single stop at any popular hub. Mandalay and Bagan are well connected from Yangon.

  1. China Southern, All Nippon, Bangkok Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways among the carriers from the Asian and South east Asian region
  2. Qatar Airways and Emirates from the middle east
  3. Air India offers twice a week flight between Kolkata and Yangon on Saturdays and Mondays. Its a surprise that the two countries which share such a common heritage still dont have good direct connectivity.

Tourists can check visa requirements on The Myanmar eVisa website. This is a government website and one can apply online for an e-visa. Check out for countries for whom Visa is provided on arrival. Indians can now apply for visa upon arrival. A recent government order to this effect. However, as a travel best practice it is always wise to utilize the e-visa facility offered. One however has to be careful while entering the passport details in to the Visa application form. Mismatch very clearly results in deportation.

Cheer up! That is really a remote possibility. We will next explore the Amarapura township.