Amarapura and Sagaing, Myanmar
May 29, 2018
“Myanmarvelous!” A former student posted that comment on my ‘Gram shot in a pagoda. I wished I came up with that! Not only was it a cool portmanteau, it was the truth in a nutshell. Myanmar’s sights were typically spectacular, much of its centuries-old tangible heritage an architectural and engineering marvel. A long chauffeured drive to the countryside out of Mandalay proved just that.
One of our stops was at an ancient wooden bridge, almost a mile long, across a lake. Or was it? It was practically a footpath on stilts over the countryside. Taungthaman Lake turned out to be seasonal. We came toward the tailend of summer; the lake was still largely dried up.
U Bein Bridge did look worse for wear, but how else could a wooden bridge constructed in 1851 look now? The teak pillars and planks proved their longevity at almost 200 years, some of them even older as they were remains of a royal palace. I could not cross the bridge when I got there – it was almost a mile long. I only took a few token steps on its historic, rickety planks.
Our chauffeur drove across the mighty Irrawaddy to Sagaing. There I met a local artist named Myint Myat at his roadside gallery. He rendered a slice of traditional Myanmar life in paintings bursting with colors and familiar images I would have thought from the past if I hadn’t seen them in the countryside. How refreshing to see no contradiction between the traditional and the current. This was a precious time in the history of Myanmar before the country would fully embrace globalization.
Sadly, I was not in the market for art. We dropped in for a more practical purpose: for Jo to buy a parasol and I wooden sandals. I had just learned that temple visits were invariably done barefoot in Myanmar. I didn’t want to get my soiled feet back into my shoes. This quick shopping stop was right at the gate of the reason we made the day trip ten kilometers north of Mandalay – the marvelous all-white pagoda I had seen in tourist brochures. Our limited time allowed only a handful of sights; I picked it as a must-see.
Myatheindan Pagoda was stunningly white indeed despite the cloudy day. It didn’t gleam as it would on a sunnier day, but it was no less arresting. Also known as Hsinbyume Pagoda, it was built in 1816 as a memorial for Princess Hsinbyume who died during childbirth four years before. Her name translated to Lady of the White Elephant, thus the whiteness of this Buddhist Taj Mahal immortalizing the love and grief of her prince who later became king of the Konbaung Dynasty whose territory largely determined the borders of modern Myanmar.
The challenge lay in fitting the breadth and height of the pagoda in the shot. My camera phone could only do so at the distance from the gate. Once in, it was impossible, not even after a local man graciously took my photo. At least, he got the entire height within the frame.
The distinctive architectural style was modeled after Mount Meru, the mythical ground zero in the Buddhist cosmos. Scaling up the pagoda required time and effort as in actual mountain climbing. Seven terraces around it offered plenty of opportunities for meditation or, simply, for Instagram-worthy photo shoots. My friend Jo tested my Buddhist-level patience by directing her shots to the strictest of compositions. We spent an hour or so at the terraces for that reason alone. Such were the perils of traveling with an Instagram influencer. The model was the slave-driver, the photographer the slave.
The top terrace opened to a wide promenade for Buddhists performing pradakshina, the meditative walk around the pagoda. It also involved prostration or bowing to the ground as we saw a woman do. That afternoon we were the only tourists. Save for occasional curious stares, local Buddhists tolerated our non-religious visit.
We followed pilgrims up a steep stairway to the top of the pagoda where a Buddha image was ensconced. Devotees ranged from the elderly to the young monks in pink robes. Jo and I had to wait for seconds-long break in the stream of worshipers to take her IG shots. Views of the Irrawaddy and the lush countryside competed with Jo for photographic attention. The hundred thousand emeralds that gave the pagoda its name, Myatheindan (mye for emerald and thein tan for 100,000) eluded us though.
Less than five minutes away by car was the Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Our chauffeur said it was a pagoda, but it was literally a mountain. We seemed to have found the actual Mount Meru, not simply an architectural depiction. In fact, it was an “unfinished” formless pagoda that could have been the tallest in the world at 500 feet. Instead, it was left as a massive, marvelous pile of bricks, the largest in the world at 172 feet. Somehow, it still managed to hold a record.
Ambitious King Bodawpaya began its construction in 1790 but abandoned it when he got wind of a prophecy that the pagoda would result to his death and the destruction of his empire, which was at its peak then. The story was sketchy, but I supposed the rumor was started by the slave labor tasked to build it. Present-day Buddhists still came to pray at the monument visibly cracked from several earthquakes through the centuries. The white door was perhaps built for this purpose.
The king may have pulled the plug on the pagoda, but the accompanying bell was cast in 1808. The Mingun Bell, presently housed in a modest-sized temple just a minute drive away, became one of the largest and heaviest in the world at 12 feet high and almost 100 tons.
This day trip outside of Mandalay proved that the marvels of Myanmar were not limited to its world-famous historical sites in Bagan and Yangon. Jo and I had never heard of the white pagoda and the unfinished one, the ancient wooden bridge and the enormous bell. What we thought was a routine touristy excursion to Sagaing turned out to be a memorable discovery of the unsung marvels of Myanmar. We wondered what other treasures this marvelous country had kept hidden from the gaze of the world.