Four Ancient Cities Outside Mandalay, and a Visit to Paleik Snake Temple – Trip Notes
We hired a taxi to take us to the four ancient cities that surround Mandalay.
Our taxi driver, a lean tall man wearing a blue Longhi (Burmese sarong), came very early so we would have enough time to enjoy the day.
The traffic outside of the city was fairly light and we made our way to “Paleik” – A snake temple with hundreds of sculptures of the Buddha sitting under a Cobra.
The story says that when the Buddha sat in deep meditation, a cobra crawled behind him and raised its head to shade the Buddha from the harsh Indian sun.
In this temple, the cobras came from the surrounding fields into the temple.
At first, the monks took the cobras back into the fields every day, and released them there.
Still, the huge cobras kept coming back, and curled themselves near the statue of the golden Buddha.
The monks decided that the cobras must be reincarnations of enlightened monks who keep coming back to be near the Buddha.
They started a ritual in which at 11AM every day, they wash and feed those long snakes.
Many people have donated sculptures of the Buddha sitting under a cobra and now the temple looks like a contemporary art installation of hundreds of such sculptures, some made of wood and others from stone, some studded with glass and mosaic, while others are painted.
Many locals come to pray and ask for fertility, as a snake is a symbol of fertility.
We had a tip that near the snake temple, there is an area with hundreds of ancient pagodas that are rarely visited by anyone, but are most definitely worth a visit.
Some of the old pagodas were covered with growing vines and tree roots, which have made themselves part of the structure.
Each pagoda has an image of the Buddha sitting inside it, and the place felt like we had come upon another Angkor Wat, but without anyone else knowing about it.
It felt magical, and most of the photos of the pagodas in this post are taken in that enchanting location.
There is a very humble wooden monastery near the pagodas, and in one room, we saw a group of women chanting with the guidance of one of the monks.
We passed by rural traditional houses made of a wooden platform on stilts, with walls made of woven straw grass and with roofs made of coconut leaves.
I saw village women in traditional clothing knocking down mangoes from ancient mango trees with very long sticks.
Our driver spoke no English but he has been driving tourists for a long time, so when he wanted to know if we were done with the Paleik temple area and were ready to move on to the next place, he asked us: “We go Sagain?”
“Yes!” we said, “we go Sagain.”
Sagaing is the second ancient city we visited.
Sagaing Hill is studded with spires of stupas.
We visited the “Sone Oo Pone Nya Shin Paya” temple with its beautiful ceramic and glass tiles and stood obediently when we were asked to be photographed with many groups of people.
From the excited ways in which they gathered around us, all alternating to be in the pictures with us, you’d think we were movie stars like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pit, not just two slobs from Colorado who can hardly take the heat and are constantly overeating…..
When I mentioned that to Jules, he said that he would rather think that they recognized our core essence as enlightened masters, and pointed out the fact that we rarely saw other westerners in such demand as we were, to be photographed constantly.
At “Umin Thounzeh” temple in Sagain, we climbed the covered steps to a large hall with dozens of beautiful arched doors and with 43 large sitting Buddhas and 2 standing Buddhas in it.
As we made our way down the long stairway, we met an ascetic walking with a stick wearing the remains of an orange robe.
He stopped and smiled at us.
I regretted so much that we could not talk to each other, as he stood there and tried to communicate with us.
He had a tiger tattoo on his skinny chest, the symbol of a Buddhist’s spiritual powers.
Like most people we met, he too had rotten teeth from the lime in the betel nut he chews.
I guess that even hermits who can transcend many human limitations and subsist on so little, can still have their own vices….
Mingun Village, our third stop, is situated along the Irrawaddy river (or Ayeyarwady River) that flows from north to south through Burma. It is the country’s largest river and most important commercial waterway.
In Mingun, we visited “Pahtotawgyi” – a 40 meter tall unfinished Pagoda.
The king who commissioned a 150 meter tall pagoda had died before its completion, and all that remained was the brick base of the pagoda, about one third the height of the planned structure.
Nearby, the Mingun Temple bell is the second largest un-cracked bell in the world.
It weighs 90 tonnes.
Just a couple of hundred yards from the Mingun bell, lies the beautiful white Hsinbyume (or Myatheindan) Pagoda, with its distinctive architectural style.
Built in 1816, the pagoda features a pattern of wavy mountain peaks representing amount Meru, the Buddhist mythological sacred mountain with its five peaks, that is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes.
Inwa (also Innwa and formerly called Ava,) is an ancient city located on an island that is only accessible by a taxi boat.
Before crossing the river to Innwa, we stopped for lunch at a row of simple restaurants standing on stilts at the river banks.
We had a lunch of noodles and vegetables which were quite good.
The taxi boat to Innwa took only a few moments to cross the river and when we arrived, we hired a horse and cart to see the place.
Two young girls begged us to buy their souvenirs, and would not take no for an answer.
They hopped on their bicycles and rode behind us, hoping that we would admire their resilience and change our minds.
We passed by banana fields, tall coconuts, and many old stupas.
Innwa used to be a Burmese royal capital, but when a devastating earthquake in the 1830’s destroyed most of the city, the king decided not to rebuild it and instead moved the capital to Amarapura
The old “Bagaya Kyaung” teak monastery, is a beautiful piece of architecture with elaborate wood carvings.
Built in 1770, it features 267 tall teak posts.
A bit less impressive was the Nanmyint leaning watchtower, but the brick stupas that dot Innwa, were breathtaking.
The most amazing structure in Innwa is the beautiful “Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery.”
Built in 1818, the building is markedly different from traditional Burmese monasteries, which are constructed with wood, not masonry.
Back across the river, we continued on to Amarapura, our final destination of this busy day.
Before heading towards the river, we visited a workshop where we saw how they wove the Longhis that everyone wears.
I admired the precision of the eyes and hands of those girls who work with dozens of colors of threads and make no mistakes in creating those beautiful fabrics.
Nearby, on the banks of the river, sits the “Maha Gandayon Kyaung” monastery that has a vibrant community of monks living in it.
Every evening the monks go for a walk on the nearby U Bein Bridge.
The monastery hosts a large reclining Buddha and a very tall Buddha, and an amazing great hall with thousands of life size golden Buddhas.
The temple roof was leaking and the floor had pools of water on it, all around these beautiful golden Buddhas.
The U Bein Bridge is a beautiful 1.2 kilometer structure built from teak planks and said to be the the world’s longest teak footbridge.
The local mayor, U Bein, salvaged the wood from the dismantled teak palace at Amarapura when the royal capital moved to Mandalay in 1857.
As sunset approached, we walked on the uneven planks between lots of people, and then decided that it would be better to take a boat to see the magical sunset from the water.
We reached an agreement with a friendly boatman on a price.
From the water, we saw how tall the posts of the bridge were, and heard that during the monsoon season, the water rises all the way up the bridge.
We saw red robed monks and pink robed nuns walking along with many others who had come to enjoy the thrill of walking on the uneven planks of this old teak bridge.
We saw white cranes and fisher birds rising up in the air, and the stubs of old trees in silhouette, as a lovely sunset fell over the river.
Back in Mandaly, we ate dinner at “Daung Lann Gyi” Salad Restaurant.
I had high expectations when I ordered a Frangipani salad and a Banyan leaf salad, a white seaweed salad and tea leaf salad.
The salads were not as tasty as they could have been, and most of them tasted the same, sautéed with garlic and served with crunchy peanuts on top.
We sat outdoors thinking that we can enjoy the starry night, but the ferocious mosquitos chased us back to the comforts of our air conditioned hotel room.
On our way back to the hotel, we tried to negotiate with our driver for a good rate to Bagan, our next destination, about three to four hours drive southwest of Mandalay.
The conversation was comical.
Jules: “How much to take us to Bagan?”
Driver: “You go Bagan?”
Jules: “Yes, we go Bagan, how much?”
Driver: “$120, Bagan very very far….”
Jules: “Can you do a little better price?”
Driver: “You go Bagan?”
Jules: “Yes, yes, we go Bagan, Better price? Lower price?”
Driver: “Oh…. Tomorrow? You go Bagan tomorrow?”
Jules: “No, the day AFTER tomorrow we go Bagan. Better price? A little less?”
Driver: “Oh… No tomorrow… One more day?…”
Jules: “Yes, one more day! Better price? More Lower?”
Driver: “Oh…….You go Bagan?”
Jules: “Yes! How much? best price?”
Driver: “Oh…You go Bagan? $120 you go Bagan!”
We finally gave up on negotiating with our friendly taxi driver whose company we had enjoyed for two days, and engaged another taxi driver who offered us the ride to Bagan for $80.
Next, we go Bagan!