On one of our rare holidays from work, a colleague asked me if I fancied a trip to Mingun and Sagaing on the back of his bike. Mingun and Sagaing lie just over the Irrawady River from Mandalay and, as the crow flies, the distance is not so great. However, as only a single bridge serves the river, a long and arduous ride is needed down and back up the river in order to reach the landmarks in the area. Unfazed, we popped on our helmets and set off for our destination.
The roads on the way to Mingun were chaos as Tasaungmone festivities were in full flow and people dressed in giant papier-mâché elephant and minion costumes were strolling out into the middle of the crawling traffic to beg for monetary donations or stoop down to collect the notes that had been thrown to the road from moving vehicles. Once you cross over the bridge to the Mingun side of the river, you eventually join bumpy country roads that are green, quiet, and somewhat scenic, descriptors you don’t get to use much in Mandalay proper. Watching the local people going about their daily chores in a peaceful manner made for a refreshing and enjoyable change to the riotous noise and commotion of the city across the river.
Upon arriving at the main tourist drag of Mingun, foreigners will be asked to part with 5,000 kyat to gain entry. You will be given a sticker that must be displayed prominently to prevent you from being harassed by archaeological site staff for the remainder of your visit. Usually I don’t mind paying this sort of entry fee as a non-local, but I must admit to being a tad baffled at where the money they take from visitors goes. The landmarks in Mingun are showing evident signs of neglect and are, in my opinion, very rundown and in need of a great deal of TLC. It seemed obvious to me that collected fees are not being used to maintain the historical structures here and I found that somewhat upsetting.
Mingun Pagoda is the main landmark in the area. Construction of the structure was started in 1790 by King Bodawpaya but work was never finished. At first glance, the pagoda looks as if it has been hewn from a solid slab of rock but it is, rather surprisingly, a huge man-made stack of bricks. The scale of the monument is made all the more impressive by the fact that the building was only one third completed when work was abandoned.
Nowadays the pagoda is in a state of disrepair and is noticeably disintegrating. Like many of the cultural buildings in this part of Myanmar, little care and attention seems to have been shown to the preservation of this important site and frequent earthquakes in the region have left the pagoda covered in fissures and dislodged huge living room-sized slabs from the structure. These enormous fragments can be seen clearly from a stairway to the right of the pagoda that previously led to the top of the monument but, due to the state of the building and the consequent safety concerns, progress is now stopped halfway. Decent views of the river, however, are still available from this midway point. Observing the vast size of these fallen blocks is quite awe-inspiring and will make you thankful you were nowhere near the site when the natural disasters occurred.
To the front of the pagoda is an entryway to a small shrine. This shrine’s tininess is in stark contrast to the size of the pagoda in which it finds itself. I felt the contents of the shrine to be entirely unspectacular and barely worth the hassle of taking my shoes off for.
Across the road from the Mingun Pagoda stand the remains of two giant chinthe (lion creatures) that were built to guard the unfinished pagoda. The size of these structures must have been impressive when they were fully intact but, similar to the pagoda itself, earthquakes and neglect have left them ravaged. Although the backsides of the cinthes visible from the road are in fairly good condition with details still evident, the front ends have crumbled and collapsed and nothing remains of them but a jagged row of bricks. The dislodged parts of the cinthe’s heads are once again vast and must have made an ungodly racket as they rolled Indiana Jones-like down the riverbank towards their current resting places near the Irrawady.
To compliment his oversized pagoda, King Bodawpaya also authorised the forging of a similarly oversized bell. At 90 tons in weight the Mingun Bell was, for the longest time, the largest working bell in the world, but its crown was snatched by the 116 ton Bell of Good Luck which was built in Henan, China in 2000. The bell is stored in a small wooden building which can get cramped when there are a lot of tourists present and the bustle for a good vantage point can get a little lively. Although the bell’s size is impressive (the link was about twice as thick around as my waist is), beyond posing for a photograph and reading the brief English inscription on the stone tablet before it, there really isn’t much to keep you at the bell for very long.
Leaving the bell and following the strip of stalls selling sub-par souvenirs will eventually lead you to Hsinbyume Pagoda. This dazzlingly white structure reflects the sun quite spectacularly and will likely necessitate sunglasses if you visit on a bright day.
From afar the pagoda looks brilliant and pristine in the midday sun but, get a little closer, and the telltale signs of neglect that I’ve become used to in Myanmar begin to show themselves once more. Many of the levels of the pagoda are covered in rubbish and layers of sharp rubble which is problematic owing to the fact you can only walk around the landmark barefooted. Look more closely at the structure and you’ll find huge cracks running through it with no obvious sign of any work being done to shore up or repair the damage.
Although I have been quite scathing of the pagoda thus far, reaching the top of Hsinbyume does have its positives. At its summit, Hsinbyume affords some fantastic views of the surrounding area and even an impressive glimpse of the back of Mingun Pagoda off in the near distance.
Having exhausted the sights we wished to see in Mingun, we decided to leave and check out Sagaing Hill which we had to pass through on our way home. There are a multitude of roads to choose from that snake their way up the hillside so plan your route in advance if you don’t want to get horribly turned around like we did. Along the way there are a large number of monasteries and pagodas to stop off at, but for my companion and I, the most memorable sight was a pair of giant golden frogs guarding the road that lead to the hill’s summit. It made a refreshing and surprising change to see these weird warty sentinels in place of the usual chinthe guards that usually flank the entrances to important places in Myanmar.
Just a little farther up this steep road and we came to a busy area full of tea houses and people selling snacks and trinkets. From this area we could see some cracking views of the Sagaing region but the setting sun and smoke from a number of nearby foliage fires made the vista somewhat hazy.
Overall, Mingun and Sagaing made for a pleasant day out. For me, however, the main enjoyment I garnered was from the bike ride through the country to get there. While the landmarks in their prime would have undoubtedly been spectacular, presently they are looking a little worse for wear and I found them a tad disappointing. This level of neglect seems to be a recurring theme with the landmarks and famous sites I visit in Myanmar and it’s not the unpreventable kind of neglect that you see with some inaccessible, semi-reclaimed jungle ruins but a sad and wholly preventable neglect, one that with a little effort and money could no doubt be arrested. Living in Myanmar allows me to shrug off these frequent touristic disappointments to some extent, but I am sincerely starting to think that, had I come all the way here with the sole intention of tourism, I would quickly have come to regret my decision.