We were in no hurry to leave the hotel room on our first day in Monywa. My wife and I had arrived by plane about noon, winging in over north-central Myanmar’s flat, dry-season-dead landscape. It was mid-May and the air crackled with summer heat during the slow, 15-kilometre tuk-tuk ride from the airport to Monywa Hotel.
So we sheltered in our air-conditioned room and waited until late afternoon for a walk around town. Monywa – in Sagaing Region, about 136km northwest of Mandalay – spreads along the east bank of the Chindwin River and the waterfront seemed like a good place to witness the waning of the daylight.
The temperature had only fallen slightly by the time we left the hotel, but we still enjoyed the long, casual amble that took us past a statue of national hero Aung San on horseback, the town’s central clock tower, a buzzing street market and the Shwezigon Pagoda.
At the riverside, we enjoyed fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice as we watched the sun descend toward the horizon. It was late in the dry season and the Chindwin had been reduced to a modest ribbon of ochre water winding among wide sandbanks.
Nothing was going to keep us in our hotel room the next day; we had big plans, which we would see through no matter what the weather held in store. We hired a trishaw first thing in the morning and set out on the 50-minute drive to the Bodhi Tataung pagoda complex, about 25km south of Monywa.
There was still a bit of night-chill in the air as we drove between the neem trees lining both sides of the road.
Bodhi Tataung is famous for being home to a 128-metre-tall standing Buddha image, whose hilltop location adds to its towering command of the landscape. Myanmar’s tourism boosters are fond of declaring that this statue is one of the tallest such images in the world, but given the Buddha’s teachings on humility and impermanence, these trifling boasts seem somewhat contrary to the spirit of the religion.
Still, the spiritually flawed materialist in me recognised it as an impressive sight. It’s also hollow, which means it is possible to go inside and climb as high as the Buddha’s chest cavity. We ascended a dozen or so flights, enjoying the galleries filled with kitschy, cartoonish paintings of Buddhist hell and the various forms of torture meted out to sinners. The gleeful devils seemed partial to using cooking techniques to deliver pain, as various victims were shown being tenderized, chopped, sliced, diced, julienned, skewered, sautéed, roasted and boiled.
We descended the hill on an obscure footpath and happened across a monastery where elderly men were engaged in esoteric alchemical pursuits. We watched as they stuffed shards of various metals – iron, copper, silver and gold – into small clay pots, which were then placed on an open flame. The melted metals formed an alloy that was used to make magical rings known as daloun.
One of the monks explained that these rings provide the wearer with supernatural powers, such as extraordinary good luck, self-confidence and protection from harm. Before I had the chance to ask whether I might buy one, he added that only monks and those who were pure of heart could benefit from these powers because others are “too greedy or angry”.
The “pure of heart” requirement pretty much disqualified me from status as a ring-bearer, so we retreated to the trishaw and headed back toward town. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside shack selling barbecued rabbit and pigeon, as well as a mystery meat the shop owner vaguely described as “wildcat”. We opted for rabbit, which the shop owner – a woman with 10 children – said her family caught using nets after their dogs had flushed the animals from their warrens. The meat was a bit dry, but we washed it down with a few cups of sweet, fresh palm wine.
Our last stop before Monywa was Thanboddhay Pagoda, which was beautifully painted in a riot of bright colours and decorated with thousands of small Buddha images. The concrete platform surrounding the pagoda was foot-searingly hot, but the atmosphere inside was dusky, cool and tranquil.
After lunch, we set out on an excursion to the Hpo Win Daung cave complex across the Chindwin River. This time we hired motorcycles and the journey took about an hour. We drove north a few kilometres to cross the river by bridge and travelled through an arid, savannah-like landscape, passing the Letpadaung copper mining area. Last year, Myanmar riot police had used unnecessarily heavy-handed tactics while confronting monks and villagers protesting against the environmental and communal impact of the mine.
Hpo Win Daung consists of a network of footpaths and stairways winding through an area where, between the 14th and 18th centuries, alcoves and small caves were dug into the hillsides and filled with Buddha images. A few of the shrines are quite big, housing large Buddha images and masterful, intricate religious murals dating to the 16th century.
There were no other tourists about and we revelled in the sense of discovery and isolation. In some places the recesses were quite eerie, like portals through which the undead might issue in the dark of night. We wandered around the main hill, saw a few Buddhist monks looking into the alcoves, and ran into a group of local kids who asked for packets of shampoo.
For the rest of the time, it was just the two of us and the gangs of wild monkeys that scampered around the rocks and trees. They weren’t as aggressive as the primates at Mt Popa, but I had the feeling that if I dropped so much as a crumb they would swoop in for the kill.
Late in the afternoon large numbers of monkeys started making their way up a set of old stone stairs. My wife and I followed and we found that scores of the animals were gathering inside a large, dim shrine containing a reclining Buddha image. The monkeys sat quietly in a group in the middle of the room, for what purpose we couldn’t determine. We continued walking to the top of the hill to take in the view of the countryside and when we came back down 20 minutes later the monkeys were gone and the shrine was empty and silent.
The motorcycle ride back to Monywa bordered on the apocalyptic: Dark clouds moved in from the west and a fierce wind began to blow. Thunder rumbled ominously across the sky. At one point we raced past a brushfire that sent heat and smoke billowing across the narrow road. Near the bridge we stopped at the hilltop Shwe Taung Oo Pagoda, from which we enjoyed expansive views of endless farmland to the west and the Chindwin River to the east.
The wind was howling ferociously and kicking up a thick, beige haze from the Chindwin’s exposed sandbanks. It was the first time I’d ever seen a dust storm form over a river. We were enveloped by the brown cloud as we motorcycled across the wind-whipped bridge, but on the other side, the air was clear as the wind had shifted and was blowing the dust and the thunderstorm to the north.
We had time the next morning for a half-day trip north of town to the Twindaung volcanic crater. Again we opted for motorcycles, buzzing across the sun-scorched farmland to the riverside town of Budalin, where we turned west onto a flat, straight dirt road that took us directly into the heart of nowhere. The heat of the day was building fast and with the motorcycles struggling through the frequent stretches of sandy soil, we had to stop a few times to allow the engines to cool.
The road eventually started sloping upward, at first gently and then quite steeply. As we gained altitude, the air cooled and more trees started appearing around us. I realised we were climbing up the outside of the volcanic cone and before long we reached the rim and found ourselves looking down at a circular lake nestled in the ancient crater. It was a beautiful sight, the placid water ringed by a forested ridge, its shoreline graced with swaying palm trees. It seemed like the perfect place to establish a small eco-resort, complete with hiking trails through the trees and kayaks on the water.
Unfortunately, such a resort does not exist. Instead, this potential Eden has been sullied by the establishment of an unsightly spirulina factory in the crater, dedicated to harvesting algae from the water for use in “anti-aging” dietary supplements. We took the opportunity to walk down and take the self-guided tour of the facilities. Cameras must be left at the sign-in desk, apparently to prevent international spirulina spies from documenting the concrete cultivation tanks, algae drying racks, water-displacing squeegees and other advanced technologies in use at the factory.
Having learned everything we always wanted to know about the wonderful world of algae farming but were afraid to ask, we climbed out of the crater to where our motorcycles were parked in the shade of a small tree. A pleasant breeze blew across the remote ridge top, rustling the tree leaves and cooling the air. We paused to enjoy the magic of the moment, and then climbed onto our motorcycles, started the engines and glided back down the outside of the old volcano and into the sweltering scrublands below.