Monywa (pronounced mown-ywa) is not a city I thought would ever be on my ‘must go’ list. I hadn’t heard anything about it except that my pronunciation of the name is terrible. But when my friend and I committed to a Christmas trip to northern Chin State and I realized the bus to Kalay (the nearest city and entry point to northern Chin) would be a 22-hour journey, we started brainstorming about how to break up the long journey. Eventually we decided to take an overnight bus to Monywa, and the next day a public boat north to Kalewa from where we could connect to Kalay and further to Chin State. Phew!
Stumbling off our overnight bus, we were greeted by cool early morning air and locals surprised to see western visitors in their town.
Monywa lies west of Mandalay on the Chindwin River and is the capital city of Sagaing Region with a population of around 400,000.
Leaving our hotel for cups of sweet tea and eejaqway at the teashop, we didn’t have many expectations for the day ahead of us.
Maha Bodhi Tataung
First we hopped onto our tuk tuk for the 40-minute journey past farmland and through the dust to Bodhi Tataung. The name meaning 1,000 Buddhas, this is a sprawling complex of gardens of small Buddha statues and trees with a lookout tower or a small stuppa dotted here and there.
The gardens are a picturesque place to spend a few minutes on your way to the main site.
The second tallest standing Buddha image in the world (the tallest being located in China) can be seen for miles around as it towers at 130m high. You can climb inside the Buddha where there are reportedly 31 floors to represent the 31 planes of existence. To the front of it and a little down the hill is a huge reclining Buddha image which measures about 100 metres in length and can also be entered.
As mentioned in the Snapshots section of this issue, Thanboddhay Pagoda and the surrounding complex of buildings and gardens are surprisingly fun and lighthearted to wander around. We stop there on our way back from Maha Bodhi Tataung, about 20 minutes from the city. The design and colouring is unique. We thought twice about going inside the pagoda because of the hefty entrance fee for foreigners but ultimately made the investment and were very glad to have witnessed the astounding number of tiny Buddha images as well as large and elegant ones in every corner.
Po Win Daung Caves & Shwe Ba Taung
After our tuk tuk broke down along the way, we were tired and unenthusiastic about the final stop of our Monywa visit, Po Win Daung caves, which are a 1.5-hour drive from the city. When we got there, however, we were utterly mystified by what we found.
Starting out as a series of small, ancient caves with small Buddha images next to the road, we climbed further and further up the rocky hill, astonished to find more and more caves carved into the rock. The caves grew in size and complexity as we walked around with some appearing to be renovated in the last few decades and others totally abandoned to nature. We could have wandered for hours up and down rocky steps, through low-ceiling caves with no sound but branches brushing our legs and leaves crisping under our feet.
Our driver beckoned us along, noting at the quickly-setting sun at our backs. He led us down the hill to more modern or well-kept caves with intricate and mysterious paintings from floor to ceiling. This part was more bustling with monkeys and hawkers and a foreign family with their tour guide.
The sky started to glow red but there was still more to see. Walking a few hundred metres further along the road, what appeared to be more hilly land and trees suddenly dropped to a set of steps dug into the ground. We descended about 100 metres into a complex of very deep walkways dug into the ground. Marks on the wall confirmed what our driver said about it being carved out by hand centuries ago.
Who did this? When? Why did they choose such an inconspicuous location? We were very curious and further confused by the variety of caves – some were very well kept and recently painted with electric lights glowing behind the heads of the Buddhas. Others were little more than a metre tall and even less deep with intricate carvings worn down with time. Why had I never heard of this marvelous place before? There were no information boards in the vicinity and the driver could only tell us rough estimates and guesses. All of this added to a strong sense of mystery that had not abated by the time we climbed into our truck and headed back to the city.
After an unremarkable curry and rice, we retired early knowing we had to be up at 5am to catch the boat north. A small earthquake in the middle of the night woke me from a dream in which I was wandering through golden-lit dusty caves.