Up The Ayeyarwady To Mingun – A half-day trip from Mandalay
by Uma Mageshwary Gunasakaran
We were in Mandalay for 3 days; it is inarguably a popular travel destination for those visiting Myanmar. Upon checking into the Bagan King Hotel, the receptionist recommended a half-day trip to Mingun for its monumental attractions. After browsing through a travel brochure with fascinating pictures of the Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mingun Pahtodawgyi, and Sat Taw Yar Pagoda, we did not need further persuasion to say yes to the trip. She also gave us two options in terms of getting to Mingun: river or road! For the river option, a traditional fishing boat that leaves at 9am or we could hit the road in a taxi; both option would take 90 minutes from Mandalay.
We chose the boat option!
We left our hotel at 8am, and 20 minutes later arrived at the Mingun jetty on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River. It’s advisable to get here by 8.30am to buy tickets for the boat ride. As we got out of the taxi, we were not entirely convinced if we were at the right location as it did not look like a conventional jetty. There were a few wooden canoes and boat houses docked along the riverbank. We mentioned ‘Min Kun’ to a few locals and they helpfully pointed us to a tiny hut, up a few wooden steps, just 5 metres from the waters of the Ayeyarwady. Meeting a couple of other travellers in the hut confirmed we were in the right place. Upon showing our passports to the man behind the desk and having our details written down, we got our boat tickets for 5,000 Kyat each. As the month of July is not the peak travel season for Myanmar, the boat rides require a minimum of 6 passengers or you can hire the whole boat for 30,000 Kyat per group. So, we sat on the wooden benches outside the hut eagerly awaiting our ride.
Around 9.15am, the ticket seller signalled to us that our boat was ready. He led us towards the water where narrow planks were laid out over the muddy riverbank creating a ramp up to a boat house. We walked up the planks carefully to the boat only to realise that there were yet more rickety planks laid out across two boats that we needed to manoeuvre before we could get to ours. A daring yet fun feat, I must say!
We were directed to the top deck, lined with a few make-shift benches and chairs, partially sheltered. The weather was cloudy, so we sat in the open, enjoying the breeze and the view. Once all the passengers were onboard, we set off to Mingun. The water was not too rough, so the journey up the Ayeyarwady River was quite smooth. We were enthralled by the sight of the river dwellings, stilted wooden shacks built on the water and friendly locals in the water waving to us. An hour later, we spotted golden spires, the captivating white shikhara of Hsinbyume, and the gigantic brick-coloured Pahtodawgyi on the west of the river. Twenty minutes later we arrived on the other side, disembarked the ferry and found a ticket booth where we paid 5,000 Kyat per person as an entrance fee for Mingun. The boat we took was going to go back to Mandalay at 12.30pm, which gave us 2 hours to explore the interesting sites of Mingun.
There were ox-carts to take tourists to the notable sites, but we chose to walk as it takes only 10 minutes to Sat Taw Yar pagoda and the rest are close by. We walked past a few shops and restaurants and came to our first stop – Sat Taw Yar is a white pagoda built around the 1800s with steps leading to the river. There are 2 lion sculptures on both sides of the stairway, symbolising the guardians of the temple. Some worshippers were taking a dip in the river here as a part of a religious ritual.
Another 2-minute walk brought us to the colossal monument of Mingun Pahtodawgyi – started by King Bodawpaya in 1799 who intended it to be 150 metres tall but its construction was ceased at just 50 metres upon his demise in 1819. A 90-tonne and 13-foot tall bronze bell, suspended in Pahtodawgyi was knocked off by an earthquake in 1839, which is now relocated to a nearby pagoda. The earthquake also destroyed the 2 enormous lion statues leaving just 2 large boulders on the Ayeyarwady River bank. We walked around the 450-foot square terrace of the Pahtodawgyi, admiring its girth before moving on to the gorgeous Hsinbyume Pagoda.
Approaching Hsinbyume Pagoda, we were blown-away by its distinctive seven-tiered concentric base-shaped structure depicting Mount Meru of the Buddhist cosmology. Hsinbyume pagoda is also known as the Taj Mahal of Myanmar for Prince Bagyidaw, successor to King Bodawpaya, built it as a symbol of love for his first wife, Queen Hsinbyume who died during childbirth. From the ground level, the tiers create a wave-like illusion, which is simply stunning. We climbed the stairway all the way to the top, stopping at each level to admire the intricate details of its architecture. We walked past local Buddhists bringing offerings, flowers, and bunches of incense sticks to pray to Lord Buddha in the topmost chamber of the pagoda. Saying a quick prayer, we stepped outside to the terrace surrounding the chamber and were gifted with breath-taking views of the Ayeyarwady River, Mingun Pahtodawgyi, and stupas dotted within the trees.
Given only 2 hours in Mingun, we would advise to allocate 10 minutes for Sat Taw Yar pagoda and 20 minutes for Pahtodawgyi so that you have at least 30 minutes to soak in the beauty of Hsinbyume. We walked back for 25 minutes to our boat. As the Ayeyarwady flows from north to south, the journey back to Mandalay was slightly shorter, about 75 minutes. We can now confidently say that a trip to Mingun is indeed a must when you are in Mandalay.