Published: November 15th 2005October 14th 2005
Po Win Daung cave
Beautiful Lying Buddha statue surrounded by extraordinary 18th century wall paintings within one of many caves in Po Win Daung one hour drive from the city of Monywa
The end of our stay in Mandalay was coming closer and we tried to organise our trip to Lake Inlay although we would really have wanted to visit another place around Mandalay, Monywa
. But the taxi was very expensive for only two people and somehow we had not managed to find others who wanted to see the place. We were sitting in the hotel lobby when a French couple (Huguette and Jean-Marc) entered, they had just come back from another trip. As a conversation quickly evolved, they agreed to join us on the trip, which all of a sudden made it feasible. This trip would be very long and tedious but the staff at the guesthouse assured us that we could make it in one day, contrary to what was written in all the guidebooks. We were really glad to hear that as we craved to see the Po Win Daung Caves close to Monywa. So we paid Kyats 62,000 (≈ less than $50/ EUR40) and started fairly early, at 6 a.m. This early hour allowed us to see the novice monks walking the streets barefoot to collect food donations (mainly rice and oranges) from the population for themselves. The road
Murals around the big Lying Buddha
The murals in this cave were extraordinarily well conserved
to Monywa was better than expected (a rather new experience for us) and we arrived there already at 9 a.m., whereby we passed a lot of toll gates, before or after each village or bridge. We ignore how much the driver actually had to pay, sometimes he was simply fed up and drove on without paying when the barrier was up. The city itself is of minor interest, situated on the eastern bark of the Chindwin River and 136 km north-west of Mandalay, it serves as a major trade centre for agricultural produce from the surrounding. We were interested because it is the gateway to the impressive sandstone Po Win Daung Caves and a worthwhile trip for Burmese temple enthusiasts or others who just want to go where few travellers go. From Monywa it only took us another hour on a good gravel road. In the guidebooks the way was still complicated, to the riverbank by bus or taxi, then crossing the Chindwin River on a tiny ferry and use a pickup to reach the village close to the caves. Good news for all the travellers who want a different Burmese experience, a brand new bridge makes the trip now
Fascinating wall painting
Look closely, the whole structure is made of intertwining dragons
smooth and also much shorter. Shortly before we actually reached the caves, we passed a huge copper mine operated by the government which was of course not accessible to tourists. What we could see were dirt poor families close to the mine who tried to make some living out of the leftover stones and ore, it all gave us a desperate impression.
We arrived at the caves of Po Win Daung
not really knowing what to expect since there was not very much written in our guidebook, paid the entrance fee ($3) and climbed the steep steps, accompanied by a local young guide whom we had not wanted to engage, a woman who kept arranging our shoes at the cave entrance (you have to put off your shoes at every cave) and two other women who wanted to sell us food for the ubiquitous monkeys and who were annoyed that we decided to let them starve. The Po Win Daung/Taung (Po Win Hills) have probably been occupied since the dawn of human habitation in Myanmar. They hide dozens of cave temples decorated with ancient paintings representing Burmese court life and the Buddhist religion in the 17th century. Most exhibit
One of the few caves which were adorned with several Buddha statues
the Inwa style, though some may date as far back as the 14th to 16th centuries. This site is thought to contain the richest collection of Buddhist mural paintings and statues in the whole of South East Asia. Most of the paintings are surprisingly well preserved, especially the ones on the ceilings, a multitude of monks having assured their survival over the centuries. Scenes of the royal family taking rides on sacred white elephants, princesses looking after the sleeping queen and servants paying respect to Buddha can been seen as well as scenes of everyday life from the period. In addition to the paintings all the caves have large collections of ancient Buddha statues some of which have been covered in gold leaf by generations of visiting Burmese pilgrims. The magnificent sandstone caves and surrounding hills are named after U Po Win, a famous alchemist who once lived there. The whole complex consists of 947 caves containing 446,444 Buddha images and constitute an incredible treasure of Buddhist art that has not yet been extensively explored and has only recently been opened to foreign tourists. Do not expect to see all the 947 caves, you would not manage in a single
Nice overview where one can see the hill out of which the caves were cut
day and furthermore the guides would not let you. They have to be around to open the gates to the caves, which are by now all protected by iron bars, and are also quite useful since they give you precious background information and choose the ‘best of’. What we saw there was absolutely breath-taking: wonderful wall paintings in vivid colours, a wide range of Buddha statues in many colours and positions, some beautiful exterior decorations. We once again executed a Buddhist fitness program: shoes off, shoes on, bend your head in the low and narrow entrances, wander around in astonishment (in relative coolness inside the caves), walk from one treasure to the next in the boiling heat. Only once we encountered a tour group of Frenchmen, otherwise the place was completely deserted, which only enhanced its magic. We were lucky to stay more than two hours and would not have been against spending much more time on this enchanted place, but other sights were awaiting us around Monywa.
We headed back to Monywa, had a small lunch and drove on 20km to the southeast to the magnificent Thanboddhay Pagoda
, a Mt Meru-type structure with 845 stupas arranged around the
This entrance was protected by chinthes (lions), the famous mythical animal
main stupa, 7.350 statues and 582,363 sacred images. The pagoda was started on 20th June 1939 and completed on 2nd March 1952 and is the only pagoda with this unique shape in the whole country. Ancillary buildings in the compound resemble place architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries and feature three-dimensional jataka
relief's (illustrating the life of the Buddha) on their exteriors. The pagoda complex rises like a fairy tale temple from the dusty land, a rainbow of colours flash in the sunlight from the glass mosaic set in the surface of the spires gives it a magical aura. Unlike most of the pagodas in Myanmar, the entrance is not guarded by Chinthes, the mythical lions, but by statues of a pair of magnificent white elephants which are sacred and auspicious in Buddhist symbolism, and it is an astonishing sight to see the elephants here. The pagoda is an endless source of wonder for children and all who take a child-like pleasure in wonderland. A prayer hall of imposing dimensions stand next to the main stupa, amongst many smaller pavilions. What gives a festive air to the compound is that the prayer hall and all other structures are decorated
Even the bigger caves give you a slight feeling of claustrophobia
with figures of people worked in stucco, caught in mid step so that they look about to walk away. Every single one of the stucco ladies and gentlemen, not to mention, monks, nuns, children, tigers and even a few stray dogs are painted in soft realistic colours. The wit of the artisans who created this complex is evident everywhere: in the group of fashionable ladies of the 1930s taking a stroll and just about to unfurl pretty parasols; two tigers trying to climb over a wall and looking so real you would swear their tails twitch; the hind end of a dog just as it sneaked into an open doorway, both dog and door created from plaster and paint. The 'portraits' of some of the donors of pavilions stand in their own corners, their full figures worked in stucco and looking lifelike with faces showing they are highly pleased at their good merit. Unfortunately we were unlucky with the weather, the sky was covered with thick towering dark-grey clouds, and soon heavy rain began to fall. It had stopped when we entered the site but we had to walk on the compound barefoot and tried frantically to avoid the large
Palace scenes on the cave walls
A characteristic of the paintings in Po Win Daung is the complete lack of perspective as we know it in Europe
puddles of water, which made the visit particularly unpleasant. Very much to the photographers’ distress, an almost grey sky does not look good on pictures, and the missing sunshine made the vivid colours look much duller than they actually were. Nevertheless we were hugely impressed by this pagoda complex and were constantly reminded of best Austrian pastry decorated in colourful confectionery which could decorate the shop windows of prestigious companies like Demel. At the end of the visit we walked on top of a watchtower via a winding narrow spiral staircase and enjoyed a magnificent overview from above.
But our day was not finished yet, we drove on to the giant Lying Buddha of Bodhi Tahtaung
situated quite close to the city of Monywa. This really huge sculpture is visible from very far having been erected on a small hill, no wonder as it measures 98m in length and 19m in height. For several years it was the biggest Lying Buddha in Myanmar but very much to the distress of the local population this title recently was granted to another statue. However, we did not like the statue from the first moment we set eyes on it, even more
Wide open eyes and slightly bloated cheeks are among the main characteristics of the painted figures found in the caves
so as right behind it another huge structure of grey concrete was towering. We were appalled and asked our driver about this monstrosity, he said that this was another nascent giant Buddha statue, but a standing one this time. Oh no, not another one! Nevertheless we decided to pay it a visit, maybe we would like it better when we were closer to it. The statue was painted in white, had a golden frock with its pleats outlined with glittering glass pieces, the nails of its fingers and toes painted in pink and its arm rested on a pink and purple pillow. Buddha’s head was meant to rest on its hand but the construction proved too fragile and after the head had fallen down twice, an ugly monastery was built beneath it as a support. We also entered the statue to find 9,000 more statues of Lord Buddha and his disciples inside, as well as several dioramas vividly depicting Buddha’s life. For this visit we did not need much time, the four of us were equivocal in our dislike and were happy to return to Mandalay.
Nevertheless we did not return without some hiccups. Around 25km before Mandalay the
Keinayee: half bird half woman painted on the walls of a cave
taxi could hardly move any more, our driver was forced to advance only at snail’s pace and the engine kept spluttering. We thought that some water might have entered the engine during the heavy rainfall but were proved wrong. We managed to creep over the Inwa Bridge among vociferous protest from other road users, but only as far as the next crossing, where the driver left us in the dark without any signalling and went to search for… petrol. No water in the engine, the car simply lacked petrol! It seems to be the rule that taxi drivers in Myanmar only take as little petrol as they require for the route, and in this case the driver had miscalculated because the petrol gauge was not working. In general only the brakes and the horn work, the rest is just not really relevant. In the end everything worked out fine, travelling always means some kind of adventure after all. We had not yet experienced public buses in Myanmar and had got used to riding in a car, so we engaged the driver to take us to Lake Inlay the following day. Furthermore we liked the French couple very much - the
Caves and entrances carved out of the living rock
With a decoration reminiscent of colonial architecture
feeling was mutual - so we had nothing against spending some more time with them. We decided against the public bus for another reason too, the taxi would use another road than the bus, more scenic, which would also allow us to visit the Pindaya Cave on our way. This route would allow us to see the 2000 Buddhas within the cave without having to do an excursion from Lake Inlay, indeed even after one million Buddhas we still were craving to discover new Buddha statues. Next morning we had another driver and another more comfortable car at our disposal and were looking forward to beautiful landscape and more individual freedom. Although we had jestingly requested the driver to take enough petrol, the fuel tank was again almost empty. When the driver stopped at a monastery to buy petrol, we were really curious for further explanations. The country possesses a complicated system, there are actually two markets, the official one and the black market. Every car owner gets a certain number of vouchers that enable them to buy 4 gallons of petrol every week at ridiculous prices, namely for Kyats 180 per gallon (≈2.6 Euro cents per litre, which must
Big Buddha statue
The entrance to the caves is very narrow and low, you have to stoop in order to see Lord Buddha
lie even below the production price), the rest has to be purchased on the black market for Kyats 3,000 per gallon (≈44 Euro cents per litre). Later on we learnt that due to the general rise in petrol prices, the Burmese government had dramatically raised its prices ninefold to 22 Euro cents per litre and on the black market the price rose to 88 Euro cents per litre.
The way from Mandalay to Lake Inlay was not boring at all, there was much to see and we had wonderful chats with Huguette and Jean-Marc. They lived in the south of France, spoke in a charming accent and one of Jean-Marc’s favourite topics was food. Whenever we were about to starve, he started accounts about how to prepare a certain dish, which wine fitted best or with which dishes he entertained his guests. This watered our mouths and made us ask when we could pay them the first visit. Huguette and Jean-Marc were an unbelievable couple in their mid-fifties, she slim and willowy although she did not eat small portions, with him it was more clearly visible that he liked good food and drink. They entertained us with their sense
Fascinating wall painting illustrating the life of Lord Buddha in images that made us think of modern comics
of humour and made us laugh quite much with their jokes, we were never bored and enjoyed their company a lot.
There are more photos below