Coming to Mawlamyine was one of the best decisions we made on our trip. We arrived here on a bus from Bago and we walked into the Lonely Planet’s favoured Breeze guesthouse. We decided however we didn’t want to spend our 5 nights in town in one of their ‘boat cabins’ and so we ended up checking-in in Aurora guesthouse on the Lower Main Road. Our plan was simple. Rent a motorbike, drive around the sights in and around the city and wait for our travel buddies we met in Mongolia – Angel and Jeff – to climb with the less famous and less touristy sister of the Golden Rock north of the city.
Mawlamyine is a nice town with many run down colonial style buildings which gives it lots of charm. There are a few interesting pagodas, a colonial prison, a few hindu temples, some mosques and surprisingly quite a few churches. The city has also some other gems that we discovered. For example the Cover Girl beauty parlour, where they have the best hair wash ever as well as a good foot spa. The restaurant at the riverbank called Grandpa’s and Grandma’s, profits of which go to a house for seniors. 1-2-3 Teahouse where we had our breakfast every single morning of our stay. And also worth mentioning is the ‘night market’ – a strip of restaurant stalls that arises every evening at the riverside and serves various kinds of dishes as well as cold beer.
We rented an affordable semi-automatic bike near the Breeze guesthouse and after test driving it around a block, we were ready to go. Our first stop was the hill-top pagoda complex Mahamuni Paya in the city centre. It was busy with people picnicking on the floors of the temples, nuns posing for cameras and kids hitting the bells. After we tried a game of throwing coins into ‘good luck’ pots, refreshments were being handed out to all visitors for free. We drank the orange juice we got and got on our bike again. Without a map we chose to go south and with some help of roadside shop-owners decided to visit the allegedly largest reclining Buddha in the world – Win Sein Taw Ya. We didn’t even leave the city when we found out our petrol indicator didn’t work and we had to push the bike a few hundred meters until we could buy some fuel in a plastic bottle.
After an hour of driving, stopping, asking and refreshing we saw the complex entrance gate on our left. From here oversized statues of monks with their typical bowls were lining the way on both sides. In the distance we spotted tens of white pagodas in the hills and a huge sitting Buddha. Soon after, the main attraction followed. Already from far the 160m long structure looked massive. We parked at the head and took a staircase leading up to enter the giant.
This ‘statue’ or rather building was finished in 2010 and, as it seemed inside, the construction is still ongoing (or it stopped). To be able to better imagine the size, take a look at the picture of Lucia posing at Buddha’s ear. Inside there is a small temple and a labyrinth of colourful statues depicting various images from the scripts including ones vividly depicting many ways of torture in hell. Further into the ‘feet’ of the building, there are a few unfinished statues and an empty area with a few metal wires sticking out of concrete panels. Everybody is bare feet here… If you come to visit Myanmar a few years from now, there will be another lying statue right opposite this one, as the construction has already started. The new one is supposed to become even larger.
As it was still early in the afternoon, we didn’t want to get back just yet and so we continued on the same road further south aiming towards Kandawgyi lake. After a 10-minute drive the road started to become crowded with people and we stopped to find out if we had reached the destination. The Pagoda on the lake was surrounded by festively dressed people, pick-up trucks full of people lounging and some others running around organising or giving away drinks to others. We made our way through the crowds when we came across an alley around which people started gathering. Everybody was giving us their broadest smiles, but nobody seemed to speak English so couldn’t explain us what was going on. We decided to wait for whatever is going to happen when a young man on a bicycle stopped and started chatting with us – in English! We were about to witness a celebration of the pagoda’s anniversary and the alley was prepared for monks and nuns who would later walk with their bowls in a line and accepted various offers from the participants standing alongside. Rice, powdered drinks, candy, biscuits, candles and money were collected from the bowls into huge garbage bags, so monks and nuns can fit more offerings inside.
The following day we took a trip eastbound to see 2 main attractions. The first one was Kyaikmaraw pagoda famous for it’s Buddha statue that unusually sits in a completely normal (western) pose with his feet down (instead of a common cross-legged or lotus position). The second attraction were Kha-Yon caves with many Buddha statues inside. Both were interesting and the ride itself was quite special too as the roads were picturesquely lined with sugar palms. However, the highlight of the day happened while taking a detour further into the rural areas. We stumbled across a small monastery and pagoda run by an old monk, who along with his companion – a nun – invited us over for some drinks. We were seated on the floor and offered variety of cold drinks on a tray. In broken English we chatted about our travel plans and about the monastery and its inhabitants. The hall where we were seated had 2 flat screen TVs and the monk was obviously a clock collector, as you could tell time by looking into any corner of the room. After a mutual photo session, the monk grabbed a table calendar that was standing on a coffee table next to him, wiped it from dust and gave it to us as a good-bye gift.
This same evening we met our friends Jeff and Angel and their travel companion Johannes. It was an evening full of stories from the previous 5 months and at the end of it it felt like we have been travelling together all that time. The next morning we took them to our favourite breakfast place and afterwards caught a ride to take us to the Nwa-La-Bo pagoda – the ‘other’ golden rock. The road up the hill to the temple is closed for public and so we waited for a while for other people to arrive so we can share a ride on the top of a crazy truck. The 40 of us on the truck became very close very soon after departure. Because of the bumpy winding road, people held onto each other by T-shirts, hands or shoulders and together screamed and laughed. On the top, everybody took off their shoes and climbed a few stairs to pray to a pagoda built on top of a curious rock formation painted gold. Some said their prayers while pasting flakes of gold into on of the rocks, perhaps getting a better chance to be heard. Getting down was much easier as we already knew what to expect and we caught a bus back into town.
The next day we decided to also take a look at the more famous golden rock in town on Kyaiktiyo, before returning to Yangon. We did not mention it before, but on each bus that we took in Myanmar, a few people were throwing up, probably because they are not used to travel much. So yes, the 3 hrs from Mawlamyine to Kyaiktiyo saw a few of these too. After being taken to a couple of ‘upscale’ hotels, our taxi driver finally understood we are backpackers and took us to Sea Sar hotel which we recommend to stay at. In the morning we woke up very early to beat the crowds of pilgrims making their way up to the golden rock. We were not the only ones with this thinking.
At the truck station we witnessed an amusing show of crowds of people throwing themselves into the cars as soon as they pulled-up. Some of the styles of getting in were better than others. The trip up the hill was quite similar to the one 2 days ago. Steep and sharp turns were turning it into roller-coaster ride.
The views at the top were beautiful and well worth it. Only men can go all the way to the rock and paste a flake of gold on it, so we sent our men to pose for the pictures and feel the atmosphere from up close. Pilgrims were lounging around the whole complex, sleeping, resting or having picnic. Having had a very early breakfast we had some shan noodles as a snack and made our way down again in order to return to Yangon.
First published on: http://takeitandgo.eu/2014/04/15/rocks-and-buddhas/
For more stories by Lucia Mackovicová and Mark Jarus visit:http://takeitandgo.eu/