As we crossed the Irrawaddy away from Mandalay and into Sagaing we could see temples and stupas sprinkled over the hills in all directions. Almost immediately to our left we passed by a giant golden dome that looked totally baller but our guide shook his head, nah that’s on not the itinerary, there’s better stuff, damn. He crept the Stachewagon up a narrow, twisting hillside road and pulled us into the parking lot of the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, filled with people selling snacks, coffee and trinkets. He didn’t really give us an explanation of what the place was, just said he’d be here when we were done, so we kicked off our shoes and went inside.
Yup, another Buddha. The layout of the place was a square with Buddhas facing all four directions as well as little mini-rooms with smaller Buddhas. Some of them had torture scenes like those we’d seen earlier in Laos, but a distinctive touch we hadn’t seen elsewhere was the use of flashing LEDs to give the Buddhas an animated halo, super classy.
The view was pretty decent too.
About halfway through we lost Drisdelle but kept going as we figured he was just hustling through and would be outside waiting for us at the exit. Strangely, he wasn’t. We sat down and had some pre-mixed instant coffee and waited a while until he showed up covered in sweat, turns out he’d taken the wrong stairs out and was accosted by templegoers who wanted selfies out, including some affectionate monks:
With Drisdelle back we jumped in our whip and our driver zipped us around the corner to the U Min Thonze caves. You’ll never guess what they were filled with!
BUDDHA BUDDHA BUDDHA ROCKIN EVERYWHERE! We tried to see if the halos would fit us; Murphy’s is close to a fit but mine’s a bit crooked…
I’d say more about the place except that we honestly don’t know anything, our guide didn’t come with us, didn’t tell us anything, and there wasn’t any interpretive signage. Nice-looking place though.
Back in the car we headed back toward the other side of the river, but the guide asked us if we wanted to stop at the giant dome-thing, which we did. We figured it was another temple but he said it wasn’t, but he didn’t really explain what it was, just parked and let us loose. On closer inspection it sure seemed like another temple until we saw a sign in the entryway; it was a monk school.
As soon as we entered three young monks approached us and asked us if they could show us around and speak with us to practice their English. They were incredibly shy, I felt kind of bad when I couldn’t understand one of them a couple of times (and pretended I did when I didn’t eventually), but for the most part they had a pretty good command of the language. They asked us questions about ourselves – where we came from, what we do for jobs, things like that – but they also told us a bit about their studies, how long they’d been studying, how their teachers are native English speakers who come and stay at the academy for three month stints, that kind of thing.
We circled the main dome once but couldn’t go inside. Around the outer edge of the building were small shaded alcoves with pictures and descriptions of famous Buddhist sites around Asia.
Back in our steed we headed back to the other side of the river using the older-looking train bridge rather than the modern one we’d crossed over. It had a plaque saying it was from 1924, kind of amazing it’d survived everything that’d happened in this neck of the woods since then. At the far end of the bridge a kid in a shabby uniform came out and yelled at our driver, who took a handful of change, palmed it over and hit the gas, the kid yelling at him and waving his fist while our driver laughed and yelled back at him. What was all that about? “He wanted 300 for a toll, I gave him 200.”
Our next stop would be without our driver, he was taking us to a place in the river where we’d cross by boat to another place called Inwa and get horses or something on the other side… ? He said he’d wait where he was parked so we shrugged and went with it.
The boat was a clunker, the engine pouring out black (and intermittently blue) smoke and jolting the boat around.
We jumped off at the other side, let’s find these horses…