Saturday, December 24, 2016

Myanmar, Day 8: Mahāgandhāyon Monastery, Inwa Island & U Bein's Bridge

Vito prepares to strike the bell.
This day was a sightseeing cavalcade, filled with activities from start to finish. After breakfasting in the dining hall of the hotel, Shelly met us at 9AM and took us to Mahamuni Paya, The Great Sage temple. I read somewhere that, along with Mount Kyaiktiyo, this was among the holiest sites in Myanmar. We entered along a passageway lighted with eerie green lights and palm readers. Vito thought the place should have been renamed the Bell Temple as there were numerous brass bells around the holy sitewe went around hammering them with the blunted wooden strikers. In the central room of the complex, men were lined up and thronging around the massive gold statueThe Great Sage, I supposeovergrown and misshapen at its base with bulbous, knobby, golden protrusions, waiting to apply gold leaf. Women were not allowed to enter the room where the statue was located and waited outside and prayed. I went inside to get close to the statue, but I didn't have any gold leaf to apply so I just felt out of place. We wandered around for a little longer not understanding much. After a monk stopped to ask where I was from and if Vito and Angela were in my family, clearly practicing his English, we left.

Lunch at Mahāgandhāyon Monastery.
Our driver stopped at a shop that specialized in wood carving, but we didn't buy anything. We returned to the car and drove to Mahāgandhāyon Monastery, which our driver referred to as the Buddhist University, and where we watched monks and nuns of all ages line up to enter their dining hall for lunch. They were holding large black pots and, as they filed into the dining hall lined with long wooden tables and benches, a process that lasted fifteen or twenty minutes, many onlookers donated money, food or other items (notebooks, packaged food, pens, razors, etc.) by dropping them onto the pots. Shelly said that there were around 1500 monks. I somehow felt like a bad tourist. After watching the lunch procession, we went to look at the kitchen where all of the food was prepared for the monks. A dingy, drab place with little light, like most of the kitchens we'd seen in Myanmar, but everything was on an enormous scaleVito was impressed with a man who was shoveling rice (with a real shovel!) into a large wooden tub. We gawked and snapped with the rest of the other tourists, and headed out, again, stopping briefly at a silk garment workshop wherein many craftspeople were using old wooden looms to design dresses and other articles of clothing. We were curious, but we weren't really in the market for those kinds of goods.

Buddhas inside a crescent-shaped room at Umin Thounzeh Temple.
We didn't shop long, returned to the car and drove to Sagaing where white and gold stupas dotted the tree-covered hills. On the way to the temple, young female nuns in pink and young male monks in their typical red robes—kidswere roaming the streets after lunch, playing and laughing and throwing rocks just like any young people anywhere. We stopped at Umin Thounzeh, a terraced temple at the top of a high hill, but, even with a driver, we couldn't avoid the stairway climb. There were a few small sights and a nice view. Then we relocated to the nearby Soon U Ponya Shin Paya, where we made offerings before a giant gold Buddha and, before leaving, as we were a little hungry, I bought banana wrapped in sticky rice and steamed in a banana leaf, which was delicious and quelled our hunger sufficiently until we could find a place to stop for lunch.

Vito taking a rest from sightseeing.
After eating, we drove to a ferry to cross the river to Inwa. It wasn't possible to drive a vehicle to the island, but, once we had arrived, we hired a horse-drawn carriage and continued our tour around the island. Our first stop was an at old wooden monastery, Bagaya Kyaung, which was still in use. In fact, there were seven or eight young boys reciting when we arrived. It was, otherwise, not very exciting. We continued on and stopped at Yadana Hsemee Pagoda Complex of old red-brick stupas. Not as popular, the site was largely unoccupied aside from a man selling paintings, and so, quiet, calm and reflective. The final attraction was a leaning tower, which we arrived at by bumping through a banana plantation. The Nanmyin Watch Tower is the 'leaning tower' of Inwa as it was leaning to one side. It wasn't particularly tall or beautiful, but it is all that remains of King Bagyidaw's palace complex and still offers a pleasant view of the surroundings. This was the last sight on our tour of the island and we returned to the levee to await the ferry to re-cross the river.

Walking along U Bein Bridge.
The last stop of our day was U Bein's Bridge, the world's longest teak footbridge. The driver let us out of the car at a very crowded market near the entrance of the bridge and we had to walk through the crowd of people to reach the bridge. Much of the bridge rose over what appeared to be farmland, but it was clear that, during the rainy season, the water probably covers the entire area. There was still a large river flowing beneath the bridge and some people were fishing with their nets while many tourists were boating in the small canoe-like Myanmari boats. It was approaching sunset and, as we reached the approximate halfway point, the volume of people was considerably smaller, but the bridge was not as well maintained. We traversed about two-thirds of the bridge before stopping to order beverages (Vito tried a tamarind drink and Angela and I quaffed a bottle of beer between the two of us), waiting for the sun to set, and drank them on a wooden bench under a gazebo while the people of the bridge passed in front of us. The sun set and we returned to Shelly's car and asked him to drop us for dinner and then leave us. He seemed a bit perturbed that we weren't interested in hiring him for another day, but we just wanted to do some exploring by ourselves. Those kinds of drivers tended to have a set circuit that they followed and those destinations didn't necessarily align with their client's interests. Anyway, we parted ways and began to look for a place to eat dinner.

Who's really pulling the strings?
Our evening closed with a terrible meal at a restaurant called Unique Myanmar. We should have been suspicious with a name like that, but the restaurant was crowded and our options were limited as we had to eat near the theater. After dinner, we had tickets to watch a marionette puppet show that included a live orchestra of traditional Myanmari instruments, which was fantastic and, thankfully, helped us forget about our unsavory meal. Before the show, some of the puppeteers gave us an opportunity to try out the marionettes.

Vito was overly-excited all day long because he knew that Santa was doing his thing all around the world, but the numerous sights of the day certainly kept him distracted enough. We caught a little taxi-truck back to our hotel and we were all exhausted when we returned, but bubbling with all the memories of our adventure. Looking back at everything we did, this was a climactic point in our trip, and it really seems incredible that we accomplished so much.

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