The day we visited Mingun was a religious holiday which, in spite of the crowds, made the visit more interesting.
Pam, my wife, and I took a fish-tail boat across the Ayeyarwaddy River to Mingun with Bruce, our guide. The trip takes about 45 minutes. It was a beautiful morning as it was still relatively cool. Our first stop was what was intended to be the world’s largest pagoda. Sometimes known as "King Bodawpaya's Folly" because it was to be so immense that there was no way it could be finished in his lifetime.
Before we reached the zedi itself we looked at two incredibly huge stone Chinthes (lion guardians), near the river, that were partially destroyed in an 1838 earthquake. It must have been an incredibly strong quake because one of the Chinthes was tossed into the air landing on its side where it remains to this day.
The paya itself was begun in 1790, when an army of thousands of slaves and prisoners started to erect the monument. Work stopped in 1819, when the king died. It was meant to be 150m high but only the first 50m (165 feet) were completed.
To ascend to the flat top of the paya, one must climb barefoot up a stairway that can only be described as fallen rubble—the result of the same 1838 earthquake. Pam decided to climb it. I decided to have an iced tea and watch. She made it to the top but only with the help of others who were climbing with her. She said she almost fell at one point and was saved when a fellow climber grabbed her. I’m glad I didn’t try it.
After Pam’s adventure, we walked to the site of the 90 ton Mingun Bell, which has an equally fascinating history. It was cast in 1808 to be hung in King Bodawpaya’s monument. The 1838 earthquake so weakened its supports that it was moved to its present location where it hangs just a few feet from the ground.
It is about 4m high and has a 5m diameter at its lower lip. I actually crawled inside the bell and got some kids to hit it with a stick. It’s so massive, though, that the sound they made was very slight. It is reputed to be the world’s largest un-cracked bell, although, how it survived the earthquake is an unexplained wonder.
Our next stop was what Bruce referred to as Myanmar’s Taj Mahal—the Hsinbyume pagoda. It was built by Prince Bagyidaw, in 1816 in memory of his senior wife, the Hsinbyume princess, who died unexpectedly. The Paya is meant to represent the Sulamani Paya which stands atop Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Buddhist cosmology. There are seven wavy terraces that represent the seven mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru while representations of the five mythical monsters can be found in niches on each of the seven terraces.
We were able to wander around the base of the paya but there were locked gates that kept us from ascending to all of the terraces, which was disappointing. It is a most beautiful monument and while not as impressive as the Taj Mahal, is beautiful in its own right.
Since it was a holiday, the streets were crowded but we enjoyed walking down the main road of the town to get back to the docks while taking in the sights and sounds. There were many hawkers selling food, religious items, and souvenirs. We stopped at one stall and shared a Diet Coke while sitting in the shade of what I think was a banyan tree. We also bought some star fruit to munch on during the boat ride back across the river.
I highly recommend visiting Mingun, not only because of the huge Paya but also to see the town and its people. The boat ride alone would make the trip worthwhile.