musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

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When I was in Mandalay last month, I followed tradition and took some of the kids from 90th Street on a trip in the area. We’ve taken a dozen trips or more over the past decade, and in recent years we’ve gone as far away as Bagan and Shan State (Taunggyi, Nyaunghswe, Inle Lake).

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This time around I didn’t have the budget or the energy for a long trip, so we stuck closer to Mandalay, visiting the nearby towns of Mingun and Sagaing. I’ve been to Mingun many times, and in the past have always taken the boat on the Irrawaddy River that makes morning runs to the riverside town. The trip takes about an hour each way. You know you’ve reached Mingun when you see the towering base of the Mingun Pagoda next to the river. This pagoda was actually never finished. It was designed to be the country’s tallest pagoda when construction began back in 1790. But after the ruling king died, and an ensuing earthquake caused a huge crack to form on the structure, construction was halted and never resumed. But the project was so grandiose that even the resultant base is alone an impressive sight. There are now signs discouraging tourists from hiking to the top, but everyone makes the climb anyway.

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The other highlights in Mingun include the huge Mingun Bell (noted as the world’s largest “uncracked” bell), the Hsinbyume Paya, a white-washed pagoda distinguished by its funky “waves” of walls, and don’t forget those huge “guardian lions” next to the riverfront. Throw in the Mingun Home for the Aged (a nursing home), and a few more monasteries on the hill, and that’s about all there is to see or do in Mingun.

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For this trip, instead of taking the boat, the kids made the decision to hire a small “light truck” that would take us to both Mingun and the nearby town of Sagaing, famous for the hundreds of pagodas that are strewn around the surrounding hills. After climbing Sagaing Hill (accessible by a very long series of stairs), the crew was exhausted and some of the boys took naps on the terrace. Once again, though, they were well behaved and the excursion was a delightful way to spend the morning and early afternoon. Other than buying the entry ticket for foreigners at the Mingun Pagoda, and paying for lunch for everyone, it was a fairly inexpensive outing too.

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