Top Attractions in Central Myanmar
Monywa is a commercial town on the Chindwin River, with two pagodas and a good night market near the clock tower where stalls sell food till late - but not much else. However, like Mandalay, its most interesting sights are just outside of town.
Hpo Win Daung, about 35 km southwest of Monywa, is a fascinating sight. Over four centuries, carvers scooped 492 chapels out of the rock to house Buddha statues. Some are simple, one-cell chapels just a few metres wide and deep, while others are much larger, connected by passageways and steps. Many are beautifully painted in bright colours which glow in the dim lighting.
Above, the hilltop is punctuated by stupas. There's a smaller, more recent complex of caves nearby, Shwe Ba Taung, cut downwards into the limestone with a massive white elephant as well as some splendid colonial-style facades.
Not all interesting monuments are old ones. Thanboddhay Paya, 10 km out of Monywa, is a gaudy modern temple stuffed full of Buddhas, guarded by huge concrete elephants, and with stripy obelisks marching down the middle of the courtyard. Subtlety and taste have been thrown out of the window here in favour of something more like a psychedelically iced wedding cake.
A few kilometres west of Thanboddhay is Bodhi Tataung, one of the newest Buddhas in Myanmar and also the biggest at over 100 metres tall. In fact, it's currently the second biggest in the world. It was built as recently as 2008, and its gilded body contains a staircase linking painted galleries which show Buddhist heavens and hells. In front of the standing Buddha is a massive reclining Buddha, which is also hollow. You enter through one buttock cheek.
Taungoo is a lively town on the highway from Yangon to Mandalay, and a former royal capital. It's the centre of a region where betel palms grow. Betel chewing has been banned in government buildings, but despite a huge advertising campaign against it, chomping the 'kun-ya' mix of betel, tobacco, lime and spices remains wildly popular. Evidence? The pavements liberally spattered with red where betel-chewers have spat out the juice.
But there's more to Taungoo than betel. In the centre of town, the Shwesandaw pagoda's gilded, bell-shaped stupa contains one of Buddha's hairs. Students here visit the statue of Indian goddess Saraswati (Thurathati), patroness of music and the arts, to pray for success in exams. Another temple, Myasigon paya, glitters with glass tiles and has a little museum with some fascinating British Empire memorabilia!
Pyay is another ancient capital, but it's also an important transit point on the Ayeyarwady River and the Yangon-Bagan highway. The riverfront is where the action is, with a row of restaurants and a night market.
Bang in the middle of town, Shwesandaw paya sits on top of its hill. It's not as tall as Shwesandaw paya in Bago, but it edges Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda into third place by just one metre. The views are excellent, including a view of the giant seated Buddha which dominates the City.
The ancient city of Sri Ksetra lies a few kilometres east of the modern city centre, and it's the oldest site in the country that you can still see. The city of Thayekhittaya or Sri Ksetra stood here from the 5th to the 9th century. The raw brick of its monuments would have been covered with stucco then; now, it's blackened by age. Bawbawgyi paya, a tall cylinder of brick reminiscent of ancient stupas in India, is a massive and powerful statement of Buddhist faith with a little hti jauntily and rather incongruously perched on top.
The site of Sri Ksetra is huge; walking a 10km loop around it is one option, but many tourists take an ox cart around the sandy tracks.
Akauk Taung is a Buddhist monument about 25km downstream from Pyay on the Ayeyarwady River. The whole riverbank cliff carved with Buddha images is an amazing sight that's reachable only by boat ride. Climbing up from the River is tough, and the sense of peril spices the experience considerably. Those who climb all the way to the stupas at the top are rewarded by excellent views of the River.