Mingun, the beautiful work of a megalomaniac in Myanmar

The human being has many virtues, but also many defects. Megalomania is an evil that has afflicted many rulers, from many countries, throughout history. In Myanmar, things were no different when King Bodawpaya, the sixth monarch of the Burmese Konbaung dynasty, acceded to the Burmese throne in 1782.

Bodawpaya wanted to be remembered for being the king who built the world’s largest pagoda, bell, lions and lake. Of his claims, the bell was the one that best fulfilled. Mingun’s huge bell became the largest in the world…

How to get to Mingun

Mandalay quay from which ships depart to Mingun © David Escribano

The population of Mingun is about 10 km northwest of the city of Mandalay. Although you can get there in other ways, the best of all is by sailing the beautiful, milky waters of Myanmar’s longest and most powerful river, the Ayeyarwaddy. To do this, you can take one of the beautiful boats that rest on the banks of the river, at the height of the imperial Mandalay.

If you take the boat, the journey runs smoothly for almost an hour. If you also do it during the dry season, you may be lucky enough to meet the mythical dolphins of the Ayeyarwaddy River. These dolphins, with a flattened nose and a slightly more square fin, collude with the fishermen of the river to help them fish, in a cooperation between animal and human of which it is difficult to find other examples in the world.

I was lucky enough to see five of those dolphins during my trip last July. It is not usual for these beautiful and intelligent animals to be found in these places during this time of the year, however, the unusual absence of rain had forced them to descend the course of the river in search of denser flows. It was marvelous.

Pahtodawgyi: the world’s largest pagoda

At the end of 1790, King Bodawpaya ordered work to begin on what was to be the world’s largest pagoda. To this end, it mobilized thousands of slaves, soldiers and citizens captured during its military campaigns in the area.

The idea was to build a brick pagoda 150 meters high. However, the project did not see the end. Although many people think that this was due to the large amount of resources that had to be devoted to its construction, the reality is that it was the deep superstition of the Burmese king that froze the work. The astrologers predicted that as soon as the pagoda was finished, so would his kingdom. With such a warning, Bodawpaya decided to suspend the works when only a third of the total had been erected. Despite this, with its more than 50 meters, it remains the largest pile of bricks in the world.

When you approach the base of the pagoda you realize the magnificence of the work. The red brick mass is also cracked at various points. These are the scars left by the numerous earthquakes that have devastated the area since it was built.

Pahtodawgyi Pagoda © David Escribano

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One of these cracks perpendicularly crosses the entire structure and is one of the hopes of the local people who inhabit Mingun today. Legend has it that King Bodawpaya hid large amounts of gold and jewelry in the pagoda, just as the ancient Egyptian pharaohs did. That myth (or reality) is widespread among the local people and they think that if one of the earth movements finishes destroying the pagoda, it will be time to run towards the structure in search of lost treasures.

I, just in case, prefer that that great earthquake surprise me well away from there!

A staircase rises to slightly more than half the height of the structure. It is a good viewpoint to admire the beautiful surroundings, but until a couple of years ago you could climb to the top.

The lion’s hindquarters © David Escribano

At the foot of Pahtodawgyi, a multitude of craft, refreshment and gift stands are run by the village matriarchs. The younger girls follow the tourists to try to sell them their handmade fans or their antique Burmese coin sets. Everyone tries to make a living as well as they can, and tourism is a new source of income that cannot be ignored. Besides, they always do it with grace and a smile. Identity marks of the personality of the Burmese.

Already near the shore, two huge statues of two lions guard the river and the pagoda. Like the latter, the lions were also not finished and what we can see today are their hindquarters. Still, it’s an impressive sight.

The world’s largest bell

Less than 5 minutes walking from the great pagoda, you will find what was (until it was surpassed, in 2000, by the Chinese bell called “De la Buena Suerte” (Good Luck), in Henan) the bell, in perfect working order, the largest in the world.

With a weight of 90 tons, it was manufactured between 1808 and 1810, during the last pigtails of the reign of Bodawpaya.

Although it is indoors, it is accessible to everyone and allows you the honor of ringing it or getting under it.

Hsinbyume Pagoda: wonderful monument to love

Hsinbyume Pagoda © David Escribano

Finally, the third place not to be missed on a visit to Mingun is the Hsinbyume pagoda.

Built in 1816 by King Bagyidaw (Bodawpaya’s successor) in the image and likeness of Hindu Mount Meru, this fantastic and gleaming white pagoda with a circular base is among the most beautiful tributes to a beloved person in the world. And it is that the king commanded to raise it as memory to his great love: the princess Hsinbyume, who had died after giving birth to the son of both.

Hsinbyume Pagoda © David Escribano

This tragic love story has produced one of the most beautiful pagodas in Myanmar. And that’s a lot to say in a country where these temples are counted in hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

Getting lost in the stairs, waves and corridors of the Hsinbyume pagoda transports you to a world of tranquillity and beauty. The perfect experience before returning to your boat and heading downstream towards the vibrant Mandalay.

Without a doubt, it is one of the best excursions you can make in the surroundings of Myanmar.

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