Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mingun Morning

Mingun is a town, for lack of a better word, located eleven kilometers upriver of Mandalay. It's worth seeing for a few reasons. It has the largest ringing bell in the world. I would have had the largest stupa in the world had the project to build it been completed. Now it is the largest pile of bricks in the world. It also has an architecturally unique, white temple mountain.

My objective was to photograph the stupa as the sun was coming up. If you arrive at the river before dawn, as any good photographer would do, you're told that the boats going to Mingun don't leave until 9AM. My plan was to rent a whole boat and leave when I damned well wanted to. In order to accomplish this, I solicited my fellow hotel guests. Anyone wanting to go to Mingun should arrive at the lobby just before 6AM and we would take a taxi to the river. We ended up with eight, altogether.

At the river, we met with a number of captains willing to take us and we agreed on a price of about $25. That was close to what it would have cost had we each bought a ticket at 9AM. We scrambled across the boats, tied up side by side, and boarded ours. The crew cast off and drifted out into the current as the engines got going. It was now just under an hour before the sun rose. By the time we arrived at Mingun, I should be able to get my photo of the sunrise on the stupa.

Our pilot was a girl of about seventeen. She handled the boat like a pro.

Then we got stuck on a sandbar. There are a lot of sandbars in the river during dry season. They have a nasty habit of shifting around and it was our misfortune to discover one. The crew did their best to try to free us.

By now, the sun was just cresting the horizon. The monochrome morning was giving way to the golden light of dawn. The captain had called for a relief boat and we transfered from our stricken vessel to the rescue craft and continued up the river. Other boats were making their way up or down, providing lots of interesting photographic subjects.

We arrived at the riverbank in Mingun. Just up the river I spotted a white ceremonial staircase leading to a small pogoda.

There was my magnificent ruin. At 450 feet across, it was planned to be over 500 feet tall. It would truly have been spectacular. It's awe inspiring when you consider that since the creation of the pyramids of the Egyptian and Inca, no one has attempted to create such a massive brick structure.

The king started construction on the stupa in 1791, but work was abandoned when he died in 1819. In 1838, an earthquake cracked the very foundation of the unfinished stupa. Another earthquake in 1956 caused further devastation. On the west side, a huge fissure runs up the structure, exposing the brick construction. There are still four entrances into niches on each side, however. These continue to attract worshipers.

It's possible to walk to the top, along a jumble of fallen brickwork. Many locals do so on a regular basis. From the top of the old stupa, I could see the nearby Myatheindan Pagoda, built in 1816.

It's not hard to see why this pagoda is nicked named "the wedding cake pagoda."

At sunrise or sunset, this building makes for fantastic photos. When the sun is too high, though, it looks washed out.

The locals were busy going about their morning chores and pretty much ignoring me and my fellow travelers as we explored the ancient buildings. There are plenty of curious places to visit in Mingun, but when traveling with a group, it's necessary to make plans and stick with them. I hope to return and spend a few days in Mingun to see whatever else I can.

In addition to capturing the morning light, the other advantage of arriving early is that there are no tourists. Every vista was mercifully free of floppy hat sporting gawkers. By 10AM, however, the tourist boats were arriving. By that time, the local trinket hawkers who all but ignored me on my arrival were in full operation mode and I could not pass a stall without being offered a miniature bell or some other souvenir.

I would have very much liked to have a souvenir of the great bell, but the ones being sold looked nothing like the monster housed its own enclosure between the stupa ruin and the wedding cake. At 90 tons, this gargantuan bell stands 12 feet high and fifty feet in circumference. It's supported by a huge girder held up by two massive iron columns bolted together. The bell leans against a wooden bumper to keep it from touching the column; it appears to have shifted since it was first put in place. While it's possible to ring the bell with the short club provided, I would dearly love to hear a tree-trunk size clanger hammer into the side of this particular bell. I have no doubt that when it first rang a hundred years ago, it could have been heard for miles up and down the Irrawaddy. Fantastic.

See more photos from Mingun here.

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