A nondescript, average town in Central Myanmar, Monywa, seems to be little more than a transit stop between Bagan and the western destinations, of no interest to a traveler in itself. Alright, it is Myanmar, so there is always something to see, but you would not think the place warrants a dedicated stop. And the town probably does not. But its vicinity harbors plenty of unique Buddhist architectural monuments, ranging from modern pagodas and a giant hollow Buddha, towering above the landscape, to the ancient cave temples carved into cliffs.
Presumably built over 7 centuries ago, but so effectively renovated you would never guess it, Thanboddhay Paya is an impressive sight. Perhaps it is a bit kitschy, excessively colorful, but impressive nonetheless. This is one place where photographers will wish they had a drone, so bring one if you can drag it through Burmese customs. The central pagoda is surrounded by a forest of spires, golden, red, pink, yellow. It looks like a grove of spiky plants or an expanse of stalagmites sans the cave. The interior is equally opulent: tall sitting and standing Buddhas encircled by endless galleries of tiny Buddha figures, row upon row. The color palette is the same combination of yellows and reds, striking the eye.
There is a disputable claim to fame, Bodhi Tataung. Burmese insist the standing Buddha here is the tallest in the world. Chinese argue that it is merely the second, and the real champion is in China. Either way, it is huge, the size of a skyscraper. Like most giant Buddha images in this part of the world, it is hollow, its interior filled with paintings and dioramas depicting everything Buddhist, from Jatakas to sinners tortured in hell. Nearby there is a reclining Buddha, a bit smaller, but still building-sized, with similar scenes inside. And all around the two main statues, myriads of smaller Buddha and monk images stand in lines - Bodhi Tataung literally translates as "a thousand Buddhas", but there are way more.
This is probably the most interesting sight in the vicinity of Monywa. An entire hill has been perforated with artificial caves like a piece of cheese, and each cave is a temple. The site is also quite old, believed to be created in the 14th century, then gradually added to until quite recently. By now, however, it looks abandoned, inspiring that "Indiana Jones" sensation in a traveler. Some cave temples are decrepit, with nothing much left inside, some may host a few bats or a stray monkey, but are otherwise intact, with murals and statues. Overall, there are hundreds of temples here - count on at least half a day if you want to visit them all.
This weird architectural experiment a stone's throw away from Hpo Win Daung looks like a hybrid of Ethiopian Lalibela and a Buddhist McDonalds. Deep gouges have been carved in a large rock to make sunken pathways, then expanded to the sides, forming underground temples. As if this were not impressive enough, bright colors were applied to every surface, making the whole scene outright tacky. One of the rock temples here is actually shaped like a white elephant - you really cannot get much kitschier than that. Unlike Hpo Win Daung, Shwe Ba Taung is well maintained, and many temples are in use. Both can be visited on a single day trip from Monywa.
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