Since Burma's history isn't exactly common knowledge, let's start by filling in some of your knowledge gaps.
What is Mingun Pagoda?
Fair question. It’s not quite on the level of the Great Wall or the Pyramids, so most people have probably never heard of it.
Construction started on the pagoda in 1790. The king that was building it was known to be a pretty odd guy, which might be a clue as to why this pagoda just looks so weird. The pagoda was built by slaves that were taken in battle by the Burmese. The standard for human rights back then was not what it is today (not that Burma has been much of a role model in that department recently), but even by their standards apparently, the labor conditions for this project were something of a humanitarian disaster. Indeed, the project was so brutal that a fake prophecy was created. The prophecy went that the reign of the king, and the sovereignty of his kingdom, would end should the pagoda ever be completed. The king, oddball that he was, was also very superstitious. As everyone had hoped, he ate up this false prophecy, and construction ceased. At 50 meters tall (164 feet), it is only 1/3rd its intended height.
Then, in 1839, a giant earthquake rocked the region, causing giant cracks to form through the incomplete pagoda. Still, it holds the record for the largest pile of bricks in the world. Today it stands as a monument to this king's eccentricities and a minor tourist attraction, rather than a religious site, as was intended.
The Boat From Mandalay
This place is just a few hours up river from Mandalay. I had been told that it would be easy to hitch a ride up on a boat if I got to the docks early. I had my hotel write down the location of the docks in Burmese script so that I could give it to the taxi driver.
I had been told that the taxi ride would take a long time, but the docks are an easy drive from the center of Mandalay. The driver, who I’m pretty sure overcharged me, got there in no time, depositing me at the docks around 8:15am. I wandered down to the riverfront and found a ticketing office for boats going up river. I bought a ticket for 5,000 MMK (3.89 USD). The boat was to leave at 9am, so I had some time to kill. I was in a pretty 3rd world looking area so I crept past stray dogs (Burma has millions of them) and hurdled some muddy puddles to obtain the following pictures:
Eventually I felt satisfied that I had taken enough pictures, so I went back to the boat “office” and sat in a plastic chair. The owner of the boating company came to talk to me for a while. He made me guess his age (I hate it when people make me do this) so I guessed that he was 50. He responded that he was 74, showing me how he still had color in his hair. It really did too, but later he admitted that he had dyed it. Other than that conversation, and a brief fight between a stray dog and a stray cat that left all the Burmese men roaring with laughter, it was a boring wait.
The boat departed on time. In order to board, I had to ‘walk the plank’ up to the ship. Long wooden planks were laid from the shore to the decks of the boats. The planks were flimsy, and I was wobbled as I struggled to keep my balance, but I made it.
On the trip out we passed by a number of floating villages and river towns. I did my best to capture life on the shore from my vantage point on the boat:
When we arrived at shore I walked across another series of thin boards to get to shore. Waiting by the shore was a horse-drawn rickshaw with word “TAXI” spray-painted onto the side in white. I had barley walked 30 meters when I was approached by a Burmese man who launched into an unsolicited tour guide monologue. I knew if I let him continue I would eventually be asked for money, but I let him speak anyway. I didn’t know much about where I was anyway. He followed me around, spouting facts at me while I took pictures, and I smiled politely.
It was a short walk up a dirt road to Mingun Pagoda. On the way there was a smaller white Pagoda, but it was nothing special. At least not in comparison to what was waiting just around the bend.
Arriving At Mingun Pagoda
It was only when I reached the giant brown cube that I realized how massive it was. It’s crazy to think how big it would have been had it been completed. It was a behemoth already. I did a walk around the base of it. Take a look:
Before going any further, my "tour guide" brought me to pay the fee for Mingun. It was only 3,000 MMK (2.33 USD), but I'm confident that if I hadn't had this guy following me around that I wouldn't have had to pay it. Another reason I should have told him to get lost when I had the chance.
In front of the pagoda there was a long staircase, leading to the top of this enormous pile of bricks. Even though this particular pagoda serves more as a photo-opp than an actual religious site, the rules are that the shoes must be taken off… which is bad news on a hot day because those bricks were at least a million degrees. In my bare feet I took off running up the stairs to find some shade at the top. It was painful.
Eventually I found shade in a massive crack at the top. I sat in the shade talking to a couple of monks who were hanging out up there. They both spoke very rough English, but it was enough to exchange pleasantries.
My “guide” told me that in a few months time visitor would no longer be able to climb to the top because it is too dangerous. After getting up there, I can 100% understand that. There are no safety rails or anything. The top is pretty much as it was the day after the earthquake. That place is an insurance company's worst nightmare. In order to get to the highest part of the roof you have to hurdle a giant crevice, to land on, and climb up, a nearly vertical brick wall. I was a bit hesitant, but I made the leap / climb. And here’s what I saw.
Peter Gets Violated
I was climbing back down when a group of Burmese lady-boys, who had been giggling and taking selfies, spotted me. Well, to be fair they weren’t all lady-boys. One of them was a normal looking, fat, Indian guy, wearing the traditional Burmese man-dress. A few of them began hurrying over to me. Ugh. Here we go. I would have started moving away but I had found a shady spot and I was letting my poor feet cool off.
Without really even asking, they posed around me, and somebody jumped in front with the camera. The fat Indian guy’s hand went straight to my ass, where is rested softly. In a few moments he changed his mind though and grabbed my hand. Now, when I say he held my hand, I mean that he interlocked his fingers with mine. And then, when the picture taking continued, he lifted our hands up and kissed my hand.
Somewhere on Facebook, a very violated-looking Peter is surrounded by Burmese lady-boys, getting his hand kissed. I don’t think my feet moved once during the whole thing. They were literally steaming from walking around on those hot bricks.
When I got back to the bottom I ordered a cold drink. My “guide” showed me some of his tattoos. He said that he had given them to himself when he was very young with a pen and a battery. The biggest one said (translated): “I love you lady”.
"The Taj Mahal Of Burma"
Moving on, there was one other temple I wanted to see. Hsinbyume Pagoda doesn’t have a particularly interesting story. I have no idea how to pronounce that name either. It’s just interesting to look at. There was a herd of cows grazing around it. I don’t know if they add to or detracted form the aura of the whole thing, but I liked having them in my pictures. My "tour guide" called this pagoda the "Taj Mahal of Burma". I don't know about that, but whatever.
From there I meandered back to the boat. There were some other things to see, like the Mingun bell, but I wasn't very interested. When we got close to the dock, the time had come. I knew my “tour guide” was about to ask me for money.
“Okay, so is this the part where you ask me to pay you?” I asked him in a tired voice.
“Uhh... yes sir,” he replied.
I dug through my wallet, pulled out 2,000 MMK (1.56 USD), and handed it to him.
“Ohhh…” he began, disappointed, “Some tourists give me 25 or 30 dollars…”
This sort of thing happens all the time, which is to be expected, and I usually don’t mind. But today was different for some reason, so can I just take a moment to rant? I don’t do this often enough. Where the FUCK does this guy get off? Do I look like a walking dollar sign just because I’m white? I didn’t ASK this guy to follow me around and talk to me. Heaven forbid that he might have been talking to me for non-financial reasons. No. He was kissing my ass the whole time so I would pay him like a prostitute. And before anybody back home who’s never left America tries to jump down my throat about white privilege, save your breath. I’m not traveling for charity. I’m traveling for me. And even if I was traveling for charity, giving this guy 30 USD because he tried to guilt-trip me is NOT the way I would be doing it. I have actually loved Burma, one of the main reasons being that there are so few people like this guy. This guy is why people are starting to hate coming to the Southeast Asian tourist havens like Phuket. What I should have said was this: “On second thought, I’m not going to pay you anything. Suck a dick.” But that’s not what I said. Here’s what I really said:
Here's a picture that I really like from the villages that surround Mingun. It's a monk texting. It always catches me off guard how tech savvy these monks are. Seems like this wouldn't be allowed.
Next we’ll be venturing into the Shan State. Stay tuned.