For a middle-of-nowhere kind of place, Monywa has some quite astonishing attractions. With what’s thought to be the world’s second tallest Buddha (indeed the second tallest statue of any description), a monastery housing more than half a million Buddha images and some of the most unusual temples we’ve seen in Burma all lying within easy tuk tuk rides away, superlatives abound in what at first sight seems a nondescript town.
It's only a three-hour drive away from Mandalay, slightly more from Bagan, so you’ve got to wonder why hardly any travellers make it to Monywa, pronounced with two syllables as "mon-ywa" (not three).
While it's well worth visiting on its own merits, it also serves as a convenient break on an interesting alternative back route between Bagan and Mandalay. It’s also the departure point for adventurers heading north up the Chindwin River. Chin State lies to the west and northwest and Burmese Naga territories lie upstream to the north of Homalin. The new Burmese/Indian border crossing at Tamu is not far from the upriver town of Mawlaik.
If you have your own transport, then Monywa is doable as a day trip from Mandalay. In high season in particular you may come across organised tour groups from Mandalay at the local sights. This involves an early departure from Mandalay, a stop at Bodhi Tataung and Thanboddhay Paya on the way into town, and a visit to the cave temples in the afternoon, with an early evening, arrival back in Mandalay. It would be a rather full day but just about works. We were quoted $120 for such a day trip by a Mandalay driver.
As far as the town itself goes, a riverside location on the banks of the Chindwin just about saves Monywa from scruffy mediocrity, though it does have some reasonable accommodation choices, great restaurants and plenty of very friendly residents. You won’t be the first visitor but travellers are still rare enough to be something of a novelty.
Monywa is located in the far south of Sagaing State due west of Mandalay. Much of this area was off limits until fairly recently due to Burmese Communist Party armed insurgents in the hills to the west. These days it’s peaceful enough, and there are no restrictions to travel in the vicinity of Monywa. The western hills are now the site of the country’s largest open-cast copper mines. Otherwise fishing and agriculture are the town’s main resources and the population is more homogenously Bamar than most.
A stroll around town’s a fine way to pass a couple of hours. Take the Aung San roundabout as a starting point, and head down Buta Lan Street to the river. A few older buildings can be seen down there plus the various boat jetties and, if you can ignore the copper mine scars across the river, some good views. Continue along here until you see the golden chedi of Su Taung Pye, whereupon you can take a left up to the lively Old Market, more of a wet market with fish, fruit, vegetables and flowers.
The larger New Market takes place a bit further down Bogyoke Street on the way to the bus station. A block past the Old Market you’ll see another golden chedi – Shwezigon Paya – which is the town centre’s principal temple. Emerge on Yone Gyi with the temple entrance almost opposite, but turn left a short distance and you’ll find the 5 Star Tea Shop, with plenty of tables on an outdoor terrace making it a splendid spot for a pause.
While Monywa's suburbs do sprawl along the main access roads, the centre is compact. What passes for the downtown is laid out between the railway line to the east and Chindwin River to the west. Kan Thar Yar Lake (aside which is Win Unity Resort), is placed to the north of town after which a highway heads off to the new bridge over the Chindwin. The tiny airport is located up that way. To the south roads devolve into lanes leading through riverside farmland, one of which reaches the charming village of A Myint. Our accommodation and eating suggestions are all located within this downtown area.
We’d guess the town was formerly centred on the waterfront around the jetties though these days the commercial district, with banks and most shops, is along the central stretch of Bogyoke Road between the statue of the same name and the regulation town clocktower. This is also the location for the night market and popular Chindwin Hotel. The area between the river and Bogyoke is now quite rundown, though you will see some colonial period buildings as well as the old market and town’s main pagodas. There is a police station on Buta Lan Road but if you want any hope of posting a letter or curing a sickness, head to Mandalay. The railway station is on Buta Lan (also known as Station Road), and bus station is on the southern prolongation of Bogyoke Road, past the new market.
In British times, Monywa was an important point on the route to Imphal and India and with the opening for foreign tourists of the border crossing at Tamu, looks set to be so again.
The highway east is in reasonable condition and passes Thanboddhay Paya and Bodhi Tataung on its way to Sagaing and Mandalay, while an equally not bad highway continues after the bridge towards Pale and takes you to Po Win Taung and Shwe Ba Taung.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 16th September, 2016.