Published/Last edited or updated: 25th June, 2016
Win Sein Taw Ya is not just any giant reclining Buddha image, but apparently the world’s largest freestanding one. The awe-inspiring 180-metre Buddha statue is situated some 20 kilometres south of Mawlamyine amid a sprawling complex of shrines, statues, stupas and monastic buildings.
Reflecting the country in general, this is very much a work in progress. Having visited several times, every trip reveals a startling new construction and additional elements scattered across the surrounding hillsides. A mirror image Buddha lies half built on the facing hillside — and it’s not the only half built thing about. The main reclining Buddha itself is far from finished, yet some of the older sections seem already to be well on the way to disrepair. It’s an infinity building site and while you may question the use of temple donations, local builders with jobs for life must be well happy.
Many of the larger sites are reinforced concrete and in this climate concrete goes crumbly and iron rusts at alarming speeds. If this was a 1970s shopping mall it would have been condemned, demolished and rebuilt out of glass and stainless steel long ago. The interior of the principal Buddha image, with a staircase leading to an entrance in what is the pillow, houses an eight-floor monastic building and supposed meditation centre. However either because they’re unsafe or incomplete the upper floors are at present off limits. The labyrinthine, almost claustrophobic four floors that are open to the public are already enough. You’ll make your way through dripping, badly lit corridors, up half-built flights of steps — a perfect set for a post-apocalypse movie — and down narrow passages housing brightly coloured, freshly painted life-size dioramas.
There are demons, gods and mythological and we assume historical scenes created in concrete and plaster where visiting parties of giggling school kids just add to the overall surreality. Passages go the length of Buddha so worshippers can reach his feet in theory but you can only take so much and the thought of six floors of rotten concrete over our heads — not to mention being collared for 100 school party selfies — made us head back to the open air.
There are plenty of tea shops and curry houses around the car park if you need a dose of normality though we’ve heard there’s also a pretty crazy festival that takes place here every year in early February. A couple of kilometres further down the highway an enormous seated Buddha image is under construction. We’re not sure if it’s the same abbot or what, if anything, is inside it but when completed will make a worthy addition to the area’s grandiose (megalomaniacal?) sites. (See also Ye’s Banana Mountain a way south of here.)
While Win Sein Taw Ya features on most Mawlamyine day tour itineraries, it isn’t far and is easily reached by public transport. Any local bus bound for Mudon — the nearest town — or Thanbyuzayat will drop you off or pick you up here on the way back for 500 kyat or so. From the main road it’s a couple of kilometres’ walk along a road lined with non-stop monk statues but you should be able to either hitch a ride or find a moto-taxi. The site is very popular both with local and foreign tourists and we’re sure one of the school parties would just love to have you along.
Don’t miss it — and be prepared to say mingalabar a lot!
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Mawlamyine