The road to Mandalay: Sagaing

Our guide, Kyaw in the back of the light truck
Our guide, Kyaw in the back of the light truck

ABOARD KINDAT PANDAW-Sagaing Hill rises above the Ayeyarwady downstream of Mandalay on the opposite bank. We are moored at the base of the hill. Our usual breakfast includes a buffet of fruit, juice, yogurt, pastry and dry cereal. Today it also included a popular local noodle soup dish with egg. As always, a cooked breakfast of eggs plus accompaniments can be ordered. Needless to say we were more than fortified for our 8:30 AM excursion.

We climb into the back of light trucks, (small pick-ups with a cover and benches in the rear)—our 6th mode of transport—for a steep, winding climb up the mountain. Sagaing Mountain is renowned as a place of Buddhist devotion, capped with numerous monasteries, convents, and meditation centers. Over 5,000 monks and nuns reside on the mountain and they are very much in evidence as we head first for Umin Thounzeh, a semi-circular temple carved into the mountain enclosing 45 Buddha images.

Praying at Umin Thounzeh Temple’s 45 Buddha images
Praying at Umin Thounzeh Temple’s 45 Buddha images

The Sun U Ponnya Shin Pagoda is most memorable for stunning views of the Ayeyarwady and surrounding country and for the bronze rabbit and frog flanking the enormous Buddha image. These are rubbed by thousands seeking good fortune. The timing of our next visit, to a convent, was indeed fortunate as we arrived to observe a ceremony where nuns received gifts from a prominent and well-to-do family.

As the temperature and humidity kept rising, we received the luxury of an air conditioned coach for our onward journey down the mountain and into the town of Sagaing. We passed a loud and joyful religious procession on our way to visit the silversmith’s shop. Here a full-fledged demonstration was not possible because employees were still on holiday, so we observed techniques of embossing and polishing a silver pot. Of course we also got the chance to shop in the store—selecting some small and light pieces of jewelry to pack home.

Pink-robed nuns at their convent in Sagaing
Pink-robed nuns at their convent in Sagaing

Our final, unscripted stop on the excursion was the most memorable. With national elections only 10 days hence, political campaigns were in full-swing and a large rally for the NLD, or National League for Democracy, party of Nobel Laurette, Aung San Suu Kyi was underway along our route. So, we had the opportunity to exit the bus and walk among the enthusiastic NLD supporters. We were promptly handed flags, stickers and/or headbands in the party’s red color and with fighting peacock emblem and became instant hits with the locals. We even had the opportunity to purchase T-shirts from a vendor. If we could judge by the size and enthusiasm of this rally, we’d say the NLD has got a leg-up in the coming election.

Enthusiastic supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi at rally in Sagaing
Enthusiastic supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi at rally in Sagaing

We returned late to the Kindat Pandaw because of our unscheduled activity, just in time for lunch, but we are an hour late casting-off. As we cruised up-river past Mandalay en route to Nwe Nyein village, we all gathered in the lounge for a free-flowing Q&A session with our shipboard guide, Kyaw. He answered questions about local culture, tradition, economy, etc., that had come up during the cruise or during the session. Passengers responded to questions from Kyaw about our home countries. It was great fun and very educational.

We ended the day thinking it would be hard to imagine a cultural immersion experience in seven days that would be any better than this cruise has been.

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