The World Wonder that Wasn’t

There are some incredible sights of the ancient wonders of the world like the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt and the Great Wall of China of which I have been blessed to be able to visit these 2 places and look upon their wonder. However, how about those places which never made it to the list of ancient wonders? The wannabes who might have endured to amaze their descendants? Read on, for this is one of those places which might have made it into the annals of historical wonders.

From Mandalay it’s possible to make a half day trip to the village of Mingun across the Irrawaddy River. Here you will find the ruins of what could have been the largest Buddhist pagoda in history.

Getting There

There are 2 ways to reach Mingun from Mandalay, the first is to drive there and requires a large detour going south of Mandalay and crossing the Irrawaddy River at Sagaing before heading back north to Mingun. This takes roughly 1 hour and involves going through some rough roads (according to my driver/guide). The second and most common way is to take a ferry from Mandalay to Mingun where you get off directly at the pagoda. This takes around 45 minutes.

From what I gather there is a fixed ferry schedule that leaves Mandalay at 9am and returns at 1pm. The cost is 5,000 Kyats (SGD5) per person. However, it’s also possible to hire a boat yourself and at whatever time you choose. We did this through our driver/guide and it cost us 30,000 Kyats (SGD30) to take the whole boat, but we were able to leave at 7.30am thus beating the tourist crowds.

Waiting in the early morning by the jetty to get on our boat. It’s actually more like a shantytown along the banks of the river here.
Along the way we pass by this luxury river cruise liner. Fares start at USD1,200 for a 3 day cruise. It’s a far cry from our small no frills wooden boat.
The boats that are used to ferry tourists to Mingun. That’s our boat over there… the smaller one.
In front of the ruins is a scaled replica model of what the actual pagoda would have look like if it was completed. See the 2 lions guarding the entrance to the stairs? You are going to see the actual ones soon.
Here are one of the lions and it’s actually huge. It would have stood at 29m high but It’s upper body and head have already toppled to the ground due to earlier earthquakes.
Finally we come face to face with the enormous stupa called the Mingun Pahtodawgyi. What you see is only the base of the pagoda. If completed the pagoda would have stood at 150m high. The uncompleted base is 50m high.

There is a fee of 5,000 Kyats (SGD5) to enter the ruins. This ticket is also used to visit the other sights in Mingun. Unfortunately, the Mandalay archaeological zone ticket can’t be used here.

So who built this? It was the eccentric King Bodawpaya in 1790 who ordered the construction of the world’s largest pagoda. He had acquired a sacred tooth relic of Buddha and wanted to enshrine it in a pagoda. To enshrine such a treasure, the pagoda could not be an ordinary one, but the largest of it’s time. King Bodawpaya was so fixated on building the pagoda that he left matters of state to his son, and built a residence on an island in the Irrawaddy River overlooking the site so that he could personally oversee the construction.

He used thousands of slaves and captured prisoners of war as labour for the construction. The cost of the project was also a burden on his country. In order to stop the project, a prophecy was created to tap on the king’s deep superstition. The prophecy stated that the king will die if the pagoda was completed. Because of this the project was abandoned in 1797 and King Bodawpaya died in 1819. Other reasons that historians have suggested for the abandonment were lack of funds and possible technical difficulties of building such a large structure.

A large earthquake in 1839 resulted in a large crack on the face of the stupa thus ensuring that nobody would want to restore the project. As of now, the uncompleted base stands at 50m. Compare that to the Statue of Liberty (without the pedestal) which is 47m in height. If completed, the Mingun pagoda would have stood at 150m (The Great Pyramid of Cheops is 139m high).

A staircase at the side of the stupa once allowed visitors to climb to the summit but now has been closed off after an earthquake in 2012. As you can see the damage from earthquakes and erosion over the years is irreparable.
The size is mind boggling when you come up close to it. I thought that there will be passages and chambers inside the structure but the doorway only opens into a small alcove with a Buddha statue. The rest of the structure is solid bricks.

Besides the enormous stupa, you can walk down the road pass souvenir shops to a small building which houses the second largest functioning bell in the world. This was commissioned by King Bodawpaya and was supposed to be installed at the top of the completed pagoda. The bell was also abandoned and laid on the ground for years until it was hoisted to the present location.

Enter the Mingun bell which at 90 tons was the world’s largest functioning bell in the world until 2000 when the 116 ton bell at Foquan Temple in China surpassed it. You can hit it with the wooden logs and hear it ring.
You can actually crawl under the bell and stand inside while your friends ring it. Unfortunately, the inside of the bell is covered with graffiti, a sad testament to the types of tourists that come here.
Hand made puppets seem to be a popular souvenir in this part of Myanmar due to the cultural puppet shows.

Walking further down the road and we came to this white pagoda reflecting the morning Sun’s rays. The design is very different from the other pagodas that we’ve seen in Myanmar so far.

This is Hsinbyume Pagoda built in 1816 by King Bodawpaya’s grandson, King Bagyidaw to honour his favourite wife. The unusual architecture is inspired by Mt. Meru of Hindu mythology. The 7 levels of wavy designs represent the 7 mountain ranges that surround Mt. Meru.
Reaching the top of Hsinbyume Pagoda, you will be rewarded with a view of the surrounding area.
Here we could see the Mingun Pahtodawgyi rising like a small hill out of the ground.
Coming here earlier means that you also get to see the villagers setting up their local market by the road sides.
Here’s your local butcher shop completed with huge umbrella for shade.

So if you have half a day of time to kill in Mandalay, you can consider coming to Mingun. It’s an interesting way to spend 3 hours or more and learn about the history of the country.

While the Mingun Pahtodawgyi won’t make it into the record books, it does hold the dubious honour of being the world’s largest pile of bricks.

For more about Mandalay you can click on my previous blog post.


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